OSHA and workplace fatalities

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is required by federal law to investigate all workplace accidents involving serious injury or death. In our experience, when we have represented such injury victims, their families often take a keen interest in OSHA’s investigation, but they can find it to be a frustrating experience. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/05/us-steel-nick-revetta-osha

One of the problems that families have is the pace or speed of the investigation. It seems to take OSHA a long time to get to the bottom of a particular accident. Also, many times families are disappointed in the result of an OSHA investigation either because no citation (i.e., violations) are issued against any employers, or the fines associated with those citations seem relatively modest. In our experience, the frustration of those families is understandable.

First, in many industrial accidents, it appears to us that OSHA lacks the manpower or know how to determine the root cause of an accident. In a simple case involving something like lack of fall protection, OSHA is well equipped to investigate the accident, but if the event involves a more complex work environment, they may not be so well equipped to do the job. That was the situation in a recent case of ours where a man was killed in a gas explosion at a steel plant, yet no violations were ever issued against the company running the plant. The frustration of the family and the inadequacy of the OSHA effort in the case was the subject of a major feature article in a national magazine (insert link). This article painted a very unflattering picture of OSHA as an agency which is understaffed and often under pressure to complete investigations, even if no cause was determined.

On occasion, however, we have seen instances where OSHA, if the right people are assigned to investigate the case, can do a terrific job in getting to the cause of an accident. In those situations the family is very grateful for the efforts of the agency.

In addition to the pace or outcome of the investigation, the other thing that frustrates families is the size of the fine issued against the company. For example, we have seen cases involving serious violations and the death of a worker where the fine is less than $50,000. That seems like a paltry sum, but one has to keep in mind that the system of levying fines in OSHA is controlled by federal regulations and the purpose of those fines is different than the award of compensation by a jury in a private lawsuit.

In the end, most families look to private attorneys such as our firm to hold accountable those who cause an accident. In addition to providing much more financial impact on the wrongdoer, the private lawsuit puts the family much more in control than when a federal agency such as OSHA is conducting a governmental investigation.