They are attention-grabbing numbers—one recent OSHA safety inspection of a Dollar Tree store found two violations and the retailer faced a $265,000 fine.
But the same two violations at any other store could well result in a fine of around just $12,000.
Welcome to the fine-escalating world of willful and repeat violations, where not following a standard from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration can quickly lead to six-figure penalties.
Large chain stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General—with over 34,000 stores among them—are especially susceptible to repeat violations. A violation at any of Family Dollar’s approximately 18,360 US stores can lead to a repeat citation and escalating fines if the same hazard is found at any of the outlets.
1. What are ‘repeat’ and ‘willful’ violations?
An employer can be tagged for a repeat violation if the business was cited earlier “for the same or a substantially similar condition or hazard,” according to the manual OSHA inspectors consult to calculate fines.
There are caveats, however. The employer can’t be contesting an earlier violation for the agency to decide whether a new violation is repeat. And OSHA can’t cite employers for repeat violations based on citations issued by the 29 safety programs run by states, such as those in California, Michigan, and South Carolina.
The repeat citation also must have been issued within five years of the original violation.
For a willful violation, the agency must believe that an employer has shown “either an intentional disregard for the requirements” of OSHA rules and laws or a “plain indifference to employee safety and health,” according to OSHA’s inspection manual.
In other words, the employer knew workers were in danger and didn’t do anything to protect them.
A willful determination can be brought against a company of any size. And unlike a repeat violation, it doesn’t require a pattern of similar violations, although repeat incidents help build the justification.
2. Why are chain stores vulnerable?
A storage hazard at an outlet in Lutz, Fla., can be considered a repeat violation of a hazard cited two years before at another store in Grand Junction, Colo.
Businesses that operate as franchises aren’t as likely to be cited because OSHA considers each franchise owner to be a separate employer. So a citation issued to a
Construction companies are also vulnerable to repeat violations. A violation at one of a contractor’s building sites can lead to a repeat violation if the hazard is later found at another project.
3. Why the large fines?
It’s the multiplier factor that drives the large fines.
The ceiling for a repeat or willful violation fine is 10 times higher than for just a serious violation. OSHA can levy repeat and willful fines as high as $145,027 for each violation. The maximum serious violation fine is $14,502.
When calculating the first repeat fine for an employer with 251 or more workers, the penalty can be five times what the fine would have been for a regular serious violation. The $10,000 serious violation becomes a $50,000 repeat violation.
After the first repeat violation, each time an employer is cited for another repeat violation, the fine is multiplied 10 times. That $10,000 serious fine is now $100,000.
Employers with 250 or fewer workers can get a discount—their cap is a multiplier of five.
A willful determination will escalate a fine by 10 times—the $10,000 violation becomes a $100,000 violation. Employers with 250 or fewer workers or that weren’t cited for a serious violation in the past five years may qualify for a reduction.
The high fines don’t correlate with deaths or severe injuries. The median OSHA penalty from a fatality investigation in fiscal year 2021 was $9,753, according to the AFL-CIO’s annual review of OSHA enforcement.
4. Where does OSHA find repeat violations, and how do retailers avoid them?
A common repeat violation is failing to keep storage room exit routes clear and well lit.
In recent cases, first-time alleged offenders, such as a Long Island, N.Y.,
But when OSHA inspectors found the same general hazards in chain stores, the proposed fines were often in the six figures. For example, on July 28, OSHA proposed a $145,027 fine for an alleged exit route violation at a Dollar Tree store in Columbus, Ohio, and on June 27, a $136,741 proposed fine for a Dollar General in Greencastle, Pa.
The surest way to avoid a repeat or willful violation is to follow or exceed OSHA requirements.
OSHA recommends retailers avoid storage area violations by scheduling deliveries for when a store has space for the merchandise and enough staff on hand to get the goods quickly and properly stowed away.
Dollar Tree and OSHA in December 2015 reached a corporate-wide settlement, set to last two years, that specified measures the company would take to improve safety. Since the settlement was signed, OSHA inspectors have found alleged violations at 81 inspections.
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