Washington business owners are reporting that it is difficult to stay informed when receiving workplace safety inspection penalties given out by the Department of Labor and Industry (L&I)’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH). In response, L&I staff are making tweaks to better explain an employers’ options for requesting additional information or appealing a citation.
Specifically, members of the business community have expressed dissatisfaction with how the department notifies employers regarding the DOSH penalty process.
Jan Gee, President and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association (WFIA), told Lens her members were unsure of how to file for additional information that would provide detailed reasoning and calculations made for DOSH penalties.
“There wasn’t a single person in our four meetings around the state that even knew what it meant to make a public records request or that the department had (more specific) documents they didn’t provide with the penalty,” Gee said. “Nobody knew. They haven’t had any experience with it because they didn’t know they could do it.”
Elaine Fischer, Spokesperson for L&I’s Public Affairs office, told Lens that during a typical inspection, department staff will visit a workplace to interview the employer and workers during its inspection to investigate serious injuries. Investigators will also take pictures and measurements as needed.
Once the inspection is complete and a supervisor has reviewed the report, the department will schedule a “closing conference” with the employer to go over the findings. L&I staff will explain what the violations were and allow the employer to present additional information they want to be taken into consideration.
“During that closing conference, they also explain how the penalties will be calculated, what they are based on and how to appeal if they disagree with the findings, as well as how to get a copy of the inspection file from our public records office,” said Fischer.
Once L&I processes the report, the employer will receive a citation in the mail with a cover letter explaining their appeal rights and a checklist showing what the business owner needs to do or how to pay the fine. The business owner then has 15 business days to appeal as needed.
Paul Guppy, Vice President of Research for the Washington Policy Center (WPC), says more transparency would certainly help businesses trying to navigate the DOSH penalty process.
“Clarification is important because the agency controls all the information…the agency should build in more time for the business owner to really find out what is going on, including how to access public records.”
“Workplace safety is important and so is enforcement,” added Guppy. “I think most employers want to comply… L&I and employers are working to the same goal, but the problem arises when there’s a disagreement about what the facts are, and the business owner should have as equal access to the facts as L&I does.”
In early December, Gee met with L&I Director Joel Sacks to request a clearer process for employers.
“What we are saying to the department is that you are not providing enough information, and employers are getting these notices of penalties and they have two weeks to file an appeal…it doesn’t make it clear at all to the employer, and it doesn’t make it simple.”
Businesses get a notice of the total penalty, but it doesn’t include the formula that L&I staff used when calculating the DOSH penalty, Gee said.
The department should send out the work sheet that details the calculations for the penalty, she added, and tell businesses they have additional documents and photographs on file so that employers can request the additional information.
“We want employers to know there is an enforcement file on them which gives them important information to determine if they want to appeal and if there is a likeliness to get their penalty excused or reduced,” she said.
DOSH penalty fines are substantial for businesses, Gee added. An employer could receive between a $5,000 and $10,000 penalty per inspection.
“It’s not a small issue,” she said. “With those increased penalties comes an increased responsibility by the department for disclosure.”
Since meeting with Gee, the department has planned several changes to better inform employers, which include:
- Updating the citation checklist to include how to request inspection documents from Public Records;
- Updating the citation cover letter to include Public Records Information and remove bureaucratic jargon; and,
- Improving the Public Records website by adding an option to request inspection summaries or inspection files.
Currently, the cover letter rework has already been implemented.
Fischer added that the department is also working to improve turnaround time on inspection reports. Often, an employer may want that report instead of the more time-intensive and expansive inspection file.
“We definitely saw that there was room for improvement in how we are communicating what to do,” said Fischer. “We want to make it easier for employers to understand all they need to prepare their appeal and we’ll elaborate more of that on the public records website.”
The department is hoping to complete its revamp by the end of the year.