The OSHA Consequences
The OSHA Consequences

Many lab managers and safety professionals tell me they cannot get staff to maintain compliance with the safety basics in the lab. There tends to be several different possible reasons for this, and you may encounter one or more of these in your work area:

-No management/medical director support of the lab safety program.

-No time for leadership to focus on safety.

-No safety education for staff/leadership.

-No understanding of consequences of unsafe behaviors.

There are safety savvy solutions for each of these areas, and they vary, but today we will focus on the last entry: No understanding of consequences of unsafe behaviors. This can be a powerful educational tool in many ways when used to improve the lab safety culture. There are physical consequences, emotional consequences, and financial consequences for unsafe behaviors in the lab. Teaching any of these is beneficial, but things have changed in 2016, and the financial consequences to labs and hospitals have increased.

The Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 1990 allowed many Federal agencies to review and adjust their civil penalties once every five years. One exemption that was made at the time was that OSHA would be excluded from any penalty-adjusting authority. 25 years later, OSHA has been granted the ability to adjust its fines to match inflation rates. That means that OSHA fines could potentially increase in 2016 by up to 80%. That means a $7000 fine goes up to $12,600, and that’s just for one violation. A “willful” violation charge will move from $70,000 to $126,000.

These rate increases must be put in place by August of this year, and they can and will affect laboratories. This is information that can be used to explain to lab staff the importance of following safety guidelines. OSHA is visiting hospitals and labs in increasing numbers, especially since hospitals have been on their “high risk workplace” list for the past few years. Because of high worker injury rates, OSHA inspectors are coming for hospital visits, even without complaints or cause. Many hospitals have already been visited and inspected this year.

This is education that needs to be explained to staff, and should be connected to the importance of safety compliance in the lab. A sharps container with no lid is a single violation with a fine of $12,600. An employee working with open specimens and no face protection is a fine of $12,600. If a review of training records shows the employee was trained on PPE use, the fine becomes categorized as “willful,” and it increases to $126,000. If multiple violations are seen, the fines are multiplied as well. This can get very expensive, and in some cases it could close the facility. If personal safety doesn’t create compliance for your staff, use these numbers. They are real, and they can be quite impactful.

The fines levied by an OSHA inspector can vary. The actual amounts are at the discretion of the individual inspector, and it can be many weeks after an inspection before the exact fines are known. However, the inspector will not leave the lab without notifying them of what violations were recorded. Does your lab staff wear gloves when necessary? Do they button up their lab coats and keep their sleeves rolled down? Are they wearing shoes made of non-absorbent material? Is anyone chewing gum? These are the violations that can close the lab down if the circumstances are right.

Enforcement of lab safety practices is a constant job, and education is an important piece of it. Educate the staff on consequences as well. Help them to understand and appreciate the role they play in the continued safe operation of the laboratory.

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