If found responsible for a serious violation of workplace safety standards, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration can assess up to $13,494 per item cited. However, when the citation involves a repeat or willful violation, these maximum penalties are increased by a factor of 10 to $134,940 per item. The financial magnitude of these penalties often leads employers to contest the classification. Last month, the federal OSH Review Commission downgraded a willful citation to “serious” based on its conclusion that the employer took measures to address a known workplace hazard.
In Dover High Performance Plastic, Inc., OSHA cited the employer for a willful violation of its machine guarding safety standard following an employee complaint. OSHA classified the citation as willful due to an employee injury in 2012 that involved the same machinery. On appeal, the Review Commission reclassified the citation based on evidence that following the 2012 accident, the employer reprogramed the machinery to eliminate an obvious hazard that it deemed the cause of the injury. OSHA contended that the change was inadequate because it had no material impact on the way the machines were operated.
The Review Commission concluded that the employer’s actions were reasonable because it believed that the changes resulted in compliance with the machine guarding safety standard. The penalty for this item was reduced from $49,000 to $3,500. This decision reflects a higher standard for OSHA to prove willful violation of safety regulations. Employers should carefully consider and document their responses to accidents and employee safety complaints, including demonstrating the reasons why they consider the steps taken are adequate to address the safety concerns presented.