Every American has a legal right to work in an occupation and environment where he or she will be safe. However, for thousands of Americans every year, the ride to work becomes a one-way trip, as safety violations threaten employees and their ability to avoid harm. 

We know that employers face fines and legal action if a worker has been hurt on the job, but the structure of determining an appropriate fine may require some revision, to dissuade employers from putting worker safety last. 

Workplace Injuries in the United States Are Increasing 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 2015 provided the highest number of workplace fatalities in America, compared to the last seven years. The data revealed that 4,836 fatal work injuries occurred in 2015, and confirmed several vulnerable population groups that were more susceptible to fatalities or workplace injuries.

The report revealed that:

  • Hispanic worker injuries in American were increasing, virtually matching a previous historical number of fatalities in 2007, where 937 Hispanic workers died on the job, in one year. 
  • Workers aged 65 and up accounted for more than 650 fatal injuries in 2015, and older workers were the only demographic that saw a slight reduction in fatalities that year.
  • Worker fatalities related to driving, collisions or road work accounted for 9% of total worker deaths in 2015. 
  • Employers in the oil and gas industries successfully reduced the worker injury and fatality rate by 38% in 2015. 
Whether to cut costs and increase competitiveness or profitability, or simply due to a lack of understanding about regulatory health and safety, the number of workplace accidents and fatalities in the United States is increasing. Law professionals need to understand what is contributing to increased safety violations, and how Federal legislation may be improved, to better protect American workers. 

Who Is at a High-Risk of Workplace Injuries?

While the United States Department of Labor mandates the standards that every workplace is required to follow, by providing a safe work environment, the number of inspectors that can be dispatched to find unsafe work conditions is minuscule. In fact, the Department of Labor relies heavily on current or former employee ‘whistle-blowers’ to draw attention to problematic employers, and health and safety risks. 

The problem with the system of reporting and reliance on employees to help identify employer's safety infractions is that many employees in some of the worst work environments are unable or unwilling to report their employer. At risk, employees can include those who do not speak English and therefore face communication barriers with both their employer and the Department of Labor. Some businesses rely on illegal immigrant workers, who are reluctant naturally to report anything to the authorities, for fear of being apprehended, and deported for working without a legal permit. 

Other at-risk employees include those with drug or alcohol addiction, disabled workers, or individuals with cognitive impairments. Every employee that is interested in retaining their employment would be hesitant to report health and safety issues if they felt that by doing so, they were jeopardizing their jobs. Family members of business owners are also consequently unlikely to report problems or concerns to the Department of Labor, fearing fallout from other family members. 

There is a subversive ‘culture of silence’ that pertains to every workplace, and frequently ‘whistle-blowers’ are comprised of former employees, who have nothing to gain or lose by reporting the employer on safety infractions. 

Are Fines Enough to Deter Safety Hazards in the Workplace?

Unsafe work environments that result in wrongful death, do not always result in large fines for employers. The most significant breach in safety for any employer is an incident of an employee fatality, however, some employers are fined more heavily by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for incidents that are less severe.

In a recent article that discussed employee fatalities in Ohio, it was noted that 44 people had died from injuries in the workplace from 2014 to 2016. However, the reviewed organizations contested the fines and citations, averaging less than $40,000 in punitive payments, according to an independent newspaper investigation. 

Factors that determine an appropriate fine include an adjustment based on the size of the organization, previous safety infractions, and fines are also based on the number of safety violations present on the site, during the investigation. Personal loss or wrongful death does not increase the amount of a fine that an employer must pay, which many industry experts feel is unfair; parameters that unscrupulous employers can exploit. 

Some of America’s most dangerous workplaces may not adhere to health and safety legislative requirements, simply because they know that the cost of the fine may be substantially less, than providing training, equipment, additional personnel and other safety measures daily. Cutting corners on safety can increase profit margins in certain industries like commercial construction when the threat of legal action or a large fine is minimal. 

Law makers and health and safety experts agree that the current penalty structure does little to deter employers that wish to jeopardize the safety of workers, to save costs. Work accident fines in many sectors are proving to be an inadequate deterrent, failing to provide a financial consequence that would make workplace safety a top priority for employers. 

As more organizations seek to exploit the loophole and justify reduced fines, the legal community, should be looking for more accountability for employers, to provide a memorable loss. One that will also serve to deter other businesses from avoiding the expense of maintaining a safe work environment. 

While fines were raised in 2016 by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (and in force in August 016) thanks to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, more work could be done to strengthen civil monetary penalties. Safety matters, and should always come first.