Company executives, project managers and safety directors could face up to 20 years in prison for work site accidents if a federal bill becomes law.
The Protecting America‘s Workers Act, introduced by Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., would let the Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforce stiffer penalties for willful safety violations that result in serious injury or death.
The bill is drawing fire from the construction industry, which argues increasing penalties undermines efforts to improve safety.
“It creates financial and legal disincentives to find and fix problems before they occur,” said Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. “If I know I’m going to be fined or at risk because I know there’s a problem on site, I think it would actually drive safety concerns underground because I’m going to keep quiet.”
Kim Stille, area director for Madison’s OSHA office, said the bill would set intent as the difference between criminal charges and standard fees. For example, she said, if a backhoe operator backs over and crushes a co-worker’s leg, criminal charges would follow if the project manager, CEO or safety director knew the backhoe had service issues and instructed the worker to use it anyway.
Under current rules, Stille said, the company would face a maximum penalty of $70,000 for that kind of willful violation. If the federal bill passes, the penalty could be $120,000 or 10 years in prison.
According to the bill, repeat offenders could face 20-year sentences.
A change in the law could slow the rate of accidents, said Aaron Albright, press secretary for the House Committee on Education and Labor.
“From the legislative hearings we’ve held in committee and subcommittee,” he said, “it’s obvious that penalties are not working.”
Turmail said OSHA’s system, which lets contractors abate citations by fixing OSHA-identified problems, works. Since the program was implemented in 1998, he said, the construction fatality rate dropped by almost 50 percent nationally.
“Obviously, we’re not going to be happy until the fatality rate is zero,” he said. “But why reject 10 years of unquestioned success?”
Stille said stiffer penalties could create safer environments, but the change also could hurt OSHA’s relationship with the construction industry.
“I would like to think employers are providing a safe work environment for their workers anyway because it’s the morally right thing to do,” she said. “There are some employers that need extra motivation, but it’s dangerous when penalties become a factor of doing business.”
Stille said her office is unprepared for the bill’s passage. The Madison office has eight workers covering 19 Wisconsin counties, she said. The bill as drafted would require covering both public and private projects, she said, as well as hiring many more employees.
Jeff Parisi, president of Verona-based Parisi Construction Co. Inc., said adding potential prison sentences to work site violations will deteriorate the industry’s relationship with OSHA. Parisi said his company has received citations, but never willful violations.
“It’s a totally different ballgame if I have to have an attorney present when we talk about citations,” he said.
David Martin, president of Madison-based Ideal Builders Inc., agreed. He said he’s never thought about the prospect of prison when he arrives for work, but even if the bill passed, he probably still wouldn’t.
Martin said prison might be appropriate for repeat offenders, but companies really cannot afford not to play by the rules. If the goal is to promote safety, he said, government should not try to ramp up the fear factor.
“I suppose the alternative is doing something else,” he said. “But I sure like construction.”