Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates announced in a December 17 memo that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Labor (DOL) are making a renewed commitment “to utilize criminal prosecution as an enforcement tool to protect the health and safety of workers.”

In the announcement, the DOJ states that the Environmental Crimes Section will now handle criminal prosecutions of worker safety violations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the Mine Safety Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, and the Atomic Energy Act.

This is an important move because charges under many environmental statutes can be brought as felonies, while criminal violations of worker safety laws typically are misdemeanors. The DOJ’s stated goal is to include environmental charges — which carry larger penalties and longer jail time — in workplace safety enforcement actions.

Under this new initiative, “prosecutors have now been encouraged to consider utilizing Title 18 and environmental offenses, which often occur in conjunction with worker safety crimes, to enhance penalties and increase deterrence.”

More information about the December 17, 2015 Yates Memo and the Memorandum of Understanding between DOJ and the DOL can be found here.