Last Thursday, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that it has assessed a $16.6 million fine against 18 companies resulting from an explosion at a power plant that killed six workers and injured 50 others. The general contractor supervising construction of the facility was fined $8.3 million, while the subcontractor which oversaw the procedures leading to the blast was assessed $6.7 million. The collective penalty is the third largest to arise from a single workplace accident.
In announcing the fines, OSHA stated that the companies involved had ignored their own safety guidelines as well as accepted industry practices. OSHA also indicated that the companies were rushing to finish the construction project, and that this may have contributed to the alleged lapses in safety practices.
This fine comes on the heels of the record $83.4 million fine (on top of an earlier $21 million fine) issued to BP in October resulting from a 2005 refinery explosion that killed 15 employees. OSHA is clearly indicating its intent to use maximum fines to single out employers alleged to have violated safety requirements in cases involving worker fatalities. The Connecticut case is significant in that many of the citations are based not on specific OSHA standards, but on alleged failure to follow industry standards under the General Duty Clause.
Employers may have a more difficult job in determining whether or not their safety programs meet general industry standards. This significant increase in fines and in enforcement efforts by OSHA signals to employers the need to pay careful attention to employee health and safety practices, and the need to be able to demonstrate that these practices are within norms for their industries.