Just in time for the holidays, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Labor (DOL) announced a new plan to prosecute crimes that put workers’ health and lives at risk. As explained in the December 17, 2015 press release, the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices will cooperate with the DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and Wage and Hour Division (WHD) to investigate and prosecute crimes that endanger workers.

Per Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates:

On an average day in America, 13 workers die on the job, thousands are injured and 150 succumb to diseases they obtained from exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances while they worked  . . . . Given the troubling statistics on workplace deaths and injuries, the Department of Justice is redoubling its efforts to hold accountable those who unlawfully jeopardize workers’ health and safety.

The DOJ and DOL expressed a renewed commitment to use criminal prosecution as an enforcement tool to ensure the safety of workers, and, in an effort to do so, “consolidated the authorities to pursue worker safety statutes within the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resource Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.”

The Memorandum of Understanding that accompanied the press release called for the DOL to select and prepare referrals for criminal prosecutions of worker safety laws. The DOL and DOJ will also participate in joint training programs to help identify potential crimes. Another memorandum sent to all U.S. Attorneys called for federal prosecutors to consider criminal referrals from the DOL. Statutes protecting worker safety generally have only penalties of misdemeanors, but the memorandum encouraged federal prosecutors to look to Title 18 and environmental offenses to increase penalties with the hope of increasing deterrence.

Whatever the practical impact of this new initiative and the cooperative efforts of the DOJ and DOL, employers should be vigilant in guarding against possible worker health and safety violations.