Rena Steinzor

  • December 16, 2014
    BookTalk
    Why Not Jail?
    Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction
    By: 
    Rena Steinzor

    by Rena Steinzor, a Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and the president of the Center for Progressive Reform. For two decades, she has written dozens of articles and two previous books about the regulatory system that protects public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. She has testified repeatedly before Congress and has been quoted extensively in a wide range of mainstream media outlets. Cambridge University Press published her latest book Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction in December 2014.

    One subtle and too often ignored symptom of the fundamental bias in America’s criminal justice system is its feathery embrace of white collar crime. Failure to prosecute the banks in the wake of the 2008 crash gets consistent media attention and disgusts many people, but these reactions have yet to motivate a concerted response by the Obama Justice Department. The parallel failure to prosecute the corporations and executives that kill and injure people through reckless practices in industrial contexts is barely discussed.

    Just in the last few years, hundreds have died and thousands have been injured. Causes include contaminated food (think listeria in cantaloupes and salmonella in peanut paste), infected drugs (steroid injections tainted by meningitis), defective products (for example, Toyota sudden acceleration, General Motors ignition switches, Takata airbags), tainted drugs (consider meningitis-laden steroid injections administered at hospitals nationwide but manufactured by a nightmarishly inept pharmacy in Massachusetts), and absolutely preventable industrial catastrophes (oil rigs, refineries, coal mines, sugar plants, and construction sites). Less obvious is the egregious malfeasance at executive levels that enabled these outcomes. 

    The cantaloupes were washed in a machine designed for potatoes, with a disconnected rinse mechanism needed to kill the listeria. The peanut paste was shipped despite a positive test for salmonella. The managers of the “clean room” used to process injectable drugs shut off the air conditioning at night, allowing fungi and bacteria to fester. At the very least, senior car company executives failed to disclose defects to federal regulators promptly, as required by the law. They dragged their feet for months on recalls and, as the GM investigation deepens, evidence is even emerging that engineers fixed the defect in 2005 without informing dealers who had stockpiles of the defective parts, many of which ended up in cars still on the road. In the workplace, employers are quick to blame line workers for human errors regardless of thousands of pages of expert reports explaining that cost-cutting, delayed maintenance, lack of trained supervisory personnel, poor safety cultures, and manic haste to extract natural resources and build structures created intolerable risk. To their credit, U.S. attorneys are just beginning to bring such cases, and recently secured felony convictions against the owner and senior managers of the peanut plant.

  • December 10, 2012
    Guest Post

    by Rena Steinzor, Professor of Law, University of Maryland, Francis King Carey School of Law; Steinzor is also president of the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR).

    After the last of the applause lines has been delivered, and while the crowd that gathered for his historic second inauguration is still filing out of town, President Obama will once again sit at his desk in the Oval Office and begin the tough policy work that will define his second term in office and shape the legacy he will leave behind.

    Among the many challenges he'll face over the next four years will be an urgent agenda of addressing critical threats to public health, safety, and the environment that the Administration let languish during the first term. But good luck to him if he decides to attack the problems with legislation. The election made the numbers in both chambers of Congress somewhat more favorable to the President's cause. But it'd take an earth-shattering event or at least another election to get protective legislation out of the House of Representatives, which vacillates between being sullen and defiant and will undoubtedly return to its anti-regulatory drum-beating as soon as the fiscal “crisis” is over.

    So what's a President to do? Use every bit of executive power he can marshal, in this case, by directing the regulatory agencies to move with dispatch to regulate and enforce in a number of vital areas. In Protecting People and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen: Seven New Executive Orders for President Obama’s Second Term, released today, my colleagues and I at the Center for Progressive Reform explain how the President can take the first vital step by making full use of his authority to manage executive agencies -- including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- by issuing a series of Executive Orders.

  • April 22, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Rena Steinzor, President, Center for Progressive Reform, Professor of Law, University of Maryland School of Law
    On the list of federal agencies decimated by the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) deserves to be placed right near the top. Here is an agency that for decades has struggled with a tiny budget to get the job done, only to be taken over for eight years by a group of industry representatives dedicated to lowering the cost of doing business. What's left for the Obama administration -- and David Michaels, the head of OSHA -- has been what I'd technically define as a "mess."

    It's in that context that a group of Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform released Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA. We wanted to examine what has gone so wrong at the agency, and explore what the Obama administration can do within existing law to get the agency on track. (Legislative changes to the OSH Act would be useful as well, but that's for another day's discussion).

    In its very early years, OSHA acted with great vigor, establishing important standards for occupational health and safety that have prevented hundreds of thousands of injuries and illnesses. But the agency has not aged gracefully. In the late 1970s, the ratio of federal inspectors to federally protected workers was about 1 to 30,000. Today, an OSHA inspector covers more than 60,000 workers, and federal and state officials cannot be expected to inspect even a small fraction of U.S. worksites in any given year.

    The agency's rulemaking staff struggle to produce health and safety standards that can withstand industry legal challenges. In the last decade, in fact, OSHA has dropped more standards from its regulatory agenda than it has finalized.

    The construction crane safety rule is a perfect example of the broken process: it's taken the agency about a decade and a half and we still don't have a final regulation. By OSHA's estimates, 89 people are killed and 263 are injured each year in construction crane incidents. The existing safety standards haven't changed since 1971, even though there have been major technological changes since then. By the mid-1990s, industry itself began petitioning OSHA for stronger and more comprehensive regulations, and in 2004 a committee of industry, labor, and government representatives reached agreement on a draft proposed rule. But it was only a few weeks ago that OSHA sent a draft final rule to OMB for review.