The other morning I received a newsletter with the subject line “Is a Human Life Worth $2,363?” How could I not open it and read the story? And I did, knowing it would leave me feeling angry—as I am whenever I hear about a company getting off with a small fine for an accident that takes someone’s life.
In this case the life was that of Brett Collins, a 20-year old construction worker in Wyoming who died in August 2012 after being struck in the head by an excavator bucket while working in a trench. Collins’ employer, COP Construction, was investigated by Wyoming OSHA and found to have broken multiple regulations. OSHA proposed a fine of $19,125 and then imposed one of $15,300, which was later negotiated down to $6,773—$4,410 for inadequate safety training and $2,363 for Collins being in the trench while the excavator was operating.
Outraged by the miniscule fine imposed for the infraction that led to the death of their son/grandson/step-brother/etc., the Collins family approached Wyoming state legislators and proposed a bill that would impose an automatic $50,000 fine for safety violations that lead to workplace fatalities. Unlike the fine that was imposed on COP Construction and later reduced, this one would be non-negotiable; if you break the rules and someone dies, you pay. It’s unclear how the proposed law will fare with the legislature or courts, but it’s hard to argue with its essential logic.
The size of the fine is not an anomaly; low fines are the norm. Incidents where large fines are imposed for minor infractions get a lot of media play, but it’s just as common for small fines to be imposed for serious violations. In a story about the proposed Wyoming legislation, the Casper Star Tribune published a map showing the average fines levied for fatal workplace accidents in nearby states. The average fine in Wyoming was $9,554, versus $25,120 in Nebraska. In Utah it was $1,308 and in Oklahoma and New Mexico $1,674.
There are those who will say Collins should have refused to go into the trench when his boss told him to. And objectively, he should have said no. But to lay the entire blame on him assumes he knew how dangerous it was (remember, his employer didn’t provide adequate training) and fails to account for what it’s like to be a young man of 20 doing construction work. When I was that age I had a job where the boss told me to do something incredibly dangerous—and I did it because I was new and did not want to lose my job. I’m angrier about it now than I was when it happened, because at the time, I only knew it was dangerous; now I know what I would have missed had I died before the age of 20. Brett Collins was not so lucky; he’ll never find out what life had in store for him.
It’s worth noting that Collins was about to leave construction and go to college, so he wasn’t one of those people who are completely stuck if they lose a job. But plenty of folks are, and for them it may not be an option to say no to things that put them at risk. Those are the people for whom safety rules matter most. If you supervise people, remember, as important as it is to get the job done it’s even more important for the folks who report to you to go home in one piece.