Saturday, January 08, 2005

Company Kills, Refuses To Learn Lesson, And Gets Probation?

Brenda Whiteye is "not happy with the judicial system." After reading about what happened to her husband and how those responsible were punished, I think you'll agree that "not happy" is probably a classic understatement of her true feelings.

Whiteye's 52-year old husband, Robert, was crushed to death in 1999 when an inadequately protected 18 foot deep trench collapsed on top of him. Because workers (or their family) can't sue their employer, family members of workers killed on the job would normally have to be satisfied with an often insignificant fine against the company. But in this case, the company received a "willful citation." According to MIOSHA:
A willful violation represents an intentional disregard of the requirements of MIOSHA regulations, or plain indifference to employee safety and health.
And in cases where willful violations have led to a fatality, a criminal case can be made. The New York Times ran a series at the end of 2003 showing that this opportunity is rarely used by federal OSHA. But the Michigan Attorney General's office -- then under the supervision of now-governor Jennifer Granholm -- decided to fine the company, Lanzo Construction, $657,000 and bring criminal manslaughter charges against the company's vice president, Angelo D'Alessandro. A conviction could have sent D'Alessandro to prison for 15 years.

According to a MIOSHA Newsletter,
“Lanzo Construction Company has shown a complete disregard for protecting their employees, as evidenced by their past history and the
significant number of alleged wilful violations in this incident,” said [Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry Services (CIS) Director Kathy]Wilbur.


The investigation revealed that Angelo D’Alessandro and Lanzo Construction knew of the substantial risk of injury to employees engaged in trenching work, and failed to provide trenching support to prevent injury to their employees.

D’Alessandro and company officials were at the job site and made no effort to protect their employees. Additionally, they failed to furnish Whiteye a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

Lanzo construction appealed the fine and fought the manslaughter conviction.

Manslaughter charges were latter dismissed by the judge, and yesterday she sentenced the company (not D'Alessandro) to probation. What does "probation" against a company mean? No one really knows.

But it turns out, this isn't the only reason Brenda Whiteye is not happy. Browsing through the latest copy of the MIOSHA Newsletter, I ran across an article describing a $214,000 penalty against the D’Alessandro Contracting Group "for allegedly failing to adequately protect employees from trenching and excavation hazards." D'Alessandro, D'Alessandro, where have I heard that name? Sure enough,

On June 25, 2004, MIOSHA opened a complaint investigation with Lanzo Construction, and were advised by a company official during the investigation that the company name had been changed to D’Alessandro Contracting Group.


MIOSHA conducted an inspection of the excavation site from June 25 to July 20, 2004.

Conditions found during the inspection revealed very dangerous exposures, similar to those documented at previous inspections of Lanzo Construction excavation sites. Employers in the excavation business have a duty to know and abide by all legal requirements involving excavating and trenching.

“What’s most troubling about this case is that the company continues to place its workers in harm’s way,” said MIOSHA Director Doug Kalinowski.

What's equally troubling is the frustration and anger that Brenda Whiteye and others in her situation must be feeling. You have a company with numerous health and safety violations that kills your husband, fights the penalty, escapes from the criminal charges, changes its name to hide its criminal history, and then continues to endanger other workers like nothing's happened. And Brenda Whiteye's feelings are shared by the families of thousands of other workers every year.

So where do they turn? Where do they go for some kind of justice? Nowhere, according to our legal system. According to the National COSH Campaign to Stop Corporate Killing
Killing a worker is currently considered a misdemeanor under federal law, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail. Even for willful violations, fines are typically under $25,000. Conviction for unlawful aerial harassment of mule deer, in contrast, can bring up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
But it doesn't have to be that way. We need to find a Congressman and Senator to introduce legislation into Congress calling for more severe and more certain punishment -- fined and jail time that will assure that employers will no longer be willing to cut corners and take their chances on a traffic ticket from OSHA. (Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Congressman Major Owens (D-NY) introduced legislation last year.)

And every time a worker is killed in this country, family members, friends and the newsmedia should ask their Senators (many of whom will be up for re-election in 2006) and Congressmen (all of whom will be up for re-election in 2006) whether they're supporting the workplace killers legislation.

It might be a good issue to draw a distinction between politicians who are pro-worker and those who aren't. The Bush administration and Congressional Republicans weren't too happy with the Corzine bill:
[Former] Commerce Secretary Donald Evans called the Corzine-Kennedy proposal "just another policy to destroy jobs." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the proposal would be "the worst thing that you could do -- telling a small business person that they could go to prison over an OSHA violation."
I don't know about that . Personally, I think "the worst thing you could do" would be to let a company willfully kill a worker and then do almost nothing about it when they put workers into the same hazard over and over again.

Let's make our judicial system something that fights for the Brenda Whiteyes of this nation.