Workplace safety programs in North and South Carolina downplay serious safety problems and levy weak fines, according to an audit released by the U.S. Labor Department.
The audit showed that both states impose weak penalties and have mishandled cases involving workers who had complained about their employer, the Charlotte Observer reported.
Jordan Barab of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says South Carolina has the nation’s lowest average penalties for workplace safety violations. According to the report, both states order weak penalties when violations are found — an average of about $281 per serious violation in South Carolina, and $512 in North Carolina. The federal OSHA’s average penalty is $970.
“We’re very concerned that with the low penalty number, they’re not presenting a credible deterrent to employers around the state who cut corners on workplace safety,” Barab said.
North Carolina shaves 10 percent off fines for “cooperation,” according to the report. South Carolina cuts fines by 60 percent in exchange for the employer’s promise it will improve safe working conditions, but auditors found the state rarely checked to see if problems were fixed.
Compliance officers in both states understate the severity of problems by misclassifying violations and rarely label problems as “willful,” the most serious degree, which carries higher fines. North Carolina issued only one willful violation in 2009, auditors said, and South Carolina had five.
The federal government took both states to task for failing to properly handle cases involving workers who had complained about their employer. It criticized North Carolina for doing only phone interviews, for example.
In written statements, both states praised their low injury and illness rates and said they work hard to protect employees.
“Evaluations during the past eight years indicate that we have exceeded expectations and have an effective state program. Nothing has changed in the program, whether staffing levels or enforcement procedures, since the last evaluation in 2009,” Knight said.
North Carolina OSHA officials say they “will make adjustments that are in the best interest of North Carolina.”
The states must respond to the audit this month. If they don’t adequately address the concerns, federal OSHA can increase oversight or start proceedings to take over a state program.
“South Carolina has more problems than most of the states,” Barab said. “We’ll focus very carefully on their corrective action plan and their progress on addressing the problems.”