Why Listening to Your Safety Professional is So Important

by Renee Mielnicki, Esq.

Warning: I know you are used to us blogging on HR topics, but this one is more about safety than HR. I realize I am a HR professional and attorney, but a lot of HR professionals also have safety knowledge. The two disciplines often come together since both are responsible for assessing and minimizing risk to an organization. So today we are going to step out of the HR world and into the world of safety. Let’s talk about why it’s so important for a company to follow the advice of their safety professional.

Most of you know what OSHA is. It stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It’s a federal agency of the United States Department of Labor that enforces the OSH Act, a federal law which regulates safety and health in the workplace. OSHA oversees and enforces the OSH Act by issuing regulations and holding employers responsible for violations through inspections and corrective action. Not all employers are covered by the OSH Act. Government employers, for example, are not covered. However, the law does cover most employers, so this blog may be very beneficial to you to read.

Most of our clients have safety professionals, whether it is their own, one of ours, or a combination of both. Safety professionals are certified professionals trained in OSHA law and workplace safety. Their main goal is to keep your workplace free of workplace injuries. Safety professionals often inspect workplaces, including equipment, to determine if there are any conditions that present a risk of injury to employees. If any are identified, they will call them to the attention of the employer to fix immediately. This is not all that safety professionals do, but inspecting workplaces to ensure safety is a huge part of their job.

As an employer, there are many good reasons to use a safety professional. Not only do employers want to comply with the OSH Act, since violating it means penalties, but injuries can affect things like workers’ compensation premiums, employee turnover and administrative costs – all important business-related reasons. However, once you hire that safety professional to help reduce these types of risks, it’s really important to take their advice, including fixing any hazards they uncover during inspections. Here is why …

Violations of OSHA standards can result in serious penalties to an employer. Citations are usually classified in five ways: (1) other than serious, (2) serious, (3) repeat, (4) willful and (5) failure to abate. The current maximum penalty that OSHA can assess for an other than serious or serious classification is $12,934 per violation. The current maximum penalty that OSHA can assess for a violation of a repeat or willful classification is $129,336 per violation. The minimum penalty amount for a willful violation is currently $8,908. But that’s not all — willful violations that involve an employee death can trigger additional criminal penalties and six months in prison.

I think we can all agree that having a safety professional who can help us keep the workplace safe is a good thing since failure to do so might result in some pretty significant fines from OSHA. But what happens if your safety professional identifies a hazard, tells the employer to fix it and the employer doesn’t listen? Well, the penalties from OSHA can be greater and here is why. If you look at the fines as listed above, you can see the biggest come from the repeat and willful classes. Once you, as the employer, know about a workplace hazard (i.e., whether through your own discovery, an employee report, or from your safety professional), if you fail to immediately abate the danger, you are now willfully violating an OSHA standard thereby increasing the risks of a much larger penalty if an employee gets hurt. The same is true if you are cited by OSHA for the same violation on more than one occasion (i.e., a repeat classification violation). Not only can your fines be larger, but you also create the risks of being sued directly by your employee as opposed to enjoying the protections of state workers’ compensation immunity statutes. You can also risk damage to your reputation if the public finds out you don’t take workplace safety seriously.

Lastly, I read a recent case occurring in the state of Missouri that reminded me how serious it can get for employers that ignore safety violations that they know about. The facts of the case went like this: An iron worker for a steel erection company died after he fell nearly 40 feet while working at the construction site. Following the accident, OSHA’s investigation determined that while the worker was wearing the required harness and connectors, he was not connected to an anchorage point as required under OSHA regulations. During the trial, members of the company were convicted of a Class B misdemeanor crime for willfully violating OSHA safety regulations, causing the worker’s death, and fined $500,000. Here is the evidence that was used against them, leading to this result …

The worker’s supervisor knew of the safety standards and knew that the worker was not using his safety equipment. The employer’s failure to ensure the worker used his equipment properly was knowing rather than accidental. The supervisor intentionally ignored safety requirements. Lastly, evidence was admitted of other violations the employer committed from previous years that occurred at other sites, showing the company’s knowledge and intent. It was found that the company committed a willful violation.

This case is unusual, but obviously possible.

As you can see, the incentive to always follow the advice of your safety professional is huge. It may seem to you that they are suggesting remedies that are not necessary or too expensive to fix. In reality, they are on your side, trying to keep your workers safe and reduce your risks of some of the penalties I talk about above. I hope after reading this, you agree.

Have a safe day!

If you are an employer with questions about safety and workplace compliance, you can call our offices at (724) 864-8745 to speak with one of our safety or HR professionals.  Questions about any HR issue can also be emailed to our HR professionals at HRhelpline@eastcoastrm.com.

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