Despite an estimated 60,700 deaths in the workplace each year, the federal government is failing to aggressively prosecute companies that violate safety laws and endanger workers, a study concludes.

The Justice Department places such low priority on filing criminal charges that it has managed just two successful prosecutions of safety violators since 1980, said a report on the study by The National Safe Workplace Institute.During the same period, California successfully prosecuted 112 cases under state operation of the federally funded program, the institute found.

"There are at least 100 good criminal cases every year where deaths have occurred and where employers knowingly and willfully violated federal regulations," said Joseph Kinney, executive director of the Chicago-based non-profit group.

"It's clear the use of civil fines just isn't working," added Kinney. "Companies simply amortize the (fines) and look at it as the cost of doing business. Put them in jail and you'd get their attention."

But the study found that after the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cites an employer for safety violations, the case is reviewed by seven different offices before the Justice Department will bring it to trial.

"Instead of trying to determine how justice can be done, they're trying to disqualify these cases."