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Defining OSHA's standards for a 'willful' work safety violation

Over the course of this blog, we have spent time discussing ways that employers can defend against workplace safety violations or take steps to prevent citations. In the midst of all this, it may be beneficial for employers to understand exactly what is meant by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's most severe penalty: a willful violation.

As a point of reference, OSHA defines four most common types of citations for safety violations that can be issued after a safety inspection. They range from other-than-serious violations and increase in severity to willful violations. Of course, the harshest penalties generally accompany willful violations.

According to OSHA, a willful violation is an instance in which an employer intentionally violates a safety regulation or doesn't care enough to enforce safety requirements. Given the scathing nature of this type of citation, it would seem as though OSHA officials would need significant evidence to level such an accusation. However, that may not necessarily be the case.

Given the consequences associated with a willful violation, it's clear that employers should take them seriously. According to the OSHA Field Operations Manual, an employer can be fined as much as $70,000 per willful violation. For a small business, the financial penalty alone could prove to be an insurmountable financial burden. This is not to mention the negative impact on future bids or ability to be considered for public works/governmental projects.

It goes without saying that it may be in an employer's best interests to explore available options for appealing OSHA citations. After all, it may turn out that federal inspectors made an inaccurate assessment in order to push forward with a damaging penalty.

Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "Federal Employer Rights and Responsibilities Following an OSHA Inspection," accessed June 10, 2014