Last year Congress deliberated the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), a bill that would have significantly increased penalties for workplace safety violations uncovered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). To the relief of business advocacy groups, PAWA didn’t become law, and the heavier fines and the less forgiving standards it would have imposed won’t be at OSHA’s disposal as enforcement tools. But that doesn’t mean that the agency hasn’t been stepping up its efforts against unsafe workplaces in other ways.

Since last June, OSHA has been cracking down on employers it regards as egregiously negligent under the aegis of SVEP, the Severe Violator Enforcement Program. An internal directive, SVEP lets OSHA inspectors ratchet up the remedial pressure at work sites where so-called “high gravity serious violations” have occurred. The idea, according to the agency, is to focus enforcement resources on “recalcitrant employers who endanger workers by demonstrating indifference to their responsibilities under the law.”

For employers deemed by OSHA to fit this definition, scrutiny under SVEP will be uncomfortable to say the least. For instance, the program mandates “enhanced follow-up inspections” even after cited violations have been corrected—OSHA’s tactic for rooting out other, similar violations at the site. SVEP-targeted employers with multiple locations could be subject to inspections at related plants where OSHA believes “a broader pattern of non-compliance may exist.” In such cases, OSHA can mail citation and penalty notices to the company’s national headquarters and to unions representing its workers. OSHA officials may issue press releases about SVEP cases, and they can use a variety of “enhanced settlement provisions” to assure future compliance.

How might an employer find itself subject to the harsh attention of SVEP? A fatality or a “catastrophe” that OSHA declares related to a safety violation would invoke severe-violator procedures. Hazards related to falls, amputations, dust, lead, and dangerous chemicals also are triggers, as are whatever the agency regards as “egregious enforcement actions”: situations in which OSHA believes an employer has flagrantly disregarded its responsibilities for the health and safety of its employees.

SVEP has teeth, and they bite deep. True to its pledge to publicize SVEP cases, OSHA has reported, for example, the multiple fining of a manufacturer of abrasive blasting and roofing materials to the tune of more than $1.4 million last year. At one of its plants, an inspection that began with the discovery of an improperly locked-out piece of equipment ended with citations for a total of 30 safety violations for exposing workers to multiple safety and health hazards. Twenty were declared to be “serious,” which in OSHA parlance means those in which there is substantial probability of death or serious physical harm from a hazard that the employer either knew or should have known about. (Links to news about other SVEP incidents can be found here.)

OSHA has made no secret of the fact that deterrence through disincentives is SVEP’s core concept. It also has declared its intention to take a no-stone-left-unturned approach in all SVEP investigations. Appendix B of the SVEP directive lists the questions that inspectors are expected to ask as they probe the extent of compliance problems in SVEP cases. (The directive may be downloaded as a PDF here.)

To our knowledge, no graphic communications companies have had to answer to SVEP, and our layman’s reading of OSHA’s public documents about the program suggests that printers probably aren’t among its primary targets. Still, a word of caution about SVEP is a word to the wise, and all printers should consult qualified safety specialists to understand its implications for their workplaces.