It is very rare for executives to be criminally prosecuted for workplace safety violations, even when there are tragic consequences including workers being hurt or even killed. Unfortunately, the lack of criminal prosecutions is one explanation for why there are so many violations of safety rules occurring in workplaces throughout the United States. The relative rarity of inspections, and the low dollar value of fines issued by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are also reasons why there are so many workplaces with unsafe spaces. Employers simply do not have enough incentive to spend the time and the money to ensure workers are protected.
Recently, the news reported of one of the rare cases in which a CEO actually was prosecuted. Unfortunately, Safety News Alert indicates the CEO- who was convicted- still does not think his behavior was a crime. Further, many safety experts and workplace safety advocates do not believe the sentence which was imposed on the CEO was actually a strong enough sentence to be as effective of a deterrent as it should be.
CEO Faces Maximum Penalty Following Workplace Fatalities
The case in which the CEO was prosecuted arose out of a tragic incident leading to the death of 29 miners. The miners worked for Massey Coal, which has a very long track record of safety violations over the years. The CEO of the coal company was a micromanager, and he required progress reports to be sent to him every half hour. There is evidence showing the CEO had focused on productivity first, even at the expense of safety. Managers were urged to cut corners on safety precautions in order to improve productivity in the mines. Several managers were also charged with criminal acts and entered into plea deals.
Because of coal dust in the air, as well as flammable gases in the mine, there was a tragic explosion. The result was 29 people died. The CEO has indicated he is very sorry for the families of the people who died. However, he doesn’t believe his behavior was illegal and he intends to appeal his sentence.
The CEO was charged with multiple criminal offenses, including various financial crimes including securities fraud offenses and making false claims. Had he been convicted of every offense he was charged with, he would have been imprisoned for up to 30 years, which could have likely been a life sentence because of his advanced age. Instead, he was convicted of just one misdemeanor crime, for conspiring to violate mining safety regulations.
It was his conspiracy to violate those safety regulations which led to 21 deaths. Yet, despite this, he still faced very minimal penalties as the maximum sentence was a year in jail. He was given this maximum sentence, and fined $250,000. He believes he should have gotten only probation, while most workplace safety advocates believe his penalty should have been much harsher given the tremendous loss his actions caused.