Thursday, February 02, 2006

What's More Effective? OSHA Penalties or Suing the Bastards?

In a perfect world, we would have strong workplace safety standards and the penalties for violating those standards would be strong enough that safety would rise significantly farther up the average company's list of priorities than where it generally rests now -- somewhere in the basement.

Now, for those of you who just landed here in a spaceship from Mars, we don't have that kind of system here in the U.S. When it comes to workplace safety, we have government agencies (OSHA and MSHA)that are incapable of issuing any new safety or health standards, and even when it enforces the existing standards, the penalties are so low that they barely raise a pimple on the average corporate bottom line even when a worker is killed and even when the employer knowingly sent him or her into an unsafe environment. Much of the continuing weakness of these agencies is a result of corporate/Republican campaigns to weaken OSHA and MSHA with accusations of abusing small businesses, killing jobs, undermining capitalism and being unwilling to work cooperatively with the business community.

But we also have another system in this country where citizens can sue companies when corperate negligence results in injuries, illnesses or deaths. Some of these lawsuits (called Torts, for you non-lawyers out there) can result in pretty hefty fines. Because these cases can result in meaningful penalties, corporate America/Republicans are mounting "Tort Reform" campaigns designed to weaken citizens' ability to win meaningful awards. Workers usually can't even use the tort system because Workers Comp laws, with a few exceptions, prohibit workers from suing their employer.

No government oversight, no lawsuits and it's clear sailing.

Just a few cases in point:

  • OSHA cites Quality Window Cleaning after its failure to train window washer Les James, resulting in his death after he fell less than an hour after he began work.
    Penalty: $2700

    James's family, which somehow got around the Workers Comp law, sues Quality Window Cleaning
  • Award: $7.2 million.

  • OSHA cites Unicco Services after faulty equipment and lack of training led to the death of window washer Jose Camara.
    Penalty: $152,500

  • Jury decides against company whose scaffold fell off Chicago's John Hancock Center in March 2002 killing 4 people on the street below.
    Award:$77 million, $75 million of which will go to the families of four people who were killed and to others injured.

At his confirmation hearing earlier this week for head of OSHA, Ed Foulke was asked by Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) to describe his philosophy in approaching the leaderhip of OSHA.

Foulke said his primary goal was to ensure all employers comply with safety standards. Then, he said, he wants to create an atmosphere in which employers automatically put health and safety first in all business planning and decisions.

When he visits a company, Foulke said, “and they talk about safety and health first in all their meetings, you know they get it. We need to get that mindset in all workplaces, [that] safety is a priority.”

OK, I'm a believer. But what's more likely to encourage a company -- or an entire industry -- to raise safety to the top of the meeting agenda: OSHA penalties or law suits?

Related Story

Run! The Sky Is Falling: Republican Tort "Reform", January 11, 2005