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Oregon Approves Increased Penalties for Workplace Violations

The state House approved a bill that would require the Occupational Safety and Health Division to raise its minimum fines, in some cases, by more than 1,000 percent for violating workplace safety rules.

a farmworker in a field
Oregon OSHA issued Ernst Nursery & Farms in St. Paul a $4,200 fine after farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez died while working during blistering heat in June 2021. Lawmakers passed a bill Monday that would require Oregon OSHA to issue stiffer penalties for safety violations. (Dave Killen/TNS)
Oregon lawmakers on Monday, May 15, approved a bill that would significantly increase the penalties businesses face when they violate workplace safety rules, bringing the state in line with federal standards.

The Oregon House passed Senate Bill 592A 35-23 on a mostly party-line vote, sending it Gov. Tina Kotek’s desk for final approval. The bill would go into effect immediately after the governor signs it. Rep. Kevin Mannix of Salem was the only Republican who voted in favor of the bill.

The bill would require the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, known as Oregon OSHA, to raise its minimum fines in some cases by more than 1000 percent to align with federal OSHA. It would also require the state worker safety division to conduct comprehensive inspections of any workplace where a worker dies or a business commits three or more “willful” or repeated violations in a one-year period.

“These high penalties will tell Oregon workers and their families that workers’ lives matter and that there will be significant consequences when a worker dies a wholly preventable death,” said Rep. Dacia Grayber, D- Portland, who carried the bill in the House.

Republicans argued that the bill would punish small businesses who can’t afford large fines while failing to address the root causes of unsafe workplaces.

In an impassioned speech, Rep. Anna Scharf, R- Amity, talked about the death of Pete Neuman, who she said was her friend and who died in 2019 after being crushed by a faulty piece of equipment while working on a Benton County worksite. Oregon OSHA fined Benton County more than $30,000 for safety violations in the wake of Neuman’s death.

While Scharf said she believes in the need for stronger workplace oversight, she said increased fines would hurt small businesses and do little to deter public agencies who can simply pay fines with taxpayer money.

“Yes, Senate Bill 592 would have significantly increased those fines, but would it have mattered in this case?” Scharf said. “The answer is absolutely no.”

Republicans proposed alternative legislation that would not have raised penalties but would still have required Oregon OSHA to ramp up inspections at businesses that commit repeated or willful violations or where a fatality occurs. The minority report was rejected on a 24-34 vote, with all Democrats voting against it.

The bill that ultimately passed would require Oregon OSHA to issue fines between $1,116 and $15,625 for each serious violation committed by an employer. Currently, the division’s minimum adjusted fine for a serious violation is only $100, according to division documents.

If a serious violation contributed to a worker’s death, the agency would be required to issue a penalty of $20,000 to $50,000 for each violation. Currently, the agency’s maximum fine for a serious violation contributing to a workplace death is $13,653, unless it was a willful or repeated violation.

For repeat offenders or employers whose repeated or willful violations contribute to a workplace death, fines are higher, and substantially increased by the bill approved Monday. Under the bill, employers would receive fines between $11,162 and $156,259 for each willful or repeated violation, or between $50,000 and $250,000 if the willful or repeated violation contributes to an employee’s death.

As The Oregonian/OregonLive has reported, Oregon OSHA issues some of the lowest fines in the nation for safety violations.

The U.S. Department of Labor found that Oregon OSHA issued an average penalty of only $620 for serious violations during the 2021 fiscal year, more than 73 percent below what the federal government considers the acceptable range of about $2,325 to $3,875. The 2022 report won’t be released until June.

The federal report did not look at the division’s average penalties for safety violations resulting in worker deaths specifically, but an analysis of Oregon OSHA data conducted by The Oregonian/OregonLive last August showed the division had issued an average fine of about $3,700 over the previous five years in such cases. In comparison, data compiled by the AFL-CIO showed that investigations into worker deaths nationwide in fiscal year 2021 resulted in an average fine of $11,626.

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