Op-Ed: Prosecuting Safety Violations that Lead to Worker Deaths

by Matthew Freeman

CPR’s Rena Steinzor and Katherine Tracy had an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee over the weekend highlighting the reluctance of police and prosecutors to treat worker deaths as if they were anything but mere accidents. In fact, they’re often the result of illegal cost-cutting and safety shortcuts by employers, behavior that sometimes warrants criminal charges. They write:

When a worker dies because a trench collapses, and it turns out that managers sacrificed safety to get the job done faster, that’s a crime. When managers operate factories with equipment that doesn’t have an accessible emergency shut-off switch and an employee is crushed or loses a limb, those managers should be indicted. But with few exceptions, police and prosecutors treat worker deaths and injuries as unforeseeable “accidents” that can’t be prevented. So too many companies think they can save money by cutting corners and view the fines involved as a cost of doing business.

They go on to tell the tragic story leading to the death of Lawrence Daquan “Day” Davis, a temporary employee who died on his first day of work at a Bacardi bottling plant in Florida. Ignoring requirements to provide comprehensive safety training, the company sent Davis out on the line within 15 minutes of his arrival at the plant after showing him a brief safety video. Not too long later, Davis was instructed to clean up some broken bottles under a malfunctioning machine. As he was doing that, the machine was restarted, and Davis was crushed to death.

Bacardi’s only punishment for failing to provide genuine safety training before sending an employee off to do a dangerous job was a fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for $110,000. As Steinzor and Tracy point out,

No criminal charges were brought against either company or their executives. Davis’ story is all too common. On average, more than 4,600 U.S. workers a year are killed on the job. These workers are parents, neighbors and friends all trying to make a day’s pay and provide for their families.

The solution, they say, is for authorities to examine such events for possible criminal behavior, rather than simply passing them on to OSHA and washing their hands. “[S]erious injuries and fatalities should be treated as potential crimes and examined carefully by police and prosecutors, in coordination with occupational safety officials,” they conclude.

recent CPR manual for advocacy organizations makes a similar case, encouraging local groups to press police and prosecutors to treat workplace deaths and injuries as potential crimes.

A slightly longer version of the op-ed appeared yesterday on FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization focused on public health, safety and environmental issues.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform