Monday, January 16, 2006

Death In The Workplace: Companies Still Getting Away With Murder

James McNair of the Cincinnati Enquirer has picked up where the NY Times' David Barstow left off two years ago telling the story of the June 14, 2002 death of 22-year-old plumber's helper Patrick Walters in a 10 foot deep unshored trench. Barstow and McNair use Walters' death to illustrate OSHA's failure to seek criminal prosecutions even when the employer has been cited over and over again before finally killing someone.

In this case, Moeves Plumbing of Fairfield, Ohio, had been cited numerous times -- and had already killed one employee -- before killing Walters, yet OSHA dropped a willful citation and never sought criminal charges. After several additional citations following Walters' death, Moeves finally decided to get out of the trenching business.
OSHA regulations call for specific forms of protection for people working in trenches more than 5 feet deep. Companies can either lower an adjustable device called a trench box around workers or they can slope one of the trench walls in such a way that workers can readily climb out. Ladders must accompany trench boxes.

Four times in 15 years, OSHA cited Moeves Plumbing with willfully breaking those rules.

In 1989, OSHA fined the company $10,000 for willfully failing to take safety measures that might have spared Clint Daley from a fatal, 12-foot trench cave-in in Anderson Township. Thirteen years of compliance followed, but in May 2002 [weeks before Walters' death] an OSHA inspector dropped in on a Moeves work site in Montgomery and found company employees working outside of a trench box in a 15-foot-deep hole. OSHA called that a willful violation, too. It fined the company $24,000.

Two years later, in May 2004, it happened again, as OSHA cited Moeves with a "repeat" citation for sending workers into a trench with neither a trench box nor a ladder. Then, on Aug. 2, 2004, OSHA issued Moeves three "willful" violations after an inspector found a Moeves worker installing a pipe fitting while outside a trench box in a hole more than nine feet deep. OSHA proposed a fine of $150,000.

Moeves settled the case with OSHA in October. It agreed to leave the trench business in exchange for a lower fine of $52,000.
The lack of criminal prosecutions -- even in the face of clear evidence that the employer knew that the company's employees were working in a dangerous environment -- has always been a problem under the weak Occupational Safety and Health Act. But it's gotten even worse under this administration, according to data collected by McNair:
National data collected from 1995 through 2004 show a pattern of declining referrals - and prosecutions - of OSHA cases.

During the Bush administration's first term, for example, only seven OSHA cases were referred for prosecution, compared with 33 in the last four years of the Clinton presidency, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Of the six cases that were concluded in 2001-2004, five were dropped. One case resulted in a conviction.

By contrast, the Clinton administration closed out 39 cases in 1997-2000, resulting in 24 dropped prosecutions, 14 convictions and one acquittal, according to the Syracuse University data.
Michelle Marts (Walters' mother) and his father, Jeff Walters lobbied furiously -- but in vain -- for a criminal prosecution. Marts has also come to Washington D.C. to lobby for legislation, introduced by Congressman Major Owens, that would
make "corporate manslaughter" a felony punishable by a prison term of up to 10 years. His reasoning? The government is guilty of "gross negligence" in deterring the killing of American workers. Ninety-three percent of worker death cases in the last two decades, he said, resulted in no criminal prosecution.

"Every year," Owens said in April, "between 5,000 and 6,000 workers are killed on the job, often in gruesome circumstances due to inexcusable safety violations. This bill is aimed at holding such grossly negligent employers accountable."


Owens' bill went nowhere. Introduced as an amendment to other OSHA-related legislation, the measure was blocked by Rep. John Boehner, the West Chester (Ohio) Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Marts notes that Boehner lives in the same community as Linda Moeves, owner of Moeves construction.

Finally, I just want to say something about Michelle Marts. On one hand, she's nothing special. Just one of the thousands of family member who lose loved ones in America's workplaces every year. To a certain extent, she was "lucky" in that the news media has picked up on Patrick's story and used it to move this government to more effectively confront workplace killing.

One the other hand, luck had nothing to do with it. As I mentioned above, Michelle and her ex-husband Jeff Walters, are determined not to let Jeff's story die. They have made the media aware of how many companies are getting away with murder, they have testified in Washington DC and they have vowed not to rest until our legislators and citizens wake up to terrorism in American workplaces. If every American who buried a loved one killed in the workplace did the same thing, we'd be seeing more activity in this country. But this kind of action takes educating and organizing. Those of you reading this -- when you hear of a workplace death in your community, educate the local media -- and take the opportunity, when appropriate, to see if the family is interested in doing something about the root causes of their loved one's death.

Related Stories

Won't Get Fooled Again -- and Again and Again? OSHA Cites Serial Violator Who Had Killed Twice Before, February 6, 2005
Charging My Batteries, May 14, 2004
Terrorism in the American Workplace, May 16, 2004
"You done killed my boy!" December 21, 2003