Chicago workers’ compensation attorneys are well aware that unsafe working conditions are a leading cause of work related injuries and the workers’ compensation claims that result when employers negligently place employees health and safety at risk. When employers repeatedly ignore safety warnings and code violations, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has the power to place offending businesses within the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP.)
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The purpose of the SVEP is to reduce the level of risk employees are exposed to on the job by holding accountable employers who habitually ignore safety regulations. Enforcement of these regulations within the program reduces the possibility that employees will suffer serious physical injury, long-term disability, or death simply because an employer chooses to ignore the law.
For an employer to be placed within the SVEP, it must meet one of the following criteria:
- Show willful, repeated, or deliberate failure to abate any serious violation that has resulted in the death or hospitalization of three or more employees.
- Failure to abate serious violations of known high-emphasis hazards that can result in falls or amputations.
- Be charged with three or more deliberate, high-gravity violations that could result in the release of hazardous chemicals outlined within the Process Safety Management Standard.
- All egregious, single-instance violations OSHA determines warrant inclusion within the SVEP program.
Nationally, there are over 400 employers on the SVEP list. These employers have exposed employees to extreme levels of risk in the performance of their duties. Most recently in Illinois, Kehrer Brothers on the list for exposing at least eight of their employees to asbestos and failing to provide them with the appropriate safety gear. The company was removing materials they knew contained asbestos from the Okawville school. The company failed to adequately inform employees of this, failed to ensure that workers followed established procedures, and failed to provide and monitor the use of protective safety equipment including hard hats, eye protection, and protective clothing.
Employees who raised concerns were threatened with termination when they indicated they were going to file a formal complaint with OSHA investigators. Further, many were foreign laborers working in the United States under the H-2B visa program. Kehrer used this temporary employment status as leverage hoping to deter the workers from filing a complaint. Both actions were flagrant violations of federal law designed to protect employees from unsafe working conditions and employer retaliation. In the ensuing investigation, Kehrer Brothers was cited for 16 egregious, 9 willful, and 6 serious violations of workplace safety standards.
This was not the first time Kehrer Brothers had deliberately failed to protect its employees from known risks; the company has been investigated for severe safety violations 11 times over the past 8 years. They are a prime example of the reasons the SVEP exists and is necessary for the protection of workers who may find themselves under the employ of companies who repeatedly place profits and expediency before workers’ health and safety.
Once the final disposition of an investigation and any contest the business has filed are concluded and it is determined a company is at fault, the offending business is placed within the SVEP. This results in considerably increased scrutiny from OSHA lasting over a 3-year probationary period that is intended to deter repeat violations and to improve overall safety conditions. During this probationary period, a company may not be found to be in violation of any serious safety standards. At the end of the probationary period, companies may be removed from the program only if they have abated all SVEP related hazards, paid all penalties in full, and show evidence that they are abiding by all settlement provisions.
During the probationary period, companies on the SVEP list are required to do the following:
- Hire a qualified safety and health consultant to design and implement a comprehensive safety program relevant to the employer’s industry.
- Maintain a work-related injury and illness log to be submitted quarterly to OSHA.
- Report any serious illness or injury that requires medical attention. Further, an employer will be required to consent to inspection at OSHA’s request.
- Consent to entry of court enforcement orders.
Over the past year, OSHA has conducted over 36,000 federal inspections and 47,000 state plan inspections. They are stepping up enforcement of safety regulations in an effort to reduce the increasing number of work-related injuries and fatalities. Last year, nearly 4,700 workers were killed in work-related accidents; and more than 3,000,000 non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported. Many of these resulted from an employers flagrant violations of established safety standards designed to protect workers from falls, electrocution, and exposure to hazardous materials which are the leading causes of work-related injuries and death. Clearly, while OSHA’s efforts over the past forty years have improved workplace safety and reduced workplace fatalities, the statistics show that there is still plenty of work to do.