When we hear about shootings, bank robberies, or home invasions, we expect the perpetrators to be arrested, tried, and punished appropriately if they are found guilty. When a drunk driver kills an innocent bystander, we treat that death as a criminal act punishable with fines and jail time.

When an employer ignores workplace safety and causes a worker to be seriously injured or killed on the job, it is just as criminal, yet arrests and prosecutions are rare. Why does our justice system so often shield businesses, CEOs, and other executives from criminal charges when they gamble with workers’ lives?

The central goals of the criminal law are punishment, deterrence, and upholding the core values of the community. Prosecutors’ responses to criminal behavior by managers in the workplace are so weak as to sideline all of these goals.

With rare exceptions, police and prosecutors treat workplace deaths and injuries as “accidents” that are unforeseeable and therefore not preventable. In too many cases, workers die, not just because they are unlucky, but because the workplace itself is made dangerous by the absence of rudimentary safety precautions.

When a worker dies because a trench collapses, and it turns out that managers sacrificed precautions to get the job done faster, that’s a crime. When managers operate factories with equipment that does not have an accessible, emergency shut-off switch, as required by federal rules for decades, and an employee loses a limb, a manager should be indicted. But prosecutions for such blatantly reckless behavior are so rare that too many companies think they can save money by cutting corners on worker health and safety, and they view the potential cost of injuries and the small fines involved as a cost of doing business.

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By Rena Steinzor and Katherine Tracy
May 31, 2016