Exaggerating the cost of workplace safety penalties, instead of limbs, lungs, lives saved

Kentucky’s Labor Secretary Derrick Ramsey announced this week that his department would be issuing a “Monthly Workplace Safety Report.” The report will provide a recap of the previous month’s safety consultation services, which are offered to employers at no charge by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety & Health Education & Training.

The Labor Secretary says he wants to change the public’s perceptions about the Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s work.

“For years, employers across Kentucky viewed the issuance of penalties and citations as the cornerstone of the Cabinet’s workplace safety efforts.”

Let’s not focus on dollar amounts and fines he suggests, but that’s what he does. The report, which is in the form of a news release, says the department conducted 15 consultative surveys and identified 68 serious hazards,

“saving participating companies potential enforcement penalties up to $476,000.”

That last number is a wild exaggeration.

The maximum penalty in Kentucky for a serious violation of a workplace safety standard is $7,000. But the maximum penalty is rarely proposed. The typical proposed penalty in Kentucky is less than half that amount; in fiscal year 2015, the average penalty was $3,054. Had those 68 violations been identified by a safety inspection, the proposed penalties would be no where near the Governor’s $476,000 figure. Even in work-related fatality case in Kentucky, the median penalty for the incident is only $3,750.

The report also mentions the consultation program’s activities in 2016. It offers another wild exaggeration about the 334 consultation visits: Potential fines avoided were $26.6 million!

We often hear politicians and policy makers say “most employers want to do the right thing and provide a safe workplace.” If that’s true, the Labor Secretary should not try to motivate employers by exaggerating the cost of OSHA penalties. I challenge him to inspire with examples of injuries prevented and lives saved because hazards were corrected.

For example, the report could have described the 68 violations observed and the potential consequence to workers’ safety. It could be something like this:

Our consultants visited six construction sites at which they observed dangerous scaffolding.  At least 25 laborers at the sites were likely to use the scaffolding. If the hazard was not corrected, all of the workers were at risk of being injured by falls from the scaffolding. Injuries prevented: 1 to 25 sprained backs and shoulders; 1 to 25 fractured limbs; 1 to 25 concussions; and 1 to 25 deaths.

Or this:

Our consultants visited a small kitchen cabinet manufacturing plant. Ten workers at the plant were using sawing and cutting equipment that did not have appropriate machine guarding. We worked with the employer to install proper guarding and address the underlying production reasons that the guards were frequently removed. If the unsafe equipment and root cause were not corrected, one or more of the workers were likely to be seriously injured. Injuries prevented: 1 to 10 amputations of fingers and arms, as well as fatal injury from blood loss.

It wouldn’t be a heavy lift for future editions of the Kentucky Labor Secretary’s “Monthly Workplace Safety Report” to ignore penalties avoided and motivate action because of the limbs, lungs, and lives that will be saved.