By Katie Tracy, Center for Progressive Reform
Tomorrow, April 28, is Workers’ Memorial Day, a day the labor movement established to mourn workers killed on the job and to renew the fight for the living. This year, as the coronavirus pandemic grinds on, taking its toll on workers and their families, we’re reminded more than ever of how critical it is to guarantee all workers the right to a safe and healthy workplace.
Even before COVID-19, a typical day in the United States saw 14 workers killed on the job – hardworking people who set out for work, never to return home. In 2018, 5,250 workers – one worker every 100 minutes – died on the job. Black and Latinx workers were hit hardest in 2018, with a 16 percent increase from 2017 in black worker deaths and a 6 percent increase in Latinx worker deaths. As in years past, tens of thousands of additional workers died from chronic illnesses such as mesothelioma, asbestos, and silicosis, caused by on-the-job exposure to toxic substances. Millions more workers suffered on-the-job injuries.
|Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries|
Tragically, over the past five years, we’ve begun to see a rise in worker deaths. Although we won’t have data on worker deaths during 2020 until late 2021, it’s probable the death toll will be higher as a result of COVID-19, even though many individuals are out of work or working from home. Yet we can also predict COVID-19 deaths will be undercounted because OSHA’s recent coronavirus guidance excuses employers from recording COVID-19 cases among employees, thus guaranteeing underreporting of work-related illnesses and deaths that result.
Fifty years ago, on December 29, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act into law, with the purpose of ensuring every worker in the United States “safe and healthful working conditions.” Since that time, the annual number of on-the-job deaths has declined drastically. Yet with thousands still dying at work each year, there is much more lawmakers, OSHA, and employers can do.
Every worker deserves to return home from a shift without illness or injury. Yet President Trump and the Department of Labor have done little to protect workers, and the current Congress has passed no meaningful legislation to address workplace safety problems. According to the AFL-CIO’s 2019 Death on the Job Report, in 2018, federal OSHA and its state counterparts employed 1,815 inspectors to cover 9.8 million establishments, the fewest inspectors since the 1970s. This equates to one inspector for every 79,262 workers. As a result, federal OSHA can inspect each workplace only once every 165 years, and the agency’s state counterparts can inspect each workplace every 108 years. While the federal government spends billions on tax breaks and subsidies to major corporations, OSHA spends a mere $3.69 on each worker’s safety, the AFL-CIO reports.
Amid the pandemic, Trump’s OSHA has made clear it plans to do even less to protect workers, actively undermining worker health and safety by neglecting its responsibility, including by letting employers police themselves. While nurses, doctors, bus drivers, bank tellers, janitors, grocery store employees, postal service workers, farmworkers, and other essential workers risk their lives for the rest of the nation, the Trump administration and leadership at the Department of Labor have taken no action to ensure they’re provided with basic protections like gloves and masks. Instead of leading in this time of crisis, they’re backing away from their legal and moral obligations. In so doing, they’ve made clear that they view these workers as expendable, people whose well-being matters only so far as it affects the profits of business owners.
The current crisis is an important reminder that every worker has a right to a healthy and safe workplace. Tomorrow, on Workers Memorial Day, we mourn the loss of friends, family, and neighbors who have died while trying to put food on the table and shelter over their heads.
You can join the remembrance. Find an event here and join communities across the country in an online candle light vigil or memorial.
After we remember all those we’ve lost, we must renew our fight for the living. That fight can begin with some obvious reforms to improve working conditions, many of which I’ve proposed for the past several years. Although none of these ideas has yet to be adopted, I’m proposing them once again, along with a few new reforms in light of COVID-19.
Congress, President Trump, and the Department of Labor should make the following improvements:
- OSHA should adopt standards to protect workers from hazardous conditions, such as exposure to infectious diseases, toxic chemicals, and climate-related impacts like extreme weather and heat. With regard to infectious diseases, OSHA should act immediately to adopt an emergency temporary standard that protects all frontline workers from exposure to coronavirus.
- Congress should pass legislation to bolster OSHA’s existing authority so that it can adopt new standards and address emerging hazards in a reasonable timeframe.
- OSHA should vigorously enforce existing standards, recordkeeping rules, and the general duty requirement for employers to provide safe and healthy workplaces, and hold employers accountable for violations, especially during and in the aftermath of disasters, crises, and pandemics. OSHA should also use its imminent danger authority to eliminate hazards like COVID-19 from the workplace.
- Congress should increase OSHA’s budget so the agency has resources to bring on more safety and health inspectors and to adopt and enforce strong standards.
- Congress should boost the maximum civil and criminal penalties that OSHA can impose against violators to a level that actually has deterrent value, thus dissuading bad actors from breaking the rules in the first place.
- Congress should provide workers who report health and safety hazards or refuse to perform dangerous work with better protections against retaliation. OSHA should act immediately to improve its administration of the whistleblower program by adopting reforms that don’t require legislative action.
- Congress should reinstate an Obama-era rule rolled back using the Congressional Review Act that would have denied government contracts to companies with lengthy rap sheets.
- OSHA should provide leadership and resources to states that operate their own occupational safety and health programs in lieu of federal OSHA and should exercise its authority to revoke a state plan that doesn’t provide “at least as effective” protections as federal OSHA.
- Congress should deputize workers and their representatives with the authority to enforce violations of the OSH Act in court when OSHA fails to act.