On March 3, 2015, a San Diego Gas & Electric employee stepped on to three plywood boards covering an underground vault while he inspected gas valves in Mission Valley.

Then the boards gave way.

The inspector fell 7 feet before crashing into valves and piping at the bottom of the concrete vault. He broke eight ribs.

The accident could have been avoided, according to a state investigation, because a company inspection five years before found “that the panels were bad and needed to be replaced.”

The state slapped SDG&E with a $70,000 fine — the highest penalty per citation allowed by law — for what the agency considered a “willful” violation, meaning it was intentionally and knowingly committed by the employer. An SDG&E spokeswoman said the company is appealing because it doesn’t think the state had jurisdiction to issue the citation.

The hefty fine placed the utility company among more than 80 California employers that faced the highest penalties for workplace health and safety violations in 2015, according to a database that houses information on enforcement actions by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal-OSHA.

An inewsource review of the data shows that officials considered many of the safety violations so serious that workers could have died as a result of them — and in at least three cases last year, they did. (None of the deadly incidents occurred in San Diego County.)

Employers in California, including nine operating in San Diego County, were fined a total of more than $5.6 million, the data show. Most of those fines are being contested by employers, and they are frequently reduced on appeal.

To date, at least 21 employers have reached settlements with Cal-OSHA after appealing their citations, lowering their penalties by an average of 53 percent.

Even if employers paid the maximum penalties for violations, some workplace safety advocates say the fines aren’t nearly enough.

“It is really just pocket change for a lot of these employers,” said Jessica Martinez, of San Diego, the acting executive director for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “They’re relatively low when we’re talking about someone who has lost a life or a limb.”

Fines for OSHA violations will be increased later this year for the first time in a quarter-century. A budget bill signed by President Barack Obama last year includes a provision that requires penalties to be brought in line with inflation, meaning fines will increase by about 80 percent.

Despite the increase, OSHA fines will still be well below the penalties handed out by the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.

According to the data, 43 of the Cal-OSHA inspections were launched after workplace accidents — in one deadly accident, a farm worker was killed “after being pulled into seeder/spreader,” federal safety records show. An additional 20 were prompted by complaints. Most of the other inspections were planned by the state agency.

Cal-OSHA inspections often result in safety citations that range in severity.

This chart shows the different types of workplace safety violations and the penalties associated with them. Courtesy of National Council for Occupational Safety and Health
This chart shows the different types of workplace safety violations and the penalties associated with them. Courtesy of National Council for Occupational Safety and Health

Willful and repeat violations carry the biggest possible fines. Last year, Cal-OSHA hit Kaiser Foundation Hospitals with nearly $150,000 in penalties — including two $70,000 fines for willful violations at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay area.

Inspectors found that custodial workers were at risk of being infected while removing waste from  the hospital’s collection box for used needles. “The box,” state inspectors reported, “frequently overflowed with uncapped needles.”

The hospital has appealed the citations. In a statement, Corwin Harper, senior vice president of Kaiser Permanente Napa-Solano, said the hospital was in the process of improving its needle kiosks before the Cal-OSHA inspection.

“We have since taken further action to protect our staff, including providing them with additional training and additional protective gear,” he said.

ExxonMobil received by far the largest fines in 2015. Last August, Cal-OSHA handed the oil giant 19 citations — including 12 serious and six willful citations — stemming from an investigation into a February explosion at the company’s Los Angeles County refinery in Torrance. Four workers were injured in the accident.

The citations totaled $566,600. ExxonMobil has appealed.

This story has been updated to reflect the upcoming OSHA fine increases.

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Chris Young was a reporter at inewsource. To contact inewsource with questions, tips or corrections, email contact@inewsource.org.