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Fatal workplace accidents and fine levels: the West case

Terrible accidents seldom happen in isolation. They are more likely to be the tip of the iceberg of larger safety issues affecting many cases, not just one.

For example, as we discussed in our August 16 post, the terrible fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people in West, Texas, was not only a tragic incident in its own right. It also reflected a broader problem of lack of oversight of dangerous chemicals in the workplace.

That broader problem of workplace accidents involving dangerous chemicals affects people in the Baltimore area and across the nation.

Months after the West accident happened, federal safety regulators have announced a line of $118,300 for two dozen alleged safety violations. In this post, we will discuss why the fine was so small compared to the grievous loss of so many lives.

The main reason for the relatively small fine, it appears, is the distinction made by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) between different types of safety violations by employers.

In particular, OSHA distinguishes between "serious" violations of workplace safety standards and "willful" violations.

In the West fertilizer explosion case, OSHA alleged that there were 24 serious violations by the fertilizer-production company and its corporate parent. But OSHA inspectors did not find willful violations. If the inspectors had found willful violations, that would have triggered a much larger fine.

But, even acknowledging this reasoning, the amount of the proposed fine in the West case still seems incongruous compared to the loss of so many irreplaceable lives.

Source: Dallas Morning News, "West Fertilizer fine is nowhere near OSHA's highest," Oct. 15, 2013

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