Corzine Bill Pushes for Tougher OSHA Penalties

On Workers Memorial Day, there were new signs that Congressional Democrats are rallying to support Sen. Jon Corzine's, D-N.J., bill to increase criminal penalties for willful OSHA violations that lead to a worker's death.

At an April 27 press conference called to draw attention to Corzine's proposal, S.1272, an aide to Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., indicated companion legislation would soon be introduced in the House. Perhaps of greater significance, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, announced he would introduce an expanded package of OSHA reform measures, while vowing to fight for Corzine's proposal.

Winning the support of Kennedy, with his long legislative experience and ties to the Democratic leadership, may improve the chances for Corzine's bill. Kennedy said he might try to attach the measure as an amendment to other legislation.

The odds remain long, however, that the Republican-controlled Senate will approve S.1272, as Corzine conceded that so far not a single GOP senator has agreed to support it.

"We've had good dialog [with Republicans], but no names on a piece of paper," said Corzine.

Corzine's bill would make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, to violate willfully OSHA rules when a worker dies as a result. Under current federal law, the crime is a rarely prosecuted misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six months in prison.

Corzine also wants to increase OSHA civil penalties. He pointed out that while OSHA levied $106 million in fines over a 20 period during which thousands of workers died, the government recently fined WorldCom $750 million for financial fraud.

"It's just shocking that we have these inadequate [OSHA] penalties," declared Corzine, who promised to fight hard to change the penalty structure "so that life is recognized to be as important as the presentation of financial statistics."

Kennedy promised to fight hard for increased OSHA penalties. "The idea that you get a greater penalty for upsetting a burro on a national park than you get for injuring or killing an American worker in the workplace should just frame the issue for the country," he said.

Asked about the prospects for success in the Republican controlled Congress, Kennedy responded, "We're not taking 'no' for an answer."

Because Kennedy has not yet introduced his bill, OSHA has taken no position on it, but an OSHA official commented, "we look forward to reviewing the legislation."

Also present at the press conference to lend their support to OSHA reform were surviving family members of workers killed on the job,

"We have 100 to 150 workers killed every year in the state of Alabama but it's still a misdemeanor and no one is being prosecuted," said Ron Hayes, an Alabama resident who founded a family support network after his son died in a workplace incident.

It is a felony in Alabama to hurt or kill a policeman's horse, or to kill a pet dog or cat. "Something is wrong in this country when we treat animals better than we treat humans," said Hayes.

Jeff Walters, fighting to hold back his tears, spoke next. A trench collapsed on Walters' son, burying him alive nearly two years ago in a case profiled by the New York Times' Pullitzer Prize winning series on OSHA enforcement.

"There's going to be other people who die if we don't do something about it," said Walters. The agency did not refer the Walters case for criminal prosecution, despite the fact that the employer had a history of OSHA violations and a previous trenching fatality.

"OSHA failed me and my family, and they failed thousands of families throughout the years," declared Hayes, "Unless we embrace Sen. Corzine's and Sen. Kennedy's bills, OSHA will continue to fail."

OSHA and the Bush administration have taken no position on Corzine's bill.

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