An editorial in the New York Times last week praised the work of federal prosecutors in West Virginia for their pursuit of justice in their investigation into the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy. Those prosecutors deserve the praise. However, the editorial misses an important point. The current laws that govern safety in the workplace are a wholly inadequate deterrent for employers who value their bottom lines over workers’ lives.
Following the mine disaster at Crandall Canyon, Murray Energy subsidiary Genwal Resources Inc. settled a criminal case by paying a fine of $500,000. In approving the settlement, U.S. District Judge David Sam expressed his view on the statutory penalties: “My initial take is outrage at the minuscule amount of the penalty provided by the federal statute,” he said.
In the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act – the predominant laws that cover worker safety in the U.S., the worst criminal offenses – including when lives are lost – are only misdemeanors that carry a maximum of six months in prison. In the most egregious and horrible of cases, like the 2010 tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine, employers rarely ever see the inside of a jail cell. Even when an employer so clearly valued production over safety, and endangered the lives of workers on a daily basis, the prospects of jail time are slim. Some employers see the civil penalties and criminal fines that these safety laws impose simply as a cost of doing business.
That’s what makes last week’s sentencing of former Massey Energy executive David Hughart so unique. Not unique to Massey executives, mind you – Hughart is the third high-level Massey employee to face jail time following the disaster at Upper Big Branch. What is unique is that he was charged with a felony count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, and a second misdemeanor conspiracy count. He was not charged with violating the criminal provisions of the Mine Act.
In fact, none of the three Massey executives facing jail time were prosecuted for violating the criminal provisions of the Mine Act; the other charges brought yielded a much stiffer criminal penalty.
The only solution to hold accountable the most recalcitrant employers that put the lives of their workers at risk is for Congress to strengthen the criminal penalties in federal workplace safety and health laws. Only then will we be able to send a message to those employers that do not take responsibility for worker safety and health that the lives of their workers are worth more than a few thousand dollars.
Our nation’s workers deserve nothing less.
Joseph Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. M. Patricia Smith is the solicitor of labor.