What good is a big fine if it's never collected? That's what we asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after we looked at what happened to the top 25 announced penalties of all time and found they had been reduced on average 65 percent.
Our piece caused a bit of discussion in the health and safety community where some said they were frustrated at the solicitor's office and a seeming lack of will to defend big cases against companies. Yesterday bloggers at OSHA Underground -- one of the main health and safety blogs that appears to be written by agency insiders -- showed how much the Labor Department had reduced fines in some of the most significant cases in 2007.
We've double-checked their numbers and probed a few of the cases. Here's what we found:
- OSHA inspected Oshkosh Specialty Vehicles in Clearwater, Fla., in April 2007 and hit the company with a $128,000 fine for numerous violations. According to the agency's release, one willful violation was for "not installing guards on its press brakes despite repeated injuries to employees and despite receiving compliance assistance information from OSHA." The penalty was reduced to $29,000.
- The $158,000 fine against Access Ag following the asphyxiation death of a worker in a grain elevator was reduced to $95,000. When OSHA announced the fine, they issued a press release that quoted the agency's area director: "Grain handling standards were put into regulations approximately two decades ago, and OSHA continues to see a tragic disregard for safe work practices, resulting in employees being placed in harm's way."
- A June 2007 flash fire at Wheelblast, Inc., in Zephyrhills, Fla., led to a $139,500 fine. The fire burned an employee on more than 30 percent of his body, according to the agency's release announcing the fine. "This company's management placed employees in extreme danger when it ignored numerous warning labels and product safety information for toxic and highly flammable substances," OSHA's area director in Tampa is quoted as saying in the release. "OSHA will take forceful action when employers ignore their employees' safety." That fine was reduced to $71,875.
- OSHA fined Ruzic Construction Co. almost $122,000 for exposing employees to lead. "The devastating health effects of lead exposure are well documented and well known," OSHA's area director in Madison, Wis., said in a press release. "When employees carry this deadly material home on their clothing, their families are also put at great risk." The fine was dropped to $30,000.