INVESTIGATION: Workplace deaths don’t always lead to hefty fines

In the past two years in Ohio, at least 44 people have died from injuries and accidents in the workplace but many companies involved either contested the citations or did not pay a fine more than $40,000.

This newspaper’s investigation found that several companies cited for violations that contributed to the deaths of several workers typically paid less in penalties to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration than some other companies that were fined for workplace violations that did not immediately result in death.

“It’s not about if someone was injured or if a fatality occurred, it’s about the violations that are found at the work site,” said Scott Allen, OSHA spokesman.

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At least 10 companies in this region have been flagged by the federal government for having unsafe working conditions, and have racked up more than $1 million combined in enforcement penalties in the past two years. Most of those violations were unrelated to death.

Companies, including Fuyao Glass America, are among that list of Ohio employers that have been fined more than $40,000 in initial violations and enforcement cases by OSHA — but did not have an employee die on the job.

Deaths in the workplace

Nationwide, more than 93 people were killed on the job every week — or more than 13 deaths each day in 2015, according to the latest OSHA data. The leading causes of death were: falls, struck by objects, electrocutions and being compressed or caught in between equipment, objects or structures.

At least 44 workers have died in Ohio since October 2015, and several of the companies involved were fined less than $40,000 for initial penalties by OSHA.

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In the past two years, Ohio workers have died in falls from truck lifts and suspension bridges. One man was asphyxiated in a confined space of an elevator motor control room in Canton in March 2016. Two others died in trench collapses, and several workers were fatally crushed by machinery equipment.

A 33-year-old man was crushed to death in Washington Twp. when he was digging soil out of a 12-foot trench for his job affiliated with KRW Plumbing. The trench walls collapsed around him, and he was buried in thousands of pounds of dirt. The Beavercreek-based company, which has contested the violations, did land on the list of companies with initial violations of more than $40,000. OSHA proposed $124,709 in penalties.

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“Trench deaths have more than doubled nationwide since last year — an alarming and unacceptable trend that must be halted,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, in a statement. “There is no excuse. These fatalities are completely preventable by complying with OSHA standards that every construction contractor should know.”

However, other deaths in Ohio did not result in the discovery of more hefty violations at the work site. At Granger Plastics Co. in Middletown, a worker was fatally crushed between a molding machine and forklift, and the initial proposed penalty was just over $32,000. Other Ohio companies had similar amounts of fines. In Cleveland, a worker for Dennison Construction was killed in a fall from a commercial building. Though the violations are under contest, the initial proposed penalty was just $24,940.

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Penalties can also vary due to company size, an OSHA spokesman explained.

“There are considerations for company sizes and such,” Allen said. “A very small company may have a reduced penalty amount because of their size.”

Violations cost companies millions 

Just because someone has not died in a workplace incident does not mean a company isn’t in serious violation of OSHA standards, the federal agency says. Penalty amounts are determined by the violations found at the site of incident. And deaths and injury are not necessarily going to cost more in penalties.

“The penalty amounts are determined by the type of violation that’s been found and the citation that’s issued,” Allen said.

There are several different types of violations and penalty amounts that were adjusted for inflation on Jan. 13, according to OSHA. The new maximum penalty for serious, failure to abate, and other-than-serious violations are now $12,675 per penalty. A willful or repeated violation can cost a company up to $126,749 per violation.

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It will often come down to how often a company is repeating the same mistakes in recent years. Failing to address an issue, and it then resulting in death, leads to heftier fines and harsher penalties.

“Civil penalties should be a credible deterrent that influences behavior far and wide,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, in a statement. “Adjusting our penalties to keep pace with the cost of living can lead to significant benefits for workers and can level the playing field for responsible employers who should not have to compete with those who don’t follow the law.”

Businesses across southwest Ohio have been cited for workplace safety violations, but at least 10 of these businesses have had enforcement cases with initial penalties above $40,000. These citations were issued starting on Jan. 1, 2015.

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Moraine-based Fuyao Glass America was fined $227,000 in penalties related to unsafe working conditions, and multiple machine safety violations were found. Some of the violations could expose workers to amputation and other serious injuries, OSHA alleged. In November, the federal watchdog office announced it had cited the company for 23 serious and one other-than-serious violation.

Fuyao contested all violations, and no one has died in workplace accidents, but the concern surrounding the facility is great. Larry Yates, a furnace operator at the plant, told this newspaper earlier this month that he had scratches on his hands and forearms due to his work at the plant.

“I feel like we’re getting the short end of the stick,” he said. “The big thing for me is safety.”

Other businesses that fall into this category include: American Asia, Inc. in Oxford, KRW Plumbing in Beavercreek, Kroger in Cincinnati, R&B Contractors in Cincinnati, Fukuvi USA Inc. in Cincinnati, Sugar Creek Packing Co. in Fairfield, V&T Painting in Hamilton and Oxford, Metal Shredders, Inc. in Miamisburg, and Northwest Lanes in Fairfield.

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Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. made the list when a 65-year-old employee’s left middle finger tip was amputated by a band saw while butchering meat. OSHA opened an investigation on the North Bend Road store, and said the machine guarding on the band saw was not adequate for the product being cut. The initial proposed penalties were $45,500 because the company had repeat violations.

“Employees working with dangerous equipment such as band saws must be properly trained to prevent injuries,” said Ken Montgomery, OSHA’s area director in Cincinnati, in a statement in March. “Common-sense safety standards to prevent workers from coming in contact with operating machine parts.”

Ultimately, the grocer paid less after re-vamping its programs and entering into an informal settlement with OSHA. Allen said OSHA is always willing to work with companies to ensure safety compliance.

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“The safety or our associates is our top priority,” said Patty Leesemann, spokeswoman for Kroger. “We have safety procedures and processes in place and require training on all equipment used by our associates. We re-trained our meat cutters on the proper use of equipment and paid a $7,000 fine in October 2016.”

Too much to pay

For some local companies, the fines are too much to continue conducting business. In August, two workers replacing a roof on a church in Milford Twp. were injured when their ladder touched a nearby power line. The workers, who were employed by Oxford-based American Asian Inc., were shocked and taken to local hospitals.

The company was saddled with 11 serious violations and a proposed penalty of $41,151. The case is pending penalty payment and abatement of violations. Owner Chau Pham said the penalty amount was “absolutely’ unfair, and wasn’t sure how he is going to pay it. For now, he has no employees and isn’t conducting any building work.

“The cost of the penalty is too steep for me,” he said. “We haven’t paid anything. It’s an accident. We all work and mistakes can happen.”


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