Understanding Common OSHA Penalties

Some companies are all too familiar with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) and the corresponding state safety agencies because they operate in industries where workplace safety issues are a key concern (e.g., construction, manufacturing, transportation, medical services, etc.) But many companies operate in relatively safe indoor environments where worker safety is often taken for granted and is not an everyday concern.  That does not mean, however, that OSHA regulations do not apply and it certainly doesn’t mean they are exempt from potential penalties, which can be steep.  One of C2’s federal contracting clients recently contacted us for some advice after an employee filed an OSHA complaint stemming from some exposed wires that were protruding from the drop ceiling in their office. We were able to help the client navigate the complaint and resolve the issue without OSHA issuing penalties.  But not all employers are that lucky, and are often surprised to learn that OSHA penalties can be steep for failing to comply with the applicable safety standards.


A.    Common OSHA Violations

There are many different safety standards, and they are more or less applicable to business operations depending on the industry in which the business operates.  As you might imagine, construction businesses, for example, would face different safety concerns than a restaurant.  Below is a list of the most common violations, organized by industry, and links to the relevant OSHA standards:

  1. Construction Industry
  1. Manufacturing Industry
  1. Retail Industry
  1. Healthcare Industry

B.    Potential OSHA Penalties

Federal agencies are required to adjust penalty amounts annually for inflation based on the Consumer Price Index.  The U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) annual adjustments have been made to the maximum civil penalty dollar amounts for OSHA violations, and the agency has again decided to increase the penalties.

Under the 2020 adjustment, the new maximum OSHA civil penalties per violation will be as follows:

  • Other-than-Serious: $13,494 (2019 $13,260)
  • Serious: $13,494 (2019 $13,260)
  • Posting Requirements: $13,494
  • Failure to Abate: $13,494 per day beyond abatement date (generally limited to 30 days maximum
  • Repeat: $134,937 (2019 $132,598)
  • Willful: $134,937 (2019 $13,494)

The new 2020 minimum OSHA civil penalties per violation will be:

  • Other-than-Serious: $0
  • Serious: $964
  • Posting Requirements: $0
  • Failure to Abate: N/A
  • Repeat: $9,639
  • Willful: $9,639

The new OSHA penalty amounts are applicable to OSHA citations issued after January 15, 2020, and for violations occurring after July 15, 2019.

DOL is required to continue to adjust for inflation the maximum OSHA penalties by January 15th of each new year.[1]  The cost-of-living adjustment multiplier for 2020 is 1.01764, which is based on the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) for the month of October 2019 (not seasonally adjusted). To compute the 2020 annual adjustment, the Department multiplied the most recent penalty amount for each applicable penalty by the multiplier (1.01764) and rounded to the nearest dollar.

States that operate their own Occupational Safety and Health Plans are required to adopt maximum penalty levels that are at least as effective as federal OSHA’s.

Notwithstanding OSHA’s new increased penalty amounts, the agency has reiterated that its primary goal is correcting workplace safety and health hazards and ensuring compliance rather than imposing citations and collecting penalties.


C.    Conclusion

Whether you operate in a high safety risk industry, like construction, or operate in an indoor, office environment there will be OSHA safety standards that apply to your business.  Take the time to acquaint yourself with those safety standards, and put in place an action plan to ensure that your company is in compliance and that your staff is educated on the applicable standards and how they can avoid potential safety pitfalls that are common in your industry.


[1] On November 2, 2015, former President Barack Obama signed the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Improvements Act of 2015, which further amended the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 1990, as previously amended by the 1996 Debt Collection Improvement Act (collectively, the “Prior Inflation Adjustment Act”), to improve the effectiveness of civil monetary penalties and maintain their deterrent effect. The Inflation Adjustment Act required agencies to adjust the level of civil monetary penalties with an initial “catch-up” adjustment through an interim final rule (IFR), and to make subsequent annual adjustments for inflation, no later than January 15 of each year.