Safety and OSHA News

Record number of criminal prosecutions for worker deaths

In Fiscal Year 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor referred or assisted with the criminal prosecution of 27 cases involving worker deaths – the highest number in DOL’s history. 

However, since there were more than 4,000 worker deaths during the same period, criminal prosecution in such cases is still very rare.

These statistics were highlighted recently in the annual AFL-CIO report, Death on the Job.

Since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, only 88 worker death cases have been prosecuted under the act with defendants serving a total of 100 months in jail. During the same period, there were more than 390,000 workplace fatalities.

By comparison, in FY 2014, EPA initiated 271 criminal enforcement cases under federal environmental laws and 187 people were charged. That resulted in 155 years of jail time and $63 million in fines and restitution – more cases, fines and jail time in one year than in OSHA’s entire history.

Under the OSH Act, criminal prosecution is limited to two situations:

  • when a willful violation results in a worker’s death, or
  • when false statements are made in required reports.

The maximum jail time is six months, and the cases are considered misdemeanors.

In federal environmental laws, criminal penalties apply in cases where there is “knowing endangerment.” The laws make those violations felonies.

Some of the largest criminal cases in which workers were killed or endangered on the job were prosecuted under environmental statutes, such as the 2005 Texas City, TX, explosion at a BP refinery that killed 15 workers.

OSHA fines in fatality cases are often not very large. In FY 2014, the average total penalty per OSHA fatality inspection (federal and state plans) was $10,640.

Several state plans had larger fatality fine averages:

  • Arizona: $36,969
  • California: $16,738
  • Hawaii: $22,779
  • Minnesota: 20,184
  • Tennessee: $15,039, and
  • Wyoming: $12,184.

In Los Angeles, a local effort is underway to prosecute more of these types of cases.

While the report notes the recent increased emphasis on criminal enforcement of OSHA violations, it concludes:

“As long as the criminal penalty provisions of the OSH Act remain so weak, there will be few criminal prosecutions for job safety violations, even those that result in worker deaths.”

Members of Congress have introduced legislation to increase OSHA penalties over the years, but the bills have gone nowhere. State legislators have also launched efforts to increase these penalties in their jurisdictions.

Do you think there should be more criminal prosecutions for OSHA violations, particularly in connection to fatalities? Let us know in the comments.

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