Fines have increased significantly for employers found to be in violation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA announced new penalty increases that began on Aug. 1. The fines have increased by 78 percent – the only increase OSHA has made to its violations in 25 years.

“It’s certainly a concern for all employers, particularly if you’re in the manufacturing industry where you have greater exposure to these types of citations,” said Jody A. Boquist, office managing shareholder at Littler, a Chicago-based employment and labor law practice representing management. “The impact is real. Before Aug. 1, if you had a violation for three citations, unfortunately, if you would have been assigned the maximum penalty, it would have been $21,000. Overnight as of Aug. 1, it jumps $15,000 to $37,000.”

For employers this means a significant increase in damages for violations under OSHA, with the most impactful rise coming with repeat violations that have gone from $70,000 to $124,709.

“What’s really significant exposure to employers is the risk of a repeat violation that hopefully won’t happen very often,” Boquist said. “If you have a repeat violation, OSHA would have the right to impose the maximum penalty of $124,000, and that’s jumped nearly $55,000. Overnight it increases the exposure if that were a repeat violation between the underlying penalty and that repeat violation.”

The increase could have a major impact on businesses that are in violation of OSHA standards for any reason, and Boquist said this could increase litigation among employers found in violation.

“They’re pretty serious changes, and I think for all practical purposes we’ll probably see an uptick in clients contesting these OSHA violations, particularly to protect themselves from the risk, if heaven forbid there’s a repeat violation,” Boquist said.

The best practice for employers is to avoid the OSHA violations altogether and ensure they have safety programs in place at their businesses, she noted, adding that staff needs to be trained in the program and any potential hazards should be rectified immediately.

“Small business certainly could be impacted and businesses that don’t have a safety program in place are running a pretty big risk,” Boquist said. “It’s a good reminder to make sure you have a good safety program in place. Make sure you have mechanisms for regular monitoring of the safety program, conducting safety training and making sure you document the training. Obviously you’re doing a safety audit and just being proactive if there are any hazards to get them remedied as soon as possible – just making sure they do everything they can to show that they're certainly being proactive to avoid any claim of a willful violation. And, doing the best they can to monitor things.”

This is just one of several changes OSHA has made to its General Duty Clause in recent months. OSHA has also announced another regulation for employers that provides workers the right to report work-related injuries without fear of retaliation by the company. This new regulation goes into effect on Nov 1. In addition, employers with more than 250 employees must keep and submit electronic records of worker injuries and illnesses to OSHA on a yearly basis. This will go into effect Jan. 1, 2017.

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