When Corporations Don’t Take Precautions To Avert Workplace Deaths, the Answer Must Be Prison

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President April 26, 2017

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Alternet.

Every 12 days, a mem­ber of my union, the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers (USW), or one of their non-union co-work­ers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are hor­ri­ble deaths. Work­ers are crushed by mas­sive machin­ery. They drown in vats of chem­i­cals. They’re poi­soned by tox­ic gas, burned by molten met­al. The com­pa­ny pays a mean­ing­less fine. Noth­ing changes. And anoth­er work­er is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just mem­bers of the USW. Nation­al­ly, at all work­places, one employ­ee is killed on the job every oth­er hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all acci­dents. Too many are fore­see­able, pre­ventable, avoid­able tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Work­ers Memo­r­i­al Day 2017, the USW is seek­ing in Amer­i­ca what work­ers in Cana­da have to pre­vent these deaths. That is a law hold­ing super­vi­sors and cor­po­rate offi­cials crim­i­nal­ly account­able and exact­ing seri­ous prison sen­tences when work­ers die on the job.

Cor­po­ra­tions can take pre­cau­tions to avert work­place deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because man­agers know if work­ers are killed, it’s very like­ly the only penal­ty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just anoth­er cost of doing busi­ness, a cost infi­nite­ly low­er than that paid by the dead work­ers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniver­sary of the inci­dent that led Cana­da to estab­lish fed­er­al cor­po­rate crim­i­nal account­abil­i­ty. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine dis­as­ter that killed 26 work­ers. The Ply­mouth, Nova Sco­tia, min­ers had sought help from the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers to orga­nize, in part because of deplorable con­di­tions the com­pa­ny refused to rem­e­dy, includ­ing accu­mu­la­tion of explo­sive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Sco­tia empan­elled a com­mis­sion to inves­ti­gate. Its report, titled The Westray Sto­ry: A Pre­dictable Path to Dis­as­ter, con­demns the mine own­er, Cur­ragh Resources Inc., for plac­ing pro­duc­tion — that is prof­its — before safety.

The report says Cur­ragh dis­played a cer­tain dis­dain for safe­ty and appeared to regard safe­ty-con­scious work­ers as wimps.” In fact, Cur­ragh open­ly thwart­ed safe­ty require­ments. For exam­ple, the inves­ti­ga­tors found, Methane detec­tion equip­ment at Westray was ille­gal­ly foiled in the inter­ests of production.” 

The calami­ty occurred because Cur­ragh cal­lous­ly dis­re­gard­ed its duty to safe­guard work­ers, the inves­ti­ga­tors said. The fun­da­men­tal and basic respon­si­bil­i­ty for the safe oper­a­tion of an under­ground coal mine, and indeed of any indus­tri­al under­tak­ing, rests clear­ly with man­age­ment,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for crim­i­nal charges, and pros­e­cu­tors indict­ed mine man­agers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold super­vi­sors account­able for wan­ton­ly endan­ger­ing workers.

The Steel­work­ers respond­ed by demand­ing new leg­is­la­tion, a fed­er­al law that would pre­vent man­agers from escap­ing lia­bil­i­ty for killing work­ers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, boss­es face unlim­it­ed fines and life sen­tences in prison if their reck­less­ness caus­es a work­er death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, pros­e­cu­tors have rarely used it. Though thou­sands of work­ers have died, not one man­ag­er has gone to jail.

The first super­vi­sor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sen­tence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provin­cial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penal­ty for a trench col­lapse in 2005 that killed a work­er. There are many meth­ods to pre­vent the com­mon prob­lem of trench cave-ins, but boss­es rou­tine­ly send work­ers into the holes with­out protection.

In 2008, the com­pa­ny Transpavé in Que­bec was charged under the Westray Law after a pack­ing machine crushed one of its work­ers to death. There was a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In anoth­er case, a land­scape con­trac­tor was crim­i­nal­ly con­vict­ed in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court per­mit­ted the con­trac­tor to serve the two-year sen­tence at home with cur­fews and com­mu­ni­ty service.

Soon, how­ev­er, prison may become more than a the­o­ret­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty. A Toron­to project man­ag­er was sen­tenced last year to three and a half years in prison for per­mit­ting work­ers to board a swing stage, which is a scaf­fold that was sus­pend­ed from an apart­ment build­ing roof, with­out con­nect­ing their chest har­ness­es to safe­ty lines. The scaf­fold col­lapsed, and four work­ers plum­met­ed 13 sto­ries to their deaths. A fifth work­er sur­vived the fall with severe injuries. Anoth­er work­er, who had clicked onto a safe­ty line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the man­ag­er took a safe­ty course in which the life-and-death con­se­quences of unfail­ing­ly uti­liz­ing safe­ty lines was emphasized. 

The man­ag­er described ask­ing the site fore­man, as the fore­man and the work­ers climbed onto the scaf­fold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safe­ty lines for all of the work­ers. When the fore­man told him not to wor­ry about it, the project man­ag­er, who was in charge of the job, did noth­ing. Sec­onds lat­er, the scaf­fold floor split in half, dump­ing the fore­man and four oth­er men with­out safe­ty lines to the ground.

The pros­e­cu­tor said the manager’s fail­ure to stop the scaf­fold­ing from descend­ing with unse­cured work­ers demon­strat­ed wan­ton and reck­less dis­re­gard for the lives and safe­ty of the work­ers.” The judge said the manager’s posi­tion con­ferred on him the respon­si­bil­i­ty for safe­guard­ing the work­ers and that his con­duct con­sti­tut­ed crim­i­nal neg­li­gence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The man­ag­er has appealed the sen­tence. The work­er who con­nect­ed him­self to the life­line said the man­ag­er asked him that day to lie about what hap­pened because, the man­ag­er told him, I have a fam­i­ly.” Of course, that ignores com­plete­ly the fam­i­lies of the dead men.

It is what far too many boss­es and CEOs do. They believe their lives are pre­cious and work­ers’ are not. That’s why so many super­vi­sors defy work­er safe­ty rules.

In most U.S. work­place deaths, the com­pa­ny suf­fers noth­ing more than a fine. Last year, for exam­ple, an Everett, Wash­ing­ton State, land­scape com­pa­ny paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old work­er crushed in an auger on his sec­ond day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seat­tle Times, It’s just a drop in the buck­et. It’s like fin­ing me $10 for shoot­ing a neigh­bor.” The state cit­ed the com­pa­ny for 16 seri­ous and will­ful safe­ty violations.

Fed­er­al crim­i­nal penal­ties for killing a work­er in the Unit­ed States are so low that they are insult­ing. The max­i­mum sen­tence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Pros­e­cu­tors almost nev­er bring such cas­es, since the penal­ties are so low and the bur­den of proof so high.

U.S. super­vi­sors have gone to jail under state crim­i­nal laws, though it’s rare. A New York con­struc­tion fore­man was con­vict­ed of crim­i­nal­ly neg­li­gent homi­cide and sen­tenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for send­ing a 22-year-old work­er into an unse­cured trench and for fail­ing to stop work when an engi­neer warned it was too dan­ger­ous. The trench col­lapsed min­utes later.

In a sim­i­lar case, the own­er of a Fre­mont, Calif., con­struc­tion com­pa­ny and his project man­ag­er were con­vict­ed of manslaugh­ter and sen­tenced to two years in prison after a trench col­lapsed on a work­er. The Jan­u­ary 2012 inci­dent occurred three days after a build­ing inspec­tor ordered work to stop because the exca­va­tion lacked shoring. The man­ag­er ignored the order.

These men, the work­ers, were treat­ed like their lives didn’t mat­ter,” Deputy Dis­trict Attor­ney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make work­ers’ lives mat­ter is to make prison a real pos­si­bil­i­ty for CEOs and super­vi­sors. Lethal greed must be tem­pered by fright­en­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tions. Fines are no threat. Only prison is. Amer­i­ca needs its own Westray Law and aggres­sive enforcement.

Leo Ger­ard is inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union min­er; Ger­ard start­ed work­ing at a nick­el smelter in Sud­bury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appoint­ed the sev­enth inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent Feb. 28, 2001. For more infor­ma­tion about Ger­ard, vis­it usw​.org.
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