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Worker's death illustrates limitations of OSHA penalties

The Boston Globe recently published a piece profiling the death of an American worker employed at an East Coast hummus plant. The man became caught in rotating nine-inch blades that function to blend the hummus product made at the plant. After being crushed by the blades, he perished as a result of his injuries as an ambulance transported him to a local hospital.

Company records indicate that a safety consultant employed by the owner of the hummus plant had warned the plant owner that if workers who cleaned the plant were not properly trained in a process known as “lock out/tag out” that the probability that a fatality could occur is likely certain within a year’s timeframe.” Two years before the worker’s death OSHA fined the owner of the hummus plant for failure to observe that very procedure in another one of its plants. Ultimately, it was determined that the worker’s life could have been spared if he had followed that procedure.

When fatal accidents occur in the workplace, they are always tragic. However, some are particularly heartbreaking given that they could have been easily prevented. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has instituted a number of regulations in order to ensure that U.S. worksites are safe. When employers fail to properly observe these regulations, they are penalized by a system of fines. However, these fines only serve as so much incentive for employers to ensure that their workers remain safe.

This particular work-related fatality illustrates that even when employers are warned about the risks of a given practice and even when OSHA fines them for a related safety violation, employers may not see the benefit in fronting the cost to ensure that the practice is properly addressed. It may ultimately take far more expensive fines or other heavy penalties to sway negligent employers to comply with the law.

Source: Boston Globe, “Company ‘willfully ignored’ safety standards in worker’s death,” Megan Woolhouse and Michael Grabell, May 22, 2014

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