Safety Fail; Go to Jail?

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JRuzan
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To prevent and deter crimes that put the lives and the health of workers at risk, the Departments of Justice and Labor announced a plan on December 17, 2015 to more effectively prosecute such crimes.  Under the new plan, the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices will work with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and Wage and Hour Division (WHD) to investigate and prosecute worker endangerment violations.

“On an average day in America, 13 workers die on the job, thousands are injured and 150 succumb to diseases they obtained from exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances while they worked,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.  “Given the troubling statistics on workplace deaths and injuries, the Department of Justice is redoubling its efforts to hold accountable those who unlawfully jeopardize workers’ health and safety.”

Starting last year, the Departments of Justice and Labor began meetings to explore a joint effort to increase the frequency and effectiveness of criminal prosecutions of worker endangerment violations.  This culminated in a decision to consolidate the authorities to pursue worker safety statutes within the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resource Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.  In a memo sent to all 93 U.S. Attorneys across the country, Deputy Attorney General Yates urged federal prosecutors to work with the Environmental Crimes Section in pursuing worker endangerment violations.  The worker safety statutes generally provide for only misdemeanor penalties.  However, prosecutors have now been encouraged to consider utilizing Title 18 and environmental offenses, which often occur in conjunction with worker safety crimes, to enhance penalties and increase deterrence.  Statutes included in this plan are the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) and the Mine Safety and Health Act (MINE Act).

In the most recent example of the heightened effort to prosecute safety violators, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will be sentenced on April 6th on a conviction of conspiring to violate safety rules at a mine where a deadly explosion occurred.

Blankenship was found guilty in December of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety rules at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine, which exploded in 2010 and killed 29 men. He faces up to one year in prison for the misdemeanor. He was acquitted on felonies that could have netted him 30 years.

 

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