Winning Safer Workplaces

(This post originally appeared on CPRBlog, the blog of the Center for Progressive Reform)
By Matt Shudz | June 26, 2014

Thousands of U.S. workers die on the job each year, the victims of unsafe workplaces. Countless more are injured, some permanently disabled, or exposed to toxic substances that could eventually harm or kill them. While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made progress to improve workplace safety since Congress passed the OSH Act in 1971, a new advocacy manual from the Center for Progressive Reform focuses on the progress on worker safety issues  likely to come at the state and local levels, far from the general dysfunction in Washington.

Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform, written by a team of lawyers and public health researchers, offers local advocacy groups a series of policy proposals, all ripe for enactment by state legislatures, city or county councils, or state or local agencies.

In releasing the manual, CPR President Rena Steinzor — my co-author on the manual — explained that while CPR’s worker safety efforts have been aimed principally at OSHA in the past, the decision to the focus on advancing a state and local agenda was born of “a hard truth.” “When it comes to advancing the cause of worker safety, Washington is simply not prepared to step up its game,” she said. “Congressional dysfunction makes legislation to update the 40-year-old Occupational Safety and Health Act unlikely any time soon. Underfunding, resistance by industry, and political polarization have tied OSHA up in knots. The tragic result is that workers die and are injured every day in incidents that could and should have been prevented. This manual is intended to help state and local groups – especially those new to the field of workplace health and safety – by providing them with a menu of policy proposals that they can tailor to their communities’ needs.”

The manual includes several case studies in which workers were killed on the job by preventable hazards:

  • Two workers who died of asphyxiation in North Carolina while installing water mains, after one passed out in a low-oxygen underground space and the other tried to save him. Their employer had failed to provide adequate training on how to avoid such unsafe conditions.
  • Two boys, ages 14 and 19, who were smothered in an Illinois corn silo. The boys were tamping down the grain by walking on it, after receiving just five minutes of instruction on safety procedures that made no mention of the required safety harnesses.
  • A Michigan logger who was killed by a felled tree while working for an employer that had refused to provide a helmet and that permitted teams of loggers to work too closely to one another. To add insult to injury, the logger’s family learned of his death not from the employer or from a safety official, but from a Facebook post. The employer was fined $1,525, less than the profit it earned from the tree that killed its employee.

“These cases and others like them show the urgency of seizing every opportunity to reform the law, penalize scofflaws, and give workers the power to demand safer conditions,” says Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA public health expert and a manual co-author.

Winning Safer Workplaces offers policy proposals in three broad areas:

  1. Empowering Workers includes proposals for health and safety committees on the job so that workers can take a measure of control of their safety; safety education and training requirements so that employers will be required to give workers the information they need to be safe; whistleblower protection laws so that courageous workers won’t have to risk their future to report violations; workers’ “right to refuse dangerous work” laws so that insisting on safety won’t cost a worker his or her job; and citizen lawsuits so that workers won’t have to rely on under-resourced government agencies alone to enforce safety standards.
  2. Making Sure Crime Doesn’t Pay covers proposals that would close legal loopholes that allow employers to avoid fixing health and safety hazards while investigations and litigation are under way; expand civil penalties for violations so that endangering workers’ lives is an expensive proposition; expand criminal liability so that bad actors will have personal disincentive to break the law and the punishment will match the crime; and shame scofflaw employers and industries by putting government data to work.
  3. Strengthening Institutions spans such proposals as ensuring that police and prosecutors make workplace safety a priority; robust fatality investigations so that workplace deaths aren’t swept under the rug; responsible contractor laws so that state and local governments can ensure that they only do business with companies that protect their workers; cross-agency partnerships so that agencies not principally responsible for workplace safety still report problems they encounter to those agencies that are; and annual state-level audits so that agencies are held accountable in a public way.

We’ll be rolling out the manual and its recommendations this summer in a series of legal and advocacy-based webinars. If you’d like a heads-up when those are scheduled, drop CPR an email at WorkerSafety@progressivereform.org.

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