When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) identifies a dangerous condition at a workplace, it can assess fines and order the company to fix the issue. Unfortunately, these fines and required fixes get put on hold if the company appeals. According to OSHA, about 8% of companies appealed their cases, on average, over the five years prior to the pandemic.
When it comes to fines related to COVID-19, however, over half of the employers cited for safety violations have appealed, according to a Reuters analysis. That’s leaving many workers in workplaces that have been ruled unsafe.
And that’s just companies that receive OSHA citations. In a special report in January, Reuters found dozens of workplaces with identifiable health and safety issues that never got cited. Employees told reporters about slipshod pandemic safety protocols, but their companies were never even inspected, or they were inspected only months later.
On top of that, the fines OSHA doles out to employers are surprisingly small, averaging $13,000. That means that employers, especially large ones, have had little to fear from regulators. What message does this send about the importance of COVID-19 safety?
OSHA considers mask, social distancing mandates
During the previous administration, OSHA never ordered companies operating during the pandemic to require masks, social distancing, or other measures to protect their workers. Now, the agency is considering a mask and social distancing mandate, but it may still have little enforcement leverage.
The prior administration’s refusal to issue COVID health and safety guidance did not go unnoticed. The two largest meat packing concerns have argued that OSHA’s citations against them are baseless because the agency offered no guidance. OSHA responds that all companies have a general duty to protect their workers from known hazards and to provide a reasonably safe workplace.
The fine that meat packer JBS received after six workers died and 290 tested positive for COVID-19? $15,615. That’s pocket change to JBS.
Why are companies fighting these small fines?
Companies may be disputing their fines primarily because they don’t want to admit any violations that could cost them in terms of workers’ compensation claims and wrongful death lawsuits.
Workers often feel like there is nothing they can do about unsafe workplaces. It’s true that workers don’t have much say in OSHA proceedings, but they can still hold employers responsible for illnesses or injuries, including COVID-19, if they can show the illness or injury probably came from work.
If you believe you got COVID-19 from work due to lax health and safety standards, you may have a workers’ comp claim. Talk to an experienced attorney at Miller Cohen, P.L.C., for information about your specific situation.