OSHA enforcement returns: Is there a citation in your future?

After years of a “cooperative atmosphere” at OSHA, the new administration has vowed to put enforcement back, with an aggressive, citation-based approach. What's it going to cost you? See table.


Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor under the Obama Administration, has pledged to “put enforcement back into the Department of Labor.” As a result, employers must get ready for a shift away from the cooperative atmosphere of the recent past to a more aggressive, citation-based approach.

The Civil Penalties table shows the penalty schedule the Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can impose on employers who fail safety inspections.

For example, suppose a packaging company has failed to enclose a robot work area with a gated fence. Having no fence would be considered violation 1. In addition, having no lockout procedures would be violation 2. 

Should some event trigger an OSHA inspection, such as an employee jumping out of the way of a moving robot and becoming injured to a degree that would require a trip to the hospital for x-rays, this would then trigger a workplace accident report and the company may be liable for a $14,000 fine for two serious violations. If the company had ever been previously cited for similar violations, OSHA could issue a fine of $70,000 per violation, upping the fine to $140,000. Furthermore, if installing the fence and developing lockout procedures took two weeks beyond the 30-day deadline to abate the problems (during which the machine was running for ten days), that would add another $140,000 ($7,000 per violation per day), for a grand total of $280,000!


There are seven events that might provide probable cause for an OSHA inspection:

  • complaint (from employee or bargaining representative);
  • referral (from another agency or media);
  • report of imminent danger (from employee or bargaining representative);
  • report of fatality/catastrophe (from employer);
  • follow-up (to determine whether abatement was completed);
  • site-specific targeting inspections; and
  • local and national emphasis programs.

(NOTE: You can download a PDF detailing these events and how to manage an OSHA inspection at tinyurl.com/yj8xzx9).1

For most industries, an OSHA inspection will be triggered only in the event of an actual accident or a complaint by an employee or third party. A company having received a citation after a legal inspection can expect a follow-up visit to ensure compliance. In addition, certain industries (such as mining) are considered so dangerous that employers can expect inspections without specific probable cause, the nature of the activity being considered probable cause by itself.

Where to turn for help

In most cases, undergraduate engineering programs do not provide significant training in OSHA requirements. Therefore, it is up to the individual engineer to seek the necessary information to know what is needed for specific installations.

In addition to the OSHA inspection resource listed above, you can find information about bringing industrial installations into compliance with OSHA regulations at www.osha.gov, which includes a section on training. There, you can find links to OSHA Education Centers. There are also free OSHA consultation services provided by the states, which OSHA funds throughout the country.

Searching on the Web for keyword phrases like “OSHA training” will yield links to third-party companies who will also provide training for engineers tasked with keeping their facilities in OSHA compliance. Many of them, like Machine Safety Specialists, also provide consulting services to conduct mock inspections, and otherwise help companies protect themselves with regard to safety issues. There are also a number of OSHA-related resources at www.safetybase.com.

Maximum amounts for civil penalties

Type of violation


Penalty maximum




$7,000 per violation


Other than serious


$7,000 per violation


Willful or repeated


$70,000 per violation


Posting requirements


$7,000 per violation


Failure to abate


$7,000 per day unabated beyond the abatement date (generally 30 days max)


Source: Machine Safety Specialists at


- Control Engineering tutorial, www.controleng.com

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