Politics & Government

Kennedy: On-the-job deaths should lead to prosecutions

WASHINGTON — Employers who intentionally disregard hazards that cost workers their lives should face the threat of felony prosecution and stiff prison sentences, lawmakers said Tuesday.

That almost never happens now, witnesses told members of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

It’s more costly to fish for tuna in the wrong waters of the South Pacific than to allow dangerous conditions that contribute to an employee’s death, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee’s chairman.

The median penalty for a workplace fatality last year was $3,675, according to a new report titled “Discounting Death: OSHA’s Failure to Punish Safety Violations that Kill Workers,” issued by Kennedy’s committee staff.

“Workers’ lives are obviously worth far more than that,” Kennedy said. “Employers who ignore their employees’ safety should pay a penalty that will force them to change their negligent ways. It’s the only realistic way to save lives.”

In an investigation of working conditions in the poultry industry, the Charlotte Observer showed how minimal fines, weak enforcement and declining inspections have allowed companies to ignore hazards that can kill and injure workers.

At the sometimes emotional hearing about death on the job and the minimal penalties that often follow, parents who’ve lost children in workplace accidents talked of their heartbreak and their ensuing frustration while trying to find justice.

Donald Coit Smith’s 22-year-old son was electrocuted March 26, 2005, at a Sanderson Farms poultry processing plant in Bryan, Texas. A mechanic’s helper, Donald W. Smith was assigned to disconnect wires from an electric motor powered with 480 volts of electricity.

“He was left alone to do a job, no supervision,” his father said after the hearing. “He did what he was told and he paid for it with his life.”

Smith said “mad doesn’t begin to describe” his reaction upon learning that a proposed $31,000 penalty against Sanderson Farms was negotiated down to $12,000.

Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer for Sanderson Farms, called it “a very unfortunate accident” but said the company puts employee safety “at the very top of our list when we come into work every day.”

Since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, about 341,000 workers have died on the job, but only 68 cases have been criminally prosecuted, said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO.

A former U.S. Justice Department attorney told the committee that the agency focuses on felonies, and the most serious workplace safety violations are now misdemeanors that carry a maximum of six months in jail.

“The maximum sentence should be measured in years, not in months,” said David Uhlmann, now a professor at the University of Michigan.

Uhlmann said he was unable to use OSHA laws to prosecute an employer who in 1996 knowingly sent a worker into a tank that held cyanide waste, rendering Scott Dominguez brain damaged. Under OSHA law, employers can’t be prosecuted unless a willful violation leads to a worker’s death. Uhlmann instead used environmental laws to prosecute the owner of Evergreen Resources, a fertilizer company.

“There’s something wrong with the law if sending workers into a tank of cyanide waste, ruining a young man’s life, is not a crime under worker safety laws and it’s a 17-year felony under the environmental laws,” he said.

OSHA officials point to steadily declining rates of reported injury and illness as proof that its programs are working. Injury and illness rates nationwide have dropped by half since the early 1990s.

In 2006, 4.4 of every 100 workers suffered workplace injuries or illnesses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many workplace safety experts, however, question whether underreporting and changes in reporting requirements have contributed to that decline. They also note that the total number of workplace deaths rose 2 percent in 2006, to more than 5,800.

“Election-year political theater cannot mask the truth that under this administration, workplace illness, injury and fatality rates are the lowest in OSHA’s history,” Sharon Worthy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, wrote in an email. “This administration’s pro-worker safety record is an inconvenient truth for the AFL-CIO and their partisan allies who are peddling dishonest political attacks – masquerading as ‘reports’ – to the media.”

A Maryland employer told senators he’s far more motivated by his own conscience and fear of not being able to afford insurance than by fear of OSHA penalties.

“Fines don’t put you out of business, but insurance costs do,” said George Jenson, president of a residential sprinkler system installer.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said it would be unfair to prosecute companies on felony charges when employees are partially to blame for their injuries. Sometimes, he noted, alcohol and drugs play a role in accidents.