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Corner Cubicle: Is a Human Life Worth $2,363?

Nov. 12, 2014
The family of a 20-year-old construction worker who died on a Wyoming construction site is asking state lawmakers to consider legislation that would mandate an automatic $50,000 fine for safety violations that cause workplace fatalities.

One of the biggest challenges for EHS professionals is quantifying safety's direct impact on the bottom line. How do you calculate the financial value of a life not lost, of an accident that never happened, of a lawsuit avoided? How do you put a dollar figure on the business value of higher morale, better attendance and improved productivity? It's a worthwhile exercise, but it's not an exact science by any means.  

Along the same lines, how do you quantify the value of a human life? 

While some might consider that a ridiculous question, the parents of Brett Collins believe that it should be more than $2,363. That was the financial penalty that Wyoming OSHA levied against COP Construction LLC for the safety violation that led to Collins's death in August 2012.

Collins, 20, was struck in the head by an excavator bucket while working in a trench on a construction site in Sheridan, Wyo. His parents say he was ordered to enter the trench. After negotiating with the state, COP Construction received a $6,773 fine – $4,410 for inadequate safety training, and $2,363 for Collins's presence in the trench while the excavator was operating.

"I can't even explain to you how that makes you feel," Kim Collins, Brett's stepmother, told the Casper Star-Tribune. "I could pull out of here on a sunny morning and hit someone and kill them, and I would be in prison or I would have my license taken. Why is it that someone can kill my son and there is no consequence for that? There's a few thousand-dollar fine for that."

The Collins family is trying to change that.

The Collinses are asking state lawmakers to consider legislation that would mandate an automatic $50,000 fine for safety violations that cause workplace fatalities. The fine would be non-negotiable – meaning a company wouldn't be able to negotiate reduced penalties for working conditions that led to an employee's death.

In 2010, state Rep. Mary Throne sponsored similar legislation, which passed the House but died in the Senate. The Collins family's proposal could face steep odds as well. But the Casper Star-Tribune notes that members of the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee "warmly greeted the measure when the Collinses first outlined their proposal."

"We've been listening to the stories of families for four or five years now, feeling offended they've lost loved ones as a result of a workplace safety violations," Throne told the Casper Star-Tribune. "I'm really tired of expressing all our sympathy and condolences and not doing anything."

A draft version of the proposed bill calls for a $50,000 fine to be assessed to any employer committing a safety violation "that materially contributes to causing the death of an employee." The $50,000 fine would be on top of any other fines assessed for each safety violation.

Based on the language in the draft version of the bill, an employer could appeal the automatic $50,000 fine "on issues related to whether the violation materially contributed to the death of the employee or was within the jurisdiction of [Wyoming OSHA]."

The Collins family's quest for justice gets to the heart of a long-standing debate on OSHA enforcement: Are OSHA fines large enough to serve as a deterrent for future safety violations? Would the specter of bigger fines convince recalcitrant employers to get serious about workplace safety? And when it comes to OSHA penalties, how much is too much?

Does it make any sense that COP Construction received $6,773 in total fines for a workplace fatality, while pet-food manufacturer All-Feed Processing and Packaging is facing $254,000 in fines for allegedly exposing workers to combustible-dust and respiratory hazards? Alpha, Ill.-based All-Feed reportedly is shutting down, unable to continue operating under the weight of OSHA's fines. 

It's important to note that All-Feed has been in OSHA's crosshairs for several years, and the company is in the agency's Severe Violator Enforcement Program. But compare $254,000 in fines for safety violations that could've caused a fatality – but didn't – with a $2,363 fine for the specific violation that led to the death of Brett Collins, and it's easy to conclude that the system is out of whack.

If the Collins family's proposal sees the light of day, it wouldn't bring their son back. But it might provide some comfort that their son didn't die in vain.

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