Penalties levied against Connecticut companies for violations of occupational safety rules dropped by more than half between 2011 and 2015, and the number of cases with penalties fell by 40 percent in the same time period, according to a C-HIT analysis of federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) data.
Data from the agency’s offices in Bridgeport and Hartford show initial penalties against Connecticut employers totaled $10.86 million in 2011 and dropped to $5.07 million in 2015. Companies were able to negotiate settlements, lowering penalty payments to $6.26 million in 2011, and $3.51 million in 2015.
For the first nine months of 2016, the downward trends in cases and fines are continuing, the data show.
Reasons for the declines vary: Government officials point to safer workplaces and more compliance with regulations. Labor leaders say employers and workers alike are underreporting workplace injuries.
In addition, OSHA inspections have declined nationally in recent years, from 40,993 in fiscal year 2010 down to 35,820 in 2015, according to OSHA’s enforcement report. The total number of violations cited by the agency dropped from 96,742 in 2010 to 65,044 in 2015, a full 33 percent.
The number of inspections in Connecticut dropped by 10 percent, from 1,009 in 2013 to 908 in 2015, and to 819 as of Nov. 10 of this year. OSHA has 18 compliance safety and health officers in its Hartford and Bridgeport offices, down from 21 in 2012.
Edmund Fitzgerald, a spokesman for OSHA, said it is difficult to attribute the decline in penalties to any one factor. He said that in addition to improved workplace safety as a result of OSHA citations, the drop also could stem from increased compliance by employers, resulting in fewer violations or lower penalties, and employers’ use of state or private consultants to improve safety and health in their workplaces.
Although penalties dropped by over half in the last five years, data show that workplace injuries have declined at a much slower rate, 25 percent during the period. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60,500 cases of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses were reported at Connecticut workplaces in 2011. By 2015, that number fell sharply to 45,200 cases.
Critics say the data doesn’t tell the full story, in part because companies do not report all injuries.
“The fatalities are hard data; the number of injuries are estimates,” said Steven Schrag, a member of Connecticut AFL-CIO’s Health and Safety Committee. “The fact is many employers don’t report when workers get hurt. Though OSHA has worked hard to improve their whistleblower program to protect workers who raise their voice, employees are afraid. For example, more and more construction is not unionized so we don’t know how often OSHA gets called because unorganized workers are less likely to complain.”
A UConn Health study released this year reported that the number of occupational illnesses and injuries increased by 8 percent statewide from 2013 to 2014.
In 2014, the state’s overall rate of occupational illnesses was 18.7 per 10,000 workers, 7 percent higher than the national average. The numbers are based on Workers’ Compensation First Report of Injury cases, and physicians’ reports under the Occupational Illnesses and Injury Surveillance System. The UConn study focused on diseases such as musculoskeletal disorders, including carpel tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, which accounted for the bulk of workers’ compensation reports (51 percent).
The study’s author, Tim Morse, professor emeritus at UConn Health, said workplace illnesses are more difficult to identify than injuries because health outcomes occur over a long period of time. Morse said it’s important to look beyond the OSHA data to get an accurate picture.
“All the companies are reporting into the workers’ comp database, whereas the OSHA survey is just a sample,” he said. “It’s clear that these kinds of illnesses are underreported everywhere, including the OSHA survey.
“You probably get better reporting when you have a lot of inspections because it’s one of the things they check— whether companies are reporting accurately,” Morse said.
The number of high-penalty cases in Connecticut (more than $40,000) also declined from 2011 to 2015. In 2011, there were 30 such cases, with fines of $2.26 million, compared to 15 cases and $1.09 million in fines in 2015.
In 2011, businesses cited for improper handling of toxic and hazardous substances, mainly blood-borne pathogens, included Caring Dental Group in Newtown, which was initially fined $42,900, but paid $25,000; and Chestnut Point Care Center in East Windsor, which was initially fined $21,000 and paid $10,920.
Some companies cited for similar violations in 2015 faced reduced fines and payments, OSHA data show. They include Pennyweights Inc. in New Canaan, which was fined $11,200 and paid $4,480; and Brass Mill Mall Dental LLP in Waterbury, which was initially fined $7,200 and paid $3,240.
For the first nine months of 2016, there were 312 OSHA cases in Connecticut, with initial penalties of $2.52 million. Of these, 12 were high penalty cases, with initial fines totaling $700,000. By comparison, in the first nine months of 2015, there were 474 cases, with initial fines amounting to $4.34 million; and 14 high penalty cases totaling $926,031 in initial fines.
Schrag attributed the lower penalty amounts, in part, to a change in industry composition in the state.
“Some of the higher injury rates are from manufacturing [firms] that have left the area,” he said.
“So while workers in [less hazardous industries, such as] retail and sales, could have had problems with indoor air quality, repetitive strain injury, workplace assault and violence, there are no ways for OSHA to issue citations because of the way the standards for [these types of] violations are written,” he said. OSHA has higher standards of proof when citing companies for certain types of violations, he said.
The frequency of penalties appears to correlate with levels of employment; when more people are employed in a particular sector, more citations are issued. Alissa DeJonge, economist at the Connecticut Economic Resource Center in Rocky Hill, said a quarter of all OSHA citations in the state during the last fiscal year were in heavy and civil engineering construction, which had a 12.6 percent increase in employment.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said that in 2015, the average penalty for a serious violation was $2,148 for federal OSHA. In 2012, the average penalty under federal OSHA for a serious violation was slightly higher at $2,156.
The median penalty for a fatal injury in 2015 was $7,000 for federal OSHA, and $3,500 for OSHA state plans—lower rates than in 2012, when the average penalty in fatality cases was $9,057 under federal and state OSHA plans combined.
Goldstein-Gelb said that while criminal prosecution is a deterrent, only 89 worker death cases have been criminally prosecuted under the OSHA Act since 1970.
Going forward, paid fines are expected to rise sharply as a result of a nearly 80 percent increase in OSHA penalties enacted in August. Congress approved the increases last year to adjust rates to account for inflation. Maximum fines for less-serious violations rose from $7,000 to $12,600, and for willful and repeated violations, from a maximum of $70,000 per violation to $124,709.
Phillip Montgomery, director of Compensation Services for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said that when the increases in fines were announced, “companies were concerned about the possible impact to their fiscal well-being.” But he added, “Most companies are already taking various steps, such as more focused audits of their safety processes and increased worker input on plant safety, to ensure the safety of their workers.”
Attorneys representing employers said companies need more support and resources to ensure worker safety. Michael Harrington of Murtha Cullina LLP in Hartford, who chairs his firm’s Labor and Employment Practice Group, said OSHA should be more proactive in helping companies to improve their workplace standards, especially small businesses struggling with limited resources.
“I feel bad that OSHA can’t have more flexibility to help a company become more compliant. Rather they just look at it from a penal perspective,” he said.