EHS OutLoud Blog

Should OSHA Fine Workers for Unsafe Actions?


Recently approved legislation in Alberta authorizes safety and health authorities "to issue tickets of up to $500 on the spot to employers or workers caught flouting workplace-safety rules on the job site," according to an article in the Calgary Herald.

Imagine this scenario: During an inspection of your facility, an OSHA compliance officer observes a worker performing his duties without safety goggles, gloves or earplugs – despite ubiquitous signage declaring that the aforementioned PPE is mandatory at all times on the shop floor.

When the compliance officer confronts the worker and reminds him of the importance of proper PPE, the worker shrugs his shoulders and replies, "I'll take my chances."

The OSHA inspector promptly pulls out a pad of paper and issues the safety scofflaw a $500 fine.

In the United States, OSHA holds employers – not employees – accountable for safety infractions, regardless of the circumstances.

But that's not the case in Alberta, Canada. At least not anymore.

Recently approved legislation in Alberta authorizes safety and health authorities "to issue tickets of up to $500 on the spot to employers or workers caught flouting workplace-safety rules on the job site," according to an article in the Calgary Herald.

Unlike OSHA, Alberta Occupational Health and Safety has not had the ability to issue monetary fines to workplaces (or workers) for safety infractions – until now.  

Starting Oct. 1, the agency will have the authority to issue fines of up to $10,000 to negligent employers, according to the Calgary Herald.

Starting Jan. 1, the agency will be able to issue on-site tickets to workers for safety violations.

If that seems draconian, consider that the new enforcement authority actually brings Alberta "in line with Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan – all of which either already have, or are considering, similar systems," according to the Calgary Herald.

The legislation certainly raises an interesting argument.

On the one hand, there are those – such as Alberta Federation of Labor president Gil McGowan – who believe that punishing employees for safety infractions "takes the onus off employers to invest in proper safety training and procedures."

"Employers will end up washing their hands of responsibility for health and safety and saying it's the workers' problem and the workers' fault," McGowan told the Calgary Herald. "That's not the way to make workplaces safer in this province."

On the other hand, there is the argument that "workplace safety is a shared responsibility."

"You can often have policies in place, but if they're not being followed, you're not in a safe workplace," Craig Loewen, press secretary to Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, who is responsible for Occupational Health and Safety, told the Calgary Herald.

"And if you're one of the workers that is following the proper safety procedures and guidelines, but one of your co-workers is not, you're also put at risk."

There are more than 60 workplace-safety infractions that could prompt Alberta authorities to issue a ticket to employers or employees, according to the article. Those infractions range from failing to wear proper PPE to smoking near flammable materials.

If a worker receives a ticket, he or she can plead guilty and fight the citation in court, according to the Calgary Herald.

What are your thoughts?

Discuss this Blog Entry 18

on Sep 11, 2013

I don't think the example used in the beginning of this article is a accurate one for this topic. In that example it is clear to me at least, that management played a roll in this employee's attitude and outlook. Good management would have either changed the behavior or gotten rid of the employee.

Regarding the new law to fine an employee. I think that is going to have problems.

We'll see.

on Sep 12, 2013

Point well-taken, and thanks for your reply. I was racking my brain to come up with a simple, universal example that would be easy to explain. But perhaps that scenario is so blatant that someone (a floor supervisor, a team leader, a co-worker -- anybody) would have noticed immediately and confronted the worker.

What don't you like about the idea of workers being fined for unsafe acts? Just curious.

Thanks again for your feedback.


on Sep 11, 2013

YES, YES, and YES! BUT - that implies the inspector is doing his/her job properly and not 'hot-dogging' to prove he or she is the one 'carrying the stick,' as it were. Employees NEED to be accountable and cited for direct, flagrant, and negligent actions. When an employee actually has a dog in the fight, it won't take too many times of hearing how someone just got financially wiped out for being flagrantly stupid on the job!

on Sep 12, 2013

Thanks for your comments!


on Sep 12, 2013

I would have to agree with McGowen and others here. A good safety program confronts unsafe behaviors and either through an accountability program and/or disciplinary program takes care of those employees who create the 'problems'. If an employer doesn't enforce the safety rules, he should be at fault.
I had a subcontractor at one of my previous jobs who repeatedly made the comment "I train them the right way. If they don't follow the rules, they are the ones who will get hurt." We quickly had to have a talk to the manager and inform him of his responsibilities to ensure the rules were followed. The company had the proper programs in place, he just didn't care. I think regulations like this will cause more of the employers not to a proactive stance and correct the situation. On the other side as a current compliance officer, I know a few of my colleagues who would be writing employee citations right and left, even if it was the guys first time in 20 years not having his safety glasses on.
The good thing is we have way too many things going through OSHA right now to even think about employee fines in teh near future and in my opinion, ever.

on Sep 12, 2013

Absolutely! I've been saying this for years. I've lost track of the times employees walk right out the door from a safety meeting and proceed to do EXACTLY what you just got done spending 15 minutes telling them not to do. Holding workers financially accountable for their behavior is the ONLY way you'll have lasting change. As it is, the employer is responsible for THEIR behavior and they know it...they have zero skin in the game so to speak...and firing a union employee is next to impossible unless it was literally a blatant, deliberate, life threatening violation.

on Sep 12, 2013

I agree that the employee is responsible for his actions and behaviour in the workplace. That said, the employee has a responsibility to ensure that through his actions and/or inactions he will not place himself or anyone else in harms way.

The employer still has a responsibility to ensure a safe workplace. This includes ensuring compliance with safety standards, policies and procedures within the workplace. The inspector should also verify the employer has a track record for trying to enforce the standards. If this cannot be substantially demonstrated, the employer should also be fined.

on Sep 12, 2013

It would seem to me that facilities with unions will see an incredible response by the unions if this happens in a USA plant. As a former plant manager, anytime we even so much as issued a disciplinary day off for an unsafe act or behavior, the union grieved and fought and was willing to arbitrate. Their successful argument was that management had to issue progressive discipline even for willful violations. Our facility received more than one OSHA citation for employees acting in an unsafe manner or even violating known safety or health rules. It was deemed management's fault if the workforce didn't obey safety rules. I agree with that philosophy; however, what will the union's recourse be (or the company's for that matter) if the government issues the punishment in the form of a fine for a first offense??? I say it won't happen due to the unions's influence with the government.

on Sep 12, 2013

Absolutely yes. Although the fine level is a bit steep in your example. The average employee that I have run across seems just fine at costing their employer money (that they apparently think belongs in their own pocket). I walk into other businesses and am shocked. The company thinks everything is compliant, but it seems to be so only when management is around.

If the employee takes a shot in the wallet, and the story is spread then the actions are retroactive. They may not make much any more, but paying Obama more doesn't sound very appealing.
While unions may scream, the resulting reduction in capital losses could result potentially in an increase in employee pay.

Too many foreigners on American payrolls could be the cause, or not enough discipline taught in American citizenship. Who knows?
But it could be a plus. I know it is far more dangerous in the average industrial workspace today.

on Sep 12, 2013

What is happening in Alberta is just catching up with the USA.

The General Duty Clause in the OSHA Act applies to both Employers and Employees.
To wit:
"SEC. 5. Duties
(a) Each employer --

(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;

(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

29 USC 654
(b) Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct."
I have always wondered why employees who were observed by compliance officers to be in violation of "occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act" were NOT subject to citations and fines.

If the employer can be cited by a sworn law enforcement officer (OSHA compliance officer), what makes the employee who has similar cited responsibilities under the same law exempt? There is only one explanation....selective enforcement. It was not politically expedient or wise to do so here in the US. Hooray for Canada! Shame on Fed OSHA here in the states for not enforcing the law as it is written.

on Sep 13, 2013

Absolutely start fining the offending employee. When your company has a well established safety program, and a employees fail to follow the program they need to be held accountable. If OSHA finds an employee failing to follow that program, the employee should be fined not the company as it is now. We are not baby sitters and our employees are not babys. Take this to the streets, if you drive your car without a seatbelt and get stopped, you get fined, not Ford, GM, Etc. So I say yes if you fail to follow the safety program, pay the fine. Then we will see a new interest in safety, when people know it will cost them (not the company) when they choose not to follow the program. Place the fine where it belongs.

on Sep 13, 2013

Employees need to be held accountable. We have policies in place to keep everyone safe but you always have at least one guy who will shun safety rules to try and be cool or "help" production. I don't think an outside organization should be the one to fine the employee, but the employer should. Where I work at if an employee is written up for a safety infraction that is pulled up at evaluation time and the person in question probably isn't getting a raise that year, just one example.

on Sep 13, 2013

I wish OSHA and MSHA had the same authority. US DOT has the authority and it works. CDL drivers do not want to lose their livelihood because of an unscrupulous owner. I do not approve of moving all burden from employers to employees, but like the FMCSA regs, this would be an additional tool to add balance to the enforcement tool kit. Any citation can be contested, so undue burden is not an issue. Right now, our only recourse to deal with stubborn employees is discipline up to and including termination. Then they go somewhere else and put those folks at risk. If they don't care about safety they will care about their wallets! It wouldn't take many citations to get the word out. It would also place more pressure on owners. Unsafe operations would suddenly not be as worthwhile to work for.

on Sep 13, 2013

While I agree with aerialjax that is management’s responsibility to train and instill the right safety behaviors to create a climate of accountability I have had the challenge to step into an organization with a history of very entrenched unsafe practices then try to change the culture. Even with the best of training and oversight there will be times a worker for whatever reason will decide not to wear proper PPE or to take a safety shortcut. The company must create a culture where everyone is the safety guy so the employees hold each other accountable. In a 24/7 operation no one person can see all and be all. If the safety man is the only enforcer then total safety compliance will never be achievable. So I support that if an OSHA inspector observes one of our employee violating safe practices then the employee should be held accountable for the conscience decision that they made. Of course it would be the companies’ responsibility to prove the employee was properly trained, tested for comprehension and signed off on the acceptance of the practice.

on Sep 13, 2013

Employees and employers all need to be held accountable. But it is the employers job to hold the employee accountable, not OSHA's. Remember your history! The stick already exists (suspension, job change) to hold the employee accountable. The employer just wasn't interested in using it!

on Sep 13, 2013

Absolutely the employee should be held accountable if they deliberately violate a safety standard or policy. If it can be shown that the employer has met the requirements of providing the appropriate safety equipment and the proper training then they should not be held liable for a wanton act on the part of the employee.

Recently a New Jersey EMS agency received a phone call from OSHA regarding the crew not wearing their Hi-VIZ safety vests. The OSHA inspector said he saw a picture in a local paper that showed the EMS agency operating at the scene of a motor vehicle collision without their vests and would be issuing a fine. The OSHA Inspector said he gets most of his work from the local papers. The manager from the EMS agency provided documentation that they had purchased hi viz vests, placed them in the ambulance, trained staff in the need to wear them and had a policy requiring their use. The inspector said this is the only warning next time it would be a fine.

on Sep 17, 2013

Way to go, Canada!! It's about time someone created an environment of shared responsibility for safety. Here in Amercia, we have way too many laws protecting certain employee groups / unions from losing their jobs when they use poor judgment and continually violate company policy and good safety practices. In many places, management has no leverage to use against employees like the one exampled above who willfully violate policy. Rogue employees know that union power and statutory job protection will come to their aid in a pinch. And, if the employee can be terminated, the terminating employer is severely restricted in what he can communicate to potential future employers about the rogue's previous work conduct. In other words, we have successfully created a work environment that encourages worker mediocrity, instead of demanding professionalism. Until that changes, we will continue reading safety mishap reports of workers repeating the "History of Stupid" and employers being solely blamed for it.

on Apr 29, 2014

The answer to your question is already present in the post, YES! that is why OSHA was created, an organization that works as a watch dog to make sure there are no workplace violations that could cause important lives.

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Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is editor-in-chief of EHS Today magazine, a Penton Media Inc. publication. She has been writing about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990. She has been...

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic is an associate editor for EHS Today magazine, a Penton Media Inc. publication.  A native of Cleveland, Ohio, she has been in B2B publishing for eight years. Her work has...
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