The 8 Biggest OSHA Stories of 2013

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: January 14th, 2014
Topics: GHS Transition | OSHA Inspections |


May you live in interesting times.”

This ancient Chinese curse is one safety professionals can readily relate to. After all, the times don’t get interesting unless injuries, incidents, unforeseen changes and other bad things happen. If you run your organization’s health and safety program, you want the times to be as boring as possible. So I hope 2013 wasn’t an interesting year for you and your organization. Here’s a look at the 8 most interesting OSHA things that happened last year.

1. GHS Training Deadline Takes Effect

The first stage of GHS phase-in occurred on December 1, when the deadline to provide GHS safety information and training to exposed workers took effect.

What to Expect in 2014: You’ll need to continue to provide GHS/Hazcom training to workers before initial exposure and new and re-training before exposure to new chemical hazards. Meanwhile, although no new GHS deadlines are scheduled, GHS phase-in will continue in 2014. Deadlines:

  • June 1, 2015: Chemical manufacturers, importers and distributors must reclassify and prepare GHS-compliant SDSs for their products;
  • December 1, 2016: Final compliance deadline: Employers must update their Hazcom program to comply with GHS.

2. OSHA Cuts Crystalline Silica Exposure Limits in Half

The most significant new law proposed by OSHA in 2013 was the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on crystalline silica, especially the proposal to reduce:

  • The maximum amount of exposure—Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)—for crystalline silica from 100 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3); and
  • The limit at which additional steps are required to protect workers—Action Limit—from 50 μg/m3 to 25 μg/m3

What to Expect in 2014: OSHA will hold hearings on the NPRM in March. The next step will be to publish the Final Rule, which would take effect 90 days after it’s published in the Federal Register. Theoretically, this could happen at the end of the year; based on OSHA’s past performance in rulemaking, 2015 is a much more realistic expectation.

3. OSHA Shuts Down

2013 will be remembered as the year the federal government shut down. The 3-week shutdown in October left OSHA with a skeleton staff of 230—90% of its normal contingent—including 2 inspectors at each of its 92 area offices. Predictably, OSHA enforcement activity fell off dramatically in October, as illustrated by the following chart:

Federal OSHA Fines in 2013





Dec. 2013




Nov. 2013




Oct. 2013




Sept. 2013




Aug. 2013




July 2013




June 2013




May 2013




Apr. 2013




Mar. 2013




Feb. 2013




Jan. 2013








What to Expect in 2014: The government shutdown was a political hiccup that happens about every other decade (the last one occurred in 1996). Dysfunctional as the leadership in Washington may be, a repeat performance in 2014 is highly unlikely.

4. OSHA Tells Wal-Mart How to Run Its Safety Program

Wal-Mart has become OSHA’s favorite target (no pun intended). Although the Black Friday crowd control battle continues, in August, OSHA and Wal-Mart reached a settlement on a case that began in August 2011 when OSHA found blocked fire exits and LOTO and machine guarding violations at a Wal-Mart superstore in Rochester, NY. ‘Bad but fairly routine stuff. But since this was Wal-Mart, OSHA was able to tie the violations to those at stores in 8 other states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, North Dakota and Oklahoma. Result:   OSHA treated the violations as repeat offenses carrying a maximum fine of $70,000 a pop. Wal-Mart appealed. On August 7, 2013, OSHA and Wal-Mart announced that they had agreed to settle the case.

What to Expect in 2014: The real story of the settlement isn’t the $190,000 in fines Wal-Mart agreed to pay. The amount is roughly half as much as OSHA had proposed; and repeat citations against national employers for violations at locations in different states is old news. The big news about the Wal-Mart settlement is how OSHA dictated specific safety measures it wanted Wal-Mart to take to abate the violations. Clearly, OSHA is now using the repeat violation hammer not just to increase fines but to tell national companies how to run their safety programs. Expect the trend to continue in the coming year.

5. OSHA Modernizes Safety Signs

On September 11, 2013, a new rule took effect affecting the look of safety signs and labels required by various OSHA standards. The design, color and wording of signs and labels must still meet ANSI standards (ANSI Z535). But the1967 version of the ANSI standard on which current OSHA sign requirements is dated and delivers information in a way that’s hard for people with language and reading challenges to digest. The new rule incorporates the 2006 version of the ANSI standard which because of its visual orientation is generally acknowledged to be better suited to the modern workforce.

What to Expect in 2014: OSHA required safety signs and labels must now meet either the 1967 or 2006 ANSI Z535. Bottom Line: You can keep using the old-fashioned signs and labels and don’t have to replace them with 2006-compliant versions.

6. Million-Dollar OSHA Fines

The single highest OSHA fine in 2012 was $702,300. But in 2013, OSHA handed out not one but two million dollar fines:

  • $1,330,000 against a South Dakota radiator manufacturer for machine guarding violations that led to a worker’s being crushed to death (including $450,000 to the widow); and
  • $1,138,500 against an Ohio steel plant for a staggering 15 willful violations, including fall protection and confined spaces.

(Click here to see the Top 12 OSHA fines of 2013.)

What to Expect in 2014: Although the October shutdown depressed total fines, average fines were up in 2013 and will probably continue to increase in 2014. One of the biggest reasons for this is OSHA’s greater willingness to issue “willful” citations, especially against employers who don’t abate previously cited violations or otherwise have a track record of OSHA problems.

7. OSHA Proposes Changes to Chemical Safety Rules

On April 17, 2013, a chemical explosion at the West Fertilizer Company storage plant killed 15 and damaged over 150 buildings. The tragedy became a national embarrassment when it was revealed that despite the hazardous nature of its operations, OSHA hadn’t inspected the plant since 1985! In August, President Obama issued Executive Order 13650 (EO 13650) requiring OSHA and the other federal agencies that regulate chemical safety to get together and coordinate their rules and enforcement. On December 9, OSHA responded by publishing more than a dozen proposed changes to the Process Safety Management and other chemical safety standards.

What to Expect in 2014: In January, OSHA and the other agencies affected by EO 13650 will be conducting “listening sessions” on chemical safety law changes. Eventually, OSHA will issue an NPRM formally proposing the changes and a final rule based on comments to the NPRM. Of course, new OSHA rulemaking moves at a snail-like pace. But because it’s part of presidential politics, the chemical safety changes generated by EO 13650 might actually come to fruition in 2014 or, more likely, 2015.

8. Congress Tells OSHA to Pick Up the Pace on Combustible Dusts

Speaking of new OSHA rules created after plant explosions, OSHA came under fire for lack of progress on the combustible dusts standard it began working on in 2008 after the deadly sugar dust explosion at the Georgia Imperial Sugar factory. Five years and 50 combustible dust explosions later, we’re still waiting for OSHA to issue a final rule. So in March 2013, democrats in the House of Representatives issued a bill called the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act (HR 691) that would require OSHA to issue a final standard on combustible dusts within a year.

What to Expect in 2014: While it might make for good politics, HR 691 is unlikely to pass. But its proposal might just have the desirable effect of pressuring OSHA to get on with the work. So while the prospects are probably less than 50/50, it wouldn’t be altogether shocking if OSHA did propose a final rule on combustible dusts some time in 2014.