OSHA has signaled a crackdown. It is taking aim at what it calls "severe violators," shifting resources from voluntary compliance to enforcement, and tackling ergonomics issues in the workplace.

Severe Violators Enforcement Program (SVEP). SVEP targets employers who have demonstrated recalcitrance or indifference to their Occupational Safety and Health Act obligations by committing willful, repeated, or failure-to-abate violations. SVEP replaces OSHA's Enhanced Enforcement Program, and will become effective by June 7, 2010.

SVEP applies:

  • Where there has been a fatality or catastrophic situation
  • Where industry operations or processes expose employees to the most severe occupational hazards
  • Where employees are exposed to hazards related to the potential release of a highly hazardous chemical
  • Where there have been egregious enforcement actions against the employer

Severe violators are subject to an array of enhanced enforcement actions, including follow-up inspections, increased fines, and court proceedings. OSHA found that the penalties previously in place did not deter noncompliance. According to Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary for Labor at OSHA, SVEP's "higher penalties and more aggressive, targeted enforcement will provide a greater deterrent and further encourage [noncompliant] employers to furnish safe and healthy workplaces for their employees."

A Shift from Voluntary Compliance to Enforcement.

Before the release of the Department of Labor's Six Year Strategic Plan, due out by September 30, 2010, OSHA conducted a live, online question-and-answer session for employers and other stakeholders. One thing was clear from the discussion: OSHA will be shifting its emphasis from voluntary compliance programs to enforcement in the coming years.

OSHA plans to increase its compliance and inspection staff by 110 people. Many current field inspection staff will be reassigned from voluntary compliance programs to enforcement activities. According to comments by OSHA officials, the new administration has "returned OSHA to its original mission: issuing and enforcing standards that will protect American workers."

Although OSHA claims that it will continue to stress the important role of compliance assistance, funding for programs such as the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) will be cut this year. As a result, OSHA is exploring nongovernmental funding sources for such programs.

Ergonomic Violations.

OSHA now will use the OSH Act's General Duty clause to enforce ergonomics, including through workplace inspections and with the addition of a musculoskeletal disorder column to the OSHA log in the next year.

Ergonomics enforcement through the General Duty clause, however, will not be left to the discretion of individual inspectors. For there to be a General Duty clause ergonomics violation, OSHA would have to demonstrate that there is industry recognition of the hazard and that there is a feasible way to abate the hazard.

In conclusion, it is clear that OSHA is going on the offensive, looking harder than ever for OSH Act violations. Employers are advised to take stock of their OSHA compliance procedures to stay out of OSHA's crosshairs