Safety and OSHA News

Report: OSHA lacks legal tools to hold executives accountable for safety disasters

A report from a U.S. Senator’s office says OSHA is unable to hold corporate executives personally accountable for safety disasters because of a lack of legal tools at the government’s disposal. The report encourages changes to hold company executives more accountable. 

The report from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) office, Rigged Justice: How Weak Enforcement Lets Corporate Offenders Off Easy, suggests government regulators and prosecutors fail to pursue big corporations or their executives who violate the law or lets them off “with a slap on the wrist.”

This first report of an annual series on enforcement highlights 20 criminal and civil cases in 2015 in which the federal government failed to keep large corporations and their executives accountable.

Among the 20 cases are two involving occupational safety laws and two regarding environmental laws that also have worker safety implications:

  • DuPont and methyl mercaptan: In November 2014, methyl mercaptan was released at DuPont’s LaPorte, TX, facility, killing four employees. OSHA cited DuPont for 19 violations for a total fine of $372,000. No individual DuPont executives were held accountable.
  • The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster: This explosion killed 29 miners. Former Massey Energy Co. CEO Donald Blankenship was convicted of just one misdemeanor for conspiring to willfully violate mandatory mine safety and health standards. Blankenship has yet to be sentenced. He faces up to a year in prison.
  • Bayer CropScience LP: In August 2008, an explosion at a Bayer pesticide plant in Institute, WV, killed two workers. In a settlement with EPA, fines totaled $975,000. No individuals were held accountable.
  • BP Deepwater Horizon Final Civil Claims Settlement: The final settlement with BP for civil claims for natural resources damage arising from the 2010 spill called “the worst environmental disaster in American history,” was $20.8 billion. However, the settlement was structured to allow BP to deduct $15 billion from the company’s income for tax purposes, reducing the impact of the civil penalty by over $5 billion. Eleven workers were killed in the drilling platform explosion.

The report says the law is unambiguous:

“If a corporation has violated the law, individuals within the corporation must also have violated the law … federal law enforcement agencies – and particularly the Department of Justice (DOJ) – rarely seek prosecution of individuals … Instead, they agree to criminal and civil settlements with corporations that rarely require any admission of wrongdoing and they let the executives go free without any individual accountability.”

While the report takes the DOJ and the Obama administration to task for not being more aggressive with criminal prosecutions, it goes on to say that in some cases, prosecutors are constrained by law.

That’s the case with OSHA, according to the report:

“Lax enforcement at other agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stems primarily from a lack of important legal tools and persistent underfunding by Congress that often turn the legal rules into little more than suggestions that companies can freely ignore.”

The report notes that of the 20 cases highlighted, the Upper Big Branch case was the only one in which a corporate executive was taken to trial, and it apparently took 29 employee deaths and a history of mine safety violations by the company to make that happen. The law allowed only the misdemeanor charge against Blankenship.

“Some giant corporations – and their executives – have decided that following the law is merely optional,” the report concludes. “For these companies, punishment for breaking the law is little more than a cost of doing business.”

The DOJ and Department of Labor announced last fall that they will step up use of a variety of laws to bring more criminal charges for OSHA violations, particularly those with fatalities and where there were willful citations.

What do you think about the conclusions from this report? Let us know in the comments.

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