Federal review tags South and North Carolina as weak on workplace safety oversight

Our North Carolina workers’ compensation attorneys will be closely monitoring the forthcoming statewide response to a federal review sharply critical of North and South Carolina workplace safety programs.
Of particular concern, at least for workplace safety advocate and executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, Tom O’Conner, is what little is being done to deter employers from “shortchanging” safety. According to O’Conner, current protocols are creating an environment where unsafe conditions exist and employees are reluctant, if not afraid, to speak up, the Charlotte Observer reports.

U.S. Labor Department audits were recently conducted across a number of states that have opted to run their own workplace safety programs in lieu of enlisting federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversight. The audits were conducted in response to concerns on the part of lawmakers and worker advocacy representatives who have questioned the effectiveness and diligence of state-run oversight programs.

Both North and South Carolina faced much criticism in the Labor Department report. Findings include:

~ Both states issued low-dollar penalties when workplace safety violations were found, and both states offer rebates of sorts for employers who promise to make improvements. In North Carolina penalties averaged $512 per violation – with a 10 percent discount if the employer is cooperative. In South Carolina, penalty fees hover below $300 per incident and come with a 60 percent discount if employers offer to make fixes. Follow up to confirm corrections are implemented are rare. In contrast, federal OSHA violation fees average $970 per incident, no discounts.

~ Both states consistently understate or misclassify workplace safety violations and rarely are they deemed to be serious, or “willful” in nature. In 2009, North Carolina issued only one “willful” violation, South Carolina issued just five.

~ Both states were additionally criticized for “failing to property respond” to worker complaints regarding employer management of safety conditions and issues. An internal investigation by the Charlotte Observer staff found that less than one percent of the 800 employees who filed complaints under the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act – which is supposed to prevent employers from punishing workers who file workers compensation claims or work safety complaints – got their jobs back. In seven years, the state had not once gone to court on behalf of a worker who filed a complaint.

In short, state-run workplace safety oversight programs failed to protect whistleblowers, issued understated violations in an effort to mask or minimize more egregious safety issues and hit offenders with ineffective penalties. Both states have 30 days to respond to the allegations and may face additional federal oversight if they fail to adequately address the issues outlined in the federal report.

In the meantime, if you work in North Carolina, are concerned about safety conditions on the job, and uncertain where to turn, OSHA provides this online form as a venue to have your issues reviewed.

The North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers with Lee & Smith know that being injured in a work-related accident comes with physical, emotional and financial consequences. Contacting our offices online or by phone at 1-800-887-1965 to schedule a free consultation can help you better understand your rights. Our service area spans Asheville to Charlotte to Hendersonville to Shelby and all points in between.

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