All workers have the right to a safe and healthful workplace and to a fair wage that offers them an opportunity to realize the American dream. Over the past century, we’ve tried to breathe life into that value by enacting hundreds of labor laws and establishing numerous federal agencies to implement and enforce them, like the Department of Labor (DOL), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), among others. States also play a major role in protecting workers’ rights by administering state-level programs that carry out the minimum federal requirements and any supplemental state protections.
But the American workplace has changed dramatically since many of our labor laws were last updated, and so have the inherent hazards for workers. New, bigger, more powerful equipment has come online. New chemicals and other toxic substances have come into routine use. New production and construction methods have been introduced. At the same time, more and more employers rely on “contingent” workers instead of permanent employees to perform jobs at all levels. Employers are also fighting grassroots efforts to raise the minimum wage, denying sick leave and family medical leave, misclassifying workers to avoid overtime pay, and retaliating against workers who report wrongdoing.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, is charged with protecting workers in the workplace. It made great progress in its years, significantly reducing workplace injuries and deaths. But the war on regulation triggered a steady decline in OSHA’s ambition and effectiveness, and progress has nearly stopped.
Given Fed-OSHA's shortcomings, state and local action for safer workplaces is critical. That's why CPR's Winning Safer Workplaces manual is designed for state and local advocates. It highlights successful local campaigns to adopt workplace safety standards, and offers a series of innovative proposals to help advocates make headway despite intense opposition from big-moneyed, anti-regulatory interests.
Workers face powerful disincentives to raise concerns about health and safety in the workplace. All states have some form of whistleblower protection law, though they vary widely in their scope and implementation, and in the actual safeguards they provide.
Workers who encounter a dangerous work situation often have a tough choice: do work they know to be dangerous or risk losing their job. Federal OSHA regulations provide a limited right to refuse dangerous work. Real-world experience suggests the provision is insufficiently protective.
Our labor laws have not kept pace with these new and emerging technological and economic developments. At the federal level, many agencies have been starved of the resources they need to keep up with regulatory challenges and burdened with analytical requirements by adverse court decisions and congressional action. The result is that new safety standards can take a decade or more to implement, and enforcement of existing standards is sporadic at best. Thus, many workers and advocates are beginning to look at states and localities to strengthen protections. Achieving meaningful, long-lasting reform will require improvements to laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local level. Working with government officials, workers and advocates must find creative and focused responses to existing and new challenges in the workplace.
CPR’s Member Scholars and policy analysts have conducted extensive research and analyses that provide numerous legal and policy recommendations that can be pursued by government decision-makers and allied organizations. Please read more about securing workers’ economic rights, reforming federal labor laws and policies, and winning safer workplaces by advocating for strong worker protections at the state and local level.
Winning Safer Workplaces. Mindful that federal OSHA has been rendered slow to respond and comparatively toothless, CPR Member Scholars collaborated in 2014 on Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reformto provide state and local advocates a tool to use to accomplish reforms that address the changing nature of work in the United States.