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Justice, Labor Departments expand environmental, worker safety oversight

Under a new plan aimed at preventing and deterring crimes that jeopardize the health and lives of workers, the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices will work with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mine Safety and Health Administration, and Wage and Hour Division to investigate and prosecute endangerment violations.

 

“On an average day in America, 13 workers die on the job, thousands are injured and 150 succumb to diseases they obtained from exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances while they worked,” says Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates. “Given the troubling statistics on workplace deaths and injuries, the Department of Justice is redoubling its efforts to hold accountable those who unlawfully jeopardize workers’ health and safety.”

“Safety and security in the workplace are a shared commitment. Workplace injuries and illnesses cause an enormous amount of physical, financial and emotional hardship for workers and their families, and underscore the urgent need for employers to provide a safe workplace,” adds Department of Labor Deputy Secretary Chris Lu. “[The joint measure] demonstrates a renewed commitment by both the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice to utilize criminal prosecution as an enforcement tool to protect the health and safety of workers.”

The Departments of Justice and Labor began exploring a joint effort in 2014 to increase the frequency and effectiveness of criminal prosecutions of worker endangerment violations. This culminated in a decision to consolidate the authorities to pursue worker safety statutes within Justice’s Environment and Natural Resource Division’s Environmental Crimes Section. In a memo to all 93 U.S. Attorneys, Deputy Attorney General Yates urged federal prosecutors to work with the Environmental Crimes Section in pursuing worker endangerment violations. The worker safety statutes generally provide for only misdemeanor penalties. However, prosecutors have now been encouraged to consider utilizing Title 18 and environmental offenses, which often occur in conjunction with worker safety crimes, to enhance penalties and increase deterrence. Statutes included in the plan are the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Mine Safety and Health Act.

“We have seen that employers who are willing to cut corners on worker safety laws to maximize production and profit, will also turn a blind eye to environmental laws,” contends Assistant Attorney General John Cruden, assigned to the Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Working with our partners in the Department of Labor and law enforcement, we will remove the profit from these crimes by vigorously prosecuting employers who break safety and environmental laws at the expense of American workers.”

“Every worker has the right to come home safely. While most employers try to do the right thing, we know that strong sanctions are the best tool to ensure that low road employers comply with the law and protect workers lives,” observes Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “More frequent and effective prosecution of these crimes will send a strong message to those employers who fail to provide a safe workplace for their employees. We look forward to working with the Environment and Natural Resources Division to enforce these life-saving rules when employers violate workplace safety, workers’ health and environmental regulations.”

In addition to prosecuting environmental crimes, the Environment and Natural Resources Division has also been strengthening its efforts to pursue civil cases that involve worker safety violations under statutes such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act.

ELECTRONIC INJURY, ILLNESS REPORTS

A year after its revised injury and illness reporting requirements went into effect, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched a webpage to allow employers to electronically report cases. Employers now have three ways to report incidents: electronically through the new portal, (www.osha.gov/report.html); by phone, 800/321–OSHA or 800/321–6742; or, by contacting the nearest OSHA Area Office. The January 2015 rule implemented new deadlines and requirements for reporting severe injuries on the jobsite for all Occupational Safety and Health Act-bound employers—even those who are exempt from maintaining injury and illness records. Contractors are required to notify OSHA within eight hours if there is a work-related fatality on the job, and within 24 hours when an employee suffers a work-related hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye.

The reporting application includes mandatory fields for required information. If a report does not include the required information in the mandatory fields, the OSHA system will not accept the report. Also, State Plans may have alternate requirements and may not accept reports via the new reporting application. The application informs employers how to proceed in instances where a State Plan will not accept a report via the application. — Associated Builders & Contractors