Despite an estimated 60,700 deaths in the workplace each year, the federal government is failing to prosecute aggressively 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," Joseph Kinney, executive director of the Chicago-based non-profit group, said in an interview Friday.

"If the government wants to reduce deaths and injuries, go forward with 50 of those. . . . 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."

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is empowered to seek criminal sanctions against employers in 28 states who violate workplace safety standards. The agency also is charged with monitoring programs in the remaining 22 states, which choose to operate federally funded workplace-safety programs themselves.

But the study found that after the federal OSHA 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. There isn't even one full-time staff member assigned to these cases," said Kin-ney.

"Contrast that with California," he said, "where they devote considerable time and resources . . . and get convictions and guilty pleas.

"The federal government wants to deal with these problems in a reactive way, with their little fines. We've had 18 years of doing it their way and it hasn't worked."

"And the differences between those two approaches is one big reason that a construction worker in a federally regulated state is three times more likely to die on the job than one in California," Kinney said.

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten defended the federal system.

"When we get a (criminal) case that has prosecutorial merit, we prosecute it," he said.

"But it is very difficult given the regulations that govern such cases, and the case law in this area. It is often more appropriate to file and to prosecute such cases in state court, where you have a wider variety of laws that apply," Korten said.

And OSHA's civil enforcement can be effective, said agency official Frank White, citing the $4.2 million fine against Bath Iron Works in Maine for safety and health violations.

"We think it's not the best use of our resources to chase corporate outlaws," White said.

But the institute's study concluded the federal government's reluctance to bring criminal prosecution has discouraged efforts by state and local prosecutors to pursue safety violators in certain cases.

Kinney said 50,000 of the estimated 60,700 workplace deaths each year were the results of disease, most often cancer, "and usually the result of exposure going back at least 10 years.