Last month, a Colorado business owner was sentenced to 10 months in prison following the death of one of his workers in a trenching accident. The deceased employee had not been trained in appropriate trenching techniques, and the employer failed to take basic safety measures despite the fact that the trench had collapsed the previous day.
In its press release announcing the sentence, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted its increasing number of referrals of egregious safety violations for criminal prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice. Over the past decade, OSHA has also formed a number of partnerships with state prosecutors for the purpose of pursuing criminal violations against business owners and supervisors found to have engaged in reckless or grossly negligent safety practices.
Employers should be aware of their potential personal liability for employee safety hazards. While criminal prosecution is normally reserved for the most egregious situations, OSHA’s announcement indicates an intent to more aggressively use criminal provisions of the OSH Act to address what it perceives as abusive employer practices.