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May 5, 2009

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US moves to beef up health and safety fines and enforcement

Killing or injuring an employee in the United States incurs far less

punishment than failing to protect an animal, and is on a par with

trespass, vandalism and petty theft in terms of the penalties meted out

to perpetrators.

This was just one of the shocking facts to emerge during a House

Education and Labor Committee hearing in Washington to mark Workers’

Memorial Day last week (28 April). Committee chair George Miller

(Democrat, California) told the hearing that although civil and

criminal penalties are available under the Occupational Safety and

Health Act, “criminal prosecutions of egregious violations of the law

are only possible when a wilful violation leads to the death of a

worker. Even then, no matter how bad an employer acted, killing a

worker is only a Class B misdemeanour.”

The maximum penalty for Class B misdemeanours — which include petty

theft, disorderly conduct, and vandalism — is a $2000 (£1300) fine

and/or a six-month jail term. Noted Miller: “These penalties for

failing to protect workers pale in comparison to the penalties for

failing to protect animals, or the environment generally.”

Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at union body the American

Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO),

said tougher enforcement of safety laws and stronger sanctions against

law-breaking employers are urgently needed. She told the hearing:

“Current OSHA enforcement and penalties are far too weak to provide any

meaningful incentive for employers to address job hazards, or to deter

violations. As a result, workers are exposed to serious hazards that

put them in danger, and cause injury and death.”

The maximum penalty for a serious violation that injures or kills a

worker in the US is $7000 (£4650), and £70,000 (£46,5000) for wilful

and repeated violations. However, the AFL-CIO claims the average fine

for breaching the OSH Act is less than $1000 (£660), while the average

for killing a worker is just $11,300 (£7500). According to the

organisation, only 71 criminal cases have been prosecuted under the Act

since it became law 39 years ago, and the defendants in those cases

served a combined total of just 42 months in prison.

To address the situation, George Miller and other Committee members

introduced legislation in the US House of Representatives on 23 April

to amend the existing law to increase civil and criminal penalties for

violations of workplace safety laws. The Protecting America’s Workers

Act would also bring more workers under the protection of the

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, safeguard

whistleblowers, and reinforce workers’ safety rights.

Peg Seminario said the action was needed to “put teeth into enforcement

of the job safety law, and to bring OSHA enforcement into line with the

enforcement practices and authorities under other safety and

environmental laws”.

A similar bill was introduced in the previous Congress but it failed to

become law. The George W Bush administration was severely criticised by

the AFL-CIO for its record on health and safety, and unions and other

stakeholders welcomed the election of new president Barack Obama as a

beacon of hope for America’s workers (see our earlier story by clicking here).

In 2007, 5657 employees were killed at work in the US, which equates to

around five times the annual number of work-related deaths in the UK,

per head of population.

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