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OSHA sends strong message in response to fatal Philadelphia building collapse

Last week, OSHA handed down nearly $400,000 in fines against two Philadelphia contractors responsible for the June building collapse that killed six people and injured 14. It was a hefty fine accompanied by a strong message- jeopardizing workers’ safety will not be tolerated.

OSHA ruled that the building collapse was preventable and that the contractors clearly contravened best safety practices in demolition. The agency reportedly is weighing criminal sanctions against the contractors, which should be applauded.

Too often, negligent employers escape criminal sanctions because employer misconduct leading to a worker’s death can only be prosecuted as a misdemeanor under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act. As a result, few cases are referred to the U.S. Department of Justice and even fewer are prosecuted.

However, criminal penalties are the strongest deterrent to such conduct by contractors, and the government’s hesitancy to use them is a gross injustice to the families of those people who lose their lives on the job due to employer negligence or misconduct.

But this case also points to several other issues that merit further attention and action:

First, the building owner and developer who hired the general contractor to demolish the structure is exempt from liability in this case. He was motivated by profit to hire the cheapest bid and knew exactly what he would be getting. Worse, was at the building before its collapse and failed to halt unsafe practices. The owner also should be criminally prosecuted in the same way as the contractors. Otherwise, he would have no incentive to change his business practices.

Second, there is legislation pending before the Philadelphia City Council in the wake of this disaster that would help prevent similar events in the future. The legislation would amend city codes to add new enforcement powers, to establish public safety requirements, to require sharing of information among city departments, and to require evidence of mandatory worker training, among other provisions. These are important steps for the city and we urge members of the City Council to strongly move forward in support of this legislation.

The Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH) is working with the City Council to ensure that the measure addresses weaknesses in construction and worker safety.

These new protections would help prevent a similar- preventable- disaster from taking place in the future. Philadelphia’s workers and residents deserve nothing less.