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Worker Safety Undermined by Neglect, Lax Regulations

Our New York City work injury attorneys know that a fire in 1911 called the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire had a profound impact on shaping workplace safety laws in the United States. The fire occurred in a large New York factory after the manager had locked the doors to prevent theft and unauthorized rest breaks. Workers were unable to get out and more than 146 people died from burns, smoke inhalation or as a result of jumping to their death in a desperate attempt to escape. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire prompted lawmakers to pass regulations improving factory safety standards. It was also an important catalyst that grew the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, a labor organization instrumental in fighting for better work conditions for workers in sweatshops. The hope was that the worker safety laws and the efforts of organized labor would prevent a similar tragedy from ever occurring. Unfortunately, however, more than 100 years later, the question now is whether workers are really that much better off.

Tragedies Cause Worker Injury and Death

Several events in recent weeks have shown the perilous state of worker safety. For example, on April 17, 2013, a fertilizer plant exploded in West Texas. Fourteen people were killed, including plant employees and first responders to the scene. More than 200 people were also injured in the blast and buildings were destroyed for miles around the plant. The plant had not been inspected by OSHA since 1985, when it was fined $30 for violations.

Just a few short days later, another disaster occurred a world away in a factory in Bangladesh. Reuters reports that more than 900 people were killed in the collapse of a factory there, which was attributed to the factory owners using poor building materials including substandard bricks, cement and rods. The factory owners had also failed to obtain proper clearances in the building. This incident was not the first in Bangladesh either, with a factory fire last November resulting in 112 deaths.

Neglect is a Top Cause of Worker Tragedies

It would be easy to argue that the West Texas incident was an isolated one and that the trouble in Bangladesh is a world away. The sad reality, however, is that these tragic incidents are symptomatic of a larger problem caused by the fact that corporations and businesses have little incentive to protect workers' safety.

While, it is true that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes workplace guidelines in the U.S. and imposes fines and citations for not following the safety rules, the enforcement of these guidelines is largely so ineffective that there is little incentive for employers to actually follow OSHA regulations. The AFL-CIO points out some major problems with OSHA enforcement in a recent 2013 report entitled "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect."  

Problems include:

  • A lack of OSHA inspectors. OSHA has jurisdiction over around 8 million worksites in the United States. With only 837 federal inspectors, a federal inspector could visit each workplace one time every 131 years.
  • Insufficient fines. Even if OSHA does manage to catch an employer doing something wrong, there is little that can be done. Even for serious violations of safety rules, the average federal penalty imposed by OSHA was just $2,156. When a worker was killed by violations, the median penalty after settlement didn't end up much higher at only $5,715.
  • Lack of criminal sanctions.  Criminal charges are limited to times when an employer's willful OSHA violation led to a worker's death.  Since 1970, there have only been a total of 84 criminal cases prosecuted.

If an employer doesn't have to fear inspections or fines, there is a good chance the employer will cut corners to earn more profits. Tragically, this means that while worker safety laws may exist in the U.S. to protect workers, these laws may not actually be enforced in a way that provides real substantive help to workers.

 If you've been hurt at work, contact the Law Offices of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP today for a free evaluation by calling (800) 692-3717.

Categories: Workplace Injuries