The U.S. Department of Justice has placed new emphasis on enforcement of workplace environmental and safety laws. Recently, four managers of a pipe manufacturing company were sentenced in federal court for violating environmental laws and obstructing proceedings under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The convictions resulted from the DOJ's Worker Endangerment Initiative, a joint initiative between the DOJ and OSHA that combines the investigatory powers of OSHA with the prosecutorial functions of the DOJ's Environmental Crimes Section.

With the increased emphasis on enforcement, this is a good time to review your business's environmental and worker-safety programs and to update them if necessary. Here are some suggestions:

  • Know your worker-safety requirements. Federal and state laws require employers to keep employees informed of environmental, health and safety hazards in the workplace. For example, OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard requires employers to label hazardous chemicals, make Material Safety Data Sheets available to exposed employees and train employees to handle hazardous chemicals appropriately.
  • Educate your employees. Make sure your employees know the rules. Conduct regular training programs to educate managers, supervisors and employees on reporting and compliance requirements.
  • Evaluate your incentives. Assess your corporate culture to determine whether the incentives you've established for managers and other workers reward compliance or promote cutting corners. Eliminate corner-cutting by setting compliance goals for applicable employees and rewarding best practices.
  • Don't hide the ball. More serious charges are inevitable when you attempt to thwart an investigation or to cover up noncompliance. This does not necessarily mean that you should volunteer information that hasn't been requested of you. The right strategy requires a balancing of various factors. When in doubt about the best course of action, develop a plan with your attorney.
  • Make no small plans. Review your health, safety and environmental compliance programs on a regular basis. Consider periodic audits as a preventative measure to identify areas for improvement and to ensure compliance. Assess whether audits should be done in a way that will protect the results under the attorney-client privilege.
  • Eyes wide open. Criminal charges can result from knowing violations of environmental or safety regulations. Take employee concerns and complaints seriously. In fact, encourage employees to express their concerns to you. Employees can make their complaints directly to regulators and are most likely to do so if they believe they won't be heard or have been brushed off. If you become aware of a problem, act quickly to determine what reporting and remedial action may be required. Again, if in doubt, consult with your attorney.
  • Don't make assumptions. If you are targeted for enforcement, never assume that investigators will be focused solely on one category of regulatory compliance. Investigation of compliance with worker-safety regulations may lead an investigator to question environmental compliance more broadly, or vice versa. Be ready for anything on inspection day.

These are just a few things to keep in mind in this time of increasing enforcement. Specific requirements will depend on your particular business.