Responsible Safety and Health Management: Criminal charges filed against companies for fatalities
By improving worker safety and health we help make sure that every employee who is at work returns home safely each and every day. Those managers or supervisors that take short-cuts or ignore safety issues risk harm to their employees. There are now real legal consequences, but only after a fatality has occurred.
A recent news event highlights the importance of constant vigilance for the safety of our employees. While details of the event are not entirely understood, it resulted in the death of an employee after he was locked inside a large oven. The fatality was initially investigated by OSHA and the outcome was a fine for failure to enforce the confined space entry standard. However, the local district attorney has taken this a step further and filed felony criminal charges against two employees, the safety manager and the director of operations, holding them accountable for the safety of their employees.
Over the past 44 years since OSHA was first enacted, there have been approximately 400,000 recorded worker fatalities, with estimates of at least 50,000 each year that die from health-related exposures.1 During the first 30 years of enforcement, only about 8 fatality cases resulted in felony prosecution of management and owners. Over the past 10 years, there has been an increase in the number of prosecuted cases and enactment by states to introduce laws that can levy criminal charges against owners and management staff.
In 2013 and again in 2014, Congress introduced changes to the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA). PAWA includes whistleblower protections, requires OSHA to investigate all cases of death and serious injuries, and gives OSHA greater authority to impose penalties. It subjects corporate officers as well as other responsible persons to possible felony charges for willful violations of OSHA rules that result in an employee death. Willful violations that result in serious bodily injury can be prosecuted as felonies, with imprisonment of up to five years for a first offense and up to 20 years for subsequent convictions. Civil penalties also would increase under PAWA, with serious violation maximum fines rising to $12,000 and willful violation fines going to a maximum of $120,000.
The changes to PAWA introduced in 2013 are still in committee. But many states are already taking action to introduce laws to protect workers and place felony charges against those that gamble with their lives.
Examples of recent prosecutions:
The president and primary owner of a New Hampshire business was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison after being convicted on two counts of manslaughter. The case focused on an explosion in May 2010 that killed two employees at a plant of Black Mag, LLC. OSHA issued $1.2 million in fines after the blast.
In another case, Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams has filed murder charges against a contractor over a June building collapse that killed six people and injured 13 others. The contractor faces six counts of third-degree murder, six counts of manslaughter and 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person.
With 252 8-hour work days each year, the number of daily fatalities on the job averages about 18. This must be addressed with a much better focus on the prevention of injuries and by providing adequate prevention strategies that include employee education, awareness and care, and concern for all human life that extends beyond simple compliance with OSHA.
Nova Consulting Group provides support for worker protections. Our health and safety professionals work with companies to help identify where there are risks for injury or illness and develop solutions that will help eliminate and prevent the hazard from causing harm. Recently, our industrial hygiene staff conducted a risk assessment in a power plant that addressed the potential for exposure to particulates from combustion of biomass fuels and coal, metals from ash, noise from equipment and other toxic metals such as Hexavalent Chrome during welding operations.
If you would like support in the evaluation of recognized safety and health hazards, please contact our IH and Safety staff.
Industrial Hygiene Group Manager
Nova Consulting Group Inc.
Fatality information from National Safety Council Accident Facts and Bureau of Labor Statistics.