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Washington Labor & Employment Wire » Democrats in Congress Turn Up the Heat on OSHA

Democrats in Congress Turn Up the Heat on OSHA


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Over the past few weeks, Democrats in Congress have taken a number of additional steps in their ongoing efforts to pressure OSHA to become more aggressive in its enforcement activities. Some recent data suggests that OSHA is responding to this scrutiny. On April 22, 2008, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (”GAO”) to investigate OSHA’s efforts to ensure that employers accurately report workplace injuries and illnesses. Because OSHA uses this injury and illness information to target employer worksites for inspections, Senators Kennedy and Murray believe that employers have an incentive to underreport the number of injuries and illnesses occurring at their worksites. Senators Kennedy and Murray asked the GAO to review OSHA’s efforts to monitor employers, including the number and types of recordkeeping audits OSHA has conducted.

On April 23, 2008, the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing on “Improving Workplace Safety:  Strengthening OSHA Enforcement of Multi-Site Employers.” During her opening statement, Subcommittee Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) emphasized the importance of improving OSHA’s ability to hold large employers accountable for corporate-wide safety and health problems. 

Rep. Woolsey and the Subcommittee called the hearing as part of their increased attention on OSHA’s enforcement activities after a workplace fatality involving a Cintas Corporation employee who fell from a conveyor belt into an industrial dryer last year. Days after the employee’s death, the Subcommittee sent a letter to OSHA asking for a nationwide investigation of Cintas facilities. OSHA’s investigation resulted in a $2.7 million penalty against Cintas, the largest safety-related penalty ever levied against a service sector employer. Cintas has been locked in a long-running corporate campaign with UNITE/HERE, which has made workplace safety one of the centerpieces of its regulatory and public relations attacks against the company. 

Earlier this week, on April 29, 2008, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing on “When a Worker is Killed:  Do OSHA Penalties Enhance Workplace Safety?” The hearing focused on the penalties available to OSHA to enforce its regulations, which is one of the issues addressed in the proposed Protecting America’s Workers Act. The Act aims to increase the penalties for violations, enhance protection for whistleblowers, and improve OSHA’s ability to sanction non-compliant businesses. For more details regarding the Protecting America’s Workers Act, please consult a prior Washington Labor & Employment Wire article.

This recent Congressional pressure on OSHA seems to have precipitated more vigorous enforcement efforts against employers. For example, OSHA cited 88,846 violations in 2007, a 5.88% increase from 2006 (83,913 violations). Even more telling is that 67,176 of these violations were classified as serious violations, a 9.52% increase from 2006 (61,337 violations).  OSHA also made more use of its Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP) in 2007. Cases designated for EEP are typically subject to more vigorous inspections and more expansive settlement obligations. During the first four years of the program (2003-2007), OSHA identified an average of 524 inspections per year that qualified as EEP cases. In 2007, that number jumped almost 40%, as OSHA designated 719 cases for EEP treatment.