WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 2015 - The U.S. Departments of Justice and Labor say they plan to enforce environmental and worker safety laws more vigorously in the coming year, and agriculture is one area the agencies will be looking at closely.

The three laws included in the new plan are the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) and the Mine Safety and Health Act.

“On an average day in America, 13 workers die on the job, thousands are injured and 150 succumb to diseases they obtained from exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances while they worked,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a news release. “Given the troubling statistics on workplace deaths and injuries, the Department of Justice is redoubling its efforts to hold accountable those who unlawfully jeopardize workers’ health and safety.”

“Today’s announcement demonstrates a renewed commitment by both the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice to utilize criminal prosecution as an enforcement tool to protect the health and safety of workers,” Labor Secretary Chris Lu said.

In a memo, Yates urged all 93 U.S. attorneys to work with the Environmental Crimes Section in pursuing worker endangerment violations. “The worker safety statutes generally provide for only misdemeanor penalties,” Yates said. “However, prosecutors have now been encouraged to consider utilizing Title 18 (the U.S. criminal and penal code) and environmental offenses, which often occur in conjunction with worker safety crimes, to enhance penalties and increase deterrence.”

Yates said prosecutors can make enforcement “meaningful” by charging other serious offenses that often occur in association with OSH Act violations – including false statements, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, conspiracy, and environmental and endangerment crimes. “With penalties ranging from five to 20 years' incarceration, plus significant fines, these felony provisions provide additional important tools to deter and punish workplace safety crimes,” she said.

Did you know Agri-Pulse subscribers get our Daily Harvest email Monday through Friday mornings, a 16-page newsletter on Wednesdays, and access to premium content on our ag and rural policy website? Sign up for your four-week free trial Agri-Pulse subscription.

Frank Gasperini, executive vice president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said the initiative “appears to be consistent” with statements made by David Weil, administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which is responsible for enforcing MSPA.

Since Weil took over at Wage and Hour in 2014, it has focused more of its attention and resources on the farm industry.

Gasperini advised farmers to educate themselves about the details of the laws that apply to them. In addition, “Every business of every size should have a safety plan,” he said.

United Farm Workers and Farmworker Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment.