Workers’ Rights

Published — March 28, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Bill aims to strengthen OSHA workplace enforcement



Targeting a law critics chide as dated and weak, Sen. Patty Murray has introduced legislation that would strengthen the 1970 law governing workplace safety.

The bill, called the Protecting America’s Workers Act, addresses regulatory gaps that The Center for Public Integrity has highlighted as part of the ongoing series Hard Labor.

“This legislation is a long-overdue update to the [Occupational Safety and Health] Act, and a good step towards making workplaces safer and healthier across America,” Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, said in a statement. Ten other Democratic senators have signed on as co-sponsors.

Similar legislation has died in previous years amid opposition from industry groups. The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers did not respond to interview requests Thursday.

The bill would give the Occupational Safety and Health Administration more powerful enforcement tools.

Currently, an employer whose willful violation of the law leads to a worker’s death faces a misdemeanor and a maximum six-month prison sentence. A person could face twice the prison time for harassing a wild burro on public lands. Murray’s bill would make knowing violations that lead to a worker death a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The legislation also would increase civil penalties, which have not been changed since 1990. OSHA is one of few federal agencies excluded from a law that allows fines to rise over time with inflation.

A violation deemed “serious” – one that, by OSHA’s definition, “would most likely result in death or serious physical harm” – now carries a maximum fine of $7,000. The bill would raise that amount to $12,000. It also would raise the maximum penalty for willful or repeat violations from $70,000 to $120,000 and allow fines to increase periodically with inflation.

The bill would force employers to correct hazards cited by inspectors, even if they are 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 last years and give employers a bargaining chip to seek reductions in penalties.

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.

“You don’t get a full picture of what’s happening at the worksite,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO.

Though the legislation may make headway in the Senate, its prospects in the House are likely more dim. “The chances of the bill becoming law are slim because of the anti-regulation Republican majority in the House,” Seminario said.

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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