While unusual, employers and individual managers involved in particularly egregious workplace safety violations can be the subject of federal criminal prosecution. Last month in United States v. Maury, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld criminal convictions and prison sentences for four managers at a New Jersey pipe manufacturer, including the human resources and plant managers.
The OSHA investigation resulted from an employee death in a forklift accident. The investigator determined that managers had willfully ignored reports of maintenance problems with the forklift, and had falsified inspection records for the equipment. The company also failed to record earlier forklift accidents as required under OSHA rules. In a separate incident following an accident, OSHA determined that the employer installed a protective shield on a piece of equipment after the accident, and lied about its presence at the time of the accident. Finally, OSHA concluded that managers had deliberately bypassed an equipment interlock switch and then completely removed it after an industrial accident.
The criminal sentences ranged from 30 to 70 months. Willful violations and cover-ups of basic safety requirements are unusual. However, when faced with these factual situations that result in employee injuries, OSHA will use the full weight of its criminal and civil penalty enforcement powers to set an example for other employers tempted to ignore workplace safety requirements.