About a year after his conviction on 72 counts of fraud and conspiracy, Stuart Parnell, owner and CEO of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), was sentenced to 28 years in prison by a Federal judge. In the case of the peanut butter king, the jury determined that Parnell knowingly and willingly sold peanut butter paste that was intoxicated with salmonella. This lead to one of the deadliest salmonella outbreaks in recent years and one of the largest food recalls in US history. The 2008 salmonella outbreak traced back to PCA killed nine people and sickened 714 others. Former workers described filthy conditions at the plant in southwest Georgia and Federal inspectors found roaches, rats, mold, dirt, accumulated grease and bird droppings during their raid. This is the first time in history that a food manufacturing CEO was sentenced to prison for food poisoning. It is hailed as a ground-breaking day for food safety advocates. Parnell’s brother, a food broker, was sentenced to 20 years and the plant’s quality assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, was given 5 years. In early 2011, as a result of the aftermath of the PCA outbreak, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which the FDA called the most sweeping reform in food safety laws in 70 years.
OSHA can also charge employers with prison sentences in cases of on-the-job fatalities tied to willful violations, in addition to fines. Willful violations of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act causing loss of human life are punishable by fines up to $500,000 for organizations and $250,000 and up to six months in prison for individuals – a misdemeanor sentence in legal terms. In the 40 years since Congress enacted the OSH Act, there have been more than 400,000 workplace fatalities, yet fewer than 90 OSH Act criminal cases have been prosecuted and only about a dozen have resulted in criminal convictions.
If you Google “criminal prosecutions in workplace safety” you can see for yourself the vast number of news stories and blog posts that highlight this topic. Many people don’t find OSHA’s fines or a 6-month misdemeanor sentence to be strict enough. The largest fine ever issued by OSHA was in the wake of the 2005 tragedy at BP’s Texas City, TX refinery where an explosion killed 15 workers and injured 170. There were no criminal charges brought against BP management or executives. Sure, the $21 million fine was groundbreaking, but what impact does that have on a company that has an annual gross income of around $15 billion? That’s less than 1% according to my math… (MarketWatch)
Although it may seem like the Justice Department is turning away OSHA cases, in recent years more cases have been prosecuted at the State level – where charges can carry a larger sentence. In April of 2014, the former safety manager and the director of plant operations for Bumble Bee Seafood were each charged with three felony counts of an OSHA violation causing death, tied to a 2012 case where an employee was burned to death in an industrial oven. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of three years in state prison and/or a $250,000 fine. There were also civil charges filed against the company. In this case, it was at the plant manager level where the charges were filed, not the corporate executives. Some may argue that they should be held equally responsible as they should be aware of what is happening in their workplaces.
It’s an interesting topic and one that probably won’t be going away anytime soon. What are your thoughts on personal responsibility for executives and/or managers for the death of an employee? And beyond employees, what about deaths in the general public that can be attributed to quality issues within a workplace?