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Worker Endangerment: Feds Expanding Criminal Prosecutions

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on December 29, 2015 11:05 AM

Some jobs are naturally dangerous, some are unnecessarily so. And the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Justice have announced a new effort to investigate and criminally prosecute health and safety violations in the workplace.

The Worker Endangerment Initiative is a joint undertaking uniting the DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and Wage and Hour Division (WHD) with the DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorneys' Offices with the goal of reducing workplace death and injuries. So what does the new initiative mean for your small business?

No New Laws

The laws governing workplace safety haven't changed, but the expansion of the Worker Endangerment Initiative is an indicator that OSHA and the DOJ will be increasing existing efforts to hold employers criminally accountable for violations of existing laws. And if employers put workers in danger, they may individually liable.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act created three classes of criminal conduct. Employers can be criminally liable if they:

  1. Willfully violate specific standards, causing the death of an employee;
  2. Give advance notice of OSHA inspection activities; or
  3. Falsify documents filed or maintained under the Act.

In addition, staff, managers, and business owners can be prosecuted under federal criminal statutes prohibiting conspiracy, false statements, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering.

New Penalties

If the past year's news and December's announcement are any indication, these laws will be prosecuted more aggressively and carry heftier fines and jail time. In January, OSHA cited a roofing company for 10 safety violations after a worker's deadly fall. In June, the DOJ followed up with "four counts of making false statements, one count of obstruction of justice, and one count of willfully violating an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation causing death to an employee" against the company's owner.

The new Worker Endangerment Initiative means that can expect a lot more worker safety prosecutions in the future. If you need legal help ensuring that your small business is OSHA-compliant, you may want to consult with an experienced commercial attorney near you.

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