Results from the only item on the special-election ballot sent out in April have been tallied, and Tucson voters have chosen to approve Prop 101, a raise of a half-cent on the city’s sales tax. The tax will cost the average citizen an estimated $3 per month and is expected to raise more than $250 million in the course of the next five years, 60 percent of which will be spent on updating the Tucson Police and Fire Departments’ fleet of vehicles. The rest is proposed to upgrade and repair local roads. Previously, Tucson’s sales tax rate was one of the nine lowest of Arizona counties.
However, while the tax rate increases, penalties for other services are still very low.
Hazardous Workplace Penalties Under Review
A story published last December in The Arizona Star investigated the way businesses are penalized for workplace violations, including hazardous conditions. Evidence from the story suggests that the system used for penalizing companies for violations may need a review; it is currently under federal scrutiny for some actions.
After a business is cited with a violation, the Arizona Occupational Safety and Health administration (AOSH) assess a penalty. However, another organization, the Industrial Commission of Arizona, a board appointed by the governor, reviews penalties that exceed $2,500; if the business requests a reduction in the penalty, the ICA has the authority to grant it, even before settlement conferences and formal appeals by employers.
The potential for bias is clearly evident in the system itself. If the governor is more concerned about business than workers, and if he appoints likeminded board members, the possibility of the board’s favoring the businesses for a variety of reasons, including protecting businesses from costs to increase safety and reduce hazardous working conditions, is inherent.
Arizona is one of 26 states that have their own Occupational Safety and Health administration. Part of the requirement for the state to have their own administration, though, is that it must be as effective as the federal program. Because AOSH is overseen by the Industrial Commission, which often reduces their penalties, the effectiveness of AOSH becomes questionable.
Evidence Often Finds no Justification for Reduced Penalties
The evidence produced by The Star investigation shows several instances where reduction of penalties by the board shows no clear justification. After the newspaper reviewed the minutes of the organization, it was found that after 139 penalty proposals before the commission, penalties were reduced by $186,000.
And the average cost of a serious penalty in Arizona in 2015 was only $960 – well below the national average of $1,598. Penalties for workplace incidents involving death in Arizona averaged $2,759, compared to a national average of $9,271. Because of these results, federal OSHA monitoring, which began last July after questions from The Star, appears to be totally justified.
Reporting Shows Review and Accountability Needed
Because of the reporting of The Star, this issue has received much more attention than previously, and hopefully sweeping changes may occur in the way businesses operate in relation to safety. Unfortunately, what many business leaders overlook is that businesses could not operate without their employees, and taking steps to ensure their safety is in their best interest. But the odds are stacked against the employees in Arizona. With penalties well below the national average, the cost of simply paying the penalty is often less than upgrading to a safer working environment, thus removing the incentive for some businesses to make changes. And, because of fear of retribution, employees often avoid reporting their bosses, lest they end up looking for another job, meaning many penalties go unreported.
A Safe Workplace is a Right
American workers have fought for more than a century to get fair rights in the workplace and decrease injuries – in many ways conditions have drastically improved. However, there is still immense room for improvement. Hopefully, stories like this one from The Star and federal reviews will make changes come sooner than later.