Government Expands Efforts to Enforce Workplace Safety

January 5th, 2016 by Nick St. Denis

Over the past two years, the federal government has increased its scrutiny of workplace safety not only in the glazing and construction industries, but across all workplace sectors. The departments of Justice and Labor recently put an even tighter microscope on the issue.

The departments announced in December they have expanded their “Worker Endangerment Initiative to Address Environmental and Worker Safety Violations.” According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), under the new plan, its Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) and the U.S. Attorneys’ offices will work with the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mine Safety and Health Administration and Wage and Hour Division to investigate and prosecute worker endangerment violations.

“On an average day in America, 13 workers die on the job, thousands are injured and 150 succumb to diseases they obtained from exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances while they worked,” Sally Quillian Yates, deputy attorney general, said in a statement. “Given the troubling statistics on workplace deaths and injuries, the Department of Justice is redoubling its efforts to hold accountable those who unlawfully jeopardize workers’ health and safety.”

In 2014, the departments began collaborating on a joint effort to increase the frequency and effectiveness of criminal prosecutions of worker endangerment violations. The departments decided to consolidate the authorities to pursue worker safety statutes within the ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section.

In a memo sent last month to all 93 U.S. Attorneys, Yates urged federal prosecutors to work with the Environmental Crimes Section in pursuing worker endangerment violations.

According to the DOJ, the worker safety statutes generally provide for only misdemeanor penalties. However, prosecutors have now been encouraged to consider utilizing Title 18 and environmental offenses, which often occur in conjunction with worker safety crimes, to enhance penalties and increase deterrence. Statutes included in this plan are the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act.

“We have seen that employers who are willing to cut corners on worker safety laws to maximize production and profit, will also turn a blind eye to environmental laws,” said ENRD assistant attorney general John C. Cruden in a statement. “Working with our partners in the Department of Labor and law enforcement, we will remove the profit from these crimes by vigorously prosecuting employers who break safety and environmental laws at the expense of American workers.”

In addition to prosecuting environmental crimes, the ENRD has also increased efforts to pursue civil cases involving worker safety violations under statutes such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Violating provisions under these statutes can impact manufacturing sector workers who handle dangerous chemicals and other materials, clean up spills and respond to hazardous releases.

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