On December 17, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a major new initiative to increase the number of criminal charges in worker endangerment and worker safety cases. Although the DOJ and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have had a worker endangerment initiative for a number of years, the new changes are intended to bolster the likelihood and number of criminal prosecutions which historically have languished, according to DOJ, due to the OSH Act’s misdemeanor criminal provisions. 

According to a memorandum issued to the 93 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country, the DOJ is taking a series of actions to ramp up criminal prosecution in worker safety cases. First, prosecutors are being urged to charge other Title 18 crimes (with felony provisions) that frequently occur with OSH Act violations, such as false statements, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and conspiracy. Second, the Environmental Crimes Section of DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division is being authorized to coordinate with the appropriate U.S. Attorney’s Office to handle the investigation and prosecution of cases under the OSH Act, the federal Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA), and the Migrant Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. 

In conjunction with the memorandum, DOJ and the U.S. Department of Labor have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding designed to effectuate the changes intended to increase the number of criminal prosecutions by DOJ, as well as related amendments to the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual. 

These recent changes aimed at more criminal enforcement of OSHA and related worker safety laws mirror recent changes on the civil side that will significantly increase civil penalties in OSHA enforcement cases in 2016 and beyond.