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Justice Department raises the penalty for unsafe workplaces

The criminal penalties for unsafe workplaces have just gone up in the United States. The Justice Department says it is raising its maximum fine on misdemeanors that result in worker fatalities. The old maximum was $10,000. The new ceiling, made retroactive to 1985, is $250,000 for an individual or $500,000 for a company, according to a letter received here Monday.

``Now is a new day in workplace safety,'' says Joseph Kinney, executive director of the safety group that received the letter. Mr. Kinney's National Safe Workplace Institute has been urging for months that the department make workplace safety a higher priority.

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The department supports action in Congress to lengthen prison terms as well, according to the letter written by Assistant Attorney General William Weld. Currently, a criminal conviction for violation of federal safety standards means an employer can be jailed for a maximum six months.

Kinney expects legislation to be introduced this fall that would raise the ceiling to 10 years, perhaps 20 years. ``That's going to get prosecutors' attention,'' he says. ``We're going to see a lot more criminal prosecutions.''

The action by the Justice Department apparently came without the knowledge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency which enforces workplace safety and imposes fines for civil penalties.

But OSHA does not object to the justice action on criminal penalties, says spokesman Terry Mikelson. ``It certainly heightens awareness of the importance of safety and health,'' he says.

Other safety experts were less enthusiastic about the changes.

``It's welcome news if they do it,'' says Margaret Seminario, associate director for safety and health at AFL-CIO. But she adds that the real test is whether the department takes a stronger stand in prosecuting employers who maintain unsafe workplaces.

``It's like raising the fine on a traffic ticket. First you have to catch the speeder,'' says Bob Payton, director of safety and health for the Associated General Contractors of America. ``The problem with OSHA's criminal statutes is that they're not being utilized.''

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In June, The Monitor reported on a study by the Safe Workplace Institute that criticized the Justice Department for sitting on workplace cases. It said that, of 13 cases referred to the department by federal safety regulators since 1985, 11 had either received no action or been dismissed. Of the remaining two cases, one was in litigation and the other, involving a Heckert Construction Company employee killed in a trench collapse, was successfully prosecuted.

Safety experts disagree on whether the new, heftier fines will entice federal prosecutors to take on workplace cases.

The fines were raised because Congress had already passed legislation equalizing fines throughout the federal government, according to a Justice Department spokesman. But the department will continue to consider each case on its merits, the spokesman says.

``That's a very serious fine,'' says Joe McGonagle, safety director of Perini Corporation, a construction firm based in Framingham, Mass. ``A $250,000 fine could put you out of business.'' But ``it goes a lot deeper than fines,'' he adds. To create a really safe workplace, employees as well as employers should be held responsible for safety. If companies make the equipment available and workers don't use it, he says, the workers have to be accountable.

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