The New York Times, April 28, 2004 pA13 col 05 (8 col in)

Strong Criminal Penalties Sought For Violations That Kill Workers.    By David Barstow.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 The New York Times Company

For at least 15 years, Democrats in Congress have tried in vain to increase criminal penalties against employers who commit safety violations that result in the deaths of workers. These willful violations leave about 100 workers dead each year, yet prosecutions are almost unheard of and only a handful of executives have ever been sentenced to more than a few months in jail.

But at a news conference on Tuesday, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the leading Democratic voice on workplace safety, said he and other Democrats would again press for stronger criminal sanctions against employers.

Mr. Kennedy pledged support for legislation that would increase the maximum prison sentence to 10 years from six months for willful safety violations that result in deaths..

''This is coming at 'em,'' Mr. Kennedy said, referring to Republicans, some of whom oppose stronger criminal penalties for even the most egregious safety violations.

The legislation was introduced last year by Senator Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey, who stood at Mr. Kennedy's side on Tuesday and denounced what he called ''an extraordinary failure to protect American workers.'' Mr. Corzine, who said he drafted his bill in response to articles in The New York Times last year, recited several of the newspaper's findings about the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Times, which analyzed two decades of safety inspection data, identified 2,197 workers whose deaths, according to safety inspectors, were the result of willful safety violations. In all, their employers faced $106 million in civil fines and jail sentences totaling less than 30 years.

Officials at the Department of Labor, which includes OSHA, again declined to say Tuesday whether the administration supported stronger penalties. ''We look forward to reviewing the legislation,'' John L. Henshaw, the OSHA administrator, said in a prepared statement.