Enforcing workplace safety standards is expected to become more complicated and expensive in the coming months as fines for violations increase sevenfold and new regulations are issued covering risks such as motor vehicle accidents and AIDS, state experts say.
Labor lawyers from the Baltimore firm of Shaw & Rosenthal and representatives from state and federal enforcement agencies told about 120 employers at a Maryland Chamber of Commerce seminar yesterday that they need to be prepared for the changes.
In November, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Agency is expected to issue regulations requiring employers to develop driver training programs and require workers to wear seat belts while driving on the job. MOSH, as the enforcer of OSHA regulations in Maryland, will also adopt such law.
Automobile accidents are the number one cause of workplace fatalities, but automobile deaths do not usually fall under current work place safety regulations, said Craig Lowery, chief of enforcement with the Maryland Occupational Safety Health agency, the state program that enforces worker safety laws.
In another area, OSHA is expected to issue guidelines in December that will regulate worker exposure to Hepatitis B and HIV virus, which can cause AIDS. These regulations would cover not only health care agencies, but funeral homes, housekeeping services and other employers whose workers might be exposed to contaminated blood.
Lowery said locally, MOSH will continue to work on regulations concerning cumulative trauma disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and developing new construction and chemical exposure standards.
On the national level, legislation is before Congress that would require all employers to have written safety programs and workplaces with 11 or more employees to have safety committees.
About 11,000 occupational deaths occur in the nation each year. In Maryland alone, work-place accidents cost employers about $2 billion each year.
The cost will grow higher beginning in January when new state penalties go into effect. The maximum penalty that can be assessed against employers for willful safety violations will increase from $10,000 to $70,000. The maximum fine for serious violations will increase from $1,000 to $7,000.
The number of contested safety cases is expected to increase along with the raised fines, Lowery said.
Currently, about 17 percent of the cases are contested.
The best way for employers to cope with the existing and new regulations is to have a comprehensive and documented health and safety programs prepared, said John M. Hament, a lawyer with Shawe & Rosenthal. Such a program would reduce injuries, raise employee morale and increase productivity as well as reduce worker compensation costs and reduce penalties and fines.
Eric Hemmendinger, another lawyer with Shawe & Rosenthal, advised employers to know what their rights are concerning health and safety enforcement in case an accident does occur. "You're not going to have the luxury of going back to your office and researching it and saying, 'Oh, I think the investigator made a mistake.' "
Although an agency has a technical burden to prove that an employer violated safety regulations, once a report is filed, the employer must respond to the charges, Hemmendinger said.
"An employer is not going to get a fair shake if he has a passive approach," he added.
Rather than simply answering investigators' questions, it often is better for an employer to tell his side of the story first.
Although Hemmendinger said he does not advise clients to resist OSHA or MOSH inspections, employers can try to negotiate the scope and time of inspections, he said. They also have a right to safeguard trade and defense secrets, he said.
Employers do not have a right to sit in on MOSH interviews with employees, but they can conduct their own interviews to gather evidence in their defense, Hemmendinger said.