Justice Dept. to prosecutors: Tackle job safety crimes, other abuses

OSHA inspectors AP

WASHINGTON (PAI) - In a move to put some teeth into federal occupational safety and health law, the Obama Administration Department of Justice (DOJ) has told the nation's federal prosecutors to jointly tackle workplace safety and health crimes at the same time they prosecute other anti-worker abuses - particularly environmental crimes - at those same companies.

The point, top DOJ officials say, is to make violations of job safety and health more costly to errant companies, hopefully deterring the firms from breaking the law in the first place.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the DOJ's environmental crimes section worked out the details of the joint probes and prosecutions late last year. That DOJ section is also cross-training OSHA inspectors to spot other crimes. The new joint prosecution program started just after the new year began.

In her memo for U.S. attorneys, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates summarized the job safety and health law enforcement problem, which workers, unions and their allies have complained about for years.

"The Occupational Safety and Health Act provides criminal sanctions for three types of conduct affecting worker safety," Yates said. But those sanctions are "a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of no more than $10,000 and imprisonment of no more than six months.

"Perhaps because these penalties have never been increased" since the Occupational Safety and Health Act began in 1970, "there are only a handful of prosecutions each year - three in 2013," Yates added.

"Prosecutors can make enforcement meaningful by charging other serious offenses that often occur in conjunction with Occupational Safety and Health Act violations," Yates told the nation's 93 federal prosecutors and their offices.

Some of the crimes to which prosecutors could link corporate job safety and health act violations include obstruction of justice, making false statements, witness tampering, conspiracy and environmental crimes. Convictions in such cases carry hefty fines and 5- to 20-year prison terms, Yates said.

"These felony provisions provide additional important tools to deter and punish workplace safety crimes," she added.

Besides job safety crimes that companies commit under OSHA, the new program also covers company criminal conduct under the Mine Safety and Health Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Act, and the Atomic Energy Act.

To make the new program more effective in prosecuting companies that break job safety laws, the DOJ is taking job safety enforcement out of its criminal fraud section and transferring it to the environmental crimes section.

Yates also told the U.S. attorneys to expect the Labor Department to appoint a designated Criminal Coordinator to work with them, and urged them to appoint one lead attorney in each of their offices to oversee such coordinated job safety crime-environmental crime cases.

Photo: OSHA.  |  AP