Mr. Elias wanted his workers to clean out a 25,000-gallon tank that contained cyanide waste. He refused to test the air or the waste inside the tank. He ignored the pleas of his workers for safety equipment. When the workers complained of sore throats and difficulty breathing, Mr. Elias told them to finish the job or find work somewhere else.
Mr. Dominguez, a 20-year-old high school graduate, wanted to keep his job. Wearing just jeans and a T-shirt, he used a ladder to descend into the tank. Two hours later, covered in sludge and barely breathing, he was removed from the tank, a victim of cyanide poisoning at the hands of a ruthless employer who would blame his “stupid and lazy” employees for the incident. Mr. Dominguez suffered severe and permanent brain damage. He now has the rigid body movement and stammering speech found in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Elias did not commit a crime under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which is the primary federal worker-safety law in the United States. Why not? Because Mr. Dominguez did not die.
Employers rarely face criminal prosecution under the worker-safety laws. In the 38 years since Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act, only 68 criminal cases have been prosecuted, or less than two per year, with defendants serving a total of just 42 months in jail. During that same time, approximately 341,000 people have died at work, according to data compiled from the National Safety Council and the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
It is long past time for Congress to change the law. First, Congress should amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to make it a crime for an employer to commit violations that cause serious injury to workers or that knowingly place workers at risk of death or serious injury. Whether good fortune intervenes and prevents harm to workers should not determine whether an employer commits a crime.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
The Working Wounded: A New York Times Editorial
From The New York Times: