You cannot take for granted that your workplace is safe, or that your employer is even following its own policies. Farmers Union Cooperative Supply of Stanton, Nebraska, a grain elevator, was recently sentenced in the death of an employee, Donald Stodola. Stodola was working in a confined space without proper ventilation. The lack of oxygen in the space caused Stodola’s death. Farmers knew that it was violating both a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation and its own written safety manual. Farmers’ failure to comply with regulations and its own internal policies caused a completely preventable employee death.
Farmers was fined $86,000 by OSHA because it didn’t protect Stodola from an unsafe environment. In addition to the OSHA fine, the company pled guilty to violation of a criminal statute and was fined $100,000 and placed on probation for 2 years. But, according to the Norfolk Daily News, “The criminal statute violated by Farmers provides that a willful violation of an OSHA regulation, which causes the death of an employee, is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment up to six months, a fine of up to $500,000 or a combination of the two.”
We think that every preventable workplace death should be prevented, and a failure to do so is inexcusable.
We do not understand why the total fines issued by OSHA and the court equal ($186,000) less than 40% of the maximum criminal fine of $500,000. Farmers pled guilty to willfully violating safety procedures that resulted in the death of an employee and the courts went easy on them. What good are fines as a deterrent if they are not enforced in cases like these? We think that every preventable workplace death should be prevented, and a failure to do so is inexcusable.
It is unfortunate that it took Stodola’s death for Farmers to wake up and, we hope, begin to enforce workplace safety regulations and their own policies. We hope Farmers has become a safer place for the people who work there. We practice law in an area with many grain elevators, and we can only hope that the other companies who run these elevators are paying close attention to the Farmers case. It would do every employer good to undergo a review of their safety practices and to adequately educate their employees to be vigilant about safety in the workplace. We would like to see Stodola’s legacy be a marked decrease in workplace accidents and deaths in Nebraska and across the heartland.