Unions are marking Labor Day this year with high hopes that the labor-friendly Obama administration will take decisive action to finally ease the severe on-the-job hazards facing U.S. workers.
The need for action is obvious and urgent. Year after year, nearly 6,000 Americans die on the job and more than two million are seriously injured.
Another 50,000 or more die from cancer,lung and heart ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.
Think of it: 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.
Much of that could be avoided. What’s needed most is strengthening the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the two related acts that cover mine safety, and the agencies that administer the laws. For more than three decades they’ve been the only real tools for protecting workers from physical harm. Yet the agencies have been woefully underfunded, woefully understaffed and woefully lax in enforcing the law, particularly during the eight years of the Bush presidency.
The Bush appointees who ran the agencies — many of them former executives from the industries they were supposed to regulate — blocked, withdrew or weakened dozens of safety rules and stopped development of others recommended by safety and health experts. They discontinued safety education and training programs and worked with Bush and Republican leaders in Congress to cut their own budgets by millions of dollars.
The agency officials also largely abandoned on-site inspections in favor of a "voluntary compliance strategy." That meant taking the word of employers that they had voluntarily complied with those safety and health rules that remained on the books. And it meant providing little protection to workers who faced employer retaliation for challenging their word that they were following the law.
Fines for violations were in any case rarely more than token amounts. Even rarer were criminal charges against employers whose willful violations led to injury, illness or death.
Obama Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, whose department oversees the safety agencies, has begun reversing their direction. She’s shifted from relying on voluntary compliance to increasing enforcement. Her aim is to provide workers the genuine protection they’ve long been denied and so "level the playing field" between them and employers.
Solis is hiring dozens of new investigators to "vigorously enforce" the safety laws and regulations and develop badly needed new rules, for instance, and has formed a task force to design a much tougher enforcement program for serious and repeat offenders, who will face mandatory on-site inspections. She also promises to issue long overdue regulations covering particularly hazardous jobs.
Perhaps most important, Solis and President Obama have named one of the nation’s most distinguished safety experts to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That’s David Michaels, a research professor at George Washington University best known for his studies on the effects of occupational exposure to toxic chemicals.
As the New York Times said, Michaels "seems just the right man to steer the agency back toward an emphasis on protecting workers after eight years of lax oversight and favoritism to industry."
Michaels, who served as assistant secretary for environment, health and safety in the Clinton administration, has noted that OSHA "badly needs a change in direction and philosophy."
He said the main goal should be to get employers and workers and their unions to jointly develop job safety programs that would include safety training for workers, and to otherwise "change the workplace culture of safety." Michaels also has suggested requiring employers to report injuries as they occur rather than waiting months, as now, and thus delaying corrective actions.
Solis and Michaels are expecting important help from congressional Democrats who’ve already introduced legislation to strengthen the job safety laws, in part by increasing the penalties imposed on employers who violate the laws.
As several witnesses testified at congressional hearings this Spring, the penalties are so minimal that many employers simply ignore the law.
The legislation also would provide stronger whistle-blower protections to workers who report safety violations by their employers and otherwise strengthen their job safety rights. And it would extend OSHA coverage to farmworkers, local and state government employees and other groups not currently covered.
Passage of the long-pending Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier for workers to unionize remains labor’s No. 1 goal. But labor is no less committed to the equally urgent task of correcting the too often dangerous and deadly conditions needlessly faced by far too many American workers.
Have a happy and safe Labor Day.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer, has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.