By Shanna Devine, Public Citizen
February 1st marks the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Memphis sanitation workers Robert Walker and Echol Cole – who were crushed to death in the back of their malfunctioning garbage truck. Three years after that tragic event, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established, giving birth to a new era of workplace safety protections. President Trump’s latest promise to reduce federal regulations to 1960 levels threatens the progress we have made on behalf of workers nationwide over the past half a century. Congress and the administration have a duty to protect workers, which includes preserving and strengthening occupational safety measures and the agency that enforces them.
On February 1, 1968 Mr. Walker and Mr. Cole entered the back of their garbage truck to escape a storm. They had repeatedly warned management about the truck’s defective equipment to no avail. As they sought shelter, the truck’s compactor malfunctioned and killed both men. That preventable tragedy was the catalyst for the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched in solidarity – and ultimately gave his life – for workers’ rights.
In his final speech, Dr. King declared “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’” OSHA is uniquely positioned to help workers across industries, preventing countless workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths. Yet, it has remained understaffed and underfunded since its inception, despite the fact that OSHA’s mission is just as urgent today. There are 150 worker deaths from hazardous working conditions each day, and it would take OSHA 159 years to inspect each workplace once, according to the AFL-CIO. Its handicaps have been exacerbated by the GOP’s wave of recent attacks on worker protections.
In 2017, the administration partnered with Republicans in Congress to roll back commonsense worker safety protections including the Volks rule that would have preserved records of workplace dangers and the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order that would have protected employees of federal contractors. Further, the administration has proposed undoing certain workplace protections against beryllium (a toxic element that can cause lung cancer), and electronic reporting requirements of workplace injuries and illnesses. However, it’s not too late for OSHA to reverse course and return to its mission.
For starters, OSHA can withdraw its proposals to roll back critical occupational safety rules, establish federal standards against common workplace hazards (including musculoskeletal disorders and heat stress) in lockstep with a growing number of states, and continue implementation of newly established protections to prevent exposure to respirable crystalline silica – which can cause life-threatening diseases such as lung cancer.
OSHA also needs to prioritize enforcement of its neglected Whistleblower Protection Program – which oversees 22 whistleblower statutes spanning labor, environment, transportation, and consumer and investor protections – so that workers can safely report injuries and other violations free from retaliation. Relatedly, it must promptly fill the high number of workplace safety inspector vacancies, so that OSHA can execute its mandate to enforce vital worker protections.
Meanwhile, Congress can take immediate action to honor the lives of Mr. Walker, Mr. Cole, and Dr. King through passage of the Protecting America’s Works Act, which would modernize the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and expand its scope to cover federal, state, and local government employees. And all of us can join workers and worker advocates for a moment of silence on February 1st at 4:20pm, in a nationwide event organized by AFSCME to commemorate their legacy.