OSHA penalties: Are they fair?

By Traci DiPietro
Staff Writer
Posted 5/18/07

It's June 29, 2000.

Somewhere in America, a motorist stops at a bar and has a few drinks with friends before driving home. Within 10 miles of his house, the motorist swerves and crosses a yellow line into oncoming traffic, hitting and killing a …

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OSHA penalties: Are they fair?

Posted

It's June 29, 2000.

Somewhere in America, a motorist stops at a bar and has a few drinks with friends before driving home. Within 10 miles of his house, the motorist swerves and crosses a yellow line into oncoming traffic, hitting and killing a 35-year-old husband and father of three, who is also on his way home from work.

Police investigate, and the drunk driver is arrested and charged with vehicular homicide. He goes to trial and is found guilty, sentenced to four years in prison.

This man had willingly violated the law; he knew it was wrong to drink and drive. His irresponsibility resulted in a man’s death, and under the law, he had to be held accountable.

The same day, in Tyler, Texas, supervisors at Tyler Pipe Co., a gray iron foundry purchased in 1995 by Ransom Industries, a McWane subsidiary, allegedly ignore safety guidelines set by OSHA and allow an employee to operate a conveyor belt without a safety guard. As a result, the worker dies. OSHA fines the company, but the fine is later reduced when the owner offers to comply with safety regulations in the future.

Tyler had previously received warnings from OSHA inspectors when a worker under the same conditions had an arm ripped off. PBS Frontline reported that Tyler had 38 OSHA-issued citations, and they disclosed reports of frequent amputations, scarred and disfigured workers, puddles of molten metal on the floor and poorly lit work areas.

In both of these cases, an innocent man died because of another persons blatant disregard for the law. Yet despite the similar crimes and outcomes, one man — the drunk driver — lost his license to operate and faces prison, while the other, the plant supervisor, continued to operate with a fine and a warning.

Why, we ask, aren’t both of these men facing the same consequences? If the driver repeats his mistake — drinking, driving and killing another person — he likely faces life in prison. But if the owner of the company, found to be in willful violation of OSHA regulations, repeats his mistake and another worker is killed … will he face life in prison?

Not according to the law. Under current law, a company owner found in willful violation that leads to a worker’s death is guilty of a misdemeanor — not a felony.

In Ohio, a driver found guilty of aggravated vehicle homicide faces one to eight years in prison, a fine of $15,000, and a suspended or revoked license. Linda Moeves, the owner of Moeves plumbing, based out of Ohio, has been investigated and/or cited at least 13 times by OSHA since the 1980s, and two employees have died gruesome deaths as a result of her company’s negligence.

The Moeves story, exposed by David Barstow of the New York Times, was a prime example of an employer found to be in willful violation yet left to continue operating a business. Not only did Moeves continue operating after a man died, but as OSHA records show, the company continued to ignore safety requirements, placing other employees at risk. In fact, continued disregard for safety regulations brought about a second man’s death.

How could this happen?

How is it that a drunk driver who kills somone should lose their license and serve a lengthy prison term, while Moeves, Tyler and other repeat OSHA violators continue to operate?

Penalties for DUI vehicular manslaughter vary according to state, but nearly all states impose fines, prison and a suspended or revoked license.

In Texas, where the Tyler incidents took place, intoxication manslaughter carries a penalty of 2-20 years in prison, a fine of $10,000, and a suspended license.

In the past 20 years, more than 150,000 workplace fatalities occurred. Yet less than 2000 of these cases were found by OSHA to be due to the “willful” violation of safety laws. This is significant because without a “willful” designation, it is nearly impossible for prosecutors to make a case that an employer was criminally liable. At one time, more than half of the cases investigated by OSHA were downgraded from “willful” to a less serious violation; leading only to a fine. Only 196 “willful" cases, out of all the fatalities in the last 20 years, were referred to prosecutors. Less than a hundred brought convictions, and less than 20 cases — out of the over 150,000 — were ever delivered jail sentences.