Mich. Owner, Firm Plead Guilty in Worker's Death

A resolution was made in the first criminal case in Michigan history where an owner is being held criminally responsible for a workplace fatality.

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Michigan Department of Consumer & Industry Services (CIS) said there has been a resolution in the criminal prosecution against Edmund D. Woods, owner, and Midland Environmental Services Inc., for the 1994 fatality of an employee.

The CIS Bureau of Safety and Regulation is responsible for administering the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act (MIOSHA).

This case is unprecedented because it is the first criminal case in Michigan history where an owner was held criminally responsible for a workplace fatality, said CIS Director Kathy Wilbur.

"It can''t be stated strongly enough: Michigan employers are ultimately responsible for the safety of their workers on the job," said Wilbur. "Edmund Woods consistently and blatantly ignored basic MIOSHA regulations, and refused to provide a work environment free from hazards. This case should serve as a reminder to all employers that they are accountable for providing a safe and healthy work environment."

On Dec. 8, 1994, Michael J. Rennenberg, an employee of Midland Environmental Services Inc., was killed when an explosion occurred during a cutting operation on an underground storage tank which had previously contained a petroleum product.

Three other employees were also injured in the blast.

An investigation by a MIOSHA safety officer revealed that Woods and Midland Environmental Services knew of the substantial risk of injury to employees engaged in this type of work, and failed to use ordinary care to prevent injury to their employees.

Additionally, they failed to furnish Rennenberg a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

Specifically, Woods and Midland Environmental Services ignored MIOSHA safety regulations pertaining to:

  • training employees to use and/or calibrate an explosive meter;
  • confined space regulations;
  • personal protective equipment; and
  • the development of accident prevention programs.

On Sept. 26, 1995, MIOSHA issued seven willful citaitons and one serious citaiton to Midland Environmental Services Inc., with proposed penalties totaling $427,000.

Yesterday, in Michigan''s Gladwin County Circuit Court, Woods and Midland Environmental Services entered guilty pleas to attempted involuntary manslaughter and the charge regarding the MIOSHA willful criminal violations.

In court yesterday, Woods admitted that he was supervising the work activities on the day of the explosion, that they were using the wrong cutting device, and that the device ignited the spark which caused the explosion.

Moreover, Woods admitted he was aware of known hazards, and still allowed the work to proceed, and the failure to comply with MIOSHA rules led to the wanton and willful disregard of hazards that led to Razzenberg''s death.

Woods and Midland Environmental agreed to negotiate a settlement with MIOSHA.

Under the agreement, MIOSHA will closely monitor the company and help ensure that their employees are protected. The company will pay a reduction in the original proposed penalties to $125,000.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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