Alicia was working the night shift, and she tripped on the edge of a floor mat while holding a rack of specimens. She had complained about the old mats before because the edges had been peeling up and they created a trip hazard. When she fell, her shoulder hit the counter’s edge, and the injury required immediate surgery. The state OSHA office saw the report. Because this had been the third reported serious injury in as many years, they sent an inspector in to investigate. The inspector noted several safety issues, and even saw violations that were repeated after the lab had reported them abated. When all was said and done, the lab had to pay a hefty $400,000 fine.
The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) gave themselves another raise this year. It wasn’t for staff, it was an increase in fine amounts for work place safety violations. You really can’t criticize the organization for this, after all they went almost 40 years without an increase. That’s pretty good for a government organization. Now the system is designed to give them a regular increase for inflation each year. This year OSHA may charge $13,260 per violation and $132,598 if the violation is willful or repeated.
The overall amount a laboratory can be fined by OSHA for safety violations will vary based on several factors. The violation may be deemed minor, and if it a first-time offense, it might not incur any fine. If it is a more serious infraction, or if it is a repeat violation, the fines will increase. If a safety violation is classified as “willful” – meaning it can be determined that training occurred but safety was ignored – then the fine amounts can be multiplied by ten! Fines can also be levied based on time. Basic amounts may be determined for an issue, but then they can be multiplied by the number of days that issue existed. OSHA fines are usually determined by the inspector (although never revealed or collected during the inspection), and while they are not out to make money, you can see that some fines can be very costly for a laboratory.
There are other costs to safety issues that cause injuries or exposures to lab staff. In most work places, medical follow-up to an on-the-job incident is covered by the employer. That can be very costly depending on whether or not that follow-up involves multiple doctor visits or even surgery. Other costs come into play as well. Cleaning up the lab after an incident might be expensive depending on what happened. Covering for the employee who is no longer able to work might incur overtime costs. Bringing on new staff (temporary or otherwise) can also be very expensive for the department.
So how should a lab department work to avoid such incidents, fines, and costs? Of course a solid safety program is key, but there is more. Regular safety training should occur providing information about exposure control and injury prevention as well as actions to take when an issue arises. This should include fire safety training, emergency management planning, chemical and biological safety and waste management education. Be ever vigilant by looking for safety issues within the department. Use safety audits and rounding to discover any physical safety problems. Be sure to talk to staff about what they perceive as safety issues. They are on the front lines and know what is going on every day. Strengthening the relation with staff is also key so they are comfortable sharing safety issues with you, and they are confident you will follow up. It’s a sign of a poor safety culture when staff feel like they must report an issue to OSHA because management is not responding. Be sure to be open to listening about safety issues from your staff.
Hospital and laboratories are fined for safety violations regularly. If OSHA is the investigating body, the information will become public. That means anyone will be able to see what has gone wrong at your facility and how much you were fined. Those are costs that may be impossible to recover. Protect your money and your reputation by ensuring open communication with staff and a solid safety program that protects them.