By Keith Wrightson
The Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP) was created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 2010 with a promise of getting tough on employers who have not honored their employee’s safety and health and OSHA’s direction.
By all indications the SVEP is doing just that.
As of this June, OSHA reported that 332 of the nation’s employers have found their way onto OSHA’s SVEP list. SVEP concentrates on inspecting employers that have demonstrated indifference to their Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) obligations by willful, repeated, or failure-to-abate workplace violations. Employers that have been identified as severe violators can expect heightened inspection rates and increased fines when additional occupational safety and health violations occur.
Some of the nation’s largest corporations, such as Verizon, Tyson Foods, Wegman’s and Cooper Tire & Rubber, all have the dishonor of being a members of this exclusive club. On March 19, Verizon became a member of SVEP after a worker came into contact with high-voltage electrical wires in Brooklyn, New York. OSHA says that this fatality was preventable.
During OSHA’s investigation (#315915249), the agency cited Verizon with repeat offenses, such as failure to provide personal protective equipment like rubber gloves for workers exposed to high voltage. Verizon was also not providing employees with training or safe practices for working around high voltage power lines. In addition, Verizon was not keeping accurate occupational safety and health records, and it appears that Verizon was cooking the books by reporting a fatality as an injury on OSHA Form 300.
Consistent violators of the OSH Act belong in a program such as the SVEP, as their own fraudulent actions have won them this special recognition. Workers in the United States should not have to tolerate such inappropriate activity from their employers, and the SVEP shines light on industries’ bad actors.
It is also important to point out the external effect SVEP will have on employers when they learn the details of the program. Increased fines and targeted inspections could scare industry straight into upholding its obligations under the OSH Act. We hope they are paying attention.
Unfortunately, OSHA is now offering habitual offenders of the OSH Act a pathway out of the SVEP. According to OSHA, an employer may be considered for removal from the program by an OSHA Regional Administrator after:
- A period of three years from the date of the final disposition of the SVEP inspection citation items including: failure to contest, settlement agreement, Review Commission final order, or court of appeals decision.
- All affirmed violations have been abated, all final penalties have been paid, and the employer has abided by and completed all settlement provisions, and has not received any additional serious citations related to the hazards identified in the SVEP inspection at the initial establishment or at any related establishments.
The SVEP program has been a step in the right direction, and will hold habitual violators like Verizon accountable to the OSH Act, at least for three years. Three years on the SVEP list, however, is not enough, even with the programs increased fines and oversight. Employers should have to recommit themselves to training employees best practices and demonstrate comprehensive plans of action to mitigate potential hazards at the very least. A bold step for OSHA would be to pursue SVEP participants in criminal court.
Changing employers’ attitudes regarding occupational safety and health has been a constant battle in the United States. OSHA has been engaged in this fight for more than 40 years. One would hope that employers someday will realize that workers are more productive under safe working conditions, and programs like SVEP will not be necessary. But for now, OSHA should keep bad actors on the list.
Keith Wrightson is the Worker Safety and Health Advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.