At the end of last year, a Tennessee contractor was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for willful and serious violations of worker protection and safety codes. According to the OSHA report, the employer allowed a crane to operate despite the fact that inspections showed a replacement cable was necessary. The cable was available but the crane was not serviced, and damaged rope and wire were also not removed. The crane collapsed, and fortunately no one was killed. The employer faced $56,000 in total penalties.
Employers often fail to follow safety rules because they know that penalties from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are relatively rare and because penalties are usually for relatively low amounts. This is true even when workers are killed. An experienced workplace accident lawyer in Tennessee knows there are far too many people who are seriously injured or killed because of willful employer actions. OSHA is now taking a step forward and trying to improve workplace safety by stepping up criminal prosecutions.
OSHA Prosecutions Could Help Improve Safety
An ALF-CIO report, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, makes clear that citations alone are not nearly enough to encourage employers to follow safety regulations. One problem is that there are not enough OSHA inspectors to actually inspect workplaces with any regularity to ensure the rules are being followed. Another issue is that even when violations are found, fines tend to be very low.
For example, a serious violation of OSHA regulations carries with it a maximum $7,000 penalty but most employers aren’t even fined this paltry amount. Instead, the average citation for a serious safety violation was just $2,156. When a worker was killed, the median penalty was also not much higher at just $5,175.
While the average penalty of $35,503 for willful violations does seem at first as if it is higher than these other fines, the reality is that even this number doesn’t reflect tough enforcement of OSHA rules. Instead, some rare and extremely high fines skew the entire number upward, distorting the real picture of fatality penalties.
Employers who don’t care about worker safety are unlikely to be deterred by a small fine, and thus may not expend the effort or spend the money to prevent worker deaths. This is a big problem in Tennessee, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics report reveals that 120 workers statewide were killed on the job in 2011 and another 100 lost their lives in 2012.
Criminal prosecutions, up to now, have also not really served as a good deterrent because prosecutions have been exceedingly rare. Since 1970, there have been a total of 84 criminal cases prosecuted and a total of 89 months in jail served. During this same time period, 390,000 workers lost their lives. Almost no one went to jail as hundreds of thousands of workers were killed, many in preventable accidents.
Safety News Alert reports that OSHA is now trying to address this problem through broader criminal enforcement efforts. Cases will be referred for prosecution when a worker dies and employers falsified documents, were dishonest in dealings with OSHA or committed willful violations of OSHA rules. Hopefully, these cases will be prosecuted and more employers will face criminal sanctions if they create conditions that lead to the death of their workers.
Meade Law Group serves Johnson City and the Tri-Cities. Contact us today at (423) 464-7779