Key Changes Coming to OSHA in 2021

Larger fines and stricter COVID-19 protocols are on the way.

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The Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration (OSHA) has a few key changes coming in the new year. Late last week, the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) announced that civil penalty amounts for OSHA violations have been increased based on cost-of-living adjustments in 2021.

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“OSHA’s maximum penalties for serious and other-than-serious violations will increase from $13,494 per violation to $13,653 per violation,” the DoL said in a statement. “The maximum penalty for willful or repeated violations will increase from $134,937 per violation to $136,532 per violation.”

These increases are part of the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act in 2015, which requires the DoL to annually adjust the civil penalty for laws they enforce based on inflation. The adjustments went into effect on January 15th. Increased penalty amounts will be applicable to any violations after that date.

According to the National Law Review, “the purpose of these annual adjustments is to improve the effectiveness of civil monetary penalties by increasing the amounts to maintain their deterrent effect.”

Other major changes coming to OSHA are less concrete at this time, but may be ultimately more impactful to day-to-day construction operations. Before his inauguration, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced he would formally request OSHA reconsider issuing emergency workplace standards in an attempt to protect workers and slow the spread of COVID-19.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, OSHA has been prevented from using its full range of tools to protect workers from COVID-19,” Biden said in a statement. “The number of OSHA inspectors is at its lowest level since 1975, while millions of essential workers are working to keep the country functioning through the pandemic.”

OSHA has the authority to set emergency temporary standards if it is determined that workers are in “grave danger due to exposure to toxic substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards and that an emergency standard is needed to protect them.” These coronavirus safety standards would likely be stricter and more uniformly enforced than the optional guidance provided to employers under the Trump administration.

“My administration will ask OSHA to determine whether to establish an emergency temporary standard to keep workers safe from COVID-19,” said Biden. “I will direct OSHA to enforce worker safety requirements, target the worst violators, and work to increase the number of OSHA inspectors to get the job done.”