Is a workers life worth about $11,300?

Eleazar Torres-Gomez climbed onto a slow-moving conveyor to untangle a pile of wet laundry. Cintas, the laundry giant, encouraged workers at its Tulsa, Okla. plant to climb onto the conveyors to push items that were tangled into the dryers to meet production goals. He was then sucked into the industrial dryer on March 6, 2007 and drew his last breath inside its 300-degree chamber.

Internal memos revealed that company officials knew about the danger posed by the conveyor belts and that there were close calls before. But they never installed the protective guardrails that the memos suggest could have prevented the incident.

Three years earlier, in Ola, Ark., 19-year-old Jeremy Foster, headed out to work at the Deltic Timber sawmill in town. The temp agency sent him there. He never came home that night. Instead, his body was shipped to the local coroner. Because the mill’s wood chipper lacked a safety guard, it grabbed his shirt and strangled him to death.

Foster’s stepmother, Becky, told the World that the company sent two men to the family’s house to offer condolences and flowers and that they sent flowers to the funeral. “And that’s all they did,” she said. “His death actually cost the company only $2,250 because that is the amount the government finally fined Deltic for not having a protective guard on the wood chipper.”

Last year Darrell Richards of Junction City was killed at another Deltic sawmill in Waldo, Ark.

The labor movement has, for many years, complained about small fines and lack of jail terms for companies that willfully disregard safety standards.

This year, however, it seems that, from the halls of Congress to the offices of government regulatory bodies, the government is reversing course and moving to stop the carnage.

The House Education and Labor Committee held hearings in Washington, D.C. on April 28 and endorsed passage of the Protecting America’s Workers Act, HR 2067. The bill increases the fines the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can impose on companies that flout safety standards and allows for long jail terms in cases where employer negligence results in the death of a worker .The measure also extends OSHA protection to additional categories of workers.

Committee chairman, George Miller (D-Calif.), pledged to move quickly on getting the bill before the whole Congress. GOP legislators on the committee did not join the group’s top Republican, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), in his vocal opposition to forwarding the legislation.

The decision to launch the new bill follows the April 8 appointment of health and safety activist Jordan Barab as the acting head of the OSHA. Barab, who is senior policy adviser for the House Education and Labor Committee, is well-known as a strong advocate for health and safety in the workplace.

Barab will lead the agency until a permanent director is chosen and then will become OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary on a permanent basis.

Peg Seminaro, the AFL-CIO’s director for safety and health, said, “Barab has a deep commitment and dedication to protecting workers and will bring to OSHA the energy and leadership needed to move the agency in a new direction.”

April 28, the day of the congressional hearings, was Workers Memorial Day which honors men and women who gave their lives at their workplaces.

The AFL-CIO says 5,657 workers were killed on the job in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available. Another 50,000, the federation says, died from job-related diseases.

Seminario told the congressional committee that, “the average penalty for a serious violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act is about $900. The average penalty for worker deaths is $11,300, but that’s only when there’s any kind of enforcement or penalty at all.

“What kind of message does it send to employers, workers and family members that the death of a worker caused by serious or repeated violations of the law warrants only a penalty of a few thousand dollars? It tells them there is little value placed on the lives of workers in this country and that there are no serious consequences for violating the law.”

During the 39 years during which the nation has had job safety laws, there have been 350,000 deaths on the job, according to the AFL-CIO.

Davis Uhlmann, a federal prosecutor, told the congressional panel that, during those 39 years, there have been only 71 prosecutions and a total of 42 months of jail time for those convicted. “This is because causing death on the job is only a misdemeanor under federal law.”

Meaningless penalties and infrequent prosecution are not only obstacles with which workers, their families and job safety experts are faced.

The Government Accountability Office released a report April 30 that showed how the Bush administration had ordered OSHA to pursue only the “worst of the worst” firms. For most companies, the report noted, Bush had turned OSHA into a “consultative agency” for big business.

The report noted that the maximum $7,000 fine for willful and repeated violations hasn’t been increased for 20 years. OSHA’s employee handbook tells its enforcement officials to start bargaining with violators by using a figure of $5,000, with discounts based on employer size and job safety history.

Another problem is that families of victims have been shut out of negotiations with companies. HR 2067 would include families.

Seminario noted that at unionized workplaces the unions are supposed to participate in negotiations on penalties and remedies between OSHA and employers. “But during the Bush administration we were excluded and presented with a fait acomplie,” she said.

The hearings also provided dramatic proof of Bush administration encouragement of state health and safety officials who let violators off the hook.

Twelve construction workers died in an 18 month period ending in 2008 at a major project on the Las Vegas, Nevada strip. Rep. Dana Titus (D-Nev.) testified that Nevada’s OSHA failed to protect the victims because it was under the state’s Department of Industry “and headed by a Republican appointee who intervened in job safety probes on behalf of Republican campaign contributors.”

The Las Vegas Sun reporter who broke the story won a Pulitzer prize for the series of articles. He was laid off after the articles ran.

Several of those who testified suggested giving the federal OSHA the power to take over local investigations when it sees that the state bodies aren’t doing the job.

They also called for a drastic increase in the number of OSHA inspectors. Seminario said that the agency now has only 948 inspectors, its lowest total in 12 years, or one for every 6.4 million workers.