The OSHA is to safety what the IRS is to taxes. Few businesses would ignore mail from the IRS, knowing the agency can charge interest, seize bank accounts and press criminal charges for an unpaid tax balance. Employers that fail to comply with OSHA safety regulations face penalties and incarceration. However, the consequences for ignoring OSHA recommendations go beyond the need to write a check; a business also faces state and federal prosecution, a damaged reputation and eroded employee loyalty.
Jeopardizing the Business
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to make sure their workplaces pose little or no danger to workers. It gives OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, authority to establish standards employers must follow. It may require employers to provide training, and to record and report incidents and procedures that promote a safe work environment.
Failure to comply with OSHA standards puts employees in jeopardy. The consequences of not training workers how to handle hazardous chemicals or failing to provide personal protective equipment, for example, can lead to a life-threatening illness such as cancer. Missing OSHA-recommended safeguards on machinery may cause amputations or death. Loss of productivity, worker's compensation claims, absenteeism and increased administrative costs count among the consequences of non-compliance. An employer also risks employee morale issues that may present recruitment challenges, labor relations complications and anonymous reports of infractions to OSHA.
OSHA inspections trigger citations for health and safety violations. The agency conducts unannounced inspections under its routine enforcement activities and in response to employee complaints, unless circumstances surrounding its decision to inspect merit 24-hour notice. It also performs follow-up visits. The inspecting compliance officer reviews any violations found, suggested corrective steps and institutes deadlines for bringing the business into compliance, or abatement. Correcting simple violations when the inspector finds during his walk through indicates good faith that the OSHA says it considers when assessing fines.
The penalty clock starts as soon as you receive a Citation and Notice of Penalty via certified mail. OSHA gives cited employers 15 days to contest the citation, assigned deadlines and penalties in writing. Employers also can request an informal meeting, or conference, to get clarification on violations listed in the notice. However, informal conferences do not buy more time -- a company still has 15 working days to submit a Notice of Intent to Contest. Otherwise, the fine is due on the 15th day, along with a letter advising the OSHA area director that the company made the required corrections within the stated time frame. Missing the abatement deadline puts the employer in a failure to abate status that carries an additional $7,000 per day fine.
Failure to Address Violations
The financial consequences of not following OSHA standards and recommendations are significant. Fines for serious violations that threaten a worker's life range from $1,500 to $7,000, while those for repeated violations can reach $70,000 each. Intentionally ignoring a known safety or health standard -- a willful violation -- also has maximum $70,000 penalty attached to it. However, if an employee dies because of a willful violation, which is a misdemeanor under federal law, the employer faces six months in jail plus a fine of at least $250,000.
A worker's death also can place the employer before a state prosecutor. According to Managers and the Legal Environment: Strategies for the 21st Century, some states pursue criminal penalties for reckless homicide and manslaughter when OSHA violations result in a fatality.
Any employer that ignores OSHA recommendations and gets a citation should be prepared for negative publicity that can damage shareholder trust and customer confidence. OSHA issues news releases on what it calls significant and egregious cases to inform the public about its enforcement work.