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Federal agencies boost workplace safety violation prosecution efforts

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The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Labor are ramping up efforts to prosecute companies and individuals who endanger the lives of their employees.

The Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. attorney’s offices will work with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mine Safety and Health Administration and Wage and Hour Division to investigate and prosecute worker endangerment violations under the new plan, announced Thursday.

“This will elevate the focus on criminal cases involving worker safety,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “I think it’s a big deal.”

The new plan emanates from a joint effort started last year to increase the frequency and effectiveness of criminal prosecutions of worker endangerment violations, which culminated in a decision to consolidate the authorities to pursue worker safety statutes within the Environment and Natural Resource Division’s Environmental Crimes Section, the agencies said in a statement.

In a memo sent Thursday to all 93 U.S. attorneys across the country, Sally Quillian Yates, deputy attorney general for the Justice Department in Washington, urged federal prosecutors to work with the section to pursue worker endangerment violations.

The worker safety statutes generally provide for only misdemeanor penalties, but prosecutors are being encouraged to consider utilizing Title 18 of the of the Federal Criminal and Penal Code and environmental offenses, which often occur in conjunction with worker safety crimes, to enhance penalties and increase deterrence, according to the release. Statutes included in this plan are the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act.

The departments have already been working together on specific criminal prosecutions for workplace safety violations, “and this now makes that national,” Mr. Michaels said. Earlier this month, for example, James J. McCullagh of Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to one count of willfully violating an OSHA regulation by causing death to an employee, four counts of making false statements and one count of obstruction of justice in a prosecution by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, investigated by OSHA and the Labor Department.s

Thirteen employees die on average per day in the United States, while thousands are injured and 150 die from diseases they obtained from exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances in their workplaces, Ms. Yates said in the statement.

In addition to prosecuting environmental crimes, the division has also been strengthening its efforts to pursue civil cases that involve worker safety violations under statutes such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act, according to the release.