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Criminal liability following workplace accidents

Employers in Oklahoma and around the country can face criminal penalties when workplace accidents and injuries are caused by willful violations of recognized health and safety regulations. Executives can be fined as much as $250,000 and spend up to six months in jail under the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, also referred to as the OSH Act. Sanctions could be even more severe in states that have passed similar laws.

According to a memorandum of understanding between the Department of Labor and Department of Justice, employers who violate the Occupational Safety and Health Act can also be prosecuted under other legislation such as environmental protection laws. However, criminal charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and prosecutors must be able to show that employers either willfully ignored safety regulations or acted so indifferently that accidents were inevitable.

Criminal prosecutions are only made under the OSH Act when workers have lost their lives. When lax oversight causes workers to be injured, employers face civil penalties of up to $126,749 per violation. These penalties were increased recently to bring them into line with inflation.

Another recent development in the nation's capital has been the introduction of the Protecting America's Workers Act. If passed, this bill would increase the maximum jail sentence for OSH Act violations from six months to 10 years.

Injured workers in Oklahoma generally file workers' compensation claims rather than lawsuits, but attorneys with experience in this area may suggest litigation in certain situations. Lawyers could argue that a negligent disregard of safety and health standards amounts to a wilful intent to cause workers harm, and employers may be ordered to pay punitive damages when workplace injuries have been caused by flagrant violations of federal or state law.

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