On March 16, the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on legislation to reform, revise, or otherwise update the 40-year-old law governing OSHA operations.

The Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067), introduced by U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D- CA), chair of the subcommittee, “will strengthen and modernize the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the law that ensures the health and safety of American workers,” according to a press statement issued by the committee, which has a Democratic majority.

On the first panel to give testimony was John Cruden, acting assistant attorney general, Environment and Natural Resources Division, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., and the speaker of the day, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupation Safety and Health Administration, Washington, D.C.

The second panel featured a fiery union safety official, Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator, Change to Win, New York, N.Y., and a former OSHA chief in Jonathan Snare, partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, testifying on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C.

Witnesses told the Workforce Protections Subcommittee that “legislation to strengthen and modernize workplace health and safety laws will save lives and hold employers accountable if they knowingly put their workers in danger,” according to the press statement.

“There is no question that [current health and safety law] has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and countless others have avoided preventable illnesses and injuries,” said U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D- CA), chair of the subcommittee. “But we cannot claim victory because more than 5,000 workers a year are still killed on the job, 50,000 die from occupational disease, and millions of others become seriously ill or injured.”

The Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067), introduced by Woolsey, will improve whistleblower protections, strengthen enforcement and increase monetary penalties.

“Stronger OSHA enforcement will save lives,” said OSHA boss Michaels. “Because OSHA can visit only a limited number of workplaces each year we need a stronger OSH Act to leverage our resources to encourage compliance by employers. [Protecting America’s Workers Act] includes critical provisions that deal with significant weaknesses in the current law and more adequately ensure the safety and health of America’s workers.”

”Witnesses testified that current sanctions do not provide adequate deterrence for employers to comply with the law and protect workers because penalties haven’t been updated in nearly 20 years,” according to the press statement. “Further, penalties are not adjusted according to inflation as other laws currently are. As a result, witnesses said that some employers view them simply as the cost of doing business. The Protecting America’s Workers Act will index the increased civil monetary penalties to inflation in the future.”

The legislation will also subject employers who knowingly put their workers in harm’s way that results in a fatality or serious injury to felony prosecution and prison time, equivalent to other federal laws, such as the penalties in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The Department of Justice said that current environmental sanctions are successful at holding unscrupulous employers accountable for polluting and similar penalties should be applied to employers who knowingly harm or cause the deaths of workers.

“Adding felony provisions to the OSH Act, as proposed, would provide important tools to prosecute those employers who expose their workers to the risk of death or serious injury, whether charged in conjunction with environmental crimes or charged alone,” said John Cruden, the deputy assistant attorney general for the Environmental and Natural Resources Division. “The Department of Justice supports the strengthening of OSHA’s criminal penalties to make it more consistent with other criminal statutes and further the goal of improving worker safety.”