Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration want to increase OSHA fines as a deterrent so companies don’t skimp on safety. Republicans, who will control the U.S. House in January, say it’s big government trying to get bigger. Should the U.S. look north for a compromise?
Alberta Province in Canada has been using “creative sentencing” for workplace safety violations that involve injury or death since 2002.
Under the law, the company and OH&S officials enter a joint sentencing agreement without a court trial.
The company agrees to pay fines, but instead of the money going entirely to the government’s general fund, only a small portion does. The rest goes to charitable groups that support programs designed to prevent workplace injuries and deaths.
Example: An explosion injures two workers. The company agrees to pay $10,000, which will be divided among three local high schools that provide a workplace safety course.
Creative sentencing has advocates in diverse places.
Former Alberta prosecutor David Myrol says communities benefit because the money goes to organizations trying to improve safety and health.
Threads of Life, a support group for families of workers killed on the job, also supports creative sentencing.
And industry group, Manufacturers’ Health and Safety Association, is in favor of the system as a way to save lives.
No system is perfect
Alberta’s creative sentencing program hasn’t been without its bumps.
A series of articles by the Calgary Herald pointed out that the province lacked a formal process to make sure the groups got the money from the companies.
About 14% of companies hadn’t paid the settlements, according to the newspaper, which estimated that at least $1.7 million in fines haven’t been paid.
And while some victims’ families have praised the system, others haven’t been pleased because they say they weren’t consulted on where the money should go. Sometimes, the destination for the fine has been agreed upon by prosecutors and companies, and the result ends up looking like companies voluntarily gave “donations” to a nonprofit, school or hospital burn unit.
But government officials say those problems are about to be fixed.
Now, prosecutors are required to consult with family members on how the money should be spent.
And officials have started to take on companies that haven’t paid up to court.
The Alberta government is going after Steve’s Oilfield Services Ltd.
Officials allege the company failed to pay a $95,000 creative sentence fine from 2007 in connection to a worker injury four years earlier.
Would it work here?
With potential gridlock on workplace safety issues possible in the next two years in Washington, DC, creative sentencing would pose an interesting compromise in the U.S.
Penalties against companies could be increased to provide a greater incentive to follow OSHA regulations.
The vast majority of the money would not go into the U.S. Treasury’s general fund where it might or might not be used to improve workplace safety. Instead, it would go to organizations that promote safety.
Would you support similar creative sentencing for workplace incidents in the U.S. that cause serious injury or death? Let us know what you think in the Comments Box below.