Employers facing repeat or willful violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act face serious enforcement measures, including fines of $5000 to $70,000 for each violation. According to a recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals case, Chao v. OSHRC; Saw Pipes USA, Inc., these penalties may exceed even current OSHA practices. The case involved an employer cited by OSHA for 59 willful recordkeeping violations. The employer appealed the fines to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which agreed to group (meaning combine) the recordkeeping violations, and treat them as one item for fine assessment purposes. OSHA appealed, claiming that each violation must carry at least the minimum financial penalty for willful citations.
The Fifth Circuit agreed with OSHA, concluding that the willful citations cannot be grouped. The court relied on provisions of the OSH Act in determining that neither OSHA nor OSHRC have the discretion to group willful violations for purposes of imposing financial penalties. Each violation must be treated separately, and must carry at least the minimum penalty. In this case, the penalty for recordkeeping violations was therefore increased from $9000 to $531,000. This case fully illustrates the substantial danger that employers face in situations where OSHA requirements are not met, especially in a systemic manner that brings into play repeat or willful citations. The fines imposed on employers in these situations more than justify the corporate investment necessary to achieve compliance with these rules.