By Katie Tracy, Center for Progressive Reform
Too often, workplace injuries and deaths result from company policies and practices that encourage and reward unacceptably risky behavior under the false pretense that cutting corners is standard practice and no one will get hurt. As a result, an average of 13 Americans are killed on the job every day, and many more are seriously injured.
In many cases, these tragedies and the grave pain they impose on the victims’ families, friends, and communities are preventable with basic safety measures. Nevertheless, employers and authorities commonly treat work-related deaths and injuries as “accidents” rather than investigating them as potential crimes. They simply pass these cases off to regulators at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or a state counterpart, which conducts an investigation and assesses what amounts to an insignificant civil penalty – a fine that can be as small as a few thousand dollars. Then, everyone continues business as usual until another tragedy occurs.
Over the past several decades, some state and local prosecutors have broken the mold and stepped forward to pursue charges against companies and executives who have committed crimes against workers. They have charged the wrongdoers for offenses under their states’ criminal codes, with charges including manslaughter, aggravated assault, and reckless endangerment. The Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) has been cataloging these cases for over a year, and today, we launched the first-ever database of state prosecutions of “Crimes Against Workers“. As we launch, the database contains information on 75 incidents from 16 states and provides related materials such as case files, court decisions, media clips, and advocacy resources.
For example, just one year ago in Massachusetts, Kelvin Mattocks and Robert Higgins were working construction for Atlantic Drain Services when the trench they were in collapsed. Both men were buried up to their waists in dirt and then moments later, a fire hydrant that the dirt had been supporting collapsed, the water line snapped, and the trench quickly filled with water, causing them to drown.
Although OSHA requires employers to secure any trench that is five feet deep or more, Atlantic Drain Services and its owner, Kevin Otto, chose to ignore these requirements. Making matters worse, after Mattocks and Higgins died, Otto forged their signatures on documents stating they had completed safety training courses, even though they had not.
OSHA conducted an investigation, issued 18 citations against the company, and proposed a fine of $1,475,813, which the company has chosen to contest, meaning it may be lowered when all is said and done. As is typical, OSHA has not sought federal criminal charges under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) in this case.
Fortunately, recognizing the criminal nature of this incident, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley has charged Atlantic Drain Services and Otto with manslaughter, misleading an investigator, and concealing a record under the state’s criminal code. The case is still pending.
As new information about this case and other cases becomes available, we’ll update the database so users have all the latest details and resources at their fingertips. In the Atlantic Drain Services case, for instance, the database highlights a memorial and call to action hosted by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) on October 23, 2017. The family members of the victims, advocates, and members of the public stood at the State House to remember both Mattocks and Higgins and to call for state legislation that would require contractors bidding for government contracts to disclose their former OSHA violations. They also called for legislation that would raise the criminal fine applicable against companies convicted of manslaughter, which is currently set at a $1,000 maximum.
We’re hopeful this database will serve as a resource for prosecutors, advocates, reporters, and others who are seeking to ensure that those who commit crimes against workers are punished accordingly and that other potential bad actors hear the message that they will be held accountable for criminal misconduct. We also invite users to provide new or updated case information, submit documents, and ask questions.
Thousands of American workers are killed on the job every year. These people are not just a statistic – they are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, siblings, spouses, fiancés, recent graduates, neighbors, and beloved members of their communities. Everyone deserves to return home safe and secure at the end of a hard day’s work, and those who aren’t given that chance deserve justice.
To hear more about the database and how you can utilize it in your work, please join us for a brief webinar on November 14 at 1 p.m. Eastern.