The Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), which is simultaneously wending its way through both chambers of Congress, would put new fangs into enforcement of the laws and regulations overseen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Now with health insurance legislation largely behind it, Congress is expected to move on several labor-related fronts, including PAWA, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and larger immigration reform measures.

PAWA is wide-ranging and not only increases penalties but widens the net with which it can snare individuals by expanding the definition of "employer" to include "any responsible corporate officer." Coupled with a December 2008 OSHA rule that linked fines to a "per employee" standard, the increased fines contained in PAWA could result in some large monetary deterrents.

Under the bill, for instance, the maximum daily penalty for a failure to abate and for other serious and other-than-serious violations would rise to $12,000 from the current $7,000. New criminal penalties would make it a felony for willful violations that lead to the death of an employee. Jail time would run from six months to 10 years if convicted of a first offense, and from one to 20 years for repeat convictions.

In general, the proposed legislation would extend OSHA coverage to public employees, strengthen whistleblower provisions, raise civil and criminal penalties (as stated above), and expand the rights of victims injured in workplace incidents.

Employers, be prepared for increased vigilance from OSHA and for stricter enforcement of the agency’s rules and regulations. Get your copy of the OSHA Answer Book today and make sure you’re in full compliance.