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Lawmakers Hold Hearing on Whistleblower Bill

03/26/2010 -According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, an average of 16 workers die every day on U.S. work sites and more than four million workers suffer workplace injuries every year. To address the issue of how workplace safety laws can be improved, lawmakers on the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held ahearingto discuss H.R. 2067, the bill that would amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) by increasing penalties for violators and boosting protections for whistleblowers.

John C. Cruden, deputy assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division testified in favor of the bill, telling subcommittee members that the increased penalties would provide the government with tools to combat workplace injuries. Under current law, when an employee is injured due to unsafe working conditions, employers can only be prosecuted if the employee dies and can only be charged with a misdemeanor. Provisions in H.R. 2067 would make such crimes a felony and would provide for prison terms of up to 10 years for employers, including executives, whose negligence results in the death or serious injury of an employee.

David Michaels, assistant secretary for occupational safety and health for the U.S. Department of Labor also testified in support of the bill. Michaels noted that the current average OSHA penalty is $1,000 and, in 2007, the median penalty proposed for investigations where a worker was killed was $5,900. “Clearly, OSHA can never put a price on a worker’s life and that is not the purpose of penalties—even in fatality cases,” Michaels said. “OSHA must, however, be empowered to send a stronger message in cases where a life is needlessly lost.”

Michaels told the subcommittee that monetary penalties for violations of OSHA have been increased only once in 40 years and that H.R. 2067 would help address this problem by increasing penalties across the board for all types of violations. Specifically, the bill would increase penalties up to as much as $250,000 for willful or repeat violations that involve a fatality.

Jonathan Snare an attorney with Morgan Lewis & Bockius, LLP, who spoke on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, disagreed that the new penalties would help improve workplace safety, saying they would instead punish a few companies for the acts of a few disreputable firms. “This effort to change the OSH Act…appears to be driven by the conduct of a few outlier employers who fail in their workplace safety and health obligations.

Michaels praised the whistleblower protections in the bill. H.R. 2067 would prohibit employers from implementing policies that discourage workers from reporting injuries or illnesses or that discriminate or provide for adverse action against any employee for reporting such incidents. The bill would also make it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees participating in workplace inspections by reducing wages or benefits. These provisions, Michael said, bring OSHA in line with standards in other government whistleblower statutes. “There is no reason that workers speaking up about threats to their safety and health should enjoy less protection than workers speaking up about securities fraud or transportation hazards,” he said.