How have I managed not to notice Confined Space, a blog dedicated to worker safety issues? This is a blog that deserves a lot more attention.
Today he’s focusing on two Times articles, both of which are worth reading. The first describes in detail the case of Patrick Walters, a young man who was killed when the trench he was working in collapsed, burying him alive. Virtually none of the safetly laws for trench workers had been followed by his employer.
What makes this case so notable is that this happened only two weeks after OSHA warned Walters’ employer that its trenches were unsafe. And, in fact, this is the second time this employer (Moeves Plumbing, of Cincinnati, Ohio) had killed an employee by neglecting trench safety.
So did OSHA bring criminal charges against the employer? Of course not. Instead, they worked out a deal with the employer to lower their fine and make sure that no nasty charges of “willful neglect” would be put on the employer’s record. Anyhow, under current federal law, killing an employee through willful negligence is only a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of six months in jail.
What is more, having avoided prosecution once, at least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted.
OSHA’s reluctance to seek prosecution, The Times found, persisted even when employers had been cited before for the very same safety violation. It persisted even when the violations caused multiple deaths, or when the victims were teenagers. And it persisted even where reviews by administrative judges found abundant proof of willful wrongdoing.
Behind that reluctance, current and former OSHA officials say, is a bureaucracy that works at every level to thwart criminal referrals. They described a bureaucracy that fails to reward, and sometimes penalizes, those who push too hard for prosecution, where aggressive enforcement is suffocated by endless layers of review, where victims’ families are frozen out but companies adeptly work the rules in their favor. [...]
The Times’s examination — based on a computer analysis of two decades of OSHA inspection data, as well as hundreds of interviews and thousands of government records — is the first systematic accounting of how this nation confronts employers who kill workers by deliberately violating workplace safety laws. It identified a total of 2,197 deaths, at companies large and small, from international corporations like Shell Oil to family-owned plumbing and painting contractors in quiet corners of America.
On the broadest level, it revealed the degree to which companies whose willful acts kill workers face lighter sanctions than those who deliberately break environmental or financial laws.
For those 2,197 deaths, employers faced $106 million in civil OSHA fines and jail sentences totaling less than 30 years, The Times found. Twenty of those years were from one case, a chicken-plant fire in North Carolina that killed 25 workers in 1991.
By contrast, one company, WorldCom, recently paid $750 million in civil fines for misleading investors. The Environmental Protection Agency, in 2001 alone, obtained prison sentences totaling 256 years. [...]
When Congress established OSHA in 1970, it made it a misdemeanor to cause the death of a worker by willfully violating safety laws. The maximum sentence, six months in jail, is half the maximum for harassing a wild burro on federal lands.
With more than 5,000 deaths on the job each year, safety experts and some members of Congress have long argued that hundreds of lives could be saved if employers faced a credible threat of prosecution.
“A company official who willfully and recklessly violates federal OSHA laws stands a greater chance of winning a state lottery than being criminally charged,” said a 1988 Congressional report.
Actually, it overstated the odds for much of the country. During the two decades examined by The Times, in 17 states, the District of Columbia and three territories, there was not a single prosecution for willful violations that killed 423 workers.
There have been repeated efforts to make it a felony to cause a worker’s death. But strong opposition from Republicans and many Democrats doomed every effort. Congress did, however, agree in 1984 as part of a broader sentencing reform package to raise the maximum criminal fine to $500,000 from $10,000. And in 1991, it raised civil fines. But the added deterrent appears modest.
From 1982 until 1991, the median fine for a willful violation that killed a worker was $5,800, according to the Times examination. Since 1991, the median has been $30,240.
Both articles are well worth reading – as are many of the other posts on Confined Spaces.
From a feminist point of view, worker deaths is an unusual issue because the victims are overwhelmingly male. Patrick Walters, the young man who died in a trench collapse, knew that his work was dangerous – but he was determined to become a good wage earner to support his children. Worker deaths are a case in which the typical victim is a man who has been screwed over by gender roles.
So should feminists be calling for an equal number of female deaths? Well, in a sense, yes – there’s no reason that anyone’s sex should determine how likely they are to die on the job. But the real solution is to reduce men’s (and women’s) chance of dying on the job by giving OSHA some teeth and to unionize, unionize, unionize. Most workplace deaths aren’t inevitable; they’re the result of bad work conditions and insufficient safety precautions. Neither men or women should face deadly work conditions.
And, of course, the masculine ideal that calls for men to “be a man” by climbing down into unsafe trenches has to be done away with.
Finally, we can’t ignore the impact of class on all this. You can damn well bet that no one in the Bush family (or the Gore family) has ever felt obliged to risk their lives climbing into a fifteen-foot trench.