Last week's fatal explosion at a Seqens/PCI Synthesis chemical plant in Newburyportremains under investigation, but many people have already started pointing fingers at the company itself for a poor safety record, and at government regulators for not doing enough to prevent the accident. Northeastern University law professor and GBH legal analyst Daniel Medwed joined GBH's Morning Edition co-host Paris Alston to discuss the laws involved. This transcript has been lightly edited.

Paris Alston: Here's what we know about this so far: There was a chemical explosion shortly after midnight last Thursday that was strong enough to blow an industrial vat through the roof. It was also strong enough to kill one worker and send four others to the hospital. You know, Daniel, what struck me about this was that this was not the first incident involving this particular factory. Tell us more about the background here.

Daniel Medwed: This factory, which is currently owned and operated by a French pharmaceutical company, has a lengthy and alarming history of safety and health violations. For one thing, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Organization, has cited a number of irregularities over the last three years. After a fire broke out in 2021 OSHA found two violations, including a serious one related to flammable liquids. I don't know about you, Paris, but that scares me.

Alston: Yes.

Medwed: And in 2020, there was an eruption that punctured the roof, another sort of roof-puncturing incident that led OSHA to find five safety violations. In addition the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, brokered a deal with the company back in 2019 to resolve claims related to the use — or misuse, really — of four hazardous to waste tanks. And that was the culmination of many years, dating back to 2006, of problems with hazardous waste. So, long story short, this plant has a nearly two-decade-long ignominious track record of infractions with OSHA and the EPA.

Alston: Oh, my goodness. And we mentioned, Daniel, that one worker died. We should mention that he has been identified as 62-year-old Jack O'Keefe of Methuen. And we'll have more on that in a second. But first, let's talk about the possible legal recourse here for the people injured by the blast, because I imagine that they could sue the company for their injuries, right?

Medwed: That's right. So workplace injuries are typically governed in Massachusetts by our worker's compensation law, which is contained in Chapter 152 of the General Laws. And basically, an injured worker or the family of a worker who has died on the job site, they typically have four years after the accident in which to file a claim with a group called the Department of Industrial Accidents. And if that claim is meritorious, they could get worker's compensation from an insurance company in the form of their medical bills reimbursed, disability benefits, and sometimes partial paycheck replacement.

But the problem, Paris, is that our worker's compensation scheme is not especially generous. You can't recoup pain and suffering damages, for instance. So for that reason, sometimes injured workers try to file what are called private causes of action, not against the employers, but against third parties like an independent contractor or a cleaning crew that may have contributed to the hazardous condition. So we'll have to stay tuned pending this investigation to see about potential causes of action.

Alston: So, Daniel, you just told us about the civil liability there, some ways in which the injured workers and the family of Jack O'Keefe, the person who died, might get compensated. But what about criminal liability? I mean, is there a way that the company could be charged with a crime if, for example, investigators determine that some type of corporate misbehavior led to this accident? Because, as we mentioned, this is a long trail of things that led to this.

Medwed: Well, that's right. And in theory, prosecutors could file or charge the company with a crime known as corporate manslaughter. So here's how it works: A typical manslaughter charge is when an individual is charged with a crime for recklessly causing the death of someone else. Let's say someone drinks and drives, and inadvertently kills a pedestrian. That's not murder, that's not an intentional homicide, but it's reckless manslaughter because the person consciously disregarded the substantial risk that by drinking and driving, they could endanger someone on the road. Corporate manslaughter is basically the business equivalent of that: When a company's reckless behavior causes someone's death. Corporate manslaughter, because businesses, of course, aren't people, they're legal fictions, the criminal penalty is typically not a term of years in prison, but rather a monetary fine.

Alston: Daniel, how much would that be?

Medwed: $250,000 in Massachusetts. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it used to be $1,000 up until 2018.