A quiet partnership between OSHA, the EPA and a select group of Justice Department prosecutors has been formed to target for criminal prosecution employers who operate the nation's most dangerous workplaces, reports The New York Times.

No new legislation or regulation is involved, according to the Times. Existing laws that carry stiffer penalties that OSHA rules will be leveraged, including environmental laws, criminal statutes more often used in racketeering and white-collar crimes, and provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a corporate reform law.

OSHA Director of Enforcement Richard Fairfax told the Times the initiative is part of a broader effort by OSHA to crack the whip on companies that persistently violate agency rules.

Hundreds of OSHA compliance officers have already attended training sessions led by Justice Department prosecutors and criminal investigators from the EPA, according to the Times. In some regions of the country, OSHA managers have begun sharing lists of the worst workplaces with EPA investigators and prosecutors, who select the most promising case for investigation. Several criminal inquiries and prosecutions are ongoing, reports the Times.

The underlying premise of this OSHA-EPA-Justice Department cooperation is that poor workplace safety frequently accompanies poor environmental practices.

"If you don't care about protecting your workers, it probably stands to reason that you don't care about protecting the environment either," David Uhlmann, chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, told the Times.

The government's strategy holds that OSHA inspectors have direct access to the most dangerous workplaces and can spot potential environmental crimes, especially those that endanger workers. Meanwhile, the EPA has some 200 criminal investigators experienced in building cases for federal prosecution. All federal environmental crimes carry potential prison sentences, including up to 15 years for knowingly endangering workers. In 2001, the EPA obtained prison sentences totaling 256 years, according to the Times.

High-level political backing for this "get tough" prosecution strategy is uncertain, reports the Times. A news conference in March to announce the plan was canceled, according to the paper. The program was to have been called the Worker Endangerment Initiative, but is now described as a policy decision, according to the Times.