Conservatives spend inordinate amounts of time trying to neuter the government from its role as a regulatory body with the power to rein in corporate depravity. For them, unfettered capitalism is a religion because the “invisible hand” of the market place is supposed to somehow overcome the malevolent tendencies of the profit-motive and churn out a healthy society. The rash of employee deaths on the job across a number of industries has received inadequate responses from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for several decades now as conservatives have undermined them. There is one additional guarantee for employers across the country; no matter how egregious their worker safety violations become, they know they will never have to face real criminal consequences.
Outside the Corn Belt, few people realize that corn bins are actually quite dangerous. In 2010, 26 people died by becoming entrapped in corn. They effectively drowned in it as it takes on the qualities of quicksand. There are worker precautions that can limit the risk of this type of accident occurring. However, many businesses have factored in the cost of doing business without safety precautions, and they have decided to risk the lives of their employees. They know that the consequences for allowing one of their workers to die are minimal. Since 1984, fines for grain entrapment deaths have fallen by almost 60%. In fact, according to Jim Morris, a report by the Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio found, “analysis of OSHA data shows that 179 people died in grain entrapments at commercial facilities — bins, rail cars, etc. — from 1984 through 2012. The fines initially proposed in these cases totaled $9.2 million but were cut to $3.8 million, a reduction of 59 percent.” Penalties like jail time are incredibly limited.
OHSA isn’t doing any better at protecting the oil & gas workforce, steel mill workers, trench diggers, or as we all keenly aware following the West, Texas explosion, chemical plant workers. During a 4-month period in 2010, 58 workers were killed in the oil and gas industry, and one union health and safety inspector notes, “They are basically self-regulated.” It isn’t surprising, because the penalties that OSHA is allowed to assess are among the lowest of any regulatory agency. By law, they haven’t been able to increase penalties with inflation since 1990. They are not even allowed to force an employer to fix a safety hazard after they issue a citation, often settling for a “pledge” from the company to behave. For example, a worker death at Crucible Steel Industries came after OHSA had cited the company for 70 safety violations and issued it $250,000 in fines. These figures stand out, because “serious” violations defined by OSHA as “most likely result in death or serious physical harm” carry a maximum penalty of $7,000 and “willful” violations receive a maximum fine of $36,720.
Of course, the mining industry is notorious for its unsafe conditions with 11 deaths just so far this year, but less well known are the dangers of digging trenches. The deaths of trench diggers are regarded by work safety experts as completely unnecessary. Nonetheless, 200 workers have been killed and scores more injured since 2002 by reckless employers unwilling to invest in the safety precautions. In an older research study published in 1988, researchers found that most workers died in shallow trenches while digging sewer lines. The walls of the trenches had not been shored up or braced. Strikingly, only 12% of such deaths occurred in unionized companies. The average fine per death: $1,991.
Chris Hamby, also of the Center of Public Integrity, explains, “Federal OSHA or the state agencies it oversees have failed to collect any of the original fine in one of every 10 cases since 2001…between the 2006 and 2012 fiscal years, OSHA referred about $131 million in debts to the Treasury Department, but only about $16 million was collected.”
Of course, the tragedy in West, Texas with the explosion of the West Chemical & Fertilizer Company shed light on the lax regulation this industry has enjoyed. Many people were stunned to learn that OSHA had not inspected the company since 1985. The company was last inspected by any regulatory agency whatsoever five years ago. Now, 15 people are dead. Chemical plant safety violations led to the death of an AC & S worker last year, resulting in 12 serious violations for the company. They might pay a fine of $42,700, if the company doesn’t successfully fight the fines in court, shut down and reopen under a new name, simply ignore the fine, or the debt isn’t discharged like it is in one out of every 20 worker death cases.
Despite its lack of substantive regulatory power, Republicans have worked hard for decades to eliminate the ability of OSHA to do its job. There are only 2,200 inspectors for 8 million work sites. Many Democratic lawmakers, listening to health and safety experts, agree that OSHA is “weak and ineffective” and therefore, they have proposed laws strengthening the agency. This is particularly evident when reviewing OSHA procedures for handling worker safety complaints. Once an employee contacts OSHA to report their workplace, the agency does not immediately send inspectors to investigate the problem. Instead, they notify the employer, ask the employer to investigate the reported safety violation, and then the employer has five days to report back to the agency. If the agency is satisfied with the response given by the employer, no inspection is scheduled. Essentially, businesses are free to police themselves. Clearly, that is not working.
Although many environmental crimes are charged as felonies, knowingly violating worker safety laws, leading to the death of an employee, is charged only as a misdemeanor with a maximum of six months in jail. The risk of actually spending any time in jail is minimal. You’re more likely to go to jail for videotaping cruelty to animals on factory farms than for overseeing a worksite responsible for the death of a worker. This state of affairs has been largely wrought by Republicans working as lackeys for businesses who whine about regulations, proving yet again how much value they actually place on life.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.