On Safety

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Is it time to increase criminal prosecutions for OSHA violations?

June 23, 2015

A roofing contractor was recently charged in a criminal indictment with violating an OSHA standard. This is a rare occurrence. Why is that?

Only two individuals were criminally charged in 2014 with violating occupational safety standards, according to a National Council on Occupational Safety and Health report. Given the 4,500 annual worker deaths that occur annually and the roughly 400 willful citations OSHA issues each year, you would think more than a couple criminal prosecutions would occur each year for workplace safety violations.

But as Safety+Health has reported previously, the Occupational Safety and Health Act limits criminal prosecution to any of the following three conditions:

  • A willful violation of an OSHA standard that results in a death
  • Giving advance notice of an inspection 
  • Knowingly making a false statement

Even if an employer is found guilty in criminal court of violating OSHA law, the most severe threat faced would be a misdemeanor, even in the case of negligent behavior that results in a worker’s death. Misdemeanors bring a maximum 6-month jail sentence. It takes a lot of effort to bring such cases to trial, and many jurisdictions may not find it worthwhile to pursue these cases with weak penalty outcomes.

OSHA administrator David Michaels has bemoaned his agency’s lack of enforcement strength, highlighting the fact that fines for polluting waters and killing fish is many times greater than the same actions that kill a worker.

One solution could be found under the proposed Protecting America’s Workers Act (S. 1112), which would authorize felony prosecutions against any employer who knowingly violates an OSHA rule in the event of an employee death. This would increase the penalty to 10 years in prison.

Criminal prosecutions for OSHA violations should be rare, just as criminal prosecutions for other crimes should be rare. But they also should be allowed to occur when the situation dictates, and the punishment should fit the crime.

Do you agree? Should employers who knowingly violate the law be held more accountable if those violations lead to a worker’s death? Let me know in the comments.

The opinions expressed in "On Safety" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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