When Sherman Holmes, 55, was killed on-the-job by a felled tree, his employer’s profit on the lumber was more than enough to pay the penalty for the three safety violations identified by Michigan OSHA. That penalty was only $1,525.*
WyoFile’s Dustin Bleizeffer reported last week on one family’s efforts to change how penalties are assessed for safety violations associated with work-related fatal injury. Mary Jane Collins of Sheridan, Wyoming wants tougher consequences for companies that disregard safety standards. Her grandson, Brett Samuel Collins, 20, was killed on-the-job in August 2012 while working for the construction firm COP Wyoming LLC. Wyoming OSHA proposed a $13,860 penalty for three serious and two other-than-serious violations. The case was settled with the firm paying a $6,773. Bleizeffer writes:
“For the Collins family, the fine was an insult. They began to ask how a $6,773 fine was supposed to motivate companies to avoid violating critical workplace safety regulations. ‘I find it offensive that lawyers and company representatives can negotiate and reduce fines to that small of an amount,’ especially when OSHA violations involved a fatality.”
“In September, Mary Jane Collins testified before the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee, proposing a straight-forward change: set a non-negotiable $50,000 fine for companies in violation of Wyoming OSHA regulations involving a workplace fatality. The proposal is not intended to put anybody out of business, Mary Jane said, but to put employers on notice; you’ll get hit in the pocketbook if violating OSHA regulations results in fatality. ‘A fatality is a fatality and you cannot negotiate that,” Collins told WyoFile.”
The Collins family’s idea has already been tested by two other states that run their own OSHA programs. Virginia OSHA automatically assesses the current maximum allowable penalty of $7,000 for a serious violation (and a $70,000 for a willful violation) that causes or contributes to a worker’s death. A 2010 law adopted in Minnesota set minimum penalty in worker fatality cases of $25,000 for a serious violation and $50,000 for a willful or repeat violation.
The Collins family may have an ally in state lawmaker Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne). Bleizeffer writes:
“Throne sponsored a bill in 2010 that would have raised OSHA penalties, but it didn’t gain traction in the Legislature, despite support from groups that included the oil and gas industry.”
Throne is the House Minority Floor Leader in the Wyoming legislature. She also serves on the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, and the House Rules and Procedures Committee. She’s a partner in a natural resources law firm, was elected to the State House in 2007 after serving as an assistant attorney general.
What chance does the proposal have? Dan Neal with the Equality State Policy Center tells me:
“A well-presented citizen request like the one Mary Collins made to the Joint Labor, Health Committee can get the attention of Wyoming legislators. Her proposal seemed to do just that. It has a chance in the 2015 session, but I suspect we’ll run into some industry push-back. We also know the due-process concerns will have to be addressed.”
But Neal sounds hopeful:
“The Collins family’s story about Brett illustrates the issue dramatically. Maybe now we’ll see some action to protect workers and more appropriately punish violators who kill workers.”
Congressman George Miller (D-CA) introduced a bill in 2013 which would require OSHA to propose a penalty of no less than $20,000 for each violation that caused or contributed to the death of an employee. For employers with 25 or fewer employees, minimum penalty per violation would be $10,000.
*The average proposed penalties that year (2011) by State in fatality investigations ranged from lows of $782 in Utah (state OSHA) and $1,591 in Oregon (state OSHA) to highs of $61,790 in Nebraska (federal OSHA) and $74,410 in Washington (state OSHA). (I don’t have data on the amount actually paid after cases are settled or adjudicated.)