May 2, 2005


With Little Fanfare, a New Effort to Prosecute Employers That Flout Safety Laws (DAVID BARSTOW and LOWELL BERGMAN, 5/02/05, NY Times)

For decades, the most egregious workplace safety violations have routinely escaped prosecution, even when they led directly to deaths or grievous injuries. Safety inspectors hardly ever called in the Justice Department. Congress repeatedly declined to toughen criminal laws for workplace deaths. Employers with extensive records of safety violations often paid insignificant fines and continued to ignore basic safety rules.

Inside the Bush administration, though, a novel effort to end this pattern of leniency has begun to take root.

With little fanfare and some adept bureaucratic maneuvering, a partnership between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and a select group of Justice Department prosecutors has been forged to identify and single out for prosecution the nation's most flagrant workplace safety violators.

The initiative does not entail new legislation or regulation. Instead, it seeks to marshal a spectrum of existing laws that carry considerably stiffer penalties than those governing workplace safety alone. They include environmental laws, criminal statutes more commonly used in racketeering and white-collar crime cases, and even some provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a corporate reform law.

The result, those involved say, should be to increase significantly the number of prosecutions brought against dangerous employers, particularly in cases involving death or injury.

This new approach addresses a chronic weakness in the regulatory system - the failure of federal agencies to take a coordinated approach toward corporations that repeatedly violate the same safety and environmental regulations. The E.P.A. and OSHA in particular have a history of behaving like estranged relatives. Yet the central premise of this unfolding strategy is that shoddy workplace safety often goes hand in hand with shoddy environmental practices.

"If you don't care about protecting your workers, it probably stands to reason that you don't care about protecting the environment either," said David M. Uhlmann, chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, which is charged with bringing these new prosecutions.

Amazing what you can get done without legislation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 2, 2005 7:41 AM

One is left wondering if this isn't some meta-level attack on those (frequently useless) safety standards. "Force the contradiction" as others might say.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at May 2, 2005 11:24 AM

It's been a few years since interactions with OSHA representatives have been part of my routine (Mid size manufacturing facility in NYC) but unless things have changed or a cost/benefit analysis has become part of the equation they use, I've rarely seen a less useful or more counterproductive use of time and private resources.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at May 2, 2005 11:30 AM