OSHA Top 10 Violations – Digging Beneath The Numbers

Every year OSHA releases its top 10 list of violations.  It is done with a lot of build up at the National Safety Council’s annual conference, kind of like the Oscars, except no one wants to win this competition.   What you notice is that the top violations don’t change much, but maybe we need to dig deeper into the numbers to catch the real trends going on in safety.

Here is the list for 2017:

  1. Fall Protection; General Requirements (1926.501)
  2. Hazard Communication (1910.1200)
  3. Scaffolding (1926.451)
  4. Respiratory Protection (1910.134)
  5. Lockout/Tagout (1910.147)
  6. Ladders (1926.1053)
  7. Powered Industrial Trucks (1910.178)
  8. Machine Guarding (1910.212)
  9. Fall Protection – Training Requirements (1926.503)
  10. Electrical – Wiring Methods (1910.305)

There is only one change from 2016 – Fall protection training, which had not made the top 10 moved up to number 9 on the hit list and that caused the general electrical standards to fall below the top 10.  Why?  Because there were changes in the fall protection regulations that required training updates.  The Council’s magazine, Safety & Health has a really good overview of the list.

Is the list important?  Yes and no.   Yes, it is always important to know what the big picture is on safety. It is good to track the top violations because that tells you what OSHA is focused on and gives you some idea of what kinds of hazards you should check in your own company.  Hint:  If you don’t know what training is required for fall protection, you need to review your program!

But on the other hand, No, it doesn’t tell you much because it really doesn’t change that much from year to year.  You should already know that most of the items on the list are safety concerns, but obsessing over the problems in other industries should not replace looking at the hazards your company faces.  Butchers at grocery stores face amputation hazards.  Shipyards need effective confined space programs.  Neither of those made the list. Benchmarking to the top 10 list doesn’t make your company safe, right?

Maybe we need to look at the list in a different way.  How about looking at the number of violations in addition to the types of violations?  If we compare the last two years, we see that the total violations from the top 10 list fell by 9% between 2016 and 2017.  If we go back another year, we find that the total number of violations in the top 10 list fell by 15% from 2015 to 2017.   That’s a big drop!  What happened?  Did American industry get 15% safer or did OSHA’s enforcement effectiveness drop by 15%?  Or is it just a case of the other violations that didn’t make the top 10 list making up the difference?

The other significant comparison is in the Top 10 companies receiving fines.  This list looks at the ten largest fines and provides some details. It shows two trends going on in OSHA enforcement.  The first appears to be a reduction in the gross total of fines.  If you add up the total dollars in the top 10, it looks like the total paid by top offenders fell by nearly 8% from 2016 to 2017.

However, the numbers also reflect the dramatic increase in the dollar amounts of penalties in 2016, when Congress mandated a huge increase in the maximum penalties for each violation.   Back in 2015, before the increase, the total paid by top offenders was more than $8-million.  In other words, even though the total number of violations in the top 10 fell from 2015 to 2017, the change in penalty amount still went up.

This number of total fines paid out by the top violators is what safety directors need to explain to the top executives in their company.  There are three takeaways from these numbers:

  1. Total numbers of citations are dropping and the one year amount of total dollars has fallen.  This may have a number of causes.
  2. OSHA is still writing some big fines.  The biggest penalty was $2.6 million for an incident which resulted in a fatality.  In 2016, the highest penalty was $3.42.  Clearly, OSHA can still throw the book at you if investigators believe it is warranted.
  3. It may not be the original violation that results in the highest expense.  It is the related problems that put the violations in the “egregious willful,  willful, or repeat” categories.   If OSHA finds,  lack of training or bad recordkeeping, a history of past violations, or evidence that the company lied and covered up incidents, it will aggressively enforce the law.

Is your company looking at the right metrics on safety?  A gap analysis or an update to safety manuals is always valuable.   Do your executives understand what the OSHA numbers mean and how to stay off the top 10 list?

We can help!   Lifeline Strategies specializes in helping companies make sure their programs are compliant and make the company safer.  We can also assist you in aligning your safety culture from the C-Level to the crews on the ground.  Contact us at info@lifelinestrategies.com.


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