By Toni Halleen |
What’s the worst thing that can happen at work? An employee dies, is injured or becomes ill due to unsafe conditions. Although workplace safety laws have been in place for years, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), worker endangerment is still a very serious issue.
In fact, according to Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates, “On an average day in America, thirteen workers die on the job, thousands are injured, and 150 succumb to diseases they obtained from exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances while they worked.”
To address this problem, the Department of Labor (which enforces OSHA) has recently entered into an agreement with the Depart of Justice called the “Worker Endangerment Initiative.” Under this initiative, the two agencies will cooperate to criminally prosecute workplace violations that endanger workers.
While OSHA violations had previously carried criminal penalties, the penalties were basically misdemeanor level sanctions, with minimal jail time (six months) and low fines ($10,000). Now, under the new Initiative, criminal sanctions will be at the felony level, using federal sentencing guidelines for significant years in jail (e.g., decades), and potential for very high fines (e.g., millions).
In addition, the cooperation of the agencies is expected to result in cross-referral of cases, sharing of information and resources across agencies, and targeting individual managers for criminal prosecution. The focus will be on felonies such as obstruction of justice, providing false statements, witness tampering, and conspiracy, and other OSHA-related crimes.
This Initiative on eliminating worker endangerment through heightened criminal sanctions and dedication of additional resources will add bite to the bark of our nation’s safety laws and hopefully reduce dangerous conditions for workers in all industries.
Toni has practiced employment law since graduating from law school in 1988. The field appeals to her because in our society, our jobs can be core to our identity and well-being. Even in her early years in the 70s and 80s, Toni remembers being drawn to ideals of justice, fairness, and social equality in attending anti-discrimination marches, participating in school activism, and admiring the political satire of the Smothers Brothers (and others).