A new article in the British Journal of Criminology addresses the move to criminalize occupational fatalities. “Communication and social regulation: The criminalization of work-related death” posits that public demands on politicians to “do something” about workplace fatalities creates political risks they must attend to. These risks reflect, in part, that government regulation is often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as ineffective. Criminalizing workplace fatalities is one (largely symbolic) response to this risk by channeling this demand into a manageable process.
We see similar efforts in Canada and Australia to hold corporations and directors criminally liable for workplace fatalities. Yet criminal prosecutions, like regulatory ones, remain very rare. This may reflects all manner of factors, include that workplace fatalities are often considered to occur in the context of legitimate activity (i.e., making a profit via legal business) thus different from deaths that occur from illegitimate activity (e.g., a drug deal gone wrong).
Criminalizing some workplace deaths creates the sense that something important has been done: symbolically, actors are being held responsible for their actions. And, in a few cases, actors will be held actually responsible via prosecution and conviction. Yet the question remains whether criminalizing such behaviour is any more effective than the existing regulatory system. Does it cause additional care to be taken? Is it associated with a reduction in injury or death?
Perhaps it is mostly a political strategy to manage the pressure that comes with widespread injury and death in the workplace. Legislators can say “there, we made it illegal” (now please sod off) without fundamentally affecting the operation of businesses. It also fits within the basic neoliberal approach to regulation: regulating criminality is a legitimate activity for the state while regulating the market is not. The question then becomes, when people realizing criminalizing workplace fatalities is in fact ineffective, what will regulators do?
-- Bob Barnetson