New OSHA Administrator Talks Tough; BP Accident Imperils Offshore Gas Expansion

June 2010 Vol. 65 No. 6

David Michaels, the new administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is turning up the heat on industry, and critics of the agency under George W. Bush are pointing the Obama administrator toward the pipeline and underground construction industries. Peg Seminario, director safety and health, AFL-CIO, and one of the Capital's top OSHA critics, told a Senate committee in April that Congress should pass new legislation allowing OSHA to levy higher civil fines and criminal penalties and used a January 2009 trench cave-in in Freyburg, OH, and a July 2009 pipeline fatality case in Batesville, TX, as examples of why higher penalties are needed. In the Batesville case, one worker was killed and two workers injured when natural gas was ignited during oxygen/acetylene cutting on a natural gas pipeline. The employer, L&J Roustabout Inc., was cited for 3 serious violations with $3,000 in penalties. The case was settled for $1,500, according to Seminario.

Michaels has already sharpened the agency's focus on enforcement and inspections in his first five months on the job. That is not surprising given the fact that Michaels, an epidemiologist, is author of the 2008 book: Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. He has established a new Severe Violator Enforcement Program and implemented what he termed "long-overdue" administrative modifications to penalty formulas which will have the effect of raising OSHA penalties. But those penalties can only be raised so high since civil penalties are capped at essentially 1970 levels.

That is why Michaels and Seminario asked the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on April 27 to pass the Protecting America's Workers Act which would increase the current maximum penalty for a serious violation, one capable of causing death or serious physical harm, from $7,000 to $12,000 and the maximum penalty for a willful violation from $70,000 to $250,000. The bill has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, and the Senate HELP hearings, coming after House hearings in March, signify that votes are in the offering. Votes in both houses are doubly likely because of political pressure stemming from the Massey mining accident in West Virginia where 29 men were killed, even though mines are regulated not by OSHA but the Mine Safety and Health Administration.