YOUR PERSONAL LIABILITY FOR WORKPLACE SAFETY

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J.R. Moody
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As an employer, your greatest responsibility is that of your workers’ well-being. Moral and ethical obligations aside, you are required by law to provide a safe and healthful workplace for your employees, where their protection from harm is paramount. Such a workplace is achieved through ongoing process and safety training, comprehensive workplace safety programs, effective hazard control installations and initiatives, and the overall fostering of a positive safety culture. Safety must be the foundation of every activity in your organization, because not only is it the keystone of productivity and profitability, but a responsibility for which you are expressly liable.

The guarantee of a safe workplace was originally granted by the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970. It was designed to provide a set of broad guidelines which employers must follow to achieve maximum safety compliance. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) upholds the OSH Act by representing and enforcing standards that finely detail employer safety responsibilities and protect employee safety rights. A large part of this enforcement includes workplace auditing, report investigation, and citation for safety violations. In many cases, OSHA (along with other federal entities which oversee the management of niche hazards, such as the Department of Transportation) is the primary body which ensures employers are held accountable for their workers’ lives.

The OSH Act covers penalties which can occur a result of safety compliance violations. According to Section 17 (Penalties), employers who willfully or repeatedly violate safety requirements imposed by the Act can be fined a penalty of up to $70,000 for each violation, with a minimum fine of $5,000. The section goes on to detail a variety of circumstances under which employers can receive fines with dollar amounts based on the severity and frequency of safety infractions. While seemingly harsh and unforgiving, once again these provisions are in place to ensure appropriate consequences for employers who fail to prioritize safety in the workplace.

Remember that OSHA fines and penalties are a direct connection to employer liability; these consequences fall in addition to the myriad blows to a business’ bottom line. Damaged reputation, reduced moral, Workers’ Compensation premium increases, lost time, backlogged productivity, and possible litigations make failing to enforce safety a catastrophic shortcoming.

In addition to the general penalties it details, the OSH Act’s Section 666 provides that criminal sanctions are possible through the Department of Justice when a worker is seriously injured or killed as a result of an employer’s willful violation of safety provisions. The penalty comes with up to six months of imprisonment and fines for individuals up to $250,000. Organizations can be fined up to $500,000.

In the end, the wide variety of complicated and varied consequences of noncompliance come back to one very simple point: do everything in your power to protect your employees from harm. Although the minutia will depend on the unique characteristics of your organization, creating a safe and healthful workplace can be achieved by employing the following key workplace elements:

Training: Training is by far the most valuable tool at your disposal as an employer. Not only does it give workers the skills and knowledge they need to help make your business profitable, it teaches them about the nature of workplace hazards and how to disarm, minimize, or altogether avoid them. Keep in mind that many liability lawsuits have arisen from negligence occurring after training; formal initial training is not enough. You must ensure that workers are supervised by qualified personnel when they officially begin work, and monitored closely for as long as it takes to ensure they can expertly and safely execute the elements of their training.

Hazard Investigation: Safety is a proactive process. Do not wait for a hazard to manifest – you must track it down and neutralize it before it has the opportunity to do harm. This includes hazard analyses and incident investigations, all of which should be documented and filed for both compliance and future use.

Employee Involvement: It should be abundantly clear to your employees that they have a stake in their own safety. It is against the law to discipline or retaliate against a worker who reports unsafe work conditions, or refuses to perform work under those conditions. Creating an atmosphere in which employees feel they can safely participate in bringing hazards to your attention will result in a tremendous swell of involvement.

Workplace Safety Program: It’s important to have written documentation on file which covers all items related to workplace procedures. This includes operations, responsibilities at all employee levels from the bottom to the top, identification, protection from, and control of hazards, and expectations. Should an injury occur, you will want as much written proof as possible that your organization has identified and implemented all necessary actions towards protecting its employees. This can be a large task, but its value is immeasurable.

 

 

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