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Democrats Vow to Strengthen Penalties for Safety Violations

April 29, 2009
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On a day designated to remember workers who have been killed on the job, Democrats in Congress vowed to increase penalties against employers who violate workplace safety rules.

Two Capitol Hill events on Tuesday, April 28, were devoted to strengthening the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the law that brought it into existence on that day 39 years ago.

A hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on employment and workplace safety was described as the “first step in crafting legislation” by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, that would crack down on employers and give injured workers and the families of deceased workers “a greater role in the penalty process.”

The House Education and Labor Committee hearing revolved around a bill introduced last week by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-California and chair of the workforce protections subcommittee.

Republicans at the House hearing said they wanted to improve workplace safety but that increasing penalties was the wrong answer because current regulations are complex and confusing.

Woolsey’s bill, the Protecting America’s Workers Act, also would allow workers and families to be more involved in OSHA investigations.

In addition, it would extend OSHA coverage to more workers, increase civil penalties for safety violations and index them to inflation. In another move to give OSHA more teeth, the measure would allow felony prosecution of employers and their corporate officers who commit willful violations that result in worker death or serious injury.

House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-California, wanted to move the bill as quickly as possible.

“This is absolutely critical,” he said.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis also has made workplace safety a priority and has promised to hire more OSHA inspectors.

Stepped-up enforcement is needed in order to make the consequences for violating workplace safety as tough as they are for harming the environment and wildlife, according to advocates.

In emotional testimony before the House committee, Rebecca Foster testified that an Arkansas sawmill was fined $2,250 after it failed to put the proper safeguards on equipment that caught her stepson Jeremy’s shirt and strangled him to death.

Foster asserted that her family never heard from the company after the day that her stepson died.

“Did they place a value of our only son’s life at this amount [$2,250]?” she said. “It was as if OSHA had patted Deltic Timber on the back and said, ‘Good job, guys. You only killed one person.’ ”

Examples like Foster’s are the reason she wrote her bill, according to Woolsey.

“It is rare that an employer gets more than a slap on the wrist, even when a worker dies or is seriously injured, even in the most egregious cases. It is rarer still that they are referred for prosecution,” Woolsey said.

Margaret Seminario, director of occupational safety and health at the AFL-CIO, said that 5,657 workers died and more than 4 million were injured on the job in 2007. An additional 50,000 lost their lives due to occupational diseases.

An AFL-CIO study indicates that the average penalty for a serious OSHA infraction is less than $1,000; for a violation involving a worker’s death, it’s $11,300.

The ranking Republican on the House labor committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, cited positive statistics. OSHA figures show that since 2001, deaths have declined 14 percent and injuries and illness rates have fallen 21 percent.

He argued that the government would improve safety more with carrots than with sticks.

“The mentality should be to fix things, make things better rather than trying to punish,” McKeon said.

Lawrence Halprin, an attorney with Keller and Heckman in Washington, told the House panel that thousands of pages of regulations are ambiguous and confusing.

“Workplace safety and health could be far more effectively advanced through greater emphasis on clarifying OSHA standards and implementing effective training, outreach and cooperative programs,” Halprin said in prepared testimony.

Other witnesses, however, said that more criminal enforcement is required. Seminario said that since OSHA was established in 1970, only 71 criminal prosecutions have been sought for workplace safety violations, resulting in 42 months of jail time.

David Uhlmann, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, said that employers’ mind-set must be fear of incarceration rather than willingness to pay OSHA fines as a cost of doing business.

“That changes behavior more than anything else we do,” Uhlmann said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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