The recent Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Justice and Labor has "redoubling the agencies' cooperative efforts" to hold accountable those who unlawfully jeopardize workers' health and safety".
These Federal Agencies are rededicating their efforts to criminally prosecute workplace violations with new penalties ranging from 5 to 20 years of imprisonment, significant fines, and harsher criminal offenses -- by associating criminal and civil statutory violations with workplace safety violations from Title 18 of the U.S. Code and with environmental regulations.
This is not a totally new prosecutorial strategy.
The most systematic past use of this coupling strategy involved a string of cases concerning McWane, Inc., a multi-state cast-iron pipe manufacturer. In separate criminal cases in Alabama, New Jersey, Texas, and Utah between 2006 and 2010, federal prosecutors indicted a vice president, general manager, and mid-level managers and supervisors. Those individuals were convicted and received prison sentences from 6 months to almost 6 years for Title 18 offenses-making materially false statements, obstructing justice, and conspiracy-and for violating various workplace safety and environmental statutes, including the OSH Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
More recently, in 2015, former owners and managers of a metal-salvaging company pleaded guilty to one criminal felony count for conspiring to violate the CAA's work practice standards by directing employees to remove and dispose of asbestos without the necessary protective equipment. One former manager was sentenced to 5 years in prison. In another criminal prosecution, a former president pleaded guilty to violating the OSH Act and making a false statement regarding whether an employee received proper protection when handling hydrogen sulfide and was sentenced to 12 months in prison. Similarly, following the trial of Massey Energy's former chief executive officer, on December 3, 2015, the jury returned a guilty verdict on a federal charge of conspiracy to willfully violate mine health and safety standards outlined in the Mine Safety and Health Act.
State prosecutors are also paying more attention to workplace safety violations. For example, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, Bumble Bee Foods has agreed to pay more than $6 million in fines for "willfully violating safety rules." The criminal investigation was spurred by the discovery of a dead employee in an industrial oven.
Given the Justice Department's renewed focus on prosecuting individuals for work place safety violations, company executives and managers across the United States should note the enhanced risks and take measures to prevent themselves from being in these cross hairs.