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Criminal OSHA prosecutions may ramp up

As part of ongoing efforts to deter workplace safety violations in Ohio and around the country, federal agencies continue to make changes. In 2016, fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will increase by 80 percent or more, and a Dec. 17 announcement from the Department of Justice may result in certain actions being prosecuted as felonies rather than misdemeanors.

The department plans to encourage prosecutors to treat certain violations of the Mining Safety Act, Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act, the Atomic Energy Act or the Occupational Safety and Health Act as environmental crimes. According to the department's announcement, prosecutors are urged to consider environmental offenses because they often occur alongside worker health and safety violations. Once criminal charges arise from violations of environmental laws, they could become felonies instead of misdemeanors.

Typically, occupational safety violations have been treated as crimes only when prosecutors could show that an employer willfully ignored OSHA regulations when an employee died, and they are classified as misdemeanors. In the future, when these violations are labeled as environmental crimes, which are felonies, the penalties could include high fines and prison terms from five to 20 years.

An employer that has experienced a workplace accident that results in criminal charges may want to have legal representation. An attorney could examine the details of the investigation and then possibly propose a criminal defense strategy. Outside experts could be brought in by an attorney, and they might be able to present testimony that challenges the legitimacy of some evidence. When possible, an attorney might request that shaky evidence be removed. This could achieve a reduction or dismissal of charges. An attorney could also advise an employer about the potential benefits of arranging a plea agreement.

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