OSHA Slaps DuPont With More (Potentially Meaningless) Fines

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has finally gotten around to taking DuPont to task for the conditions that led to the deaths of four workers at DuPont's LaPorte facility last year. 

Back in May OSHA finished up a six-month investigation into DuPont and proposed a $99,000 fine for eight serious violations and one repeat  violation tied to a 23,000 pound toxic methyl mercaptan leak that killed four workers at the LaPorte facility last November. The fine was the equivalent of an unenthusiastic slap on the wrist for the multi-billion company (the chemical manufacturing giant made $35.7 billion in revenue in 2013), as we've previously written.

When those citations were announced it came across as a remarkably weak response to the deplorable safety conditions at DuPont,  even for OSHA, a federal regulatory agency that doesn't have a ton of power when it comes to holding companies accountable.  Of course that's the nature of the game. A fine from OSHA comes minus any criminal charges that would penalize employers with jail time along with the fines — there's no risk that a company official will serve time for negligence at a plant — and the fining system goes up to only $7,000 for the most serious violations, as we've reported before. Still, the fines originally proposed for DuPont seemed incredibly paltry considering the conditions at the plant, and even that whole lack-of-regulatory-oomph excuse wasn't holding up in the face of the company's violations at its LaPorte facilities. 

But on Thursday OSHA announced a much sterner (relatively speaking) set of citations against DuPont. Specifically, OSHA cited DuPont for three willful, one repeat and four serious violations at their chemical manufacturing plant in La Porte. The agency has proposed additional penalties of $273,000 for these new violations, according to OSHA's release. 

"DuPont promotes itself as having a 'world-class safety' culture and even markets its safety expertise to other employers, but these four preventable workplace deaths and the very serious hazards we uncovered at this facility are evidence of a failed safety program," Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels states in the release. "Nothing can bring these workers back to their loved ones. I hope that our continued scrutiny into this facility and into working conditions at other DuPont plants will mean no family ever suffers this loss again. We here at OSHA want DuPont and the chemical industry as a whole to hear this message loud and clear."

On top of that OSHA announced that DuPont is now in the so-called Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which focuses OSHA's notoriously slim resources —  there are about 2,200 inspectors at OSHA who oversee more than 130 million workers at more than 8 million workplaces — on "inspecting employers who have demonstrated indifference towards creating a safe and healthy workplace by committing willful or repeated violations, and/or failing to abate known hazards." Companies in this program are also required to undergo mandated inspection to make sure they're following the law. 

The additional fines are still more of a statement than an actual punishment for DuPont , but at least it's sign that the company's failings have gotten OSHA's attention. Adding DuPont to the Severe Violator Enforcement Program is an intriguing move, since this means inspectors will now make DuPont a priority, theoretically. It remains to be seen whether this will actually translate to more eyes on DuPont — the program was set up to provide more stringent inspections of companies who have stepped too far over the line. Once they've been placed on the list employers are only removed when they meet certain criteria to indicate good behavior. But there's a backdoor exit for the program called "lining out" where employers are taken off the list after the citations that triggered placement in the program are withdrawn through settlements or overturned by court ruling. No company has ever been formally removed from the list since the program started in 2010 but more than 100 employers have been able to line out, Safety and Health Magazine reports. If DuPont manages to swing that, it would be as if they were never placed in the program at all.

DuPont is currently contesting the first round of fines issued in May and will likely contest the new fines too — that's the knee-jerk reaction most companies have — so who knows if any of these citations or penalties will actually stick. 

Meanwhile, the company has been selling off assets from the World War II-era site, which is a smooth way of distancing oneself from such a problem.

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