The trend of holding employers criminally responsible for causing the on-the-job deaths of employees through blatant disregard of OSHA or state safety regulations got another boost last month when an Arizona jury found the president of Far West Water and Sewer guilty of negligent homicide for deaths that occurred in 2001.

As reported in LIFELINES ONLINE in January (see: States Pursuing Prosecutions against Corporations, Directors) and February (see: Indiana Bill Would Criminalize Serious Employer Safety Negligence), local and state prosecutors are increasingly taking a hard line against employers who – despite well-established standards, warnings and citations – order workers into dangerous situations that result in death.

In the Far West case, after a 22-day trial, the jury found the former president of the company, Brent Weidman, guilty of two counts of negligent homicide and two counts of endangerment in the deaths of 26-year-old James Gamble and 62-year-old Gary Lanser. Previously, the company had been convicted of five felony charges in the same incident and fined $1.77 million for its failure to adhere to OSHA’s Confined Space Standard. As president, Weidman was ultimately responsibility for the company’s safety practices.

The OSHA standard has a number of specific requirements including that: (1) air in the confined space be monitored; (2) a means to rescue workers – should they be overcome by fumes – be designated; and (3) the workers and supervisors be trained in confined space dangers. Far West did not train its workers, did not follow required rescue procedures and did not test the air in the tank on the day of the incident.

When Gamble entered the tank to remove a plug that was blocking the sewer line, he was overcome by hydrogen sulfide fumes when a pump from another line was turned on. Lanser died trying to rescue Gamble. A third worker suffered serious, permanent lung damage.

While most worker deaths are accidental and do not involve company negligence or malfeasance, each year a number occur despite company warnings and citations from government inspectors. In these cases, management ignored the inspectors, making little if any effort to comply with safety regulations and continuing the dangerous practices. These cases can bring a “willful” citation from OSHA and a recommendation to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. However, criminal sanctions under the OSHA act are misdemeanors and result only in small fines. Indeed, in the Far West case, the OSHA fine was only $31,500.

It is because federal sanctions are so minimal that more state and local prosecutors are bringing criminal actions against companies and their managers when their mismanagement leads to the death of their employees.

While it is hard to imagine any LIUNA signatory employer displaying such callous disregard for employee safety, the LHSFNA OSH Division’s safety services are designed to keep contractors out of these situations. For assistance with safety officer training, safety audits and company safety programs call the Fund at 202-628-5465.