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New Bill Could Strengthen OSHA & Workplace Safety

WorkerSafetyWith her sites set on a law that critics have labeled as weak and outdated, last week Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, introduced legislation to fortify the 1970 law governing workplace safety.

The bill, commonly known as the Protecting America’s Workers Act, is directed at regulatory gaps that The Center for Public Integrity has flagged as part of the ongoing Hard Labor project.

“This legislation is a long-overdue update to the OSHA Act, and a good step towards making workplaces safer and healthier across America,” Murray stated in a press release. A dozen other Democratic senators have joined her effort by signing on as co-sponsors of the bill.

Similar legislation was defeated in past years due to opposition from industry and anti-labor groups. The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers declined to comment for an interview.

If it goes into effect, the bill will provide the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with a new and more powerful set of safety enforcement tools.

L&I Injury Claim

As things currently stand, an employer found guilty of a “willful violation” of the law, and whose violation causes a worker’s death, faces a misdemeanor and a maximum six-month prison sentence. As one workers compensation attorney pointed out, a citizen can official face twice the prison time “for harassing a wild burro on public lands.” Murray’s bill would make it a felony when known violations lead to a worker death, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

In addition, the legislation could increase civil penalties, which have remained unchanged since 1990. OSHA is among a small handful of federal agencies excluded from a law that allows fines to be increased over time to adjust for inflation.

A violation determined to be “serious” – one that, by OSHA’s definition, “would most likely result in death or serious physical harm” – currently carries a maximum fine of $7,000. Murray’s bill would increase that amount to $12,000. It also would raise the maximum penalty for willful or repeat violations from $70,000 to $120,000 and change fine structures to incrementally increase with inflation. Such a change is being cheered not only by friends and families who have lost a loved on in a workplace accident, but all who support the prevention of workplace injury.

Critics are unhappy that the bill would oblige employers to correct hazards cited by inspectors, even if the employer is in the process of contesting them. Under current rules, OSHA can’t force an employer to fix a hazard while the citation is being contested – a process that can drag on for years and provide employers with a bargaining chip to go after penalty reductions.

Third Party Injury Claim

Unlike previous versions of the legislation, this year’s bill includes language that would require employers to protect all workers at their sites – not just those they directly employ – and to account for their injuries and illnesses on required logs. Currently, injuries to contractors, who perform some of the most dangerous work in many industries, do not appear on the record of the company owning the worksite where the injury actually occurred.  Workers who are injured in these circumstances must pursue a third party injury claim.

Other key bill provisions include strengthening protections for whistleblowers, mandating greater communication between OSHA and accident victims or their families and expanding OSHA’s authority to police federal, state and local government workplaces.

 

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Emery Reddy