By MALLORY GRUBEN
Sergio Sandoval needed more than a year to recover after he fell from a pile of Christmas trees—and trapped his right hand in the exposed gear of a conveyor belt at work. He returned to work on the Salem-area farm in January, but his hand still doesn’t work the same as before the accident. He’s working fewer hours, and his take home pay has dropped 25%.
“It’s been an economic difficulty after what happened to me,” Sandoval told the Labor Press using an interpreter.
For the safety violations that caused the accident, his employer Busco Farm was fined $1,050. That’s about seven days pay for one employee—a nominal fee for a boss with dozens of workers.
“It felt terrible to see such a small fine,” Sandoval said. “The employer gets to return to their normal life right away, and the worker does not.”
That’s why Sandoval submitted written testimony in favor of a bill in the Oregon Legislature that would increase fines for workplace safety violations. Senate Bill 592 would motivate employers to take safety more seriously, he said, so workers like him avoid similar accidents.
It’s the Oregon AFL-CIO’s top legislative priority this year.
“Because this bill aligns Oregon OSHA penalties to federal OSHA levels for workplace safety violations, it creates a real deterrent against bad-acting employers who cut corners on keeping employees safe at work,” said Oregon AFL-CIO President Graham Trainor in an emailed statement.
Right now, Oregon OSHA’s average fines are the lowest in the nation — lower than federal OSHA’s average, and the lowest of any of the 22 states that have federal approval to do their own worker safety enforcement. That’s according to a 2022 report by the national AFL-CIO. Oregon OSHA’s fines are lower than states with some of the worst workers rights in the country, like South Carolina and Kentucky.
“We fundamentally believe that penalties are a deterrent for bad behavior, and right now … there are just repeat violators, there are fatalities that are resulting in really low penalties,” said Catie Theisen, political director for Oregon AFL-CIO. “What that says to workers—on the value of work and on their lives—needs to change.”
If approved, SB 592 would immediately increase Oregon OSHA’s minimum fine from $50 to $1,116, and raise the maximum fine for a serious violation to $15,625. It would also add a $20,000 minimum and $50,000 maximum fine for a work-related death, something not in current state law. According to the AFL-CIO report, Oregon’s average penalty for a work-related death is $1,077 — less than a tenth the national average of $11,626.
Beyond fines, the bill requires comprehensive inspections of a workplace after a work-related fatality caused by a safety violation, or three serious violations in one year. Currently, Oregon OSHA inspects only the specific equipment, department and activity that was involved after an injury or death at work.
“This bill would help employers understand that it will cost them to put worker safety at risk, and that OSHA will continue to monitor them if they end up being in that category of employer who has serious and repeated violations,” said Kate Suisman, an attorney at the nonprofit Northwest Workers’ Justice Project. The group represents low-wage workers when they’re wronged by employers.
At least 10 unions have submitted testimony supporting SB 592. And business groups that originally opposed the bill switched their opinions to neutral after working with Oregon AFL-CIO to amend the measure.
Oregon Business and Industry, the premier statewide business association, had asked for an amendment to tie any post-fatality inspections to incidents that involved a willful violation, not just an accident. They were joined in that request by the Oregon-Columbia chapter of Associated General Contractors, which calls itself the voice of the commercial construction industry in Oregon.
The latest federal review of Oregon OSHA determined the agency issued significantly lower penalties than the national average. In the 12 months that were reviewed, the typical fine for a serious safety violation was $620, compared to $3,100 nationally, according to the report.
Oregon OSHA spokesperson Mark Peterson said the agency has relied on more modest penalties but more frequent inspections than what Federal OSHA uses. He said Oregon OSHA also is the only state OSHA program that requires employers to fix a serious safety violation even if the workplace contests the citation.
“Our penalties are not based on outcomes or results,” Peterson told the Labor Press via email. “They are part of a program rooted in prevention. Our penalties are based on the risks represented by the underlying violation.”
Suisman, the labor attorney representing low-wage workers, said there shouldn’t be a tradeoff between the number of site visits and the total fines. Instead, Oregon OSHA should use all the tools it has to keep workplaces safe.
Higher fines could motivate change, and comprehensive inspections after accidents could prevent additional injuries or deaths at workplaces that repeatedly violate safety rules, she said.
Suisman hears stories of workers who reported a safety concern but were told to go back to work. She pointed to her client Maria Vargas as one example. Vargas needed a special surgery to reattach her ring finger after she cut it with a saw she was not properly trained to operate. Vargas had told her boss she felt uncomfortable, but was told to do the work anyway. After the accident, Oregon OSHA determined that the saw lacked the proper safety guards, and that Vargas lacked appropriate training. The fine: $780. That’s after Vargas’ employer had six serious OSHA violations in 2019, at least four citing a lack of proper training—a year and a half before her accident.
“At present, it just seems pretty clear that if you are an employer, even if you get caught by OSHA, you’re going to pay something that to you is just the cost of doing business,” Suisman said.
As amended, SB 592 passed the Senate Labor and Business Committee 4-1. The only no vote was from State Senator Daniel Bonham (R-The Dalles). It next goes to the Senate floor.