State Action Would Save Worker Lives
by Senator John Marty
December 22, 1999

Last year Patrick Randel, a student at St. John's University, died working a summer job because his employer violated safety laws. Patrick died from a lack of oxygen while working in a manhole. OSHA investigated and found the employer broke three laws. They failed to:
-- monitor hazardous gases in the manhole,
-- ventilate the tunnel, and
-- have an emergency evacuation system.

Obeying any of these laws would have saved Patrick Randel's life. But in Minnesota, if an employer knowingly violates safety laws, the only consequence for the crime is a small OSHA fine ($3600 for Patrick Randel), even when those illegal acts kill someone.

Because Patrick was a college student with no dependents, his family received only $7500 from workers' compensation for funeral expenses. Nothing else -- nothing for counseling or for any other expense. If there were student loans, either his family or taxpayers, not the company that killed him, is stuck with the debt. His parents received nothing for the death of their only child.

A victim's family has no recourse in the courts. With a work-related "accident" the workers' compensation system is their sole remedy.

Aside from the injustice, this system does nothing to make law-breaking businesses obey safety laws. Businesses reduce costs by ignoring safety regulations, knowing there are no significant consequences.

I introduced Senate File 295 to allow an employee or their family to go to court if the employer knowingly broke safety laws and it resulted in injury or death. The legislation is designed to prevent illegal behavior and to give victims compensation. Liability insurers would pressure businesses to stop violating safety laws because of the serious financial consequences.

Without S.F. 295, workers have few remedies when their lives are put at risk by illegal action of their employer.

This legislation will not harm law-abiding employers, only those who violate safety rules and regulations. In fact, responsible businesses will see reduced insurance premiums as other employers begin complying with safety laws.

Last session the bill was given an informational hearing in the Senate, but Senators were not given a chance to vote. Some Senators expressed surprise that they had not heard about issues like this during years of long, contentious debate over workers' compensation.

Unfortunately, this legislation faces an up-hill struggle this year. It may get mired down in the workers compensation debate. Only if the news media covers the issue and Minnesota citizens speak out, will the legislature act.

Prevention of workplace injuries is best for both employee and employer. This proposal, along with beefed up safety training and inspections, will prevent other families from going through a tragedy like that of the Randels.

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