Thursday, October 05, 2006

AT&T Charged In Workplace Death

We write a lot hear about the weakness of OSHA's penalties, even where a worker is killed due to willful disregard of safe working conditions by the employer. Once in a while, however, OSHA and prosecutors seem to understand that these deaths are not "just one of those things. It still happens far too infrequently, and the penalties still aren't quite enough to put the fear of God into employers who cut corners on worker safety. Nevertheless, we need to collect these cases and make sure that prosecutors across the country are aware of them when workers are killed on the job.

On August, 2005 28-year-old AT&T trainee Paul Charles Hurt was electrocuted while working on a joint pole — which combines power lines and phone lines -- near Lopez, California. An investigation found that he had not been wearing properly insulated safety gloves.

Earlier this week criminal charges were brought against the company, two misdemeanor charges alleging negligence and willful violation of a standard that led to Hurt's death.
The company faces up to about $1.5 million in fines and probation.

Most criminal prosecutions involving businesses claim an individual or individuals are responsible, not the entity, said Deputy District Attorney Steve von Dohlen.

In the case against AT&T, prosecutors believe the criminal charges recommended by the California division of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fit the alleged crimes and that the company needs to address standards or practices.

"We feel that's an appropriate charge here because that was a serious incident -- serious because a man died," von Dohlen said.


Von Dohlen said the incident appeared to have been a failure by the company overall and not individual employees.
As in other cases where the company is charged with a crime instead of any individuals, it's hard to see what the point is. Clearly the fine can be higher than fines that result from typical OSHA citations, and then there's the stigma of being convicted of a crime. Otherwise....
AT&T may face probation that could require the company to change or adopt certain safety standards. If probation were violated, a judge could order additional fines against the company, up to the maximum of the original offense.
In 2005, Cal-OSHA recommended 49 criminal referrals to local prosecutors, with 11 of them being filed.

This was not the first time a court has convicted a company on criminal charges for the death of an employee. Last November, Far West Water and Sewer Company was convicted of negligent homicide and aggravated assault and fined $1.77 million. The president of the company was also found guilty by a jury of two counts of negligent homicide and two counts of endangerment, and sentenced to four years of supervised probation for one of the negligent homicide convictions and another four years for one of the aggravated-assault convictions. He was also fined $50,000 sentenced to teach 840 hours of safety classes.

In 2005, a Michigan judge found Lanzo Construction criminally responsible for the death of an employee in a trench collapse and put Lanzo "on probation." In that case, "probation" meant that the company could not receive any state government contracts until 2013.