Remodelers take cover: A 2016 “bombshell” is likely coming from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is expected to increase fines more than 80%.
Thank Congress for the “catch-up” increase—OSHA’s first since 1990—that quietly got tucked into a bipartisan budget act in November. The law allows all federal agencies with civil penalties to update fines for inflation. OSHA can increase fines up to 82% and has until August 1 to do so, says Duane Musser, vice president of government relations for the National Roofing Contractors Association.
If OSHA decides to increase its fines as much as allowed, then the current fine for “serious” violations will rise from $7,000 to $12,740, and the maximum for death or repeat offenders will rise from $70,000 to as much as $127,400. Musser considers the increase an almost a foregone conclusion. And based on testimony from OSHA assistant secretary David Michaels, that seems accurate.
“The most serious obstacle to effective OSHA enforcement of the law is the very low level of civil penalties allowed,” he testified. As an example, he compared the $1 million penalty for tampering with water systems that the Environmental Protection Agency can charge to the $70,000 penalty for willful death that OSHA can levy. “OSHA’s penalties are not strong enough to provide adequate incentives,” he concluded.
Falls are the most common OSHA violation, and roofing is the most fined aspect of remodeling. The latest available statistics for 2013 to 2014 show roofing contractors alone received more than $18 million in penalties for violating OSHA standards, compared to the overall residential remodeling total of just over $1.2 million.
“OSHA is one of the biggest concerns that our members have in terms of making sure they’re in compliance,” Musser said. “Anytime you see large increases in OSHA fines, that’s significant. And the way this happened in Congress was a big surprise. So in that sense it’s a significant bombshell.”
And not just for roofers, says Robert Criner, president of Criner Remodeling and National Home Builders Remodelers chair. Criner worries that the fine increases are a signal that OSHA is trying to raise more money, and wonders whether OSHA will be as willing to negotiate fines as it has been in the past.
“This is another scenario where I wish they would spend more money on education to help contractors as opposed to just penalizing them,” he says. “We’re always trying to educate our employees and keep up with the latest requirements.”
He also worries that higher OSHA fines will drive some unscrupulous remodelers further underground. “When it becomes very, very hard to play by the rules, some people will choose not to,” Criner says.
He urges remodelers to take extra care with safety and to use the necessary safety equipment—not for fear of the new fines, but because it makes good business sense. “It hurts my business to have injuries,” he says. “It increases my insurance. I make very little money without my employees working. So keeping them safe is for everyone’s benefit.”