ABC11 Investigates

I-Team: North Carolina worker safety fines go uncollected

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mike Brantley misses his brother Jamey.

"I can't see him no more. I can't talk to him. I can't call him," he said.

Jamey Brantley was a billboard installer. He was electrocuted in Greene County when the aluminum ladder he was using hit a utility pole. He left behind four children.

"He loved his three boys. He had one girl. He loved them all," said his brother.

When the I-Team began looking into Jamey's death, we obtained safety records from the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Division. We learned inspectors cited Outdoor Advertising of Selma for three serious safety violations and fined it $4,500.

"I think that's way too low. I mean if a man's life ain't but worth $4500, that's a shame," Brantley offered.

But, a year and a half after Jamey's death, the company still hasn't paid the fine because, according to state records, it's appealing.

The I-Team discovered those appeals are common. Between January of 2010 and July of 2013, OSHA fined businesses more than $17.5 million for safety violations. But when we received the data for our investigation two months ago, more than $5 million of those fines - or about one third - still had not been paid.

The North Carolina Department of Labor says that's because the majority of those companies are appealing their fine.

"I think for it to really have an impact on workplace safety, the program's penalty structure needs to be fundamentally overhauled," said Tom O'Connor, Executive Director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health - a worker advocacy group based in Raleigh.

O'Connor says fines are too low to be a deterrent.

"It's sort of a sad comment if you had to tell the family member of somebody who was killed on the job ... in North Carolina that we think your loved ones life was only worth $5,000 or whatever it is," he said. "We'd like to see a little more balance, a little more value given to the lives of the workers."

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, the elected official in charge of workplace safety, disagrees.

"There's no empirical information anywhere that says higher penalties create a safer and healthy work place," she said.

Instead, Berry advocates a different strategy.

"We've concentrated for the last 12 years on education and training," she said "Instead of heavy fines, punishments, you know. We use the carrot not the stick."

Berry says the carrot works and the number of workers dying on the job is going down, and the injury and illness rate has been the lowest in state history for three consecutive years.

The I-Team made another discovery during our investigation. North Carolina cited thousands of businesses for violations in the past three years, but it later reduced the fines for more than 300 companies - a reduction of $728,000 in fines.

"By law, we can reduce them for various reasons," Berry explained that can be based on "the gravity of the violation, the size of the business, the good faith of the employer, and the employer's history of previous violations."

Berry said lowering the fines can help close cases more quickly and improve safety for workers.

"If we go in and do an inspection, and we find a hazard, and they abate it immediately, then we give them credit for that," she explained.

But O'Connor sees it differently.

"[If] there is an automatic penalty reduction for cooperative employers," he said. "That just sends a signal that ... if you violate the law, we're going to give you a small fine and you can move on."

And for many family members who've lost loved ones in workplace accidents, giving a company credit on a reduced penalty is too little, too late.

"To me, it ain't about money. I'm just a good ol' local country boy and the money don't mean nothing. He's gone and he ain't coming back," said Mike Brantley.

The I-Team tried contacting Outdoor Advertising of Selma about Jamey Brantley's death and the unpaid OSHA fine, but the business was bought by another advertising company which said it does not know about the accident or the fine.

Cherie Berry told the I-Team her heart goes out to any family who's lost a loved one. She also says you can have a business friendly environment that also promotes workplace safety.

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