OSHA Steps Up Its Covid Fines

Well this is nothing to sneeze at: OSHA inspectors just threatened the owner of a Massachusetts tax preparation firm with a $136,000 fine for prohibiting her employees from wearing masks on the job. It’s the largest fine OSHA has ever proposed for poor COVID-19 practices, and far larger than anything we saw during the Trump Administration.

The case involves one Ariana Murrell-Rosario, who owns a Liberty Tax franchise in Lynn, Mass. According to a statement from OSHA, inspectors visited Murrell-Rosario’s office in March after a referral from state labor inspectors, who apparently had already been investigating complaints that Murrell-Rosario was ignoring safety regulations. Specifically, OSHA says, she:

  • Banned employees and customers from wearing face coverings in the workplace despite a statewide mask order that mandated the business to require employees and customers to wear masks.
  • Required employees to work within six feet of each other and customers for multiple hours, while not wearing face coverings.
  • Failed to provide adequate means of ventilation at the workplace.
  • Failed to implement controls such as physical barriers, pre-shift screening of employees, enhanced cleaning and other methods to reduce the potential for person-to-person transmission of the virus.

The offenses happened in February and March of this year, according to the OSHA complaint. Throughout all that time (and even today), Massachusetts has been under strict state emergency measures requiring masks in the workplace. OSHA also published its own updated guidance about coronavirus safety measures at the end of January, and had been quite clear that more vigorous enforcement was coming. 

Well, now we have it.

For comparison purposes, in September 2020 the Trump Administration fined Smithfield Foods, a giant in the meatpacking business with more than $15 billion in annual revenue, a piddling $13,500 for poor covid safety practices at a plant in South Dakota. In that instance, nearly 1,300 employees contracted COVID-19 and four of them died. 

Overall, OSHA cited 300 businesses in 2020 for various coronavirus violations, and proposed a total of $3.39 million in penalties — which actually works out to only $13,100 per penalty. 

So why the bigger fine now? The crucial distinction here is that the Biden Administration deemed Murrell-Rosario’s offenses a willful violation of OSHA rules, which allows the agency to impose a maximum penalty of $136,000 per violation. Meaning, OSHA just whacked Murrell-Rosario with the largest penalty it could impose. The Trump Administration rarely invoked that standard. Instead, it classified most offenses as “serious,” a lesser category that only carries a maximum penalty of $13,650 per violation.

Murrell-Rosario now has 15 days to respond, and she does have the right to negotiate with the agency for a lower fine. She also needs to implement necessary safety improvements. (The Huffington Post scored an interview with Murrell-Rosario, who said she has no plans to implement a mask policy and believes they “should be banned out of this country.” Sounds like a standard-issue anti-mask crackpot to me.) 

Remember Your Covid Safety Measures

As OSHA said back in January, businesses should implement measures to limit the spread of covid in the workplace. That includes policies to send sick employees home immediately and to encourage remote work; as well as physical barriers between workstations and equipment to allow for more rigorous and regular cleaning. (Along similar lines, last year we had a post detailing what should go into your Infectious Disease Outbreak Response Program. IDORPs go hand in glove with covid suppression programs.) 

It also means requiring employees, customers, and other visitors to wear masks. That’s not a statutory law requirement per se, although businesses do have a statutory obligation to provide a safe workplace environment for their employees — including reasonable efforts to prevent the spread of disease. 

Plus, as much as masks might be a drag, they’re just common sense until we all get vaccinated within a few more months. 

And now, it seems, the Biden Administration will be delivering a stronger punch to those who don’t take OSHA workplace violations seriously. 

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