Bill to raise job-safety fines sevenfold due hearing

March 07, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

Fines for job safety violations would jump sevenfold under legislation introduced to bring Maryland's penalty scale into line with recently raised federal fines.

The scale of fines enforced by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office has been frozen at the current level since the agency's formation in 1973, despite repeated assertions by safety advocates that higher penalties would help reduce workplace violations.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced in October that it would increase its maximum fines sevenfold -- to $7,000 for "serious" violations and $70,000 for "willful" violations. The new fines became effective last week.

As one of two dozen states with its own job safety program, Maryland was told by OSHA to follow suit or risk losing federal certificationand about $2.7 million in annual federal funds.

Sen. Idamae Garrott, D-Montgomery, chairman of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Federal Relations, introduced the bill, which will have a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee today.

Craig D. Lowry, chief of MOSH compliance, said yesterday that he expects higher fines would help to reduce the number and severity of job safety violations.

Last year, MOSH found that 68 percent of its more than 3,000 inspections and investigations turned up safety violations, which Lowry said was too high.

"We are also seeing increases in the number of willful violations and in the number of repeat violations," which are more serious offenses, he said. Willful violations, now subject to a maximum $10,000 penalty, involve intentional acts or gross indifference to the law.

Over the past two years, MOSHhas significantly strengthened its use of the existing penalty schedule. It has begun to assess "willful" fines, backed by more liberal court opinions and legal interpretations; in the past, "serious" citations with a $1,000 ceiling were the most severe proposed by the agency.

Under new law interpretations, violations that had been lumped together in the past as a single citation have been increasingly listed with separate fines. And a computerized data base has made it easier to pinpoint repeat offenders.

The escalation of fines became evident in October 1989, when a contractor was fined $68,000 for a trenching cave-in that killed an employee, about three times the highest previous penalties assessed. A year ago, MOSH proposed fines of more than $900,000 in the collapse of the Route 198 bridge over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Laurel, by far the highest monetary penalty the agency ever assessed.

"You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of 'serious' citations where we ever collected the [maximum] $1,000 fine," Mr. Lowry said, noting that a firm's history, size and good-faith efforts must go into the formula for calculating penalties.

MOSH collections would increase by 250 percent if the fines scale were raised sevenfold, he estimated. About $750,000 in fines was collected and sent to the state treasury last year, part of that for violations that occurred in previous years.

Heftier fines give the agency more leverage in convincing employers to take needed safety measures to prevent future accidents, Mr. Lowry said.

The Department of Licensing and Regulation, which administers the MOSH program, decided not to sponsor legislation to raise the penalties, hoping to wait until the 1992 session and use the time to build legislative support. But the department is supporting the Garrott bill.

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