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New Jersey worker's death draws federal lawmakers' attention

Companies that violate worker safety regulations in Bergen County are aware the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has enforcement limitations. OSHA can recommend fines against violators, which often aren't meaty enough to stop continued unsafe practices. Federal regulators also aren't allowed to close down businesses.

A New Jersey man's death last year in an industrial accident in a neighboring state has come to the attention of a Senate subcommittee. OSHA was quizzed about the agency's response to the temporary worker's death in a letter from subcommittee head Senator Robert Casey. Casey felt the agency could have done more to punish the company where the man died after falling in a hopper.

The employee suffocated after slipping into a large sugar pile, while attempting to unclog clumps stuck in the hopper. Thirteen days before the fatal accident, the plant removed a screen that took care of the clumping problem. Company officials determined the safety device was slowing down the work pace at the plant.

Casey questioned OSHA officials about the "unacceptable" penalties the sugar company received, including a fine of just over $18,000. Inspectors decided not to charge the company with a willful violation of safety rules, although the plant purposely removed the hopper safeguard. The company also had a past fine for not training temporary employees.

The subcommittee letter coincided with news reports about the alarming injury rate among temp workers. OSHA has been promoting safety awareness among non-permanent workers and their employers since last year. Casey noted OSHA's enforcement ability might be suffering from "legislative impediments."

Whether the New Jersey man's death will help change laws to make workplaces safer remains to be seen. Harsh punishments for non-compliant employers have been proposed in several bills failed in committee over the last decade. New Jersey temporary employees injured in industrial accidents are eligible for workers' compensation benefits and other relief through third-party negligence claims.

Source: ProPublica, "Senator Asks OSHA About Temp Worker Buried Alive In Sugar" Michael Grabell, Jul. 10, 2014

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