Our family was devastated when my brother, Gary Puleio, was killed at Meadville (Pa.) Redi-Mix Concrete in 2001. Gary had been employed there only three months as a cement truck driver. He fell 25 feet to his death, from a cement tower, while shoveling gravel off the hopper to clean it.

The company claimed Gary just wandered up there on his own at the end of his shift rather than being assigned this unpleasant task because he was the “new man.”

Our grief was compounded when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration accepted this implausible story. After admitting no wrongdoing, the company paid a $6,000 fine for having repeatedly violated safety rules like the posting of warning signs.

From the OSHA web site, we learned that Redi-Mix had multiple serious violations that were cited months before my brother was killed. These were “informally” settled with reduced fines called “abatements.”

Corporate access to OSHA

Gary’s case illustrates the vast discrepancies that exist between workers access to OSHA and that of corporations. Corporations routinely “negotiate” with OSHA to downgrade fines through “abatement,” which combined with inadequate workers’ compensation laws make it impossible to hold negligent employers liable.

OSHA fines are not issued as punishment, and no amount of money can ever compensate for the loss of life. (These were the tired excuses OSHA gave our family to justify the slap-on-the-wrist fine issued for my brother’s death.) However, the issuance of trivial fines and citations results in no accountability.

Consider these appalling facts:

• In the past 20 years, 170,000 workplace fatalities occurred, but only about 1,700 were considered by OSHA to be due to the willful violation of safety laws. Without a “willful” designation, it is difficult for prosecutors to make a case that an employer is criminally liable, and civil suits pursued by families are not likely to succeed.

• The percentage of cases being downgraded from willful to less serious violations has been rising steadily. In 2001, 60 percent of all cases were downgraded.

• Of the mere 1,700 willful cases, only 196 were referred to prosecutors, with only 81 convictions and 16 jail sentences.

• It is a misdemeanor to kill a worker by willfully violating safety laws. The maximum sentence is six months in jail.

Daily deaths

In 2003, 4.4 million workers were injured, 5,500 were killed and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. On an average day, 150 workers lose their lives as a result of workplace injuries and diseases and another 12,000 are injured.

OSHA does not have the funding or staff to adequately oversee the safety of the 100 million workers under its jurisdiction. OSHA’s current budget of $464 million amounts to about $4 per worker. Federal OSHA has only about 900 safety inspectors and can only inspect workplaces on average once every 100 years.

White House culpability

The Bush administration has done nothing to correct this situation. It has overturned or blocked dozens of workplace protections and weakened job safety programs with such actions as repealing the ergonomics standards. It has killed dozens of worker protection measures, including rules on cancer causing substances, reactive chemicals and infectious diseases like TB. The Bush administration has the worst record on safety rules in OSHA’s entire history, having gone an entire term without issuing any significant new rules.

While trying to dismantle worker safety and health training programs, the Bush administration has increased funding for “outreach” to employers. It favors employer “voluntary” programs over enforcement and excludes workers and unions. In three years, only three “voluntary” non-enforceable guidelines — for nursing homes, poultry processing and retail grocery stores — have been issued.

Employer groups are fighting every attempt to regulate any hazard. This anti-regulatory ideology allows no room for common-sense regulation to protect workers and the community. Along with corporations, the under-regulated insurance industry continues to campaign for legislation to cut workers compensation benefits.

Who writes the rules?

Corporations now write the rules to regulate and control their profit-driven enterprises. Legislation now passes through the filters of corporate lobbyists and corporate-funded think tanks. The concept of “corporate personhood” — first embraced in an obscure legal doctrine from 1886 — suggests that corporations have the same rights as people.

Corporations have seized on this and claim they are entitled to “free speech” rights to influence elections. They claim the right to influence government agencies that were created to regulate them. This influence affects agencies that regulate the air we breathe, the water we drink, the products we purchase and the workplaces in which we toil. It threatens our health, our safety, our lives and the life of our planet.

We must fight to make workplaces safer. We must toughen laws that make the willful killing of workers a felony, not a misdemeanor. We have a moral obligation to not allow safety to be ignored and dead workers to be an accepted cost of doing business.

Dr. Donna Puleio Spadaro is a practicing oncologist in Pennsylvania. This column was based on her Labor Day remarks to a Unitarian Universalist Church.