Several large employers were criticized Tuesday in a U.S. Senate hearing for having a disregard for worker safety, according to media reports. The hearing, held by the Employment and Workplace Protections Subcommittee of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, sought to hold leading corporations accountable for repeated safety violations.

“What is most disturbing to me is that these tragedies are happening over and over again in the same industries. And they are happening far too often at the same companies — where workers are doing jobs that their employers know are dangerous and unsafe,” said Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Senators heard testimony about such companies as Cintas Corp., Smithfield Farms, Waste Management Inc. and residential construction developer Avalon Bay. Testimony focused on employers making choices that increased the risk of injury or illness to their workers.

The hearing also addressed OSHA's failures to investigate and remedy corporate-wide health and safety violations as a result of ineffective enforcement tools and inadequate resources.

"Industry-backed appointees have weakened OSHA enforcement, eviscerated regulatory standards programs, and ignored emerging workplace hazards," wrote Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in a statement submitted to the subcommittee.

"To prevent accidents, instead of only assigning blame afterward, OSHA needs to root out the source of these problems," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), HELP Committee Chairman. "A broad-based approach to enforcement has the power to transform workplace accidents from senseless losses to catalysts for changes that save lives."

Witnesses made several suggestions to reform OSHA including passage of the Protecting America's Workers Act. This bill would expand the protection of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, strengthen the agency's ability to enforce the law and increase criminal penalties for the most egregious safety violations.

"OSHA and America's working families need your help to send a clear message to negligent employers: Workers lives must be valued more than profits," said Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator, Change to Win, a six-million member partnership of seven unions.

Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said higher fines alone won't change a company's willingness to look the other way when it comes to unsafe conditions. When OSHA finds companies with a pattern of workplace safety problems, it should assign compliance officers to follow up until all problems have been fixed, he said.

Several lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing highlighted the need for additional resources, better standards and the authority to impose tougher penalties.

“But the biggest single obstacle to effective intervention is simple lack of political will,” Frumin, the union official, testified.

OSHA officials say workplaces are safer than ever, pointing to a decade of declining rates of reported injuries. They credit enforcement programs and a growing recognition among industry leaders that reducing injuries is good for business.