Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century.
We’re coming up on another Workers Memorial Day April 28 - a day when organized labor and its allies honor the millions of men and women who’ve needlessly suffered and died because of workplace hazards and to demand that the government act to lessen the hazards.
It’s certain that unless federal authorities do act to expand and adequately enforce the neglected job safety laws, the number of victims will remain at a terrible and unnecessarily high level.
Every year, more than 6,000 Americans are killed on the job. More than 6 million are injured, at least half of them seriously. Another 60,000 die from their injuries or from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.
Think of that: An average of at least 16 workers killed and nearly 5,500 badly hurt on each and every day, plus 135 or more dying daily from job-related illness. The financial toll also is high: More than $3 billion in health care expenses and other costs to employers and workers, such as lost wages and production.
Trying to reduce workplace dangers, always a difficult task, became even more difficult when the Bush administration took office in 2000 and began eight years of what the United Auto Workers accurately cited as “a harsh, vindictive attack on health and safety standards.”
Under President Bush, important new health and safety regulations proposed by experts were brushed aside by the Labor Department. Job-site inspections were all but abandoned and employers were asked merely to certify that they had voluntarily complied with the existing regulations. Fines for violations were rare, in any case, as were criminal charges against employers whose willful violations led to injury, illness or death.
There was, in short, very little enforcement of the job safety laws, and absolutely no progress in reducing workplace dangers or the ever-mounting number of work-related injuries and fatalities.
But under President Obama, there’s genuine hope for change. As Obama’s Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, made clear at her swearing-in: “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
Solis has shifted from reliance on voluntary compliance to stricter enforcement, hiring hundreds of new investigators and enforcers for the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health and Mine Safety Administrations. Most of them are longtime advocates for working people, some of them from organized labor. They’re holding jobs held during the Bush years by employer advocates whose main concern was shielding employers from the costs of making work safer.
Solis’ team has moved to enforce new rules to better protect some of the most endangered workers, including mine workers and crane operators. She’s also stressing the need to help the millions who suffer chronic pain in the neck, back, shoulders, arms or wrists and other suffering resulting from the endlessly repetitive movements and often heavy lifting required in many jobs today.
Those so-called ergonomic injuries are the most common - and most neglected - of the serious injuries suffered by U.S. workers.
Solis has put a task force to work designing a much tougher enforcement program for serious or repeat offenders, who will face mandatory job-site inspections. What’s more, she and Obama have named one of the country’s most distinguished safety experts, David Michaels of Georgetown University, to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Michaels’ main goal is to get employers and workers and their unions to jointly develop programs that would include safety training for workers as part of an effort to meet what Michaels and other safety experts see as a great need to change OSHA’s direction and philosophy.
Michaels and Solis have gotten important help from congressional Democrats who introduced legislation to strengthen the safety laws, in part by increasing penalties imposed on violators. Penalties now are so minimal that many employers simply ignore the law and consider the fines, if any, a routine cost of doing business.
The measures also call for more strongly protecting workers who report safety violations by their employers, extending the laws’ coverage to farmworkers, local and state government employees and other groups not currently covered, and otherwise strengthening workers’ job safety rights.
It’s certain, at any rate, that labor, Obama, Solis and their supporters will indeed wage the major battle for true job safety that they’ve promised and have, in fact, already started. There could be no more fitting a memorial to the millions who’ve been needlessly maimed or killed while working to sustain themselves and their families.
Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his recent columns.