People can get more prison time for mail fraud than for violating safety standards that can kill workers, Democratic senators said Tuesday as they called for tougher punishment for workplace fatalities and stricter enforcement from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The maximum OSHA civil penalty for a safety violation is $70,000 and the maximum prison sentence for a willful violation of a safety standard that leads to a worker's death is six months, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. In contrast, mail fraud can draw a top sentence of 30 years.
"If you improperly import an exotic bird, you can go to jail for two years. If you deal in counterfeit money, you're looking at 20 years," said Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "But if you gamble with the lives of your employees and one of them is killed, you risk only six months in jail."
There were 5,840 fatal work injuries in the U.S. in 2006 — a fatality rate of 4.0 per 100,000 employed workers — the most recent numbers available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. OSHA said that the fatality rate was the lowest since the BLS instituted its Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 1992.
"Election-year political theater cannot mask the truth that under this administration, workplace illness, injury and fatality rates are the lowest in OSHA's history," said Edwin G. Foulke Jr., assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.
OSHA conducted 39,324 total workplace inspections between Oct. 1, 2006 and Sept. 30, 2007 and found 88,846 violations of OSHA's standards and regulations. More than 100 inspections ended with proposed penalties of over $100,000, agency officials said.
Kennedy and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also are calling on the Government Accountability Office — Congress's watchdog agency — to check to see whether companies are reporting to OSHA all workplace fatalities.
Senators should be looking at preventing workplace injuries, instead of trying to come up with stronger punishments after an accident has happened, said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
"No penalty can make up for the loss of a loved one," Enzi said. "Instead of talking just about punishments after injuries or fatalities occur, I wish we were holding a hearing on preventing injuries from occurring in the first place."