Court of Appeals to hear case of worker electrocuted on job At issue is how Beth Steel is to be punished for death

September 05, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In a case that could revise safety laws for Maryland's 1.9 million workers, the state's highest court will hear arguments this week over how to punish Bethlehem Steel for the 1990 death of a steel worker.

The firm was cited for "repeated, serious violations" and fined $3,640 four months after Raymond Pritts was electrocuted when he touched a defective toaster oven in a lunchroom at the Sparrows Point plant. But Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. overturned the citation in 1994 after Bethlehem Steel sued to contest it.

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) program appealed that ruling, which set the stage for arguments Thursday before the Court of Appeals in Annapolis.

The court has no deadline for reaching a decision.

Bethlehem Steel and MOSH officials agree the case will turn on the definition of a "repeated, serious violation," a category of offense that opens the possibility of stiff fines for Maryland employers.

Those who enforce Maryland's worker safety program say that while the fine in Pritts' death was relatively small, the case represents a major challenge to their effectiveness.

JoAnn Orlinksy, MOSH administrator, says it is vital for her inspectors to have authority to decide whether an offense is a repeat violation that requires stiff penalties or a lesser offense.

Serious violations carry a maximum penalty of $7,000, but repeated serious violations carry a $70,000 maximum, making them a more powerful hammer for state safety inspectors, she said.

"It's important to us to be able to issue that kind of citation if an employer continues to ignore us and everything we do," she said.

Pritts was electrocuted Aug. 17, 1990, when he placed his hand on a toaster oven, which was wrapped in duct tape and had been giving out shocks, as his foot was touching an electric cooling unit, according to court records.

The toaster had been brought to the employee lunchroom by a worker about three years earlier, according to court papers.

MOSH pointed to two previous electrical violations as a basis for its "repeated, serious" citation. But Bethlehem Steel lawyers argue that those violations had nothing to do with Pritts' death.

Bethlehem Steel was cited for faulty wiring on some floor-mounted electrical motors at Sparrows Point in January 1989 and for having rotted wires on a bridge crane in May 1990.

Eric Hemmendinger, a lawyer for Bethlehem Steel, argued that the accident that killed Pritts was unrelated to either of those violations.

"These earlier citations did not put Bethlehem Steel on notice that there was a potential problem in the lunchroom," he said.

But Assistant Attorney General Jonathan R. Krasnoff, who represents MOSH, said the two previous citations should have been a warning to the steelmaker to check for electrical hazards throughout the plant.

Orlinsky, whose office oversees safety conditions for 1.9 million workers at 133,526 work sites, said the agency prefers to negotiate with employers to persuade them to correct safety hazards rather fight them in court.

But if the Court of Appeals makes it more difficult for the agency's 36 safety inspectors to assess stiff penalties, many employers will just pay the lesser fines and continue to violate the safety codes, she said.

"The question for us becomes how many fingers have to be amputated, how many people have to die before you fix that particular problem," she said.

Nationally, 6,210 people were killed on the job in the United States last year, a 6 percent drop from 1994, according to Sept. 8 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figures include highway deaths and homicides, which together account for a third of all on-the-job deaths.

In Maryland, MOSH has investigated 360 workplace deaths in the past 10 years -- 15 of them at Bethlehem Steel, according to statistics from the state and Bethlehem Steel.

Statewide, MOSH issued fines of $1.7 million 5,136 notices of serious violations last year. That compares with $850,127 in fines and 3,215 serious-violation notices issued in 1990.

Bethlehem Steel accounted for a small fraction of the violation notices and fines, according to state statistics.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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