Center for Progressive Reform

Systematic Criminal Enforcement

Ensuring that Police and Prosecutors Prioritize Workplace Health and Safety

Aside from the legal hurdles and inadequate penalties that make it difficult to hold employers criminally responsible for OHS incidents, states lack the infrastructure to ensure that such cases are properly pursued. Workplace tragedies typically fall through the cracks of a criminal justice system focused on gun and drug crimes. At an institutional level, prosecutors and law enforcement generally lack both the training and the incentive to identify evidence that could suggest criminal wrongdoing by an employer. Too often, they view these worker fatalities and serious injuries as blameless “accidents” to be investigated by the OHS agency, rather than the crimes they are.

Incident investigations by OHS agency inspectors typically lack the rigor and quality of a criminal investigation conducted by police and prosecutors, in terms of gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. Also, OHS agency investigations tend to focus too narrowly on finding technical violations of regulatory standards, instead of examining the root causes of the incidents. When a criminal charge may be appropriate, the state OHS agency can refer a case to a local prosecutor (or, in Fed-OSHA’s case, to the Department of Justice). But referrals are rare because of the perceived difficulty of building a winning case and a lack of institutional motivation to try.

What's the Solution?

Criminal investigation and prosecution should be a regular component of state and local responses to workplace incidents and serious violations. But that will require states to institutionalize the structures and procedures necessary to pursue workplace fatality and serious injury cases.

In states that oversee their own OHS program under a plan approved by federal OSHA (state-plan states), state law should require OHS agency inspectors to immediately notify local prosecutors whenever they learn of a workplace fatality or serious injury. The OHS agency should devise a clear set of rules for deciding which violations to refer for possible prosecution.

Winning Safer Workplaces Webinar

Listen and watch our June 26, 2015, Winning Safer Workplaces Webinar on Criminal Enforcement


  • Frances Schreiberg, Of Counsel, Kazan Law, Oakland, California
  • Rena Steinzor, Law Professor, University of Maryland Carey School of Law
  • Ron Wright, Yancy Gulley Professor of Criminal Law, Wake Forest University School of Law

A more ambitious structural reform, in either federal OSHA or state-plan states, would be to establish an OHS section within the state or local prosecutor’s office, similar to the “environmental crimes” sections found in many jurisdictions. The OHS section should be responsible for training law enforcement officials on how to investigate workplace incidents. Ideally, a deputy district attorney and an investigator from the office should be on call 24 hours a day to respond to workplace fatalities and injuries and coordinate with law enforcement on the scene to collect all evidence that might help in building a criminal case.

Because most prosecutors are likely to be found in major cities, advocates may wish to campaign for an “OHS circuit prosecutor” program where the state would provide funding for a small team of roaming prosecutors to help crack down on workplace incidents and violations in rural areas.

Advocates can work with local lawmakers to require police departments to investigate all workplace fatalities as potential cases of manslaughter or reckless homicide, and in each case provide a written report to the OHS agency explaining whether such charges are appropriate.

Read the full text on systematic criminal enforcement from our Winning Safer Workplaces manual.

Additional Resources for Workers and Advocates

Political Challenges to Prosecuting Workplace Crimes. If a company responsible for a fatality is a significant contributor to local political campaigns and/or one of the area’s major employers, prosecutors may face intense pressure from superiors to drop a case. For a particularly shocking example, read this PBS Frontline accounting of the politics involved in trying to charge McWane Corporation for deaths caused in its plants.

Models for Mandatory Notification Laws. Advocates in state-plan states who are campaigning for a state law that requires the state OHS agency to notify local prosecutors of all worker fatalities should look at California’s state plan, which is one of only a few states with such a requirement.

Model OHS Crime Programs. The best model for institutionalizing criminal enforcement is the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office’s OSHA and Environmental Crimes Rollout Program. For a history of the LA DA program, read this article by Ira Reiner and Jan Chatten-Brown, When It Is Not An Accident, But A Crime: Prosecutors Get Tough with OHSA Violations (at page 83).

Circuit Prosecutor Program. In 2001, California initiated a Circuit Prosecutor Project to help pursue criminal charges for workplace deaths in rural areas. The project faced intense resistance from judges and communities and was ultimately terminated. A separate circuit project for environmental crimes is still in operation and would serve as a useful model for worker safety advocates.

CPR's Crimes Against Workers Database and Advocacy Manual. Increasingly, local prosecutors are recognizing that deaths and severe injuries on the job are not solely the province of OSHA and state occupational safety agencies. When workers are harmed because employers violated the law, criminal prosecution is sometimes warranted. Visit CPR's groundbreaking database of criminal prosecutions growing out of worker injuries and deaths. Also read CPR's Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform.

The Center for Progressive Reform

455 Massachusetts Ave., NW, #150-513
Washington, DC 20001

© Center for Progressive Reform, 2018