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Make Workplace Safety Violations Felony Offenses

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In the aftermath of Don Blankenship getting off almost scot free after murdering 29 of his workers at the Big Branch mine in 2010, the Huntington Herald-Dispatch calls for making workplace safety violations felony offenses:

The guilty verdict was returned on a misdemeanor conspiracy charge that carried a penalty of up to a year in prison as well as a fine. The charges of which Blankenship was acquitted involved securities fraud and making false statements, both felonies. If convictions had been returned on all three counts against Blankenship, the maximum penalties could have added up to 30 years in prison. The false-statement and securities fraud charges had to do with allegations that Massey issued a statement after the mine explosion that falsely said the company did not condone safety violations and strove to comply with all safety rules at all times. Prosecutors charged that the statement was intended to stop a sharp drop in Massey stock prices.

As some legal and mine-safety advocates noted after the verdicts, the punishments associated with the crimes appear out of whack. Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety advocate in Kentucky, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that violating safety standards should be a felony. “If that were changed, maybe (coal company officials) would look at operating their mines a little differently,” he said. Putting it another way was Pittsburgh lawyer Bruce Stanley, who has represented miners’ families in other fatalities at Massey mines: “Sadly, when it comes to prison time, Congress has decided that lying to Wall Street is a much more grievous sin than conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws.”

Congress should work to change that. Just as Blankenship was accused of putting “profits ahead of people” by his critics, the mine-safety laws seem to be following a similar pattern. West Virginia’s congressional delegation should start working to change that immediately.

I completely agree. Now, the Herald-Dispatch knows that there is no way the West Virginia congressional delegation is going to do that as they are totally in the pocket of the coal industry and have long-standing ties to Blankenship himself. But this is the progressive position on workplace safety issues. As I’ve stated many times before, if we want to tame corporate behavior, we have to use the stick more than the carrot. If you make executives personally liable for what happens in their mines, on their shop floors, and in their supply chains, then you will see these problems get fixed very quickly. But right now, even when American law does impact a workplace (unlike an outsourced factory in Bangladesh), the regulators are far too few and the punishments far too light for many employers to figure that it’s worth the risk to not create a safe workplace. Prison time would change that attitude.

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