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Prosecutor weighs criminal charges for unsafe working conditions

Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe workplace. The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration is charged with enforcing workplace safety regulations to minimize worker injuries and deaths. The usual penalty for an OSHA violation is a fine and an order to remedy the unsafe condition. But one Montana woman wants more justice than that after the death of her brother in a workplace fire. She has asked the Missoula County Attorney to consider criminal charges against the employer.

The woman's brother was 44 years old when he died in a fire at an auto body shop in Missoula. He was pouring lacquer from one container into another when the fumes ignited. An OSHA investigation into the fire led to nine citations for safety violations. According to OSHA, the body shop did not cover the paint or store it properly, ventilation was inadequate, and equipment was not properly grounded.

In response to the sister's request, the county attorney is considering whether criminal charges are warranted. The sister notes that in another area of the shop paints were stored properly, indicating the employer knew the proper safety procedures and failed to follow them in the area where her brother died. The shop's owner denies knowing of any safety violations before the accident.

When a Montana worker is killed on the job, criminal charges are not common. Families do, however, have a legal remedy in the form of workers' compensation death benefits. These benefits are intended to relieve the workers' dependents from financial hardship. If the employer or its insurer fails to pay the benefits in full or on time, the family can take them to court to seek compliance with the law.

Source: The Missoulian, "Sister of worker killed in fire asks prosecutor to review case," Alice Miller, April 7, 2014

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