Advocates must push regulators to improve, enforce standards

By Dan Neal

Ensuring that U.S. workers return home from work healthy and in one piece requires pushing OSHA and other agencies to do more at the state and national levels to improve standards and aggressively enforce them. Meanwhile, health and safety advocates and workers must speak out loudly for worker rights, especially to protect workers who simply report safety problems at their jobs and to protect whistleblowers who reveal criminal behavior.

Those points were discussed last week in Baltimore at the 2015 National Conference on Worker Safety and Health. More than 280 workplace safety and health activists representing local COSH (Council for Occupational Safety and Health) groups, unions, worker centers, community-based organizations, and academics from around the country attended the conference.

“We covered topics ranging from basic worker rights to criminal prosecution for scofflaw employers, to art and culture in health and safety,” said Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which presented the conference.

A screening of “A Day’s Work” a documentary filed by Dave DeSario, depicted the story of Day Davis, a 21-year-old temp worker killed on his first day on the job at a Bacardi bottling plant in Florida. Told through the eyes of the younger sister, the film explored the fate of workers paid by staffing agencies who often are sent to jobs with little or no safety training. The arrangements confuse who is responsible for training, supervision, and safety and workers are not informed of their rights.

The “huge rise” in the number of temp workers in the U.S. workforce is just one of the factors affecting OSHA, according to Jordan Barab, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. The agency was created in 1970 to guarantee a safe workplace for all workers, an era when the U.S. economy was dominated by manufacturing and many workers spent entire careers with one employer.

Since then, the nation has seen a decline in manufacturing, the “huge rise” in temp workers, a decline in faith in government, and more hostility toward government in general, Barab told the conference. The agency’s administrators are “struggling to make this act still relevant in the 21st Century,” he said.

Barab touted accomplishments such as OSHA’s new confined spaces standard and its updated Reporting and Recordkeeping rule that requires employers to report a fatality within eight hours and all inpatient hospitalizations, amputations, and loss of an eye within 24 hours.

“We could be doing a lot more. We should be doing a lot more,” Barab said. In order to approve significant regulations such as an infectious disease standard, however, OSHA needs “political space” to do it, he said.

Safety advocates help create that political space by keeping pressure on OSHA, said Michael Silverstein, MD of the University of Washington. Noting NCOSH’s protest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s blockage of OSHA’s proposed silica standard, Silverstein said that “ … yelling at our friends in the White House and our friends in the Labor Department may be more important.”

The need to pressure regulators responsible for enforcing job safety and health laws also was made clear by a media panel that included Howard Berkes of National Public Radio, Michael Grabell of ProPublica, and Lydia Depilis of the Washington Post. Berkes outlined NPR’s reporting of $70 million in unpaid fines levied against mines that violated safety regulations. Nothing happened to them. Berkes’ reporting team documented 130,000 violations at mines that held delinquent fines.

“In the mining world, you don’t have to pay your penalties if you don’t want to and you can continue to operate,” he said. Workers pay the price when they’re injured or killed in these mines.

Grabell told about ProPublica’s investigative reporting on state Workers Compensation (WC) programs. ProPublica’s reporting demonstrated that state changes to their individual WC laws in the name of “reform” or as part of efforts to attract new businesses always “means benefits cuts,” he said. Workers further face discrimination simply based on where they live. Pointing to compensation for a loss of an arm, he noted that the difference in benefits from state to state varied by hundreds of thousands of dollars. (See “How Much is Your Arm Worth?”)

In 40 workshops, attendees learned about organizing campaigns and topics such a “Criminal Liability for Health and Safety Violators.” Others detailed efforts to build an independent, richer database of worker fatalities that includes the names of the workers killed and information about the incident. The conference attracted many Spanish speakers and offered a track in monolingual Spanish, as well as bi-lingual English/Spanish sessions.

The conference also provided many opportunities for participants to learn about the work of their colleagues in other states. In Tennessee, for example, members of a budding new COSH affiliate researched the owners of a company running a state bridge project on which several workers were killed. They found the same owners won a state job several years previously and another of its workers was killed. The group used those discoveries to push a responsible contractor law in the legislature and to pressure the state Department of Transportation to consider a contractor’s safety history.

As a critical element in safety advocacy, Tammy Miser of United Support & Memorial for Workplace Fatalities discussed the importance of involving the families of workers killed on the job. She explained the group’s outreach work with Facebook pages both public and private and offered advice to local groups interested in engaging those grieving a lost family member or friend.

Other workshops featured groups pushing for greater protection of workers simply asserting their rights in the workplace, calling for more protection of whistleblowers, and pushing for real reforms such as the new silica standard. Steve Zeltzer of the Injured Workers National Network called for health and safety advocates to take advantage of new technology such as smart phone cameras to disseminate information about job safety and health issues. Workers need their own media outlet, he said. “We have to overcome the problem of getting our stories out.”

Safety and Health Awards

National COSH also held two award ceremonies to honor advocates who have made a difference in advancing worker safety and health.  COSH Network awards, recognizing grassroots activists in local COSH groups, were presented at a COSH Network awards dinner on June 1 to Germain Harden, executive director of Western New York COSH (WNYCOSH); Nicole Marquez, staff attorney at Worksafe and a member of the National COSH Board; and Fran Ansley of the Knox Area Workers Memorial Day Committee.

National awards were bestowed on Bethany Boggess, MPH of the Workers Defense Project, Alejandro Zuniga, a trainer at the Fey y Justicia Worker Center, Barbara Gertz of the OURWalmart campaign, Rod Hitchler of United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, and Roger Cook, co-founder of Western New York COSH.

National COSH plans to hold its 2016 conference December 5-8, again at the Maritime Institute.

Dan Neal works for job safety in Wyoming through WyCOSH, a project of the Equality State Policy Center. He hopes that COSH groups across the country will find venues to screen Dave DeSario’s documentary about temp workers. Dan resides in Casper, Wyoming.


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