On average, more than 10 U.S. workers die every day on the job, the result of workplace accidents or exposures — more than 4,000 a year in all. Hundreds of thousands more are injured or made ill at their workplaces, many permanently disabled. Those numbers are far better than they once were, but nowhere near as low as they could and should be.
Industry often argues that the nation’s businesses and workplaces are overregulated. But the sheer number of work-related deaths, illnesses and injuries amply demonstrates that when it comes to the health and safety of the people who keep their businesses running and their profits flowing, nothing could be further from the truth. While the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is rightly considered a landmark achievement in the fight for safer workplaces, aggressive enforcement of the law is a thing of the distant past, particularly with respect to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s record of adopting and enforcing regulations to address emerging or long-unaddressed hazards.
By some measures, we have hit a plateau in our collective efforts to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for all. This is not because workplace health and safety is an unachievable goal. Rather, the better explanation is that our current occupational health and safety system needs reforms to address the changing nature of work in the United States and the changing role of government in our lives.
The Winning Safer Workplaces Manual is intended as a tool for state and local advocates to use to accomplish just such reforms. It highlights successful local campaigns to adopt workplace safety standards, and offers a series of innovative proposals to help state and local advocates make headway even in the face of intense opposition from big-moneyed, anti-regulatory interests.
The publication groups its policy proposals into three broad areas, including:
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.
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.
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.
In the coming months, the authors of the manual will host a series of webinars for state and local advocates. To learn more about the webinar series, contact CPR at WorkerSafety@progressivereform.org.
The authors of Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform are CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor; CPR Policy Analysts James Goodwin, Michael Patoka, and Matthew Shudtz;; and Liz Borkowski and Celeste Monforton of the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.