Monday, December 29, 2003

Dying for work

The New York Times ran a terrific - and if there's any justice will be an award-winning - series of articles December 21-23 on workers killed on the job due to employers who willfully, knowingly, maintained unsafe working conditions and the astonishing and disgraceful unwillingness of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to push for prosecution of the villains. It was prompted by the case of Patrick Walters, a 22-year old plumber's apprentice who was buried alive under a wall of muck and mud when the 10 foot deep, unsupported trench he was working in collapsed on June 14, 2002. The autopsy revealed he tried to claw his way out - and failed. His family found dried clay still stuck in his ears as he lay in his casket.

The second of the three-part series began this way:
Every one of their deaths was a potential crime. Workers decapitated on assembly lines, shredded in machinery, burned beyond recognition, electrocuted, buried alive - all of them killed, investigators concluded, because their employers willfully violated workplace safety laws.

These deaths represent the very worst in the American workplace, acts of intentional wrongdoing or plain indifference that kill about 100 workers each year. They were not accidents. They happened because a boss removed a safety device to speed up production, or because a company ignored explicit safety warnings, or because a worker was denied proper protective gear.

And for years, in news releases and Congressional testimony, senior officials at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration have described these cases as intolerable outrages, "horror stories" that demanded the agency's strongest response. They have repeatedly pledged to press wherever possible for criminal charges against those responsible.

These promises have not been kept.

Over a span of two decades, from 1982 to 2002, OSHA investigated 1,242 of these horror stories - instances in which the agency itself concluded that workers had died because of their employer's "willful" safety violations. Yet in 93 percent of those cases, OSHA declined to seek prosecution, an eight-month examination of workplace deaths by The New York Times has found.

What is more, having avoided prosecution once, at least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted.
Unfortunately, the Times archives articles after one week so except for the last - about California's much more aggressive pursuit of employers who kill their employees through their greed and/or neglect - you would have to pay to read them (and that will be gone after tomorrow). However, I did remember to make a text copy of the latter two articles in the series and I will send them to anyone who wants them. If you'd prefer to check out the abstracts and consider buying the articles, go here for the first in the series, here for the second, and here for the third.

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