Informal Settlement of OSHA Citations

Comments on the Legal Basis and Other Selected Issues

Gao ID: HRD-85-11

October 26, 1984

In response to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) authority to enter into informal settlements and reduce or eliminate violations or penalties; (2) OSHA policies governing area directors' discretion to settle cases informally; (3) OSHA legal authority and policy regarding abatement; (4) employee rights to contest citations; (5) the number of violations and amount of penalties settled by informal settlements in fiscal years 1981 through 1983; and (6) how OSHA determines that unsafe working conditions are corrected.

GAO found that the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not specifically authorize informal settlements or define employees' rights to contest informal settlements. OSHA policy requires that employees and their representatives be invited to participate in informal settlement conferences; however, few employees or unions elect to participate in settlement conferences. Of the informal settlements which GAO reviewed, the predominate changes to the original citations involved reductions in proposed penalties. In these cases, the initial proposed penalties were reduced 58 percent. During fiscal year 1983, about 15 percent of the total violations which OSHA cited were settled through informal settlement agreements. In 37 of the 150 cases which GAO reviewed, violations were eliminated or downgraded or required correction dates were extended. Most of the inspectors which GAO interviewed believed that the informal settlement process was an improved way to expedite correction of violations, but five expressed concern about the seemingly automatic 50-percent reduction in penalties. The advantage of the process most cited by inspectors was the reduction of litigation associated with contested cases. OSHA relies primarily on employers' written or verbal assurance that violations have been corrected and makes few on-site followup inspections to verify that claimed corrections have been made. OSHA followup inspections showed that employers had corrected about 86 percent, partially corrected about 4 percent, and failed to correct 10 percent of the violations cited.

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