They're Watching

JUST BECAUSE YOUR WASTE COMPANY isn't listed on a stock exchange or involved in a financial scandal doesn't mean local or federal prosecutors won't pay attention to your operations. The hottest trend in white-collar crime is prosecuting corporations and their officers and managers for workplace injuries and deaths. And the pattern has no state or regional boundaries. Consider the following:

  • A federal grand jury indicted a Montana mining company and some of its current and former executives on charges they knowingly allowed their workers to be exposed to asbestos.

  • A construction contractor in New York pleaded guilty to federal charges filed after a worker fell to his death. Another New York general contractor, along with its president and a subcontractor, faced state charges of manslaughter and reckless endangerment when two workers drowned while digging a ditch for a water line.

  • A Michigan company and its president were convicted under state law of involuntary manslaughter after an employee was killed in an explosion while he was performing cutting work on a storage tank.

Spurring the interest of prosecutors are the shocking nationwide numbers. In 2003 — the most recent year for which the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics has reliable figures — nearly 5,600 deaths occurred in the workplace and more than 1.3 million workers were injured. (See

Corporate management has long sought to create and maintain a safe working environment. If it were not enough to run an organization that values human life and limb, then perhaps the incentive might be to keep a lid on workers' compensation insurance rates and to avoid civil lawsuits. Meanwhile, the federal and state occupational safety and health agencies are, with varying degrees of efficiency and success, enforcing workplace rules. An increasing number of states are requiring inspectors to notify prosecutors when an on-the-job death seems to stem from a safety violation.

For the most part, the typical waste hauling or landfill company needs to watch out for the local prosecutor who brings worker injury and death cases as a win-win situation — good for the public interest and good for his or her career.

Local prosecutors tend to bundle several state criminal law violations when bringing these cases. Generally, the following crimes are alleged: manslaughter or negligent homicide for workplace deaths, and reckless endangerment and assault for injuries. Managers who are responsible for workplace safety face the possibility of jail time — from several months to many years — plus fines that can reach a $1 million.

For your company or its senior managers, a criminal conviction under federal or state laws carries other bad news. Workers' compensation and other insurance may suddenly cost much more or, worse, be unavailable. Defending related tort claims may be more difficult. Also, government workplace watchdog agencies may suddenly take more interest in your business. Last, but certainly not least, you may lose the right to bid on government contracts. All in all, avoiding prosecution by maintaining a safe working environment will benefit your company in many ways.