It's not gotten a ton of attention in President Joe Biden's $2 trillion climate and social spending plan, but a provision tucked in the legislation could mean a stronger Occupational Safety and Health Administration and much higher penalties for problems found during workplace inspections.
The 2,100-page plan that passed the House of Representatives Nov. 19 includes language calling for a fivefold increase in the size of the fines that OSHA can levy and a budget boost that supporters say amounts to a 20 percent annual increase for the next five years.
As we've written, most of the plastics industry's political attention around the Build Back Better legislation has focused on keeping a tax on virgin plastic out of the bill.
But I wanted to use this blog to highlight some worker safety and OSHA provisions.
The legislation would raise the maximum fine for what federal law terms a "serious" violation from $13,600 to $70,000. For the most dangerous willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations, the max would go from $136,000 to $700,000.
Supporters like David Michaels, who ran OSHA from 2009-17 in the Obama administration, say the higher fines are a much-needed deterrent.
"Many large employers treat current OSHA fines as cheaper than the cost of a safety consultant. This dramatic increase will save lives by encouraging firms to eliminate hazards before workers are hurt," he wrote on Twitter.
Michaels called it a "transformative policy change" within the Build Back Better legislation.
But that's also exactly what some House Republicans are objecting to, what they see as using the mammoth BBB bill to make a transformative change, rather than have separate legislation and detailed debate on that.
"You're using the shelter of this reconciliation bill to pass something that would never pass under regular order, as a standalone bill," Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, told Democrats in a hearing. "This is cowardly on your part."
Other Republicans in an education committee markup of the OSHA language said that workplace injury and illness rates have declined 46 percent since 2001, and they questioned the need for higher penalties.
"These provisions are yet another thinly-veiled shakedown of employers that would unfairly punish job creators," said Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa.
But Democrats on the panel said that the highest fines only apply in egregious situations and to "bad actor" companies, and they argued that OSHA funding over its nearly 50-year history has not kept pace with the growth in the size of the private sector workforce.
They said it would take OSHA 162 years to inspect every workplace in the U.S. with current funding but that would drop to 100 years with the new money, if it directed all of it toward enforcement.
Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of OSHA under President Barack Obama, said the $707 million for OSHA over five years contained in the House version of BBB amounts to a 20 percent increase for the agency, which has an annual budget of $591 million.
Workplace safety consulting firm KTL said the proposed increases are significant and it said that OSHA's fine levels are lower than other agencies.
But it also noted that most companies would not face the highest fines because OSHA considers an employer's history, evidence of good faith actions and the size of the company in its penalties.
None of these worker safety changes that passed the House are a done deal. The OSHA language still has to make it through any BBB version that could come out of the Senate.
But some see the House vote as a weathervane. As KTL wrote in an analysis after the Nov. 19 vote, it "provides a good picture of where OSHA is headed."