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Working In These Times

Monday, Jun 28, 2010, 1:41 pm

Federal Court Sentences PA Contractor for Lethal Safety Lapses

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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Last week, Pennsylvania roofing contractor Christopher Franc was sentenced to three years' probation and six months' house arrest for willful safety violations that resulted in the death of a worker, 29-year-old >Carl Beck, who plunged 40 feet to his death while working on a steep roof last August. Investigators found that Franc had failed to provide any fall-protection equipment to his workers. Given the height and steepness of the roof, Beck should have been wearing a full-body harness anchored to a fixed point.

Investigators found that Franc had failed to provide any fall-protection equipment to his workers. Given the height and steepness of the roof, Beck should have been wearing a full-body harness anchored to a fixed point. Investigators also found that Franc had failed to provide adequate training for new employees.

Franc plead guilty in February to a charge of willful violation of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation causing the death of an employee.

The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Pennsylvania prosecuted the case against Franc. Spokesperson Margaret Philbin told Working In These Times that her office prosecutes approximately one occupational safety case a year. She said the Franc case was handled by the Western Pennsylvania Environmental Enforcement Task Force, a 15-member group that meets regularly to address federal crimes against occupational health and the environment. The task force includes representatives from the FBI, the Department of Labor, the criminal division of the Environmental Protection Agency, and state and local authorities.

Franc was also fined $539,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The head of OSHA, Dr. David Michaels, has made it clear that the existing laws aren’t tough enough on willfully negligent employers. Michaels is pushing hard for the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), a proposed law that would impose sentences of up to 20 years in prison for employers whose willful disregard for safety causes serious injury or death.

PAWA would also strengthen whistleblower protections for workers who complain about unsafe conditions, and increase civil fines for willfull violators.  The current law specifies fines in static dollar amounts, which have only been raised once in the last 40 years. To make sure that inflation doesn’t take the sting out of sanctions, PAWA would index fines to inflation.

The bill is currently stalled in congress, but Michaels is not letting up the pressure.

“Currently, I believe the maximum sentence for an employer who willfully ignores workplace safety rules and regs and prevention efforts and one of their employees dies on the job, is six months in jail,” Michaels said in a June 15 speech, “However, if you harass a burro on federal land you can get a year in jail. Does that make sense?”

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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