Over a third of WA’s job safety fines are reduced after appeals

One company negotiated a $1.3M reduction with the state’s safety agency after a worker’s hand was crushed, following multiple other violations.

A variety of colors reflect in a welder's mask as he works.

A welder works in a Seattle warehouse. More than a third of the health and safety penalties that the state’s Department of Labor & Industries issued on violations between 2017 and 2021 were later reduced during appeal, voiding roughly $15 million in safety fines. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

After a worker’s hand was crushed in 2019 – the 10th serious injury in six years at Green Willow Trucking – Washington state safety regulators slapped the dairy and bottling distribution company with $1.8 million in fines and 22 willful citations. 

A Department of Labor & Industries news release touted the penalties as the second largest in state history at the time. That noteworthy amount later dwindled as the Clark County company, which operates jointly with Andersen Dairy, negotiated a 75% reduction of the fines during the appeals process. 

Green Willow Trucking isn’t alone in receiving a reduction. A Crosscut analysis found that more than a third of health and safety penalties are later lowered.

“The goal of compliance isn’t to collect fines, it’s to keep workers safe on the job,” L&I spokesperson Matt Ross wrote in an email. 

Washington has the lowest fatality rates in the nation in several categories the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks, including manufacturing; transportation and utilities; and agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, Ross added.

That same report found that in 2022, Washington had the ninth lowest overall worker fatality rate among the 50 states.

This story is part of Crosscut’s WA Workplace Watch, an investigative project covering worker safety and labor in Washington state.

Green Willow Trucking, which has a history of safety violations and worker injuries – including amputations, broken bones and crushing injuries – received the largest reductions to their safety fines in both 2019 and the previous year, according to federal workplace safety data. In 2018, L&I dropped Green Willow Trucking’s $280,000 in penalties by 80%

Green Willow Trucking and Andersen Dairy couldn’t be reached for comment after multiple emails and messages were left for business representatives. 

Monetary fines serve as the primary enforcement measure that L&I, the agency tasked with ensuring the safety of most workers in the state, levies against companies violating health and safety laws. Penalties do not always act as a deterrent, as Green Willow Trucking’s case and a recent Crosscut investigation shows.

A Crosscut analysis found that about 34% of fines issued from safety and health inspections conducted between 2017 and 2021 were reduced during an appeals process, voiding more than $15 million in safety fines, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For some companies, that resulted in a reduction of tens of thousands of dollars.

In that five-year span, officials and L&I hearings officers lowered nearly one in six fines by 50% or more. Fines for serious or general violations were lowered on average by 14% and 55%, respectively.

Philip Lindquist, a former political director for International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5, says it’s unfathomable that companies with a history of injuries and fatalities can keep operating. He wants to see tougher penalties, especially when a worker is hurt or killed. 

“When you’re talking about injury and death, they’re not making an honest mistake,” Lindquist said. “They’re either ignoring safety protocols or they’re uninformed, which as a business owner – especially in construction – has high hazards. That’s their responsibility to know those rules.”

Companies can seek to reduce fines by appealing, either through what’s known as an informal conference with L&I or by taking their case to the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals, a state agency independent from L&I. 

At the BIIA, appeals first go before a mediation judge, and if L&I and the company cannot come to an agreement, the case then goes in front of a hearings judge. BIIA spokesperson Jay Raish said most appeals reach agreement in the meditation stage. 

L&I’s Ross explained the agency may reduce fines for a range of reasons, such as “the strength of our case, our ability to implement improvements for worker safety, and requirements that the company take steps to improve workplace safety that go beyond what can be required by rule.” 

According to the appeals manual, L&I officers may also adjust penalty amounts if a violation is modified or removed, or offer a discretionary 25% reduction for financial-hardship reasons to employers who have an otherwise clean safety record and agree not to appeal further.

“Sometimes we’ll lower the penalty because somebody’s doing these extra steps and investing money and stuff that we couldn’t require them to otherwise,” said Craig Blackwood, the head of L&I’s division of occupational safety and health.

But in general, the guidance given to hearing officers, Blackwood said, is that if penalties and citations were deemed appropriate and calculated correctly, fines should not be adjusted. 

Green Willow Trucking received the $1.3 million reduction to its fines in 2019 through the BIIA mediation process, according to a settlement agreement between the company and L&I

An L&I investigation, triggered by the 2019 injury, found that the company had not ensured that workers used a lockout system that prevents a machine from being turned on while being serviced or cleaned, which resulted in crush injury to a worker’s hand. The company also failed to provide training in such procedures to employees. 

“It was a reduction in exchange for an affirmation of all the violations as willful, which helps enforce the abatement and sets the foundation for future inspections if problems are not corrected,” Ross wrote.

Later that same year, 2019, L&I issued six more citations over two inspections to Green Willow Trucking, adding $65,800 to its fines. These were also lowered. 

No additional citations have been issued to the company since then, according to OSHA data.

Records show the 2019 lockout-system violation came after multiple previous similar violations. In 2018, according to L&I documents, a worker had his thumb severed while cleaning out a jam in a machine he thought was off. L&I also cited the company in 2014 and 2015 for not using a lockout system, according to court documents. 

L&I cut the 2018 fines, Ross said, after the company agreed to take steps beyond what is required by law, including hiring a third safety manager to cover the overnight shift, providing training to workers servicing machines and submitting quarterly reports to the agency for three years.

Find tools and resources in Crosscut’s Check Your Work guide to search workplace safety records and complaints for businesses in your community.

L&I issues fines following inspections, which occur after a workplace fatality or injury, or can be spurred by a complaint from a worker or the public. L&I also conducts programmed inspections, planned visits to employers in industries with high injury rates like construction, or companies with a history of violations. 

When calculating base penalties, L&I takes into account whether a fatality or injury occurred, or the likelihood one could have occurred given the company’s workplace conditions and practices. 

From there, according to an L&I compliance manual, the agency adjusts the amount based on the company’s size and safety history. Businesses with 250 employees or fewer receive a deduction; the smaller the company, the larger the decrease. Penalties increase by 10% for companies with multiple serious violations in the past three years, according to a compliance manual. Fines increase for companies that repeatedly violate the same safety laws over multiple inspections. 

Of the nearly 50,000 citations issued from inspections conducted between 2017 and 2021, fewer than half came with a fine of any kind. Companies typically do not receive a fine for a first general violation, according to the L&I compliance manual.

The average fine for a serious citation – given when “there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result” – was about $2,000. This average includes the roughly 27,000 citations without any financial penalties. For the least severe type – “general” – the average fine totaled $81. 

A comparison of health and safety penalty data across states in the AFL-CIO 2023 Death on the Job report calculated that the average fine handed out for a serious violation in Washington was lower than that of 42 other states. 

Monty Anderson, executive secretary of the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council, said he has seen larger fines go to businesses for dumping chemicals into a creek than for a worksite fatality caused by disregarding safety laws.  

“Fines aren’t big enough,” he said, “People learn through money.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lizz Giordano

Lizz Giordano

Lizz Giordano is Cascade PBS's investigative reporter, focused on following working conditions, government oversight procedures and labor organizing efforts across Washington state. She can be followed on Twitter @lizzgior or reached on email at lizz.giordano@cascadepbs.org.