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Bill pitches prison for willful workplace violations

By Paul Snyder

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 Americas 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.

An OSHA investigator speaks with the the uncle of a missing construction worker across the scene from the collapsed parking garage in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2007. A newly introduced bill in Congress would let OSHA enforce stiffer penalties for violations that result in serious injury or death. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Self)

An OSHA investigator speaks with the the uncle of a missing construction worker across the scene from the collapsed parking garage in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2007. A newly introduced bill in Congress would let OSHA enforce stiffer penalties for violations that result in serious injury or death. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Self)

“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.”


  1. Because of OSHA directors like Kim Stille is why we need legislation like this. This article refers to the relationship between OSHA and the construction industry being damaged. What they really mean is the relationship between OSHA and irresponsible, dirty contractors will be damaged. What happened to OSHA protecting the workers? OSHA currently has no relationship with the workers and lets the contractor get away with murder. Try telling the wife of the worker who got his legs crushed that “It’s dangerous when penalties become a factor of doing business.” Kim Stille and other OSHA directors like her is what is wrong with OSHA!!! When they do fine a contractor they negotiate the fine down to nothing. KIM STILLE SHOULD BE FIRED!!!!!

  2. When did people stop being responsible for themselves? If it looks dangerous, don’t go there! To contemplate incarcerating executives for 20 years who may be so removed from daily operations that they have no idea of the dangers is Obamic.

    Obamic: websters defines Obamic as having no fricken brains and being grounded in socialism. See also unions and cowering to unions ….

  3. There has been a law on the books here in California since 1990, it is nicknamed as “Be a Manager, go to Jail”. It is similar to what she is introducing…… Everyone was
    bent out of shape when it was signed into law, same arguments as you are hearing here. Since then I’ve only hear of one case were they went after a Manager, a person was killed in this case. After 8 years of GW administration of dumbing down any enforcement against businesses, you should expect changes to go the other directions.
    The vast majority of businesses try to provide a safety work environment for their employees, it only makes financial sense. But there will be a few that need to have a stick to force them into compliance.

  4. This law isn’t for companies who are forthright and have a reasonable level of integrity. It’s for those either don’t understand the law or those who ignore the law. It’s for those companies who provide incentives for accellerated production without considering the consequences of what might happen if their Superintendents & Foremen take advantage of their control over worker’s safety and bypass safety rules. There has to be consequences for any level of management that does not control safety & health issue prudently particularly if their actions result in a workers death.

  5. John MacIntyre

    I would go along with this bill, if they also fine and put in jail some of the so called professional who work in construction, but continue to work in unsafe conditions even when the construction company demands and supplies all of the safety equipment on a project..

  6. I think that if this bill passes it could be misused. I am in favor of punishing those companies that knowingly put their employees in harms way. But I think we can predict that a prosecutor will not think twice about prosecuting a company or its managers whether the company does care and takes measures to try to provide a safe working environment for its employees. Companies can provide safe procedures, proper personal protective equipment, training and disciplinary actions but sometimes that does not stop that employee from taking a shortcut that might prove fatal. The employee needs to be also held responsible for their actions. It would be nice if OSHA could fine the employee if the investigation shows that the employee was negligent. Than those employees might take notice if it hits them in the pocket.

  7. Here in the U.S. we are adopting the same attitude for enforcing safety they has already been practiced in Europe.

    Managers and Supervisors have nothing to worry about if they are practicing due diligence in enforcing company safety policies and maintaining good records.

    If an OSHA inspector were to inspect your place of employment and ask why they don’t see any write ups on employees for safety violations and you say because everybody works safely here, all they have to do is look at a forklift and see the scratched paint to know you are BSing him.

    The very first thing an OSHA inspector will look at is your training records, then your action plans.

    As long as the company is doing their part in conducting safety training, indoctrinating new personnel, and enforcing safety policy, then any accidents that take place will fall on the shoulders of the employee.

    The majority of the companies in the U.S. have never had an OSHA inspector on their premises. These companies figure they never will and allow safety items to fall behind and adopt a slack attitude towards safety. Management put safety on a low priority and things like Forklift safety training, Log out tag out, scaffolding and ergonomics are over looked until something bad happens. When management is held accountable for any accidents because they are ultimately responsible for anything that happens on company property, they will be more willing to approve more to the budget for maintaining safety.

    One person mentioned they will be more likely to cover up any accidents. That’s fine, you do that because then you’ll be more likely to do time, then somebody that is doing an earnest job in promoting safety in their company.

  8. If they are going to hold the Company executives, project managers and safety directors liable for safety why don’t they extend that to the workers too? They do it in Canada and it works. Instead of pointing out the “Dirty Contractors” how about the employees who are informed of the rule, trained in the rule, and then give the proper PPE to wear to conform to the rule and then just ignore it and do it the way they “have been for years”. Only in holding everybody responsible for safety will you effectively get the message across. To have a effective safety partnership you have to include all the levels on the job, from OSHA, to the owners, to the Contractors, to the respective Unions, to finally the workers themselves.

  9. This is all so unbelievable!!!
    OSHA already has rules and regulations and directives and interpretations on how to deal with a bad or unsafe employer. What the heck is going on here. This is all bull from start to finish. I worked for OSHA. I knew who the bad actors were in my particular area and would deal with them through Willful Citations and constant inspections on so called Drive-Bys or so called emphasis programs.
    These are just a bunch of people who know nothing about construction other than rules and regulations and wanting to be the “Cowboy or Cowgirl” to the big boys in Washington.

    I work in construction and hammer safety every day. I fire people for working unsafe and try to comply with the rules which is a nightmare. I’ve worked in construction safety for over 35 years with 13 years with Federal OSHA. Contractors care about their workers and almost every one of them try to comply. But after the brainwashing OSHA gives you when you’re hired in you need to make inspections, get the numbers, get the serious violations and most of all crank up a couple Willfuls and you’re a hero.

    We need Fair and Consistent Enforcement from OSHA with Employer Assistance Programs at the top of the list to assist those employers who need guidance. Not some state plan agency.
    I’m also convinced that most of the fatalities in construction come from State OSHA operated states. When some of these employers come from a State Plan in any given state they can’t believe the amount and frequency of inspections from a state that has a Federally Operated OSHA Plan. They pay 200.00 or 300.00 in a state plan area and come to a federal state and get cited 200,000.00. I’m not sure about this but I would like OSHA or the BLS to look and see where most of the fatalities come from. State plans or federal plan states. If it is state plan states that have the most fatalities then hold them accountable and make them raise their penalties and pickup their enforcement procedures.
    I can tell you this….I’m nervous every day of my life trying to make sure all of our employees work safe and go home safe and now with the possibility of going to prison because of a mistake in the field or on a project I truely believe I’m going to die of a heart attack to finalize my transition from my current stomach ulcers.
    This administration has got to stop this **** of making employers think their all bad. Employers are America….Employers put people to work….big employers put a lot of people to work. That does NOT make them bad. If it were not for employers there would be no jobs….pretty easy equation don’t you think.
    come on safety people we have to stand up for this one…I sure as heck am not going to go to jail because of a mistake I or someone else made in the field.
    This is all so depressing I can’t believe it. Government intrusion. Government oversight. Government intervention. Call it whatever you want but its all socialistic principles.

    Oh yea, where is our American Society of Safety Engineers when you need them. This organization is so far up OSHA’s rearend they would never say or stand up for the membership when threatened by the government that safety professionals might go to jail for a mistake. Come on ASSE Let’s do the right thing here. I know there are a lot of weenies in the ASSE but you would think their might be a few who would stand up and lobby for the membership when OSHA directives say the safety person could go to prison for up to 20 years.
    My God!!!!this is amazing.

  10. Some of you are missing the point. There are companies that even after being inspected and given citations to fix discrepancies they are completely disregarding the citations and doing nothing. In OSHA newsletters I’ve read about companies total disregard for correcting discrepancies. It’s like they don’t take OSHA seriously.

    The term “Near Miss” applies to potential accidents that haven’t happened yet but you can see the potential for an accident to happen. Like a power cord extended across a walkway about 2″ off the ground, or working on an electric panel without properly tagging it out. An inspector comes along and sees these things taking place and looks at the training records and sees no training on tag out procedures and sees no action taken to correct the tag out discrepancy then you have probable cause for complete neglect on the part of management. If management was promoting a culture for safety in the first place and promoting a safety program then they have nothing to worry about.

    However if they inspect for the first time and find these things, they are supposed to come back for a follow up to see what has been done to correct it or show them a plan to have it corrected in a certain time frame. If they come back at a latter date and see things are back to where they were when they first inspected, then they are going to hammer management for Willful Workplace violations.

    It’s better that some manager goes to jail rather than some employee getting killed.

    If the company has a safety program in place and safety policies are diligently enforced then management has nothing to worry about if someone should happen to get killed because chances are that employee was cutting corners and ignoring company policy and will held accountable for their neglect rather than management.

  11. “If the company has a safety program in place and safety policies are diligently enforced then management has nothing to worry about if someone should happen to get killed because chances are that employee was cutting corners and ignoring company policy and will held accountable for their neglect rather than management.”

    The above statement and others like it show a total ignorance of dealing with bureacracies, especially when you are a small employer who cant afford high priced lawyers to protect you. Chance are??? The same logic can be used for our current legal system. So why do I here about all these people being released from prison because it turns out they were innocent? And just who is going to go to prison? The CEO in New York is going to go to prison because a backup alarm wasnt operating and someone took the safety tag off the ignition or will it be some low level foreman with four kids to feed.

    I have dealt with government bureaucrats when someone makes a complaint and you are guilty until proven innocent. The above statement from some of you how you have nothing to fear if you follow the rules is fine until you’re the one put on the chopping block. We have many bridges in america that are substandard. Lets make a law that if a bridge collapses and people die, the governmor of a state can go to prison. Think that will pass?? Most states know about these bridges but give them an ok anyways because “chances are” it wont collapse and it costs money we dont have to repair. Think politics wont play into this even if a person “followed all the rules”?

  12. “If they are going to hold the Company executives, project managers and safety directors liable for safety why don’t they extend that to the workers too?”

    Because worker generally means union. Unions give big political contributions just like business. Think the union wants to potentially subject members to prison time for safety violations? I had a friend who had a backhoe bucket fall on him and crush his leg. It turned out the backhoe had an alarm to tell the operator the bucket was not secure, but the operator had his MP3 player plugged in with earphones and didnt hear the alarm. Robert, shoud that guy go to jail?? Should another company be allowed to hire him? My friend (who after major surgery and muscle transplants can walk with a cane) told me the operator was back on the job a few days later when the union complained about his being laid off during the investigation. OHSHA investigated but since its the employee (and from what I heard they tried hard to pin it on the company) no action was taken.

  13. Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., has introduced a bill, the so-called Protecting America’s Workers Act, wherein contractors, project managers and safety directors will be subjected to criminal charges and prison terms if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration thinks they are guilty of a willful violation of safety standards.

    Great, let’s give a federal safety and health administration the powers of criminal charges currently reserved appropriately for trained legal professionals in the local district attorneys’ offices. Now that is really smart thinking.

    Let’s see now, criminalize contractors, project managers and safety directors and throw them in jail. That way, their employees will have no jobs and no risk of construction site injury.

    Now, the unemployed can sit on the couch at home and break the bank with health care costs before they die early from heart disease and diabetes. Perfect.

    But wait, isn’t the home the most common place for personal injury accidents? Now what? Maybe we had better criminalize the homebuilder who provided a house that is so dangerous to live in. Now the worker can be homeless also.

    Finally, the liberal left has the desired total control and power over the formerly productive workers by keeping them unemployed, homeless and completely dependent on the federal government. Just the way they want it, isn’t it?

    If you want to protect workers, get off the back and out of the way of the people who employ them, and vote this kind of congressional representative out of office for goodness sake.

    It’s a disgrace.


  14. We are a nation of laws. Laws protect society as a whole and individuals as members of a society. Only lawbreakers fear or protest laws.

    Companies with good safety programs that are supported by company executives and that involve the field workers will not have problems with any safety laws. Companies that do otherwise deserve to suffer the consequences. That is how it is with any laws in society.

  15. Being in business used to be enjoyable but the government bureaucracies have made it more and more oppressive. I am in a business that is very risky. In all the time I’ve been in business my company has never had an EMR above 1 and in most years approaches the lowest it can be for the volume of work my company does. Much of the OSH Act is politics and bureaucracy. Yes, as an employer I have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace for my employees as well as safety training and personal protective equipment for them. I see the Canadian system mentioned where if the employer fulfills their responsibility and the employee ignores it, it is the employee who is penalized. We don’t have this. It’s all on the employer. We conduct a company-wide safety training day in the spring of each year and pay to have professional trainers come to our locations and do the training. Just this spring we completed such training and, while I was out of the country on a charity mission, one of my “trained” employees, decided it was too much trouble to hook up to a harness “just to pick up a tool” outside of a warning line. Great timing as a OSHA “compliance” officer took a photo and then did an inspection. 2 citations related to this guy and his lack of “compliance” and a $2,000.00 fine. Not to him–to the company! Can’t fire him (yet), because our policy had been a “three-strike” policy. I say “had been” but, since OSHA shows no tolerance, regardless of training, inspection, and actual past performance and compliance by companies, we now have implemented an ABSOLUTELY NO TOLERANCE policy with our employees. They are intimidated, they are worried, and they should be. Since OSHA has no tolerance, sorry, I can’t show any either. With the “proposed” criminalization of our industry, I[m wondering if my supervisors may quit. After nearly 40 years in business I’m glad I’m close to retirement. I feel guilty about having encouraged a couple of my children to take over.
    This is just one of a number of problems with OSHA, a bureaucracy typical of government–well meaning but oppressive and only marginally effective.

  16. Excellent discussion ! I was fascinated by the facts ! Does someone know where my business would be able to grab a template a form copy to work with ?

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