Some of you may recall Mike Casey’s compelling exposé in the Kansas City Star (Wayback Machine version here) regarding OSHA’s outrageously low fines for safety violations– even those directly responsible for serious injuries to or even deaths of unsuspecting workers. While OSHA is supposedly committed to levy fines “sufficient to serve as an effective deterrent to violations”—the punishment rarely fits the crime. According to former OSHA assistant secretary Jerry Scannell, (1989-1992), the current fines are “almost like chump change with some companies.”
Companies pay the fines—often less than $2000— and continue on their merry way. But what about the people? What about the loss of those whose only crime was hoping to have a chance at their own American dream? Too soon, we forget the stories of men like Les James, a 25-year old father of three whose window-washing rig fell off a roof, causing him to plummet more than eighty feet to his death, or Wayne Rivers, a 54-year old father of four, who died 23 days after being struck by a fireball and falling 25 feet in an explosion caused by the ignition of flour dust in a vacuum conveyer system. All too soon these men become statistics in a government database somewhere in Washington. Meanwhile, somewhere in small-town America, families wrestle with unanswered questions and unrequited grief.
Yesterday, nearly two years since Rivers’ tragic death, the Enid News reported that Wayne Rivers’ wife, mother, and children filed suit against ADM Milling for its failure to address dangers in the vacuum conveyer system about which “numerous employees” had complained to management before the explosion. For their negligence, ADM was fined a grand total of $1625.
You might argue that this shouldn’t be about money, and you’re right. This is about a whole lot more than a fine and a symbolic slap on the wrist. This is about justice.
Whether the Rivers win their suit or not—no amount of money they receive will ever bring back Wayne. He will never watch another sunset. He will never celebrate another birthday. He will never see his grandchildren.
I don’t know Wayne’s family, and I cannot pretend to speak for them. What I do know is that if I were in those shoes—if it were my father, or husband, or son whose life was lost—I would hope that no one would ever have to go through what he went through and what our family went through. I would hope that OSHA would get its act together and start imposing fines for safety violations that would keep companies on their toes. I would hope that the lives of Wayne Rivers, Les James, and the thousands of other workers who have lost their lives on the job—would not be in vain.
And therein lies the challenge for all of us. We must not forget the names of those who lost their lives on the job. We must not forget the anguish of their loved ones. OSHA must be made to live up to its promise to assure the safety and health of America’s workers. Raising fines won’t turn back the hands of time, but it will send the message to negligent employers that we are watching them, and we will hold them accountable.
Christina Morgan is a research assistant at the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy.