What Lies Ahead for OSHA in 2016: Tougher Enforcement, a Silica Rule, and More!

Next year is already poised to be an eventful one for those of us the in EHS space. Though much of what 2016 holds is still very much up in the air, there’s exciting evidence that OSHA, in particular, may be posed to make big news in several areas. OSHA is looking to be tougher in its punishment of violators, especially those who attempt to intentionally mislead OSHA, or to cover up existing evidence of their violation. OSHA also wants to emphasize that particular individuals — not just corporate entities — can find themselves liable and subject to punishment.

At the top of this list of evidence is a new agreement between the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) which makes clear that they will begin prioritizing pursuing criminal charges against employers who willfully lie or mislead inspectors about matters related to employee safety in 2016.

According to the new agreement, prosecutors will be encouraged to pursue the other serious offenses that often accompany or occur at the same time as an OSHA violation. They will particularly emphasize lying to investigators, witness tampering, conspiracy, and environmental and endangerment crimes. These crimes can carry sentences of up to 20 years in prison. The Environment and Natural Resources Division is training inspectors to recognize and document these prosecutable offenses, and will provide a designated Criminal Coordinator from the DOL to work with local district attorneys on prosecuting these crimes.

OSHA has already begun to move forward with “test cases” for this kind of enforcement. In early December, a roofing contractor in Philadelphia pled guilty after an employee died in a fall while repairing a church roof, and the contractor repeatedly lied to investigators about it. He has yet to be sentenced, but faces up to 25 years in prison. According to the OSHA press release on the case, the company also faces civil penalties for willful and serious violation.

There’s also evidence that in 2016, OSHA will remain about the same size, but will come to a new silica rule faster than expected. The U.S. Congress released a new appropriations bill giving OSHA a budget comparable to the amount allocated in the previous two fiscal years. However, it also eliminates other legislation seeking to lengthen the rulemaking process on a new silica standard, which OSHA has said it hoped to reach in early 2016.

Back in October, it was also reported that OSHA was moving to give its inspectors greater latitude to focus on more complex inspections by using a goal system that would reward inspectors for in-depth inspections as much as for overall quantity of inspections. In 2016, you can expect OSHA to continue to move toward this “quality instead of quantity” inspection model. This means inspectors will feel free to spend more time at larger companies, and not move to another inspection site simply for the purpose of inspecting a certain number of companies by the end of the year.

Obviously, 2016 still holds many unknowns in store for EHS professionals. However, these upcoming changes from OSHA may give us a good clue about the tone of the coming year!