A different workplace case, a different outcome

In December of 1972, two young men were killed by cyanide poisoning while working at Platers and Coaters Inc., a plating company in Lansdowne, Pa. One was assigned to mix a bath of solution for a chrome plating operation; the other was working nearby.

When the young man put the bag of dry crystalline material into a unmarked tub containing the solution, a tub whose warning labels had been removed, the mixture produced hydrogen cyanide gas, the toxic element used in gas chambers.

The attorney handling the case, Bob Yuhnke, wanted the vice-president of the company prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter. Instead, the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration charged the company and the official with failing to have adequate training for personnel; failing to maintain warning labels on hazardous materials; and failing to have medical protective kits on hand.

The case was eventually thrown out of court.

Aside from the verdicts, there are a few differences between the Film Recovery Systems Inc. case and this one. Platers and Coaters did not have a history of egregious violations in working conditions, as did Film Recovery Systems; no accidents like this had occurred before at Platers and Coaters. More important, perhaps, was the attitude toward workplace violations and employers' culpability for them.

``No one would have considered prosecuting for murder, but we did consider prosecuting for involuntary manslaughter,'' said Mr. Yuhnke, who is now an attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund in Boulder, Colo. ``But any major criminal case would have had to have been brought by the district attorney, and he was not interested.''

Today, however, prosecutors are interested in such cases.

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