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Jim Lewis
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OSHA Under Fire For Issuing Lax Penalties After Worker’s Death

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The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is at the receiving end of some harsh criticism from family members of an industrial worker after the man was crushed to death while at work. Frank Johnson, 62, was crushed between two railroad cars back in February and OSHA ruled that his employer owed only a $7,000 fine for the deadly accident.

His wife, Debbie, says that while she’s not vindictive and isn’t looking to profit from her husband’s tragic death, she does think the minimal fines represent a slap in the face to her and her children. By handing down such small penalties, OSHA is allowing companies to shirk responsibility for the safety of their workers, setting a dangerous trend for the future.

According to an accident report, Johnson was crushed to death at a Republic Steel plant when one end of a rail car that he was riding on hauling scrap crashed into a derailed railroad car. After the tragedy, OSHA launched an investigation and found that Republic was at fault for failing to clear the railroad tracks of ice, a problem that led to the derailment of the other rail car.

OSHA’s regional director said that investigators turned up enough evidence to show that the company had some knowledge of the hazard and should thus be fined for failing to provide a safe work environment. OSHA handed down a generic fine because there are no existing standards in place concerning railroad tracks located on private property.

An investigation into the company revealed previous OSHA violations and fines. Since 1990, the Republic plant was inspected 30 times by OSHA employees who turned up 57 serious violations, 10 willful violations and 10 repeat violations. Despite the massive number of safety problems and the company’s $1.3 billion in annual revenue, OSHA chose to hand down a mere $7,000 penalty, money that the company will surely never miss.

According to OSHA officials, though the amount of the fine may appear to be too small, such penalties are based on the valuation of the violation in question, not based on the value of the life of the worker. OSHA officials say that no fine could ever be large enough to make up for a lost life.

While that may be true, Johnson’s family worries that issuing routinely small fines to companies over dangerous lapses in safety will encourage a lax work environment. Such small fines won’t incentivize companies to improve workplace safety. After all, some experts note that it can actually be cheaper to pay small fines rather than invest larger sums of money to fix dangerous problems.

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