In a highly unusual action, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Wednesday that it has asked the U.S. Justice Department to consider criminal charges against a San Francisco construction company, Odax Inc., in connection with the death of a worker on May 20.
Mel Cassady, OSHA’s deputy regional administrator in San Francisco, said the case stems from the death of Pedro Velasquez, 20, who was killed when an excavation wall collapsed on him.
Cassady said the agency’s criminal referral follows the issuance Tuesday of nine citations against Odax for alleged violations of federal civil health and safety laws and proposed penalties of $63,000 against the company.
The case is considered significant since it is the first time that federal OSHA’s Western regional office has referred a case to the Justice Department for possible criminal action since assuming responsibility for the safety and health of California’s 9.5 million private sector workers 15 months ago.
Federal OSHA and the Justice Department have come under criticism from watchdog groups and a congressional committee for failing to utilize criminal prosecutions to deter companies from engaging in life-endangering conduct.
In July, the National Safe Workplace Institute of Chicago issued a report saying that since 1970 the Labor Department has referred only 44 job-safety cases to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. Only 14 of those cases were prosecuted, resulting in 10 convictions but no jail sentences.
The report also noted that only two criminal job-safety indictments had been lodged since Ronald Reagan has been President, compared to 112 successful job-safety prosecutions filed by California district attorneys alone in the same period.
Then, two weeks ago, the House Government Operations Committee issued a report saying that OSHA’s record in referring workplace safety cases for criminal action was “dismal.” The committee called for beefing up the criminal provisions of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act and “vigorous enforcement by OSHA to punish criminally those who show willful disregard for worker safety.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 provides that “any employer who willfully violates any standard” of the law “and that violation caused death to any employee,” can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and fined up to $10,000, or both.
OSHA inspectors who investigated the Velasquez case learned that Odax had been cited by San Francisco building inspectors on Jan. 13 and Feb. 16 for failure to have proper shoring at the site.
It could be several months before the Justice Department decides whether to file criminal charges against company officials.
Odax officials declined to return calls from a reporter.