DOJ Redoubles Efforts to Prosecute Workplace Violations as Environmental Crimes

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Reporting that 13 workers in America die each day on the job due to injuries and 150 workers succumb to exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances while working, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking to increase deterrence of crimes that put the lives and the health of workers at risk.

Given the troubling statistics, the DOJ is redoubling joint efforts between its Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies to hold accountable those who unlawfully jeopardize workers’ health and safety.

The joint effort demonstrates a renewed commitment to utilize criminal prosecution as an enforcement tool to protect on-the-job health and safety.  Deputy Attorney General Yates has issued a letter to all 93 United States Attorneys, urging them to work with the Environmental Crimes Section to pursue worker endangerment violations.

While worker safety statutes generally provide for only misdemeanor penalties, the memo encourages prosecutors to identify Title 18 and environmental offenses, which occur in conjunction with worker safety crimes, to enhance penalties.  “We know that strong sanctions are the best tool to ensure that low road employers comply with the law and protect worker lives” says OSHA representative Dr. David Michaels.  The announcement may serve to reinvigorate efforts, but does not represent a significant policy shift since the DOJ has had a worker endangerment initiative dating back to 2005 and has publicized that effort widely after convictions in relevant cases.