Monday, March 27, 2006

A Father's Crusade

Coit Smith's son Donald was electrocuted one year ago today at Sanderson Farms when handling a pump that had 489 volts of electricity flowing through it. Confined Space readers may be familiar with Coit's campaign to challenge the inadquacy of workplace safety laws and enforcement in this country. I published a letter from him last year and he's a frequent contributor to the comments.

Today, the The Bryan-College Station Eagle had an article today about the pain of his son's death and his Coit's campaign to change the way workplace safety system. He didn't discuss his son's case with the paper due for legal reasons.
But that shouldn't matter, he added, explaining that the problems he wants to address are industry-wide. And he should know, he said. He's spent the past 20 years as a workplace safety expert trying to prevent exactly what happened to his son.

For years, Smith said, he has seen the inequities in the system, but it wasn't until his son's death that he had the courage and motivation to stand up and do something about it.

He now wants to persuade lawmakers to develop regulations with more teeth that might allow "meaningful prosecution of companies that violate federal regulations and cause death in the facility."

The first step, he said, is to change workers' compensation laws at the state level so that workplace safety violations that lead to an employee's death carry punishments similar to what happens with drunken driving deaths. If CEOs have to be put in jail for such negligence, so be it, he proposed.

The law as it is currently written protects employers from workplace injury and death lawsuits, he said. Corporations keep score by dollars, he argued, and without stiffer penalties or the threat of lawsuits, many factories don't have enough incentive to stop cutting corners.

The second step, Smith said, will be to take the fight to the national level - trying to persuade Congress to make the necessary changes at OSHA.

"If OSHA fees and punishments were more severe, there are many companies out there that would comply with federal regulations," he said, explaining that trying to prove a company committed gross negligence is "arduous at best."

The maximum penalty for gross negligence is a six-month jail term, he explained.

Smith started a letter-writing campaign about six months ago, starting with his local representatives. Since then, he has written letters urging a change in the law to every member of the Texas Senate, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He is about halfway through contacting every member of the Texas House of Representatives.

So far, Smith said he has gotten a lot of automated responses. But there are a few politicians, he said, who have shown a genuine interest in the issue and have given him encouragement to keep fighting.

"This is just the beginning of it," he said, describing his actions so far as "just the baby step."

"This is a big mountain I'm trying to climb, but the legislators do not know my tenacity. This is a moral issue for me."
There are thousands of other fathers, mothers, sons and daughters in this country facing similar pain every year. Think what could be accomplished if they all understood how things work and what needs to be done as well as Coit Smith.