Workplace Wrongful Death Accountability Act of 2005

Date: April 28, 2005
Location: Washington, DC

WORKPLACE WRONGFUL DEATH ACCOUNTABILITY ACT OF 2005 -- (Extensions of Remarks - April 28, 2005)


Mr. OWENS. Mr. Speaker, it is altogether fitting and appropriate to commemorate Workers' Memorial Day this year by introducing the "Workplace Wrongful Death Accountability Act of 2005." I am very pleased to join my colleague from New Jersey, Senator JON CORZINE, in introducing this bill aimed at saving workers lives. Senator CORZINE and I sponsored identical legislation in the 108th Congress. The bill would amend the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act in 3 simple ways. First, it would stiffen sanctions for worker deaths caused by an employer's willful violations of basic safety standards. Under current law, the sanction is a mere misdemeanor which carries a fine of no more than $10,000 and a prison sentence of no more than 6 months. As the first librarian to become a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, I can vouch for the fact that some local jurisdictions seek harsher penalties for failure to return a library book.

This bill would make corporate manslaughter a felony offense, with the possibility of sentences that might range from no time behind bars to up to 10 years in prison. Upon a second offense, the maximum sentence could be doubled. Second, this bill would double the penalty for illicitly warning of an OSHA inspection, from a maximum of 6 months to up to 2 years in prison. Third, my bill would increase the penalty for lying to or misleading OSHA, from a 6 months maximum to 1 year's imprisonment. In all three instances, fines would be decided upon in accordance with title 18 of the U.S. code, which is standard criminal law and longstanding criminal procedure.

The reason we need this bill is very clear: the Federal Government is itself guilty of gross negligence in efforts to deter corporate manslaughter. As David Barstow of the New York Times noted last year in his remarkable investigative series on worker deaths in this country, OSHA has an astonishing 20 year track record of failure to seek criminal prosecution when an employer's willful and flagrant safety violations lead to worker deaths. It isn't that the Department of Labor (DOL) doesn't know how to seek criminal sanctions. Anyone who visits the DOL website will see an exhaustive list of prosecutions undertaken by staff in the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS). From 2002 to 2005, the prosecutions sought by OLMS fill up 111 pages, typewritten with a very small font. The difference is that these are prosecutions against union officials for a vast array of minor offenses. Contrast that with OSHA's failure to seek criminal prosecution in a staggering 93 percent of worker death cases, investigated by the agency over the past 2 decades. These deaths were caused by an employer's gross negligence or willful safety violations. In other words, the employer placed a profit motive far, far above any concern over peoples' lives. In some instances, the same unscrupulous employer's pattern of egregious safety violations has caused multiple worker deaths over several years. In such cases, a misdemeanor penalty has no deterrent value whatsoever.

Holding certain local union officials criminally liable for minor instances of alleged record falsification versus handing employers who commit corporate manslaughter an automatic "get out of jail free" pass is a real statement of values and priorities. We hear a great deal fromthis Republican Administration about the importance of affirming a "culture of life." Well, American workers deserve a "culture" of workplace safety that ensures they will live to go home at night and return to their jobs the following morning. When Congressman TOM DELAY was asked by an Associated Press (AP) reporter last year about the "Workplace Wrongful Death Accountability Act," he replied: "The worst thing you could do-telling a small business person that they could go to prison over an OSHA violation." But such ridicule and exaggeration offends any surviving relative of a victim of corporate manslaughter.

Every year, between 5000 and 6000 workers are killed-on-the-job, often in gruesome circumstances due to inexcusable safety violations. This bill is aimed at holding such grossly negligent employers accountable. It will not result in either wanton or reckless prosecutions of hapless employers. My bill is NOT a radical departure from current law by any stretch of the imagination. This bill simply corrects a glaring oversight in federal law and policy: the inability to pursue a felony conviction of an employer who willfully causes the deaths of workers. It is a moderate adjustment that is long overdue.

Review of a recent case in my own Congressional district illuminates the reasons why this bill needs to be enacted. Less than a week ago, the contractor and owner of Big Apple Development and Construction (Big Apple) pleaded guilty to causing the death of a worker by failing to comply with OSHA regulations requiring employers to provide employees with fall protection equipment. The death of one worker, Angel Segovia, and serious injury of two others occurred, when a building collapsed on Fort Hamilton Parkway in May of 2004. Big Apple was a repeat safety violator, having already received OSHA citations in 2001 for failing to provide its workers with fall protection equipment. When Big Apple's owner and contractor, Kang Yeon Lee, is sentenced for causing the death of Angel Segovia, he faces a maximum of 6 months in prison under the current OSHA statute. But Mr. Lee also pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection with concealing his failure to pay workers the prevailing wage on a federally funded, U.S. Postal Service construction project. And for mail fraud, Mr. Lee faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 for each count of conviction. The contrast between a six month prison term for killing a worker and a twenty-year prison term for mail fraud could not be starker. Enactment of the "Workplace Wrongful Death Accountability Act of 2005" would value workers" lives and correct such a disgraceful discrepancy.

In closing, Mr. Speaker, I would like to note for the record that the "Wrongful Workplace Accountability Act of 2005" is included in its entirety in a broader bill I am also introducing today, the "Protecting America's Workers Act." I urge my colleagues to respect the lives of all American workers and ask them to join me in sponsoring both these bills. Millions of hard-working Americans and their families deserve nothing less than such essential protection.