February 28, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 5Comment

Roxanne Moyer wondered why managers at her husband’s worksite would allow an obvious dangerous condition to exist. Workers could be so “close to molten steel [that it] just poured over on them.” Her husband, Samuel Moyer, 32 died earlier this month at Arcelor Mittal’s LaPlace, Lousiania steel mill in exactly that way. He was fatally burned with molten steel.

Mrs. Moyer sounds like a generous and forgiving soul, saying:

“I don’t want it to happen to anybody else. And they’ve already changed things there. We’ve talked to fellow workers, and they’ve already put up a shield there and you can’t even get that close to it anymore.”

I’m not so tolerant. How is it that the world’s largest steel company, with revenues topping $78 Billion in 2010, can ignore such a hazard? They didn’t do anything about it until after a worker was killed?

Part of the problem is there are no meaningful consequences for employers who violate safety regulations that lead to worker injuries or deaths. Under workers’ compensation law, it is next to impossible for a surviving family to sue their loved one’s employer. Under OSHA, the maximum penalty for a serious violation is only $7,000. That penalty figure hasn’t been updated since 1991; in today’s dollars its only worth $4,400.

Arcelor Mittal has steel mills and other facilities in 60 or so countries, and in a dozen U.S. States. Since January 2007, federal and state OSHA inspectors have made about 25 inspections of the firm’s plants located in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The vast majority of these inspection were commenced because of worker complaints and fatal incidents. When violations were identified by inspectors, however, the penalties are trivial, especially for a firm with Arcelor Mittal’s wealth. Here’s what I mean by inconsequential penalties:

Mr. George Pulver, 48 was burned over 60% of his body at the Arcelor Mittal plant in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. He died on January 16, 2008. Following federal OSHA’s investigation and a settlement, the company was assessed a final penalty of $5,625 for four serious violations.

Mr. James Wingfield, 55 was fatally crushed at the ArcelorMittal’s Indiana Harbor plant. He died on March 24, 2008. Following Indiana-OSHA’s investigation and a settlement, the company was assessed a final penalty of $3,975 for one serious and one other-than-serious violation.

Mr. Roger Prichard, 58 was fatally injured when he was caught in a machine that finishes steel rails at the Arcelor Mittal plant in Steelton, Pennsylvania. He died on April, 21, 2008. Following federal OSHA’s investigation and a settlement, the company was assessed and final penalty of $6,375 for three serious violations.

Mr. Jason Belko, 23, was fatally crushed between an industrial train and a piece of equipment at the Arcelor Mittal plant in East Chicago, Indiana. He died on January 12, 2008. Following an investigation by Indiana-OSHA, no citations or penalties were issued to the company.

Mr. Jason Ham, 33, was fatally struck by a machine part at the Arcelor Mittal plant in East Chicago, Indiana. He died on October 20, 2010. Following Indiana-OSHA’s investigation and a settlement, the company was assessed a $25,000 penalty for a repeat violation.

OSHA is not authorized to change the amount of its maximum civil penalty for serious, willful or repeat violations; only Congress can do that. As I noted above, those dollar amounts were last updated in 1991. OSHA does have leeway, however, in proposing reductions to proposed penalties based on the gravity of the violation, the company’s past history, size, and good faith. Under its current policy, for example, OSHA will give an employer as much as a 60% discount on a penalty for being a small business, or a 25% discount for having a health and safety management system, or a 10% discount for not being cited by OSHA in the last three years. Given Congress’ inaction to modernize OSHA’s penalty structure, it was wise that the agency established a work group in 2009 to assess how those reduction factors could be revised to make the penalties a bit more meaningful. It’s been 10 months since OSHA announced plans to make such amendments. The agency has yet to officially do so.

Federal OSHA is now investigating whether Arcelor Mittal violated health and safety regulations at its LaPlace, LA mill, including any that may have contributed to the death of Samuel Moyer, 33. If violations are identified, OSHA should propose the maximum penalty for each. Arcelor Mittal is not a small business, has a history of OSHA violations in numerous States, as well as a history of worker fatalities in the recent past. Discounts should not apply.

5 thoughts on “BIG company, but small OSHA penalties for workplace fatalities

  1. In Australia, if a worker is injured, let alone killed, an automatic charge of criminal negligence is made against the manager and the company. This may be dropped upon investigation, but it is a prospect of hanging that wonderfully concentrates the mind. If a worker is killed, then criminal negligence is prosecuted.

    I was a manager who was taught this when the legislation was passed. I immediately ensured that my staff treated scalpel blades with great respect, and even threatened one worker with the sack if he didn’t change his work practices.

    It isn’t perfect, though. Deliberate corporate negligence can be held up in the courts for decades. But it’s better than what you guys have.

  2. FYI,

    You can sue the equipment builder’s designs installed at the plant since it is very difficult to the late husband’s employer. The Bayou plant was puchased from an investment group by ACM in 2008. It may be possoble to bring the previous owner into the suit if the condition existed in 2008.

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