Sunday, May 01, 2005

Owens, Corzine & Kennedy Introduce OSHA Improvement Bills

Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Jon Corzine and Congressman Major Owens introduced the "Protecting America’s Workers Act of 2005" (S 947)and the "Workplace Wrongful Death Accountability Act" on Workers Memorial Day.

The Workplace Wrongful Death Accountability Act would stiffen sanctions for worker deaths caused by an employer's willful violations of basic safety standards. According to Owens' floor speech:
This bill would make corporate manslaughter a felony offense, with the possibility of sentences that might range from no time behind bars to up to 10 years in prison. Upon a second offense, the maximum sentence could be doubled. Second, this bill would double the penalty for illicitly warning of an OSHA inspection, from a maximum of 6 months to up to 2 years in prison. Third, my bill would increase the penalty for lying to or misleading OSHA, from a 6 months maximum to 1 year's imprisonment. In all three instances, fines would be decided upon in accordance with title 18 of the U.S. code, which is standard criminal law and longstanding criminal procedure.
Th "Protecting America’s Workers Act" would correct a number of problems with the current OSHA law.
  • First, it would extend OSHA coverage to state, county and municipal employees, as well as federal employees, such as flight attendendants who receive inferior coverage from other federal agencies.

  • The bill would require OSHA to investigate any workplace incident that results in the death of a worker or the hospitalization of 2 or more employees.(The current law only requires OSHA to investigate upon the death of a worker or the hospitalization of 3 or more employees.)

  • It would give surviving family members of workers who are killed greater participation rights in OSHA’s workplace investigation and "penalty negotiation" process with the respective employers responsible for these fatalities. Currently family members have no role in OSHA's negotiations with employers.

  • It prohibits OSHA from downgrading willful citations in worker fatalities to "unclassified" citations. Downgrading a willful ciation to an "unclassified" citation removes the threat of criminal prosecution from employers, as well as reducing their risk of lawsuits.

  • The bill requires employers to cover the costs of personal protective equipment for their employees. This would, in effect, force OSHA to issue its long-awaited "Payment for Personal Protective Equipment" standard that has been languishing since the last days of the Clinton administration over four years ago.
Owen also praised that New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health and other COSH groups for launching a national campaign against corporate killing.

In introducing the bills, Owens stated:
The reason we need this bill is very clear: the federal government is itself guilty of gross negligence in efforts to deter corporate manslaughter. As David Barstow of the New York Times noted last year in his remarkable investigative series on worker deaths in this country, OSHA has an astonishing 20 year track record of failure to seek criminal prosecution when an employer’s willful and flagrant safety violations lead to worker deaths. It isn’t that the Department of Labor (DOL) doesn’t know how to seek criminal sanctions. Anyone who visits the DOL website will see an exhaustive list of prosecutions undertaken by staff in the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS). From 2002 to 2005, the prosecutions sought by OLMS fill up 111 pages, typewritten with a very small font. The difference is that these are prosecutions against union officials for a vast array of minor offenses. Contrast that with OSHA’s failure to seek criminal prosecution in a staggering 93 percent of worker death cases, investigated by the agency over the past 2 decades. These deaths were caused by an employer’s gross negligence or willful safety violations. In other words, the employer placed a profit motive far, far above any concern over peoples’ lives. In some instances, the same unscrupulous employer’s pattern of egregious safety violations has caused multiple worker deaths over several years. In such cases, a misdemeanor penalty has no deterrent value whatsoever.

Holding certain local union officials criminally liable for minor instances of alleged record falsification versus handing employers who commit corporate manslaughter an automatic "get out of jail free" pass is a real statement of values and priorities. We hear a great deal from this Republican Administration about the importance of affirming a "culture of life." Well, American workers deserve a "culture" of workplace safety that ensures they will live to go home at night and return to their jobs the following morning. When Congressman Tom Delay was asked by an Associated Press (AP) reporter last year about the "Workplace Wrongful Death Accountability Act," he replied: "The worst thing you could do – telling a small business person that they could go to prison over an OSHA violation." But such ridicule and exaggeration offends any surviving relative of a victim of corporate manslaughter.
According to Corzine:
In recent years, the Senators from both sides of the aisle have joined together to focus on a shocking succession of corporate scandals: Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, to name a few. These revelations of corporate abuse raised the ire and indignation of the American people. But corporate abuses can sometimes go further than squandering employee pension funds and costing shareholder value. Sometimes, corporate abuses can cost lives.

My legislation is based on the simple premise that going to work should not carry a death sentence. Annually, more than 6,000 Americans are killed on the job, and some 50,000 more die from work-related illnesses. Many of those deaths--deaths that leave wives without husbands, brothers without sisters, and children without parents--are completely preventable.