The U.S. government rarely files prosecutions in workplace death cases, even if they involve workers decapitated on assembly lines, shredded in machinery, burned beyond recognition, electrocuted, and buried alive, the New York Times reports. Such deaths are acts of intentional wrongdoing or indifference–not accidents–that kill about 100 workers each year. They happened because someone removed a safety device to speed production, or because a company ignored safety warnings, or because a worker was denied proper protective gear.
Between 1982 and 2002, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated 1,242 stories – instances in which the agency concluded that workers had died because of employers’ willful safety violations. Yet in 93 percent of those cases, OSHA declined to seek prosecution, an examination of workplace deaths by the Times found.
At least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even repeat violators were rarely prosecuted. OSHA’s reluctance to seek prosecution, The Times found, persisted even when employers had been cited before for the same safety violation. It persisted even when the violations caused multiple deaths, or when the victims were teenagers. And it persisted even where reviews by administrative judges found abundant proof of willful wrongdoing.
Current and former OSHA officials blame the situation on a bureaucracy that works at every level to thwart criminal referrals. They described an agency that fails to reward, and sometimes penalizes, those who push too hard for prosecution, where aggressive enforcement is suffocated by endless layers of review, where victims’ families are frozen out but companies adeptly work the rules in their favor. “A simple lack of guts and political will,” said John T. Phillips, a former regional OSHA administrator. “You try to reason why something is criminal, and it never flies.”
The Times’s examination – based on a computer analysis of two decades of OSHA inspection data, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of government records – is the first systematic accounting of how the U.S. confronts employers who kill workers by deliberately violating workplace safety laws. It identified a total of 2,197 deaths, at companies large and small, from international corporations like Shell Oil to family-owned plumbing and painting contractors in quiet corners of America. For those 2,197 deaths, employers faced $106 million in civil fines and jail sentences totaling less than 30 years. Twenty of those years were from one case, a chicken-plant fire in North Carolina that killed 25 workers in 1991.