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State often reduces fines for companies when NC workers die on the job

Firefighters worked to extinguish a massive five-alarm fire at an apartment building under construction in SouthPark on Thursday, May 18, 2023.
Charlotte Fire Department
Firefighters worked to extinguish a massive five-alarm fire at an apartment building under construction in SouthPark on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

Last year was a particularly deadly one for construction workers in Charlotte. At least six died on the job, the most that has occurred in about a decade and a half. That’s according to an analysis of NC Department of Labor data by The Charlotte Observer. The paper also found in 2022 and 2023 that the state reduced the fines companies face when their workers die more than 40% of the time.

Gavin Off is one of the reporters who wrote the story, and he joins me now.

Marshall Terry: First Gavin, walk me through the process. An accident occurs at a work site. Who conducts the investigation, and how is a financial penalty determined?

Gavin Off: After an accident occurs, investigators with the Occupational Safety and Health Division and next with the North Carolina Department of Labor, they look at what happened. The penalty amount depends on a few things, including the severity of the accident — maybe it's a fatality — the company's history with workplace safety and the company's role in the accident. Willful violations are the most serious ones, and they are violations in which the business knowingly failed to comply with safety requirements.

Terry: OK, so obviously when one of these very unfortunate accidents happen, companies want the lowest fine possible. And they are sometimes able to negotiate with the state. Why would the Department of Labor agree to do that? What’s in for them?

Off: Yeah, the state negotiates with companies for a few reasons. Let's look at two recent high-profile examples. Baker Installation was a contractor that was initially fined and cited for four serious violations related to that massive fire at a construction site in SouthPark. The state fined the company around $6,200 and reduced it to $4,600. Another high-profile example was Friends Masonry. That subcontractor was involved in last year's scaffolding collapse on Morehead Street that killed three workers. Friends Masonry was initially fined $43,500, that was reduced to about $29,000.

The reason the state is willing to drop the penalties is because it's faster to settle a case when it drops the penalty. And the faster that it settles the case, the faster that the hazards have to be fixed. In the case of Friends Masonry, it was cited for failing to repair the scaffolding that collapsed and for failing to inspect it. If Friends Masonry fought the penalty and if it went to court, it could go on for a year or more. On top of that, the state says when it reduces a fine, it usually requires companies to make additional improvements, such as extra training or extra inspections. These requirements go beyond what the state already asked the companies to do.

Terry: But as you write in the story, families of victims don’t necessarily agree with the approach of lowering fines, right? What’s their argument?

Off: Yeah, that's right. And family members have a lot to say. One, they say that the fines are too small to start with. Their loved ones’ lives are worth more than, say, $15,000. Then, when they hear that the state reduces a fine, they say that sends the wrong message, that it's OK to mistreat or endanger workers on the job.

Terry: How does North Carolina compare to other states with these types of fines?

Off: North Carolina penalties were below average, but in 2022, so just a couple of years ago, it upped the penalty amount to match federal rates. Now, as far as reducing penalties last year, after negotiating, the state made companies here pay around 81% of that initial fine. The average amount collected nationwide was 70%. So, North Carolina isn't reducing penalties as much as the nation as a whole.

Terry: So, are these fines enough to hold companies responsible for worker deaths and enhance their safety measures? Or do they often just amount to a slap on the wrist?

Off: That's just it. The families and the advocates who we spoke with say the fines won't bring loved ones back, but they should act as a deterrent. And when the state routinely cuts these penalties, that deterrent goes away.

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.
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