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Harkin, Casey Sign on as Original Cosponsors of Legislation to Strengthen Worker Safety Laws as Investigation Reveals Insufficient Safety Regulations That Have Led to Dozens of Grain Bin Entrapments

Investigation Shows Weak Federal Response—Including Fines and Prosecution—to Grain Bin Entrapments and Deaths

WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, have signed on as original cosponsors of the recently-introduced Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA). The reintroduction of the bill comes as an investigation carried out by National Public Radio (NPR) and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) revealed a weak federal response to dozens of grain bin entrapment deaths that have occurred since 1984.

An analysis carried out by NPR and CPI showed at least 179 grain entrapment deaths since 1984. Fines levied by the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were cut 60 percent of the time in grain bin cases, and more than $9 million in initial fines were slashed by nearly 60 percent. Workers as young as 14 have been endangered or killed in grain bins—yet no jail sentences have been handed out—and criminal prosecution has been rare in grain bin deaths, according to NPR/CPI.

“Whether working on a factory floor, on an oil rig, or in a grain bin, our workers and their families need to know that they will be safe and protected at the workplace. And when violations do occur—especially those leading to injury and death—our laws need to be enforced, with lawbreakers held responsible,” HELP Committee Chairman Harkin said. “Agriculture is an important part of our economy’s backbone, and in Iowa I’ve seen first-hand how hard and dangerous working in agricultural businesses can be. That’s why it’s so important that we work to strengthen our laws and their enforcement to help prevent workplace injuries and deaths.”

“Updating our workplace safety laws and enforcement tools will reduce the number of work related injuries and deaths,” said Employment and Workplace Safety Chairman Casey. “This legislation is good for workers and it’s good for business.  Every worker deserves to be confident that while doing their jobs, their employers are doing everything they can to protect them. And no employer who provides a safe workplace should be at a competitive disadvantage to those that take short cuts and disregard safety laws at the expense of safety.”

Last week, Harkin and Casey cosponsored PAWA, authored by HELP Committee member Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). The PAWA expands and strengthens workplace safety law by amending the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cover more workers, update penalties, strengthen protections, enhance public accountability, and clarify an employer’s duty to provide safe work environment.  

A summary of PAWA follows.

PAWA covers more workers.

  • Over 8.5 million American workers are not covered by OSHA’s protections.  These include federal, state, and local public employees, and some private sector employees. The bill provides OSHA protections to these workers, which include flight attendants, state correctional officers, and workers in government agencies.
  • PAWA increases penalties for those who break the law. Under current law, an employer may be charged—at most—with a misdemeanor when a willful violation of OSHA leads to a worker’s death.  The bill makes felony charges available for an employer’s repeated and willful violations of OSHA that result in a worker’s death or serious injury.  The bill also updates OSHA civil penalties—which been unchanged since 1990—and sets a minimum penalty of $50,000 for a worker’s death caused by a willful violation.
  • PAWA protects workers who blow the whistle on unsafe conditions in the workplace. OSHA whistleblower provisions have not been updated since their adoption in 1970. The bill updates those whistleblower protections by incorporating successful administrative procedures adopted in other laws, like the Surface Transportation Act.

PAWA enhances the public’s right to know about safety violations.

  • The bill improves public accountability and transparency: it mandates the Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate all cases of death or serious incidents of injury, gives workers and their families the right to meet with DOL investigators, and requires employers to inform workers of their OSHA rights.

PAWA clarifies an employer’s duty to provide a safe worksite, safety equipment and track recordable injuries and illnesses for all workers onsite.

  • It amends the General Duty Clause to include all workers on the work site.
  • It clarifies employer responsibility to provide the necessary safety equipment to their workers, such as personal protective equipment and directs DOL to revise regulations for site-controlling employers to keep a site log for all recordable injuries and illnesses among all employees on the work site.