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The Price For Killing Workers Must Be Prison

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The Price For Killing Workers Must Be Prison

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Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empanelled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says.

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

Leo W. Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers union. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. Follow him on Twitter @USWBlogger.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

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10 Comments

  1. ORAXX April 27, 2017

    There is no shortage of employers who will maintain that the solution is no regulation at all, because over time the free markets will rectify the problems. Cold comfort to the families of the dead.

    Reply
    1. Thoughtopsy April 27, 2017

      They ignore the obvious issues with the “Free Market”:
      1) It’s always after the fact. As you point out, the workers are already dead when the “Free Market” finally “does something”. Regulation fixes safety issues BEFORE they happen based on past experience.
      2) Companies lie. They cover up. They spend massive amounts on smear and marketing campaigns… if anyone thinks the “Free Market” is going to punish a steel company for a worker death from 3 years ago when the company has been covering it up and spinning it for all of those 3 years as not their fault… then they are just a moron.

      Imagine if the Airline industry ran on “Free Market” deregulation and the CAA was shutdown. No regulations are enforced. No crashes are investigated to produce new regulations to increase safety. Planes start crashing killing hundreds of people. Dumb-as-f**k Republicans say “Don’t worry, the Free Market will take care of it”. I’m sure that’s a huge comfort to all the people screaming as their Boeing 777 plummets burning to the ground… I bet all of them are thinking: “Thank god we got rid of all the regulations that would have stopped this from happening so the Airline corporations can make more money by cutting corners…. this “Free Market” thing is aweso…………….”

      The “Free Market” is just GOP-babble speak for “letting corporations and wealthy people do whatever makes them the most money no matter what the damage is to the environment, the public, their customers, or their employees”.

      It’s a sad old con. Why do stupid voters keep falling for it?

      Reply
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    2. FireBaron April 28, 2017

      And, ironically enough, it was because of “the free market” that most of the regulations had to be made!

      Reply
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  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 27, 2017

    What a depressingly true account of the innate dangers of any economic system, along with government agencies and members of society who see the human being as just a production unit to be used to produce a product.

    At one time it was fashionable to see this as a feature of Communism and other forms of Socialist innovations in running societies that negate the human being’s soul—and regards humans as merely a collection of chemicals and electrical impulses. The decay of the Institution of Religion is solely responsible for this attitude and perception of the nature of the human being, and which in turn has led to a detachment from other humans.

    But now, this fatally flawed attitude of what it means to be human has infected Capitalism—again because of a near total lack of spirituality and conscience on the part of its practitioners.

    For this reason, human lives are secondary to the product and to the accumulation of wealth, profits, and meeting the demands of the bottom-line and appeasing share-holders who likewise have little or no regard for the welfare of the workers, so long as the company is profitable.

    Which is why a political entity like the Republican Party, which has gravitated almost exclusively to cater to the whims and wishes of businesses, at the expense of the workers on the floor, for decades now; and this same Party has been in the forefront of promoting such a cold and callous disregard for human life, except to pay lip-service to jobs, so long as the workers are productive in meeting the bottom-line. Not that Democrats and others are perfect angels on this matter.

    To help facilitate this callous and greedy goal, the GOP has proven once again its desire to be in the vanguard in supporting deregulation, because such restraints would negatively impact profits. As for those who lose their lives to support the executives, “C’est La Vie”. At least they had a job before their lives were seen as expendable, and could be easily replaced.

    Reply
    1. Katherine McChesney April 28, 2017

      You’re a long-winded gas bag with nothing to say.

      Reply
      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 28, 2017

        And you are a mean-spirited darkened soul who never learned how to behave. A child has better manners than you.

        Reply
  3. FireBaron April 28, 2017

    In the 2012 election cycle, Willard Marriott Romney declared “Corporations ARE people!” Therefore, whoever personifies the corporation should be held responsible for these events. It doesn’t matter if there are 20 layers of separation between the worker and the CEO. That person IS the corporation. He or she sets the tone, announces the standards and should be the one who demands the enforcement of the rules.
    When Harry Truman was President, the sign on his desk said “THE BUCK STOPS HERE”. That meant he assumed responsibility for all actions of the Federal Government. Unfortunately, in today’s corporate environment the usual response from the top is “the blame belongs to that level. Not me.”

    Reply

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