OSHA Fines American Over O'Hare Procedures

American Airlines has been slapped with $231,000 in fines for 22 significant safety violations at O'Hare International Airport, one of the largest workplace safety penalties in Illinois in recent years.

The citations issued earlier this week by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration included six repeat violations and a rare "willful" infraction. With a willful citation, OSHA is claiming an employer knew a safety problem existed that could kill or seriously injure a worker but didn't correct it.

In a statement, American said it "takes issue with some of OSHA's findings, particularly the classification of one citation as willful. We anticipate having discussions with OSHA concerning these and other related issues."

The company has 15 days to contest the citations. In its statement, American said it takes safety "very seriously" and has already rectified most of the deficiencies noted by OSHA, "and is working to address the rest."

The passel of violations and the big fine -- apparently the biggest ever against American -- came from a regularly scheduled OSHA inspection, also a bit of a rarity. Normally, large OSHA fines and multiple safety violations are associated with fatal accidents.

OSHA's inspection, carried out between late January and late March, included two American hangars, a cargo building, a baggage room, ramp services, and ticket and gate services. "It was pretty much a wall-to-wall thing," said Brad Mitchell, an OSHA spokesman in Chicago.

The alleged willful violation, which involves workers being exposed to fall hazards, alone carries a fine of $70,000. OSHA claims that employees in an American hangar were required to inspect heaters from unprotected catwalks 80 feet above the ground.

Also, workers were required to make inspections atop jet bridges and de-icing trucks without proper fall protection. The bridges, which allow passengers to board a plane, are 16 feet high; the de-icing trucks, 9 feet high.

Willful citations are handed out sparingly: Of the 83,913 safety violations cited nationally by OSHA in its last fiscal year, only 479 -- less than 1 percent -- were deemed willful, the agency's data show. Repeat violations are also not common, comprising only 3 percent of all citations in OSHA's last fiscal year.

The six repeat violations with which OSHA tagged American were based on citations originally levied in 2005 at airports other than O'Hare. The repeat violations involve fall protection, electrical and fire hazards, machine guard issues, hygiene issues and "lockout/tagout" procedures.

Lockout/tagout procedures protect workers from an unexpected start-up of machinery. The hygiene issue in question at O'Hare involved catwalks covered with pigeon excrement. Together, the repeat violations led to fines of $100,000.

The rest of the $61,000 in proposed fines against American involves 15 "serious" safety violations. OSHA defines a serious violation as one which an employer should have known about, as opposed to the did-know-about-it standard of a willful violation.

OSHA has inspected American at O'Hare 10 times since 2000, leveling citations in five cases. But in the past, the initial citations never rose above $25,000. Often, initial fines are negotiated downward by OSHA. American paid $6,250 for that $25,000 citation, levied in 2003 for a repeat safety offense.

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