Study Discusses Small Fines, Light Punishments For Deaths On The Job

When David Geiger went to work at Northwest Lanes in Fairfield, Ohio, last November 5, he never dreamed that retrieving a bowling ball would kill him.

But that's what happened to the 53-year-old maintenance man: The alley's pin-setting machine was turned on, it grabbed the hood of his sweatshirt and it asphyxiated him that day.

Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “investigators determined that pinsetters mechanisms at Northwest Lanes lacked adequate guards to prevent employees from hazardous exposure to moving parts. As a result, OSHA issued eight serious safety violations to the alley's owner" and proposed fining the alley's owner $45,500.


Specifically, there were no lockout/tagout measures on the bowling lane's machinery, preventing unintentional operation while a maintenance worker was nearby.  And there were no guardrails, either.

"Northwest identified issues with its 1970s-era equipment, but did not ensure workers were protected from dangerous parts. The recreation industry must remember that unsafe operation of machines used to entertain people can put a worker's life at risk," Bill Wilkerson, OSHA's Cincinnati area director said in announcing the findings and the fine earlier this year.

"A wife, children and a grandchild lost a loved one in a preventable workplace tragedy,"

Geiger was one of more than 4,000 workers killed in the last 12 months -- a toll OSHA Director Dr. David Michaels, unions and pro-worker groups all say is still too high.  OSHA’s revised figures for calendar 2013, issued April 23 and the latest available, show 4,585 workers died on the job that year, or 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers, down from 3.4/100,000 in 2012. 

Construction was particularly dangerous in 2013: 828 construction workers died on the job, with the largest share coming from falls.  That’s 32 more construction deaths than the year before and the highest total since 2009, OSHA said.  And over all industries, 724 workers died last year from slips, trips and falls, 25 more than the year before.

The sequence that killed Geiger, including the lack of protection for him and the relatively light punishment for the company involved, is all too typical, a new report says.

Not An Accident: Preventable Deaths 2015, released by the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health just before Workers Memorial Day, April 28, documents and discusses the annual deaths on the job in the U.S., the 50,000 annual deaths from diseases -- such as black lung and asbestos-caused cancers -- that workers contracted over the years, and the low fines and penalties firms suffer for that toll.

Unions and workers have pushed for years to strengthen both OSHA enforcement and to increase the fines firms suffer when caught violating safety and health standards.  But unless large tragedies occur in coal mines -- such as the Upper Big Branch disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners five years ago -- lawmakers have turned a deaf ear to such pleas.

Indeed, both on state and federal levels, ruling Republicans are going the other way.  The now-GOP-run West Virginia legislature just passed – and the Democratic governor just signed – a law weakening the state’s mine safety standards, which had been the toughest in the country.  They disregarded intense lobbying and objections from the Mine Workers.

And on April 22, Rep. Vicki Hartzler, R-Mo., introduced a bill to give firms “a grace period” to let firms comply with non-serious and non-willful OSHA citations for breaking job safety rules before being fined, says Dr. Celeste Monforton.  Hartzler called some OSHA citations “bizarre.”  Monforton called Hartzler’s bill “a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“Facing an immediate fine – sometimes up to $7,000 -- because a yellow line was not painted 10 feet from the edge of a flat roof, or because the emergency eye wash water was too cold is silly,” Hartzler said.  “This seems to be a case of the federal government using minor, trivial rules to make it harder for manufacturers to produce American-made products.”

But firms often negotiate that first fine down, retorts Mary Jane Collins of Sheridan, Wyo.  Her grandson, Brett, died when a trench – that did not have any safeguards to hold its walls back – collapsed on him during a construction project in 2012.  The initial fine was $13,860, but the company bargained with safety officials for 18 months, cutting it to $6,773.

And when Collins lobbied Wyoming lawmakers to fine firms $50,000 for each job- caused death, the state House Speaker sat on the bill until the session ended, she reported. 

Businesses view the small fines and lack of jail terms – even when workers are killed on the job – as “a cost of doing business,” said Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, an umbrella group for state pro-worker job safety and health organizations.

And even the occasional disaster that produces large penalties -- such as Upper Big Branch – does so not because of the deaths themselves.  Instead, said Monforton, a George Washington University professor, job safety specialist, and member of a panel that investigated the Upper Big Branch mine explosion and fire, Massey Coal Co. CEO Don Blankenship “violated safety rules to push production to make more money.”

And he did so by conspiracy, concealing evidence and misleading mine safety inspectors and convincing subordinate executives to lie, she added.  Several of them are now in jail and Blankenship is scheduled to stand trial on multiple federal counts in July.

Blankenship’s trial offers hope for enforcement, says Vogel, but only if workers and families educate prosecutors about the deaths and how to tackle the cases.

The better ways to solve the problem of the continuing deaths, illnesses and injuries on the job, says Peter Dooley, an occupational safety and health consultant for the national committee, is layered enforcement and worker empowerment.  Workers must be the “eyes and ears” of OSHA since the agency has only 2,000 inspectors covering half of the states, he says.  State OSHAs, also ill-staffed, cover the rest.

And the first layer of tackling job safety is to get companies to fix the problems that could cause deaths, illnesses and injuries in the first place, before those harms.  Despite annual costs of $250 billion-$350 billion in workers’ comp and other expenses, many resist.

“Better enforcement, more criminal prosecutions and more publicity are all tools” to increase job safety, after prevention, worker empowerment, education and training and individual worker protective devices, Dooley adds. ###