The Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe Company – a division of McWane Industries – and four of its managers were sentenced last month after being convicted of violating environmental and worker safety laws. The case against McWane brings to light the importance of the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) and the need for Congress to stiffen penalties against unsafe employers.

The New Jersey foundry was found guilty in 2006 of 32 felonies, which included conspiring to dump oil in the Delaware River, lying to OSHA inspectors after an on-the-job fatality and obstructing an investigation. The managers received sentences ranging from six to 70 months. The company was fined $8 million and ordered to serve 48 months of monitored probation – meaning it must submit biannual reports to the court.

This was the most significant prosecution in occupational safety history, yet it almost didn’t happen.

Before the prosecution began in 2005, McWane Industries was widely known as one of the most deadly employers in the nation. More than 4,600 workers had been injured at its plants between 1995 and 2003, but because of OSHA’s very weak criminal enforcement rules, the company evaded prosecution. However, after a 2003 exposé in the New York Times, pressure mounted on the Bush Administration to find a way to bring the company to justice. In one of that administration’s more creative endeavors (see OSHA – May The Force Be With You), OSHA collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency to bring criminal charges based mainly on McWane’s brazen violation of environmental law.

Despite last month’s sentencing, the question remains, how can OSHA be a more formidable foe against willful violators? Many believe the answer lies in the PAWA. If enacted, it would finally give workers a voice on the jobsite and allow OSHA to enforce stronger penalties on employers for whom fines and citations do not work. Among many other worker safety issues, PAWA increases civil and criminal penalties for OSHA violators, sets provisions for fatality and injury investigations and prohibits lowering willful citations to “unclassified.”

The bill, which is strongly supported by LIUNA and other labor unions, was introduced in Congress on April 23. Specific information about it is available here.

[Jennifer E. Jones]