Center for Progressive Reform

Preventing Death and Injury on the Job

The Criminal Justice Alternative in State Law

Thousands of workers across the United States die every year on the job — 4,679 in 2014 alone — and thousands more are severely injured. Most of these tragedies are entirely preventable, if employers put in place and enforce basic safety measures. But in case after case, scofflaw employers have cut corners to save a buck at the much larger cost of human life.

Such behavior is against the law. But deaths and injuries that would almost certainly lead to jail time if they happened on the street are rarely if ever the subject of criminal prosecution when they happen in the workplace. Police and prosecutors have simply grown accustomed to treating on-the-job deaths and injuries differently than traditional “street crimes,” leaving it to federal and state occupational safety and health agencies — federal OSHA and its state counterparts — to investigate workplace incidents and assess penalties for violations of occupational health and safety standards.

Unfortunately, those penalties are feeble, and have little if any deterrent value. So businesses operating in competitive environments are willing to put workers at risk by violating safety and health standards, on the assumption that doing so will have little impact on their bottom line.

In Preventing Death and Injury on the Job: The Criminal Justice Alternative in State Law, Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholars and staff offer a manual for local advocacy organizations seeking to encourage state and local prosecutors to treat workplace deaths and injuries as the potential crimes they so often are — by investigating, and, where appropriate, prosecuting. The manual is a complement to CPR’s 2014 Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform.

The manual begins by explaining why local prosecutors should consider bringing criminal charges against employers—both the business itself and any responsible executives and managers—in cases involving the death or serious injury of one or more workers. It goes on to provide a plain-English introduction to criminal law and criminal procedure to help advocates understand what charges might apply. Then it discusses how to build a successful campaign with prosecutors and state legislators, and concludes with an appendix of helpful resources that advocates can utilize and tailor to fit their efforts.

The manual’s authors are CPR Member Scholars Martha T. McCluskey, Thomas O. McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, Rena Steinzor, Ron Wright, and CPR Policy Analyst Katherine (Weatherford) Tracy.

Crimes Against Workers Database

Worker deaths or injuries resulting from conditions that violate workplace safety laws are all too common. Often, rather than treating these violations of the law as subjects for criminal investigation, prosecutors simply defer to OSHA or comparable state agencies, thus significantly reducing the scope of possible penalties. As a result, many workplace injuries or deaths resulting from illegal conditions are punished with fines, and light fines at that, letting violators off too easily and eliminating the deterrent effect that might prevent future incidents. Some prosecutors have recognized the need to treat such incidents as the crimes they are, prosecuting employers who've broken the law. CPR's first-of-its-kind Crimes Against Workers database catalogs state criminal cases and grassroots advocacy campaigns against employers responsible for workers being killed, maimed, or serious endangered on the job. It provides a one-stop shop for finding case files, media clips, and advocacy resources related to state criminal enforcement against companies and individuals in cases of serious worker injuries and deaths. 

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