Stiffer penalties are threatening an already tempestuous relationship between builders and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Bruce Morton, safety consultant with Platt Safety Services Inc., Franklin, said fines from OSHA are about 30 percent higher than they were a year ago.
“But, also,” he said, “I would say the inspections are more thorough.”
The agency this year will increase the maximum fines allowed for citations. The maximum penalty for a serious violation will increase from $7,000 to $12,000. The maximum fine for willful citations will increase from $70,000 to $250,000. On Thursday, the agency also rolled out a new program to target repeat offenders of agency safety priorities, such as fall protection and trenching safety.
Scott Allen, spokesman for the OSHA Midwest region, said the new regulations are a step toward being tougher on companies caught violating safety rules. That nationwide strategy already is taking place, he said, and includes the higher fines construction companies are receiving.
“What we hope it means,” Allen said, “is that they will be more conscious of what their responsibilities are for following these OSHA regulations.”
Inspectors in Wisconsin are increasingly issuing citations for the maximum fine, said Brad Stehno, account executive and safety consultant for R&R Insurance Services Inc., Waukesha.
“OSHA citations over the last year or two years,” he said, “they have been pushing the envelope to get more penalty from a dollar standpoint.”
Morton, who consults for more than 70 contractors, said his fear is that a heavier focus on enforcement and higher fines will result in a return to the days when builders would automatically pack up their gear and stop working if they saw an inspector approaching. He said local OSHA agents still attend builder association meetings to talk with contractors, and the relationships have not yet turned adversarial.
“But I know these contractors are getting a little shaky,” Morton said, “because they know that OSHA could come out and levy them with tens of thousands in fines, and they don’t know what to do.”
Builders maintain a love-hate relationship with OSHA, said Jeffrey Dutton, quality and safety director for Dave Jones Plumbing and Heating Inc., Mount Horeb. The safety regulations generate complaints from employees who say the rules slow down work, he said.
However, Dutton said, the greater risk of fines helps him do his job as a safety director.
“I don’t want to look at it in a negative way,” said Dutton, chairman of the safety committee of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, “because maybe it does force contractors to do things differently than maybe they would have in the past with the main goal of keeping people safer.”
Morton said he understands the best way to get companies to fall in line is to hit them in the pocketbook. But he encouraged the agency to continue to carve out time for inspectors to meet informally with builders and keep the dialogue open.
“I hope we keep to the good teamwork, for lack of a better word, relationships,” Morton said, “and I hope we can keep it that way because construction is only going to pick up.”