In Wisconsin last Friday, U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that it has cited a Cambria mill where five workers were killed in a May 31, 2017 grain dust explosion for numerous workplace safety violations in connection with the incident. As a result, the company faces fines totaling $1,837,861.
The explosion and fire killed five workers and seriously injured a dozen others, including a 21-year-old worker who lost both of his legs when they were crushed by a rail car. OSHA noted that the explosion at the Didion Milling Inc. plant likely resulted from the company’s failure to correct the leakage and accumulation of highly combustible grain dust throughout the facility, as well as its failure to control ignition sources and to properly maintain equipment.
In all, OSHA smacked Didion with 14 “willful” citations, with most of them involving hazards related to fire and explosion. The company also has been placed in the agency’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which provides for extra scrutiny for the foreseeable future.
In a statement, Didion Milling, Inc. noted that they had been and would continue to work with OSHA and other agencies and industry experts to determine the cause of the explosion. The company also said, “… (they do) not agree with the severity of the penalties levied against our family-owned business or the conclusions released by OSHA today.” The company has said it will rebuild the corn milling facility, using the latest technology and industry best practices to keep workers safe.
For their part, in their statement, OSHA said, “Didion Milling could have prevented this tragedy if it had addressed hazards that are well-known in this industry. … Instead, their disregard for the law led to an explosion that claimed the lives of workers, and heartbreak for their families and the community.”
At the end of last month, the Government of Ontario introduced Bill 177, otherwise known as the Stronger, Fairer Ontario Act (Budget Measures) 2017. One thing every employer should know is, the omnibus bill will amend dozens of separate statutes that are part of the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act. That is a lot of very important changes. However, the most critical change for an employer will involve the increased potential fines.
For example, the allowable maximum fine for OHS violations is currently $500,000 per offense for corporations and $25,000 for individuals (along with a possible jail sentence of up to 12 months). These maximum fines have not changed for nearly 30 years, but Bill 177 increases them significantly, to $1.5 million for corporations and $100,000 for individuals. If the amendments become law, which most expect will happen, it is expected that the Ontario Ministry of Labour will argue for higher penalties.
Employers should also be aware that Bill 177 also provides Ministry of Labour prosecutors with greater flexibility in the number of alleged violations (or “counts”) they can include when laying charges. However, the bill will change the current law, which allows the Ministry of Labour to initiate charges within one year of the violation, to one year from the date the Ministry becomes aware of the alleged offense. This obviously won’t affect incidents that are reported in a timely manner, but for non-injury related allegations or violations that do not immediately come to the attention of the Ministry of Labour, there will no longer be a shield in place.