When Employers Are Naughty, OSHA Can Only Be Nice

by Matthew Madia, 5/29/2009

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is taking enforcement action against Wal-Mart over the death of a New York store employee on Black Friday 2008. Unfortunately, OSHA’s going after the retail giant with all the fury of a box full of kittens.

OSHA is fining Wal-Mart $7,000. According to the Associated Press, Wal-Mart makes $7,000 every 18 seconds.

Everything about this story stirs visceral reactions. A temporary employee was trampled to death while opening the doors of a Long Island Wal-Mart the morning after Thanksgiving. Scores of morons shoppers could not wait one second more to buy dirt cheap electronics at the crack of dawn, knocking down the 34-year-old man in the process. Wal-Mart called it “an unforeseeable hazard” even though throngs of people have crowded around Wal-Marts (and other retail stores) early on Black Friday for years. Wal-Mart took no action to control the crowd – part of the reason they were fined.

But let’s look at the bigger picture: the case illuminates just how feckless OSHA enforcement is. For OSHA, a $7,000 fine constitutes throwing the book at Wal-Mart. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 sets a $7,000 ceiling for certain violations.

So Congress is complicit any time an employer gets off the hook. OSHA can be no stricter without a change to the statute that it operates under. OSHA needs bigger guns, and it needs them soon

Image by Flickr user abcrumley, used under a Creative Commons license.

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