An OSHA Disgrace

Admittedly this isn’t in line with traditional hoiday cheer, but it is disturbing to me so you get to read about it here. Does it seem like large corporations always win or is it just the conspiracy theorist in me at work?

Ideally, when our time comes, we’ll all pass away peacefully surrounded by family and friends. Hopefully we won’t die on the job, but if we do and it is the employer’s fault (password/id “rbyrd”) the feds aren’t going to do much about it. OSHA, our workplace safety watchdog, apparently has been helping employers more than employees.

Every one of their deaths was a potential crime. Workers decapitated on assembly lines, shredded in machinery, burned beyond recognition, electrocuted, buried alive — all of them killed, investigators concluded, because their employers willfully violated workplace safety laws.

These deaths represent the very worst in the American workplace, acts of intentional wrongdoing or plain indifference that kill about 100 workers each year. They were not accidents. They happened because a boss removed a safety device to speed up production, or because a company ignored explicit safety warnings, or because a worker was denied proper protective gear.

And for years, in news releases and Congressional testimony, senior officials at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration have described these cases as intolerable outrages, “horror stories” that demanded the agency’s strongest response. They have repeatedly pledged to press wherever possible for criminal charges against those responsible.

These promises have not been kept.

Over a span of two decades, from 1982 to 2002, OSHA investigated 1,242 of these horror stories — instances in which the agency itself concluded that workers had died because of their employer’s “willful” safety violations. Yet in 93 percent of those cases, OSHA declined to seek prosecution, an eight-month examination of workplace deaths by The New York Times has found.

What is more, having avoided prosecution once, at least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted.

OSHA’s reluctance to seek prosecution, The Times found, persisted even when employers had been cited before for the very 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.

Behind that reluctance, current and former OSHA officials say, is a bureaucracy that works at every level to thwart criminal referrals. They described a bureaucracy 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 in Kansas City and Boston. “You try to reason why something is criminal, and it never flies.”

In fact, OSHA has increasingly helped employers, particularly large corporations, avoid the threat of prosecution altogether. Since 1990, the agency has quietly downgraded 202 fatality cases from “willful” to “unclassified,” a vague term favored by defense lawyers in part because it virtually forecloses the possibility of prosecution.

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