How much responsibility has an employer for his workers' well-being? From a Cook County judge comes the answer that an employer who fails to protect his workers may find himself charged with serious crimes and even, as in this case, convicted of murder.

Legal specialists point out that the Cook County case may have no far-reaching consequences. The facts of the case -- involving the death from cyanide inhalation of a 61-year-old immigrant from Poland -- are extreme. Prosecutors introduced evidence showing that no attempt was made by the three convicted company officials to warn workers, most of whom were illegal immigrants with little understanding of English, that the cyanide they handled was a deadly poison.

Other workers complained of nausea and vomitig from cyanide inhalation, but the complaints were ignored. Even minimal safety protections were absent -- no cyanide antidote was in the plant, although it is cheap and easily obtained. There was evidence that some workers had been told to scrape the skull-and-bones warning symbol from cyanide drums. The finding of murder, rather than manslaughter, also strikes some experts as inappropriate. Murder, which is not differentiated by degree in Illinois law, implies an element of premeditation. As callous and exploitative as the evidence suggests the firm's officials to have been, they certainly were not plotting their workers' deaths. They just didn't seem to care enough about their workers' lives to take even the simplest precautions. Is that tantamount to murder? A higher court, to which the verdict will almost certainly be appealed, will have to decide.

Whatever the final disposition of the case, it would be a shame if it had no beneficial lesson for corporate violators. At worst, some lawyers predict that the verdict will simply encourage executives to distance themselves from their workers so they can't be held personally responsible for unsafe conditions. At best, the case should remind public officials that some unscrupulous employers do exist and that only effective enforcement of health and safety laws will restrain them.