HELP Committee Holds Workplace Safety Hearing

April 28, 2009 ( - Lawmakers on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee on Tuesday considered the issue of whether the penalties contained in federal law are enough to adequately protect workers from unsafe workplaces.

With the recent introduction of H.R. 2067, the Protecting America’s Workers Act, by Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-California) to strengthen the oversight from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the latest hearing was aimed at finding out whether employers with unsafe practices are adequately deterred from repeat violations (see House Democrats Move to Update, Expand OSHA ). Committee chair Representative George Miller (D-California) asserted in his opening remarks that adequate penalties on law violations were critical to preventing workplace injuries and deaths.

“Even maliciously harassing a wild burro under the Federal Wild Horses and Burros Act can bring twice as much prison time as killing a worker after willfully violating the law,” Miller said. “While the law currently provides comparatively low penalties for health and safety violations, those penalties often get lower. Unscrupulous employers often avoid being held accountable for their actions by negotiating the fines down or away altogether….They must be real. They must be meaningful. They must function to deter violations. They must get people’s attention. And, these enforcement mechanisms must not be a mere cost of doing business.”

Also testifying was attorney Lawrence Halprin of the Keller and Heckman firm, which specializes in workplace safety issues, who argued the OSHA penalty structure was largely accurate, but that the agency still needs to move quickly and firmly to deal with unsafe employers.

“However, while there has been a significant improvement in OSHA’s enforcement efforts, I do believe OSHA needs to significantly enhance its ability to quickly, but responsibly, identify and take action against those few employers who demonstrate a callous disregard for their responsibilities to provide a safe workplace for their employees,” Halprin testified.

Workplace safety rules need clarification to be mostly effective, he added. “Employers and employees need more information that provides meaningful guidance on what is required and why it is required,” Halprin said. “Too often, current guidance materials repeat the ambiguous language currently contained in the OSHA standards and compliance directives.”

More information about the hearing is available here .