Pressure to settle cases means that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration collects less than half the fines it levies. But the real cost comes in worker health and safety.
After an explosion tore through a sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., this February, killing 14 workers and injuring 40, the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration acted swiftly, announcing an $8.8 million fine against Imperial Sugar for not protecting workers against the hazards of combustible dust. The proposed fine, disclosed in July, is the third highest in the agency’s 37-year history. But if that same history is a guide, OSHA will end up collecting half that much money, or less.
ProPublica reviewed the agency’s previous 25 highest announced penalties. In 19 cases, the fines were sharply reduced after appeals and negotiations, dropping an average of 65 percent. Three others were settled the day they were announced after closed-door talks between the agency and companies. Three remain open. Citations for “willful” violations, which can bring criminal prosecution, were frequently adjusted to lesser charges that carry only civil penalties. Some cases plodded through the system; five dragged out for more than a decade. The reduced penalties are the end result of a system that emphasizes reaching settlements — settlements often proposed by OSHA itself, rather than the company under scrutiny.