When a worker is killed on the job in Arizona, the average fine paid by his or her employer is just over $2,700. It seems a paltry amount to pay when family members are left to mourn a loved one who could still be alive if proper safety rules had been followed.
Other states take a different approach. Nationwide, the typical penalty levied after a fatal workplace is over $9,200 – more than three times higher than Arizona.
Is a worker’s life worth less here than in the rest of the United States? Of course not. In fact, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has serious concerns about how federal safety laws are being enforced here.
Arizona is one of 26 states that administer U.S. safety laws and regulations through state agencies, rather than federal officials. This requires an approved State Plan setting workplace safety standards “as least as effective” as those established by U.S. OSHA.
OSHA is now reviewing Arizona’s State Plan. The action follows an investigation by the Arizona Daily Star into how citations for health and safety violations are classified and fines are assessed, as well as a complaint I filed with OSHA last December.
At issue is the unusual practice of allowing safety citations and fines proposed by the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) to be reviewed, before they are even issued, by its parent agency: the Industrial Commission of Arizona (ICA). The Star found that violations are routinely downgraded and fines sharply reduced for employers.
For example, the ICA erased a proposed $14,000 fine against the Arizona Department of Corrections, after a teacher in a state prison was left in an unguarded classroom with seven convicted sex offenders. One of them lingered after class, stabbed the teacher with a pen and raped her. She had been given a radio to call for help, but it was tuned to a frequency not used by prison guards. The Arizona Department of Safety and Health determined that security lapses leading up to this life-threatening incident merited a fine of $14,000. The ICA’s verdict: zero.
On May 4, I received a letter from T. Zachary Barnett, Phoenix-area director for OSHA, sharing his analysis that the ICA “has been operating outside of its legal authority by reclassifying violations.” Barnett recommended that ICA “must cease” its practice of changing ADOSH’s proposed fined and violations before they are even issued.
The clock is now ticking on Arizona’s response. The state was originally granted 30 working days to respond but has asked for additional time and July 10 is the new deadline. Unfortunately, instead of taking the opportunity to innovate and improve Arizona’s safety program, ICA chair Dale Schultz wrote in a February letter to OHSA that the agency is trying to “force Arizona” into a “superimposed federal system.”
This controversy isn’t about the competing rights of an individual state versus the federal government. It’s about the right of every worker, in every kind of workplace, to go home safely at the end of his or her shift. Consistent fines and penalties are an effective deterrent against employers who might be tempted to cut corners on health and safety.
Instead of squaring off with OSHA to defend its right to let employers off the hook, the ICA should team up with state and federal partners to focus on what’s important: Safety on the job for Arizona workers.