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Probation for Killing a Worker

"We’re not happy with the judicial system," Brenda Whiteye told the Oakland Press. Whiteye’s 52-year old husband, Robert, was crushed to death in 1999 in Southfield when an 18-foot deep trench collapsed on him. "Whatever job Robert did, he wanted to do the best he could," she told the court during the sentencing procedure. "Robert had so much to live for. There is not a day that goes by that we do not think of him and talk about him."

Because workers (or their family) can’t sue their employer, family members of workers killed on the job normally have to be satisfied with an insignificant fine against the company. But in this case, the company received a "willful citation" allowing the State to bring criminal charges.

The Michigan Attorney General’s office — then under the supervision of now-governor Jennifer Granholm — decided to fine the company, Lanzo Construction, $657,000 and bring criminal manslaughter charges against the company’s vice president, Angelo D’Alesandro.

A conviction could have sent D’Alesandro to prison for 15 years.

According to a MIOSHA Newsletter, "Lanzo Construction Company has shown a complete disregard for protecting their employees, as evidenced by their past history and the significant number of alleged willful violations in this incident."

The MIOSHA investigation revealed that D’Alessandro and Lanzo Construction knew of the risk of injury to employees engaged in trenching work, and failed to provide trenching support to prevent injury.

Lanzo construction appealed the fine and fought the manslaughter conviction.

Manslaughter charges were later dismissed by the judge. Now the company, not D’Alessarndro, has been sentenced to probation. The $657,000 fine has been reduced to$10,000.

Another year, same violation

The latest MIOSHA Newsletter describes a $214,000 proposed penalty against the D’Alessandro Contracting Group (formerly Lanzo Construction) "for allegedly failing to adequately protect employees from trenching and excavation hazards."

A June 2004 MIOSHA inspection of an excavation site revealed very dangerous exposures, similar to those documented at previous inspections of Lanzo Construction excavation sites. "What’s most troubling about this case is that the company continues to place its workers in harm’s way," said MIOSHA Director Doug Kalinowski.

What’s equally troubling is the frustration and anger that Brenda Whiteye and others in her situation must be feeling. You have a company with numerous health and safety violations that kills your husband, fights the penalty, escapes from the criminal charges, changes its name to hide its criminal history, and then continues to endanger other workers like nothing’s happened. And Brenda Whiteye’s feelings are shared by the families of thousands of other workers every year.

So where do they turn? Where do they go for some kind of justice? Nowhere, according to our legal system. According to the National COSH Campaign to Stop Corporate Killing killing a worker is currently considered a misdemeanor under federal law, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail. Even for willful violations, fines are typically under $25,000. Conviction for unlawful aerial harassment of mule deer, in contrast, can bring up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

Senator John Corzine (NJ-Dem) has a proposal to increase the maximum penalty for willfully killing a worker from six months to ten years. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, calls the proposal "the worst thing that you could do — telling a small business person that they could go to prison over an OSHA violation."

I don’t know about that. Personally, I think "the worst thing you could do" would be to let a company willfully kill a worker and then do almost nothing about it when they put workers into the same hazard over and over again.

Let’s make our judicial system something that fights for the Brenda Whiteyes of this nation.

Jordan Barab
The original version of this article appeared in Confined Space

More information:
Hazards on Deadly Business
New York Times news series
National COSH Campaign to stop corporate killing
Rhode Island law


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