Smart business owners take OSHA violations seriously. Each year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issues thousands of citations to U.S. small businesses. These violations and fines center on areas common to many businesses, such as poorly stocked first-aid kits, lack of inspection of office ladders, electrical outlets without proper covers, or lack of training records on any applicable regulation.
The top reason a business gets inspected by OSHA is not based on how hazardous the business activities are, but instead it’s often based on employee complaints of unsafe conditions. No business is exempt from being inspected by OSHA, especially when a company terminates an employee who might later file a complaint about the work environment.
Top types of OSHA violations
OSHA compiles an annual list of the top 10 most cited safety violations. The list doesn't typically change much year over year, but two new standards were on the fiscal year 2018 list: Fall protection and training requirements and eye and face protection. These are the top 10 most cited safety violations for the year:
- Fall protection — general requirements. Employers are required to have fall-protection systems for employees who work at heights of six feet or more. Protection requirements include safety nets, harnesses, and guard rails.
- Hazard communication. OSHA's hazard communication standard mandates employee education regarding the use of hazardous chemicals.
- Scaffolding. According to OSHA standards, certain requirements must be observed whenever scaffolds are built, used or dismantled. Proper training is mandated for all employees using a scaffold.
- Respiratory protection. Employers are obligated to identify specific airborne hazards, provide appropriate respirators and train staff in their proper usage. Ongoing monitoring of the correct use and maintenance of respirators is also mandatory.
- Lockout/tagout. OSHA's lockout and tagout standard is designed to prevent injuries that occur when employees work on machines "in which the unexpected energization or startup of the machines or equipment, or release of stored energy, could harm employees."
- Ladders. Fall-related injuries are among the most common workplace accidents. OSHA's ladder standard identifies specific hazards and offers employer solutions.
- Powered industrial trucks. OSHA's industrial trucks standard requires worker training on the correct use of forklifts, while also prohibiting vehicles to operate in an environment with hazardous materials present.
- Fall Protection — training requirements. Fall-prevention training is mandated for any employees exposed to the risk of falling accidents. Training includes guidance in the appropriate use of fall protection equipment.
- Machine guarding. Businesses must make sure all hazardous machinery is equipped with proper guarding and that such guarding is consistently maintained.
- Eye and face protection. Workers who risk injuries to their eyes or face must be given safety glasses, goggles, or face shields; appropriate to the job responsibilities.
Violations of these and related safety guidelines can result in OSHA penalties of significant cost and a time-consuming distraction to businesses.
Here are the broad categories of OSHA violations and penalties:
- Other than serious violation. Infractions with a direct relationship to job safety and health, but not a cause of severe physical harm or death. Penalty: Up to $13,260 for each violation.
- Serious violation. A violation in which it's highly likely that death or serious physical injury can result and that the employer knew — or should have known — about the risk to employees. Penalty: Up to $13,260 for each violation.
- Willful violation. A violation in which an employer who consciously disregards OSHA regulations or does so with indifference to the law. Penalties: Up to $132,598 for each violation, with minimum penalty of $9,239 for each. If the violation of OSHA rules results in an employee fatality, the business faces criminal prosecution and a maximum individual fine of $250,000 or $500,000 for the corporation.
- Repeat violation. Repeated violations of regulations, rules, or orders occur following an initial inspection and penalty. Penalty: Up to $132,598 for each violation.
- Failure to abate prior violation. If an employer neglects to remedy a violation within OSHA timelines, he or she faces a possible penalty of $13,260 for each day the violation remains uncorrected.
Protect your business against OSHA penalties
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that private employers reported 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2017. With OSHA penalties for disregarding or failing to follow safety guidelines being so stiff, what can you and your small business do to avoid running afoul of this federal safety agency?
- Fix any existing violations immediately. Check to see if your business is guilty of any minor violations — such as blocked safety exits, insufficient supply of protective equipment like goggles and gloves, improper storage of hazardous materials — and fix them right away.
- Keep accurate records. An OSHA inspection can be triggered by errors in documentation, so employers are strongly encouraged to maintain accurate records of all workplace-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths. If any gaps exist in your OSHA 300 log for the past three to five years — particularly with respect to hazard communications and personal protective equipment — fill in the missing information as soon as possible.
- Maintain all equipment. Ongoing equipment maintenance is the best defense against potential malfunctions that violate OSHA regulations. Regular inspections of machinery and tools can prevent injuries and keep you in federally mandated compliance.
- Train employees in safety practices. Ongoing safety training for all employees can significantly reduce the number of incidences of workplace injury or illness. The more employees know, the more careful they're likely to be in the workplace.
- Pay attention to ergonomics. Investigate ergonomic solutions to reduce the number of physical issues your employees may face as a result of their daily working habits.
- Do the research. Ignorance of OSHA regulations and guidelines is not an acceptable defense, in the event your business is suspected of safety violations. OSHA offers a comprehensive list of FAQs to cover most related topics and there are many other online articles and resources for you to draw on.
Document and implement a comprehensive safety program
Two primary reasons for OSHA citations are lack of a written program for a regulated activity and implementation. Some businesses believe that they are in compliance simply because they have a written safety program. However, this document alone will not fend off a citation in the event of an injury or incident.
Every business should keep up to date on OSHA standards. They should know the broad categories of violations and penalties as well as basic safety and health precautions, and understand and maintain safety fundamentals in the workplace. To stay in compliance with federal safety laws:
- Fix any existing violations immediately.
- Keep accurate records of all workplace-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.
- Maintain all equipment for optimal operation.
- Train all employees in safety practices.
Once an appropriate and complete safety program is developed, the next step is to implement the program. Action items include:
- Assign a team member to review and implement the program, delegating safety program responsibilities accordingly.
- Provide training to employees with actual and potential exposure to such activities. Make sure to document the training provided.
- Keep all necessary documentation, such as training attendance rosters and OSHA 300 logs, which are used to record workplace injuries or illnesses.
- Supervise employees to ensure they perform activities to reduce injury risk. If safety guidelines are not followed, take appropriate disciplinary action up to and including termination.
- Conduct periodic inspections to identify unsafe conditions prior to an incident, such as removing trip hazards like extension cords on the floor; clearing hallways for better accessibility; and inspecting fire extinguishers.
The new year is a great time to evaluate your workplace safety program. Not only can you help protect your business and employees, but you can also have confidence that you're adhering to OSHA compliance regulations and OSHA safety program guidelines.