Tougher Safety Penalties Will Improve Workplace Health and Safety, Witnesses Tell House Subcommittee

Washington, DC (CompNewsNetwork) - Witnesses told the Workforce Protections Subcommittee that legislation to strengthen and modernize workplace health and safety laws will save lives and hold employers accountable if they knowingly put their workers in danger.

“There is no question that [current health and safety law] has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and countless others have avoided preventable illnesses and injuries,” said U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D- CA), chair of the subcommittee. “But we cannot claim victory because more than 5,000 workers a year are still killed on the job, 50,000 die from occupational disease, and millions of others become seriously ill or injured.”
The Protecting America's Workers Act (H.R. 2067), introduced by Woolsey, will strengthen and modernize the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the law that ensures the health and safety of American workers. Among the bill's other provisions, it will improve whistleblower protections, strengthen enforcement and increase monetary penalties.

“Jobs cannot be good jobs unless they are safe jobs. Stronger OSHA enforcement will save lives,” said David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “Because OSHA can visit only a limited number of workplaces each year we need a stronger OSH Act to leverage our resources to encourage compliance by employers. [Protecting America's Workers Act] includes critical provisions that deal with significant weaknesses in the current law and more adequately ensure the safety and health of America's workers.”

Witnesses testified that current sanctions do not provide adequate deterrence for employers to comply with the law and protect workers because penalties haven't been updated in nearly 20 years. Further, penalties are not adjusted according to inflation as other laws currently are. As a result, witnesses said that some employers view them simply as the cost of doing business. The Protecting America's Workers Act will index the increased civil monetary penalties to inflation in the future

“Over the years, OSHA's ability to effectively conduct enforcement programs has been greatly diminished,” said Eric Frumin, the health and safety coordinator of Change to Win. “The current penalties do not provide a serious deterrent to serious misbehavior by employers.”

The legislation will also subject employers who knowingly put their workers in harm's way that results in a fatality or serious injury to felony prosecution and prison time, equivalent to other federal laws, such as the penalties in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The Department of Justice said that current environmental sanctions are successful at holding unscrupulous employers accountable for polluting and similar penalties should be applied to employers who knowingly harm or cause the deaths of workers.

“Adding felony provisions to the OSH Act, as proposed, would provide important tools to prosecute those employers who expose their workers to the risk of death or serious injury, whether charged in conjunction with environmental crimes or charged alone,” said John Cruden, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Environmental and Natural Resources Division. “The Department of Justice supports the strengthening of OSHA's criminal penalties to make it more consistent with other criminal statutes and further the goal of improving worker safety.”   

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