A Florida Factory Death Reminds Us Why Regulations Exist

It’s a familiar refrain on Main Street, echoed by business owners, advocacy groups, and politicians: Regulations are killing jobs and crippling small businesses. Twenty-two percent of small business owners said that regulations were their top business problem in a recent survey of National Federation of Independent Business members, making red tape the second-biggest complaint among business owners, behind only taxes.

Critics of regulation rightly point out that small businesses have fewer resources than large companies to absorb compliance costs. In some cases, the money spent staying in line with government rules can be the difference between shutting or staying open for business.

But many rules exist for a reason. Case in point: Last week the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited (pdf) a Florida manufacturer for safety violations discovered after the death of a machine worker in August 2013. Workplace deaths are tragically common: 4,383 workers were killed on the job in the U.S. in 2012, the latest year for which OSHA has data, or about 12 a day. The government’s findings last week add a concrete example to abstract debates about the appropriate level of regulation in free markets.

Those findings, laid out in formal citations (pdf), as well as a press release on the subject, range from truly scary (“amputation hazard”) to merely disgusting (“bathroom with a sink that had been clogged for months with maggots swimming in standing water”). They should have at least some sobering effect on the antiregulation crowd.

Wire Mesh Corp. makes products for reinforcing concrete. The company has more than 200 workers nationwide and generated $60 million in revenue in 2012, according to OSHA. A Wire Mesh worker, not identified by the government, was killed last August at the company’s Jacksonville (Fla.) factory when he was struck by a machine part that feeds wire into a welding area. A safety mechanism that should have automatically turned off the machine before the worker entered the area had been disabled, the government says.

The safety violation allegedly responsible for the worker’s death is part of a pattern, according to the government. Other pieces of large machinery at the factory lacked required safety guards, and factory workers were exposed to cranes in need of repair and numerous electrical hazards. Inspectors also cited the company for failing to administer a program to protect workers’ hearing. Wire Mesh was cited for a similar violation at its Oglesby (Ill.) facility in 2012, according to OSHA.

Wire Mesh referred an interview request to Michael Prendergast, an attorney at Holland & Knight. Prendergast didn’t return a call and two e-mails Tuesday. He told Jacksonville.com that “Wire Mesh company is committed to providing a safe work environment” and that the company would “review the citations and we’re going to do what’s right.”

That could mean paying $697,700 in proposed fines and addressing the government’s safety concerns. (The company has until next week to contest OSHA’s findings.) It could also mean making some basic improvements for the 56 workers at the Jacksonville factory, many of whom work 12-hour shifts seven days a week, according to OSHA. By contrast, Wire Mesh President Luis Barrenechea works about 60 hours a week, according to a profile in the Jacksonville Business Journal. Department of Labor spokesman Lindsay Williams writes in an e-mail that OSHA referred its Wire Mesh findings to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to investigate whether the company’s workers received overtime compensation.

What else would it take to get the Jacksonville plant up to code? Among other changes, OSHA says Wire Mesh needs to put up warning signs to keep unqualified employees away from dangerous machinery and to provide hand soap and hot water in wash areas. Getting busted for bathroom standards may seem like a minor infraction for a manufacturing company. Then again, making sure workers had working lavatories might have helped keep the maggots out of the factory bathroom.