Criminal prosecution for safety violations more likely under new federal plan, could mean the difference between 6 months and 20 years in prison.
Deterrence is one goal of a new effort to charge more safety and environmental violations as federal felonies. Under an agreement announced in December, federal officials are being encouraged to charge more safety and environmental violations as felonies rather than as misdemeanors.
According to a memorandum of understanding between federal agencies, more of the prosecutions would be handled by the Department of Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resources Environmental Crimes Section and the U.S. Attorney’s offices. Those two will be working more closely with the Department of Labor’s OSHA, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and Wage and Hour Division. Violations of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act are also included in the agreement between the agencies. The Department of Labor has added a position to coordinate agency cooperation and agency staffs are being trained to be more familiar with applicable federal statutes.
“On an average day in America, 13 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,” says Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates. “Given the troubling statistics on workplace deaths and injuries, the Department of Justice is redoubling its efforts to hold accountable those who unlawfully jeopardize workers’ health and safety.”
In a memo to all 93 U.S. Attorneys, Yates provided examples of how the increased prosecution could impact penalties. Misdemeanors under the Occupational Safety and Health Act are punishable by fines up to $10,000 and six months imprisonment for acts such as willful safety violations that result in a worker’s death or falsifying documents. Those penalties have not increased since the law was passed in 1970.
On the other hand, charging the same violations as felonies for false statements, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, conspiracy, and environmental and endangerment crimes carry penalties from five to 20 years in prison along with the potential for larger fines.
Besides filing criminal charges under Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code, the Environment and Natural Resources Division has increased civil prosecutions for worker safety violations under other laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act because such violations have a direct relationship with workers handling dangerous chemicals, cleaning up spills and responding to hazardous materials releases.
“While most employers try to do the right thing, we know that strong sanctions are the best tool to ensure that low-road employers comply with the law and protect workers’ lives,” says Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “More frequent and effective prosecution of these crimes will send a strong message to those employers who fail to provide a safe workplace for their employees.”
Companies that violate safety regulations often do the same with environmental laws, according to Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden of the Environment and Natural Resources Division. “We will remove the profit from these crimes by vigorously prosecuting employers who break safety and environmental laws at the expense of American workers.”