Safety-related worker fines touted by state labor chief

November 08, 1990|By Michael K. Burns

The state labor commissioner says that workers who blatantly ignore safety rules should be subject to fines, just as employers are fined for occupational safety and health violations, but union officials are skeptical of the idea.

"Consideration should be given to investigating that change" in the laws to provide for employee fines, said Henry Koellein Jr., commissioner of labor and industry. "The employee should be helping us to save lives, including his own, and accept [that] responsibility."

Under federal and state laws, only employers can be fined for violations of occupational safety laws, up to $10,000 for a "willful" offense.

In Canada, inspectors can issue fines to individual workers who ignore job safety regulations, Mr. Koellein noted.

During four years as commissioner, Mr. Koellein said he had encountered a number of cases in which employees were responsible for the accidents that resulted in injury or death, such as refusing to wear a hard hat on construction projects or using an open flame to heat containers of flammable chemicals.

In some instances, safety violations repeatedly occurred in spite of employer training to the contrary, he added.

But Mr. Koellein, a former president of the Metropolitan Baltimore AFL-CIO, emphasized that employers would still bear the major responsibility for workplace safety. The vast majority of occupational injuries and fatalities stem from employer violations rather than employee negligence, he said.

The commissioner said he was not pushing for such legislation, which would have to be proposed by the governor. But he has raised the issue in recent talks to engineering groups.

The measure is one of several that could cut down on workplace accidents, he said. Increased inspection and education capabilities, and perhaps higher employer fines, would also help to improve occupational safety records, Mr. Koellein noted.

The Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., a state trade group of mostly non-union construction firms, favors the idea as a way to reinforce safety rules, just as drivers are fined for failing to wear safety belts.

"We're not trying to shift the financial onus to employees, but it [fines] would cause them to think twice about obeying safety rules," said Victor Cyran, ABC executive director. Fines could be earmarked for safety education or injured-worker retraining, he added.

The association is discussing the concept with other building groups and hopes to broaden support for a legislative proposal, Mr. Cyran said.

Labor union leaders reacted coolly to idea of fining employees. ,, They pointed out that employers already have the power to penalize workers who deliberately ignore work and safety rules.

"Unions don't condone stupidity or endangering life and limb on the job," said Ernest Grecco, president of the Baltimore Metropolitan AFL-CIO. But they would oppose a state program to cite workers that "could allow employers to start a witch hunt to get rid of people when they want to," he observed.

Fining workers as well as employers for occupational safety violations could lead to legal wrangles over responsibility for accidents and safety procedures, Mr. Grecco cautioned. Instead of strengthening work safety programs, it could have the effect of weakening them by encouraging employers to shift the blame to employees, he said.

William P. Kaczorowski, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, said that union shop stewards are told to enforce job safety on work sites. They can correct violations by a fellow worker on the spot as well as telling supervisors of their safety concerns, he pointed out.

"More enforcement of the current laws would do more to reduce accidents," said Mr. Kaczorowski. The state agency needs more inspectors to see that work safety rules are enforced, he said.

Mr. Koellein said the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health program has about eight vacancies for inspectors and is under a hiring freeze.

Worker deaths in Maryland fell by more than a third during the fiscal year that ended June 30, Mr. Koellein said, dropping to 30 fatalities from 41 in 1989.

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