The Decline of Workplace Safety

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I probably should’ve linked to this a few days ago, but Jordan Barab had an outstanding post on Worker’s Memorial Day about the dismal state of workplace safety standards in the United States. Workplace deaths have risen to 6,000 a year—that’s 15 every day; serious injuries are going underreported; negligent employers are getting off lightly; and the Bush administration continues to gut MSHA and OSHA, the two agencies responsible for workplace safety. This part is particularly damning:

Although rarely used, OSHA has the ability to criminally prosecute employers when a willful violation of a standard leads to the death of a worker. (“Willful” means violations in which the employer knew that workers’ lives were being put at risk.)

OSHA was embarrassed in 2003 by a New York Times investigation that revealed that from 1982 to 2002, OSHA declined to seek criminal prosecution in 93 percent of more than 1200 cases where a worker was killed due to a willful violation of an OSHA standard. At least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted. Fewer than 20 employers have ever gone to jail despite well over a thousand cases involving work deaths that involve “willful” OSHA violations over the past twenty years.

Indeed, most of the time OSHA merely chooses to slap fines on willfully negligent employers; but the maximum fine only comes to $70,000 (and fines rarely reach even that)—hardly enough to persuade billion-dollar businesses to just think a bit harder about worker safety. Barab notes that state and local prosecutors have tried to exact stricter punishments, but, of course, unless the federal government steps in, businesses will frequently be able to move to whatever part of the country has the laxest standards and the gentlest juries. But, of course, the federal government won’t step in so long as a wholly-owned subsidiary of big agribusiness, etc., is sitting in the White House.

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