First OSHA blames, then OSHA shames.

This is the standard operating procedure for news releases issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to announce citations and fines it has levied against companies with workplaces that fail OSHA inspections.

OSHA's news releases about nabbing health and safety violators generally follow a scripted format. In addition to defining when, where and what violations an inspection uncovered and the amount of fines involved, the release invariably includes a statement from an OSHA official, usually the head of the regional office involved in the investigation. These statements are the insult to injury, as OSHA shames the company's management for failing to take more interest in the well being of its workforce.

Take for example the April 27 press release that announced fines totaling $147,000 against New England Pellet for combustible-dust related violations.  It included the following statement by Rosemarie Ohar, OSHA's area director of New Hampshire. "While it is fortunate that no one was killed in this conflagration, there is no excuse for the employer's failure to effectively minimize and address clearly recognized hazards that could kill or disable workers in a catastrophic incident."

The principals of New England Wood Pellet took great exception to Ohar’s derogatory comments, issuing a statement of their own. "The company finds the recent public comments of OSHA's Area Director for New Hampshire about New England Wood Pellet to be one-sided and unfairly dismissive of the company's past and ongoing efforts to improve worker safety at its Jaffrey facility. Since 2008, New England Wood Pellet has worked cooperatively with her office, retained engineers and consultants, and spent over $2 million on various improvements to enhance worker safety at its Jaffrey facility.”

Other examples of OSHA’s blame and shame game abound.

This week, an OSHA news release detailed sanctions against Kamps Inc.’s wood pallet mill in Versailles, OH. OSHA fined the firm $101,000 for numerous violations involving excessive noise that could imperil employees' hearing. "Kamps is liable for monitoring noise exposure and providing hearing protection," said Bill Wilkerson, OSHA's area director in Cincinnati. "OSHA is committed to protecting workers, especially when employers fail to do so."

OSHA was far more condemning in its Feb. 16 news release announcing penalties of $57,200 against J.P. Spivey, a maker of manufactured housing, for violations stemming from a pair saw accidents that resulted in workers losing fingers. "This company willfully disregarded OSHA's machine guarding requirement for swing cut-off saws, which resulted in two employees suffering amputations," said Stephen Boyd, director of OSHA's Dallas Area Office. "These violations demonstrate an inexcusably lax attitude toward protecting workers from serious and tragic injuries."

Is OSHA Making a Point or Piling on?
In making examples of companies by using shaming phrases like "inexcusably lax attitude toward protecting workers from serious and tragic attitude," is OSHA going over the top. Is it not enough for OSHA to simply provide a concise summary of the facts without additional editorial commentary.  After all, as every press release reminds us, companies that are cited have 15 business days to request a conference with OSHA's area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

New England Wood Pellet opted to request a meeting with its regional office. And even if it is successful in laying out a defense that would eliminate or downgrade citations and financial penalties, the shame card has already played out in the media.

What's more, in monitoring OSHA press releases involving wood products firms for more than 10 years, I can't recall even one instance in which the safety agency issued a release announcing that it had determined that it's initial sanctions were too harsh or unwarranted.

If that's not a double standard, I'm not sure what is.

Recent blogs posted by Rich Christianson

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Read more of Rich Christianson's blogs.

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