Last week, we noted that in a rare case, an employer had been charged with a crime in connection with the death of a worker and had been sentenced to jail. This week, we read of a woman who works for a pro-worker organization who believes such cases should become less rare.

She argues that employers who place workers lives and livelihoods at risk should face criminal sentences and jail time for their actions. Perhaps because the workers’ compensation system has been in place in many jurisdictions like Illinois for so long, many employers seem to have developed a mistaken notion.

 

By their actions, it is almost as if the believed that because the death was covered by workers’ compensation insurance, it cannot negligence. While the “grand bargain” that created workers’ compensation insurance was the idea that in return for not suing their employers in negligence actions when they are involved in a workplace “accident,” employees would obtain quick compensation for their injuries.

Their employer is often negligent and in strict tort law analysis, they would be liable for the worker’s injuries or death. But the workers’ compensation insurance program replaced that tort remedy.

And the workplace safety agencies, such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), are supposed to penalize bad employers who violate safety rules and harm and kill workers. Today, too many employers escape fines until a worker dies. Even then, the fines are often inadequate to alter employer behavior, and some appear to treat it merely as one more cost of doing business.

Criminal penalties for these employers would likely modify behavior very quickly, as many of these companies’ managers and owners feel insulated from the dirty work that occurs on their job sites and in their plants.

Some time in an orange jumpsuit behind a fence with razor wire would leave a more lasting impression and would also signal to other employers that if their negligence results in a badly injured or dead worker, they too could enjoy some time in the hands of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Philly.com, “An advocate of worker safety pushes employer liability,” Jane M. Von Bergen, Inquirer Staff Writer, September 6, 2015