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US penalties set to almost double

Fines for health and safety breaches in the US are set to increase by more than 80%, reversing a 20 year freeze in penalties.

US Capitol
Image credit: iStock/burwellphotography

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) levies fixed penalties where its inspectors find regulatory violations. Since 1990 these fines have been fixed at $7000 (£4,830) per instance for “serious” standards breaches – those that carry a risk of death or serious injury—and a maximum of $70,000 (£48,300) for repeat and “willful” (deliberate) violations. Willful violations that result in a fatality are dealt with in the courts and carry fines up to $500,000 (£345,000) for a convicted organisation.

At the end of 2015, the US Congress passed a budget agreement that, among other measures, authorises OSHA to make a “catch-up” increase in penalties. The adjustment must not exceed consumer price inflation in the 25 years of the penalty freeze, but this would still allow OSHA to boost fines by 82%.

The Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 1990, passed under President George Bush, stopped OSHA increasing its penalties in line with inflation. The catch-up increase was made possible by an amendment to the act included by the Obama administration in the Bipartisan Budget Act 2015.

OSHA must make the adjustment before the beginning of August and is likely to announce the new levels in the coming weeks. The amendment also allows the agency to make inflation-linked increases in subsequent years.

The agency has made statements about the advantages of harsher penalties that suggest it is likely to take advantage of the full inflationary rise, which would take the penalty for serious failings to $12,744 (£8,793) and the maximum for wilful and repeat breaches to $125,438 (£86,552)

US labour campaigners have long complained that fine levels are too low. A report released in November by the AFL-CIO union federation said that in 2014 the median (midpoint) fine for fatal accident inspections was $5050 (£3,484).



Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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  • No, not all violations are

    Permalink Submitted by Yasin on 5 March 2016 - 06:29 pm

    No, not all violations are equlaly likely to be cited. Inspections can be focused on a specific topic, limiting the likelihood of some errors being noticed. You might be inspected by construction, safety OR health branches. Any one of these inspectors can cite you for anything, but they aren't all equlaly likely to notice the same details outside of their personal expertise. BUT since this data is all for the same severity-type of citations, I think this is a normalizing factor of sorts. These are the sort of things that should leap out and scream cite me! cite me! .And, Citation severity isn't related to any internal corporate factor. It is based upon whether the company meets the standard, whether it is a repeat failure, and how grave the immediate danger to the employee is.The fact the data are from refinery, rather than drilling, operations will effect which standards are applicable. If I continue to procrastinate about my thesis today, I'll check the OSHA website. I'm really curious as to which standards were cited. I can persuade myself it's related to my research, maybe? :)


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