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OSHA fines spike on penalty overhaul

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Average fines assessed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for serious workplace safety violations rose significantly in 2016 after the agency revamped its penalty structure. 

OSHA and other federal agencies were directed to revisit their civil monetary penalties by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. The statute featured a provision called the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015 to amend the 1990 version of the law to require all agencies covered by the statute to update penalties, which allowed OSHA to increase its fines by up to 78% as of Aug. 1, 2016. 

From Aug. 2 to Dec. 31, 2016, the average penalty for serious violations increased to $5,087 from $3,285 in the prior-year period, according to OSHA data presented at an American Bar Association conference earlier this month. The fines were significant for large employers – defined as having more than 250 employees – with average penalties for serious violations rising from $5,915 to $10,065. 

In January, the agency again adjusted these penalties based on the Consumer Price Index, meaning that the maximum fine faced by employers for willful and repeat OSHA violations rose to $126,749 while the maximum penalties for serious and other-than-serious citations increased to $12,675. 

The number of reports being filed by employers under the agency’s severe injury reporting rule also increased last year, according to OSHA. The rule, which went into effect in 2015, kept a mandate that all workplace fatalities be reported within eight hours, but added a new requirement that employers report the hospitalization of a single employee — rather than three or more employees as previously required — as well as all amputations and loss of an eye within 24 hours. 

In 2016, employers reported 10,887 severe injuries, up from 10,395 in 2015, with the increase driven mostly by a rise in hospitalization reports. 

The agency responded to 73% of the hospitalization reports and 51% of the amputation reports filed last year by asking employers to conduct their own incident investigations — known as rapid response investigations — and propose remedies to prevent future injuries rather than sending OSHA inspectors to the scene. 

The number of inspections conducted by OSHA declined from 35,820 in 2015 to 31, 948 inspections in 2016, according to the presentation. 

OSHA’s Severe Violators Enforcement Program, which focuses on inspecting employers that the agency says have demonstrated indifference to their Occupational Safety and Health Act obligations through willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations, logged 561 cases at the end of 2016, 25% of which involved fatalities.