An Alabama man has been fighting for years to make the workplace safer for American workers. Ron Hayes, whose son died in an industrial accident 15 years ago, went to Capitol Hill to press Congress for stiffer penalties against companies that put employees in jeopardy. The Fairhope native told a Senate committee that little has changed in federal workplace enforcement since his 19-year-old son suffocated beneath 60 tons of corn in a grain silo in 1993. Ron said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still “coddling employers that don’t protect their workers,” in part because Congress has failed to update the minor fines and misdemeanor charges that companies face under current law. Ron told the committee:
It’s ridiculous. We have prosecution in everything else. I can kick a mule … in this country and I’m going to jail. But a business owner can negligently or willfully ignore worker safety and face only a small fine, even in cases of death or serious injury.
Ron’s son, Patrick, was killed as he cleaned a silo at a Florida plant. Among other things, Patrick hadn’t been furnished with a retrieval system — essentially a lifeline in case of a grain collapse – and as a result he wasn’t wearing the safety device. An OSHA field inspector initially recommended citing the company for “willful” safety violations, and recommended a $530,000 fine. But OSHA supervisors and lawyers refused to go along and instead reached a settlement that reduced the fine to $42,000 and eliminated possible prosecutions. Since that time, Ron has acted as an OSHA watchdog, helping families from across the country navigate the agency’s handling of tragedies. At the hearing, the safety advocate also proposed allowing victims’ families to sit in on any OSHA settlement negotiations. Ron and other witnesses at the hearing argued that managers who disregard safety regulations should be hit with much larger fines as well as criminal felony charges. The hearing was before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Ron, who has formed an advocacy group for grieving families, worked with lawmakers several years ago on similar legislation that ultimately stalled. But Congressional Democrats — arguing that the Bush Administration has relied on voluntary compliance — are proposing a variety of bills aimed at strengthening oversight. Senator Ted Kennedy, chairman of the education and labor committee, has introduced legislation that would provide new protections for whistleblowers and significantly toughen penalties for employers, including larger fines and, in some cases, stiff prison sentences. The measure has been stuck in committee, however, with opposition from business groups and many Republicans who question the effectiveness of imposing stiffer penalties. Regardless of what happens in Congress, Ron Hayes should be commended for leading the fight for workplace safety. He has been a tireless worker and has refused to be intimidated by the powerful forces that oppose legislation designed to make the workplace safer.
Source: Associated Press
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