New System Allows OSHA to Issue Big Fines to Houston Machine Company

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The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration finally has some teeth and its Houston inspectors have just bitten into Machinery Maintenance Rebuilders, a city machine shop that has been found repeatedly violating worker safety standards, according to OSHA. 

OSHA first checked out Machinery Maintenance Rebuilders in 2015 and found several hazards. The workers — there are about 30 people employed there — were found to be in danger of getting electrocuted, dismembered or killed because of how the equipment was set up. When OSHA inspectors came back in August for a follow-up inspection, they found the company had not addressed the violations the investigators had spotted in February.

OSHA's release announcing the resulting citations described it best, stating: 

"The company was still exposing workers at the machinery repair shop to struck-by and amputation hazards. Inspectors also found workers operating dangerous machinery that was without proper safety guards, secured properly and lacked required energy-control devices used to disable potentially hazardous machinery."

In other words, this place was still in the you-might-be-killed-by-a-flying-object-or-could-at-least-lose-a-limb mode. 

Joann Figueroa, OSHA's area director in the Houston North office, summed up the OSHA response, which is that OSHA simply was not having it. (Or at least the federal agency is doing everything within its extremely limited power to convey how unacceptable the setup is.) "Workers exposed to machinery without proper guarding are in jeopardy of losing a limb or even a life. Failing to adhere to this safety requirement will not be tolerated," Figueroa stated, according to the release. "Machinery Maintenance Rebuilders is responsible to find and fix hazards in the workplace."

It took about a month for OSHA to process the inspection and actually issue the citations and proposed fines. OSHA has about 2,200 investigators across the country charged with overseeing more than 130 million workers in more than 8 million workplaces, so inspectors don't exactly move at lightning speed. In the end, they issued two citations to the company, one serious and one for a failure to abate a previous violation. (We've reached out to Machinery Maintenance Rebuilders to see if the company has any comment, but haven't heard back yet. We'll update when and if we do.)

But here's what's cool — OSHA's fining system has finally been updated.

Machinery Maintenance Rebuilders was slapped with about $155,000 in proposed penalties. That may not seem like much, but up until August, OSHA officials wouldn't have been able to even fine companies that much for not following the safety guidelines. Up until now, OSHA could only issue fines for a maximum of $7,000 for serious violations, $7,000 for violations that weren't remedied by the day they were supposed to be fixed and up to $70,000 for willful or repeated violations. The fining system hadn't been adjusted since OSHA was created in the 1970s.

After OSHA inspectors checked the workplace back in February — when the old fining system was still in place — they issued even more fines than they did this time around, but before the reform to the system, the sum of the fines was lower. There were two citations for failure to abate the problems, two citations for serious violations and one for a repeated violation. It all added up to about $57,000 in proposed penalties at that time. 

But last November, Congress finally stepped up to the plate on this one, enacting legislation that required federal agencies to adjust their fining system for inflation. The new penalty system took effect August 2. Now a serious infraction will cost a company up to $12,471, along with another $12,471 per day past the appointed day the infraction was supposed to be fixed. And on top of that, OSHA can now fine companies up to $124,709 (the agency took the "adjust for inflation" orders literally, it seems) for willful or repeated violations. 

All of this means that Machinery Maintenance Rebuilders is getting larger fines than it would have gotten if OSHA investigators had checked on the site before the fining system formally changed in August. The proposed fines are $5,487 for having equipment around that could electrify or strike employees, along with a proposed fine of $149,652 for failing to fix problems as the company had been directed to after the first inspection earlier this year. 

Of course, these proposed fines are not in any way, shape or form the final word on what the company will actually pay. Firms have 15 business days to fix the issues, to schedule an "informal conference" or to formally contest the fines. Penalties can be and often are negotiated down. 

However, all things considered, it's nice to see that OSHA investigators now have a little more bite on these matters. When a company has been cited for violating safety standards repeatedly, the federal agency can make it pay at least a little more than OSHA could before. That's definitely something. 

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