Congress is being urged to increase financial penalties for workplace injuries and deaths, according to congressional testimony reported by McClatchy Newspapers. In last week’s hearing before the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, workers’ advocate groups squared off against industry safety experts to debate increasing penalties when employers don’t protect their workers against hazardous conditions.

Workers’ advocates pressured the federal government to drastically increase fines and implement possible criminal prosecution for senior executives when workers are killed or seriously injured on the job. “The thought process has to be, ‘If I keep doing this, and I keep letting this happen. … I could go to jail,'” David Uhlmann of the University of Michigan School of Law and a former U.S. Department of Justice official, told the House Committee.

Speaking for the opposing view, a workplace safety attorney who helps businesses figure out how to respond appropriately to U.S. labor laws, recommended more clearly defined labor safety laws and more stringent enforcement of existing penalties for employers who exhibit a “callous disregard” for workers’ safety. “There needs to be a balance,” Lawrence Halprin, a lawyer with Keller and Heckman, told the House Committee, noting that confusing labor regulations often contribute to the creation of workplace hazards.

Last week’s hearing was one more volley in the Congressional debate that is accompanying preparation of anticipated legislation to overhaul the 39-year-old Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). With the Obama administration’s apparent blessing, House Democrats are preparing to give OSHA a new and sharper set of teeth. New regulations being considered would dramatically increase employers’ penalties, increase business owners’ accountability and protect workers who speak out about workplace violations. OSHA penalties have not been updated since 1990, and financial penalties were never indexed to inflation. Current penalties for the injury or death of a worker often total just a few thousand dollars.

“Penalties must be meaningful,” said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “They must function to deter violations. They must get people’s attention.”

However, some committee members are concerned that their Congressional peers may be unduly swayed by the many stories of personal tragedy that have peppered the hearings. Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, noting that workplace fatalities have declined since 1994, said, “Sometimes Congress gets emotional and draws the wrong conclusions and makes the wrong laws.” Time will tell what happens here, but you might want to weigh in with your Congressman and tell him how you feel.

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