Worker Safety Before Profits

During one of his early morning shifts, Jose Melena stepped into a 35-foot-long oven and began loading pallets of canned tuna at a Bumble Bee Foods plant. Not realizing Melena was inside, fellow employees shut the machine door behind him and turned on the oven. With temperatures reaching about 270 degrees, he was cooked to death.

In what is being called the largest known settlement in California criminal prosecution history for felony workplace safety violations involving a single victim, Bumble Bee Foods was ordered to pay $6 million for “willfully violating worker safety rules.” In addition to charging the company, prosecutors filed felony charges against the former Bumble Bee Foods safety manager and company director of plant operations for willfully violating the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) worker health and safety protocols governing employees and hazardous machinery. 

“You don’t have warm blood running in your veins if you’re not affected by the way this guy died. It’s horrific,” said Hoon Chun, Assistant Head Deputy District Attorney for the Los Angeles County office’s Consumer Protection Division, who helped prosecute the case. “I cannot imagine a worse result of violating safety rules than something like this.”

If an employer knowingly puts their workers in harm’s way they should be held fully accountable by law.  It is clear that civil penalties are simply a drop in the bucket and insufficient while no one is held accountable. The fines simply become the cost of doing business with little or no regard for the life of the employee and their devastated family.  Even in cases where workers were killed on the job, the typical penalty was just above $5,000.

California district attorneys should be considered trailblazers for pursuing criminal charges for willful worker health and safety violations that result in death or serious injury.

On his second week on the job, Raul Zapata was buried alive in a trench.  Three days before Zapata’s death, a city building inspector issued a stop-work order due to concerns that the unfortified dirt wall was prone to collapse. However, the owner of the construction company that employed Zapata and the project manager decided to defy the order and move forward with the work. California’s Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office brought criminal negligence charges against the owner and project manager, last week both were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison.

Workplace health and safety procedures are necessary for the well-being of both employers and employees.

According to the U.S. Worker Fatality Database, the largest open-access data set of individual workplace fatalities ever collected in the United States, there were more than 1,800 fatalities in 2014 and 1,073 in the first seven months of 2015. Also, the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that in 2013 4,585 workers died due to unsafe working conditions.

Worker health and safety experts project that by the end of 2015 the total number of workplace fatalities will reach 4,500, with an additional 50,000 deaths attributed to long-term occupational illnesses from exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos, silica and benzene, and other workplace hazards.

In a soon-to-be-released Center for Effective Government report on OSHA (and EPA) enforcement, the case study of the fatal DuPont chemical leak in La Porte, Texas showcases the reality of corporate officials putting profits before employee safety. Four workers died in that preventable disaster.

Businesses that are willing to put the health and safety of their workers at risk should face heavy criminal sanctions. The only way to change behavior is to hold corporate officials accountable. In order to hold employers personally responsible for their dangerous working environments, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Senator Robert Casey recently reintroduced the Hide No Harm Act which would hold corporate executives criminally responsible for not disclosing serious dangers in their products and production process to relevant government agencies, their workers and the public. We need this bill to arm more district attorneys across the U.S. with the tools to follow in California’s footsteps and start charging employers for gambling with their employees’ lives. 

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