Felony Convictions for Corporate Managers Involved in Safety & Environmental Investigations
To send a very clear message to employers who fail to provide safe workplaces, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are teaming up to investigate and prosecute company managers and supervisors responsible for Health, Safety and Environmental violations.
Whereas OSHA Act violations typically have relatively low penalties, must be a fatality and only applies to the employer; the DOJ can go after individuals (and get higher penalties) by using “Title 18” offenses such as perjury, conspiracy, obstruction, mail and wire fraud, and also other laws such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. The DOJ is looking to tie environmental violations with workplace safety violations in order to seek felony convictions against individuals, finally holding corporate wrongdoers accountable for the outcomes of their decisions. These corporate individuals could find themselves personally liable for involvement in these events.
In fact, heads have already started to roll as the Ex-Chief of Massey Energy, Donald Blankenship, was convicted for responsibility for 29 workers who were killed in a coal mine collapse. According to the NY Times, Blankenship faced three felony charges because of the incident with a maximum sentence of up to 30-years, but only received a misdemeanor charge that had a maximum sentence of one year in prison. Investigators found that the explosion in that caused the deaths was because of improper ventilation which allowed gasses to accumulate. Further, prosecutors argued that when Blankenship was at the company, his leadership laid the groundwork for the catastrophic events that happened at the mine and resulted in the death of these workers by setting an example and the tone that put profit ahead of lives.
Accountability for Safety Violations with Environmental Crimes
If a corporation does the bare minimum on safety safeguards for their employees, what are the chances they will adhere to environmental requirements? Government statistics according to the 2014 Bureau of Labor statistics are staggering as the number of fatal injuries in the mining, oil and gas industries rose to 183 fatalities, the highest rates since 2007 for the group.
John Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ, has stated that “companies, who undermine the system with regards to safety laws to maximize profits, will also ignore environmental laws.”
Regulatory agency suits are expected to rise as they will be targeting companies and individuals that have committed workplace safety and environmental violations. The DOJ, in particular, will be going after the decision-makers within these companies, holding them personally responsible during government investigations. As an example, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Black Elk Energy for safety lapses that led to a fatal explosion that killed 3 workers and injured several others. Investigations definitely pinned blame on the contractors that worked the facility. Black Elk Energy has a history of violations which drew even more certainty that some action would be taken against the company and its workers.
According to the DOJ, new policies are set in place to hold executives and managers accountable for wrongdoing. These new policies the DOJ is implementing include:
- Corporations must provide government agencies all relevant facts relating to the individuals responsible for the misconduct in order to qualify for cooperation credit.
- DOJ investigators and their attorneys should not try to make a resolution within a company without looking towards specific corporate individuals.
- In the case of a safety or environmental violations, federal attorneys should focus on particular individuals and evaluate if they had a direct link in the matters with the violation.
Future Warnings to Employers
Companies subject to workplace safety investigations can expect that their environmental compliance will also be subject to investigation. If federal investigators find that a company has violated environmental laws, they will purse stiff criminal and civil penalties for those environmental statutes. Also, the DOJ will be focused particularly on individual’s culpability, and employers should expect that future safety and environmental investigations to target individual decision-makers, managers and supervisors who are engaged in these wrong-doings in order to hold these persons accountable for civil and criminal liability.
There are many ways to avoid these safety and environmental challenges for your company, all while controlling costs and profitability. S&D Consulting and Accumyn Consulting experts are here to guide you to make wise decisions so you stay out of hot water with federal investigators. Contact us today for your consultation.