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April 27, 2015 by Sidney Shapiro

Workers Are Safer at Work, But Not as Safe as They Could and Should Be

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has reported that the occupational fatality rate of 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers for 2013 was the lowest reported rate since the BLS started using its current tracking methodology in 2006.  That’s good news, but we’ve got a very long way to go still. The simple truth is that workers are not as safe as they could and should be. Although the fatality rate is down, there were still 4,585 occupational fatalities in 2013. 

The principal method for making workers safer is regulation and enforcement by the Occupational Health & Safety Administration. While about 40 percent of the deaths resulted from motor vehicle-related accidents, which is outside of OSHA’s regulatory authority, OSHA has tried to address the job risks within its jurisdiction by targeting the most dangerous industries and imposing the maximum penalties in appropriate cases. No doubt these efforts have resulted in the reported fatality reductions. To do better, however, OSHA faces a number of challenges. 

First, budget cuts have handicapped OSHA enforcement efforts (see here at pp. 5-7). Second, Congress has capped the size of OSHA fines at levels that are so low they often do …

April 9, 2015 by Matt Shudtz
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Last year, the Center for Progressive Reform published Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State & Local Policy Reform. The manual is intended as a tool for state and local advocates. It highlights successful local campaigns to adopt workplace safety policies, 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. We focused on cross-cutting ideas that will empower workers, ensure crime doesn’t pay, and strengthen the institutions that are meant to protect workers.

Our day-of-release blog post with more information is here.

Since its release, we’ve received positive feedback from many advocates about the manual. Among the suggestions that we heard was that the manual ought to be translated into Spanish. Today, we’re excited to announce that a Spanish-language version of the manual is available on our …

Feb. 24, 2015 by Matt Shudtz
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This week, the Maryland General Assembly will review new legislation that could help ensure safer workplaces in the state’s construction industry. The proposal, which is a type of “responsible contracting” legislation similar to other policies being tested out in states and municipalities across the country, would require companies that put in bids for work on public works projects in Maryland to attest that they have workplace health and safety programs and that they would implement the programs in construction projects done on the public dime.

It’s an important piece of legislation, given the dangers in the industry. As we noted in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual,

"Construction is one of the most hazardous industries for workers. Frequent injuries and deaths from falls, electrocutions, and striking objects impose unbearably high costs on individuals, families, and local economies. Public Citizen estimates that, between 2008 and 2010, fatal …

Feb. 19, 2015 by Matt Shudtz
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Our intrepid colleague Celeste Monforton, who writes at the Pump Handle blog, recently passed along a neat example of a tool that we wrote about in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual. Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on the state’s regulatory protections for meatpacking workers. As we noted in the Winning Safer Workplaces manual, state-level oversight of government regulation can be a valuable tool for advocates who are fighting for stronger workplace protections. The results of new audits can clarify what is working—and what is not working—about the regulatory system, giving advocates critical information that they might use in new campaigns. The audit process itself, by focusing outside attention on programs that may be insulated from regular or public oversight, can also have positive effects for the programs’ intended beneficiaries (here, workers).

The Minnesota auditors started this project with three …

Feb. 9, 2015 by Matt Shudtz
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In Kansas and Maryland, two states separated by geography and politics, Republican state lawmakers are touting plans that could seriously alter the institutions that workers in those states rely upon to keep them safe on the job.

Two weeks ago, Maryland Delegate (now State Senator) Andrew Serafini introduced a bill that would make drastic changes to the way the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency (MOSH) does its job. So drastic, in fact, that the feds would likely have to step in and take over the state’s program. The biggest problem with the bill is a requirement that the agency send employers a letter, warning them that MOSH inspectors are on the way. Tipping off employers is bad policy for an enforcement agency trying to regulate conditions that can be easily be disguised or altered. In many cases, it’s also a criminal act.

The bill …

Jan. 20, 2015 by Matt Shudtz
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Last week on The Pump Handle, Kim Krisberg highlighted an interesting pilot program in Rockaway Township, New Jersey that puts an extra set of eyes on the lookout for workplace safety concerns that might otherwise have gone unnoticed by government inspectors. As she explains here, restaurant inspectors in Rockaway are pilot testing a simple modification to their inspection responsibilities—while they check refrigerator temperatures and cleanliness for food safety concerns, they’re now also looking for good practices that ensure workers are safe. Inspectors have a checklist of basic worker safety issues and they’re keeping tabs on which restaurants are making the grade.

As we described in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual, federal OSHA and its state-plan partner agencies only have the staff and resources to inspect a small percentage of workplaces for potential health and safety violations. We suggested that many other government agencies have …

Dec. 17, 2014 by Matt Shudtz
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Today, Nebraska Appleseed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and several allied organizations sent a letter to OSHA requesting a response to their petition for a rulemaking on work speed in poultry and meatpacking plants. The groups originally submitted the petition to OSHA over a year ago, and it’s been radio silence ever since. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of workers, most low-income and socially vulnerable, continue to work in conditions that lead to crippling musculoskeletal disorders.

The workers’ advocates who submitted the petition had the misfortune of dropping it in the mail just days before the 2013 government shutdown, so at the time some commentators cut the agency some slack, noting that 90 percent of the agency’s staff—including everyone in the standard-setting office—were laid off. But that excuse is no longer relevant, and evidence of the need for the rule continues to pile up …

Dec. 5, 2014 by Erin Kesler
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Today, the Baltimore Sun published an op-ed by CPR President Rena Steinzor and Public Justice Center attorney Sally Dworak-Fisher entitled, "Maryland's whistleblower laws need teeth."

According to the piece:

Whistleblowers can help identify and put a stop to all sorts of illegal activity, if they're properly protected. Dozens of state and federal laws include provisions intended to shield whistleblowers from retaliatory actions by employers who have been outed. But this piecemeal approach, with different laws enforced by different agencies, is too complicated and has too many holes.

To take the load off of overburdened state investigators, Marylanders need a new law that gives whistleblowers the right to sue employers who retaliate. A comprehensive law with that fail-safe mechanism would be an invaluable tool for promoting better practices at worksites across the state because it would encourage workers to raise red flags when their employers skirt the …

Oct. 29, 2014 by Matt Shudtz
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Today, brave workers at a Wayne Farms poultry slaughterhouse have a reason to celebrate a milestone in their struggle for justice. With help from lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center, they filed a complaint with OSHA in April. They blew the whistle on conditions that included dangerous work speeds that caused serious injuries, as well as denying subsequent medical treatment, and the firing of workers who reported their concerns. The agency released some results from its inspection, proposing significant fines against Wayne Farms for the deplorable conditions the workers continue to face. OSHA is proposing $102,000 in fines, for everything from bad records to forcing workers to work on or clean machines that have not been properly shut down and de-energized. Significantly, OSHA has cited Wayne Farms for violating the General Duty Clause because the company exposed workers to dangerous ergonomic hazards. OSHA hasn't …

July 30, 2014 by Rena Steinzor
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We’ve received the bad news from impeccable sources that the much-criticized USDA poultry processing rule has passed White House review at record speed—20 days, count ‘em!—and will be released late this afternoon.  As usual, the process of OIRA review was shrouded in secrecy, with affected stakeholders filing in and out of the White House to talk about a rule they had never seen to taciturn OIRA officials who had long since cut a deal with USDA.  Of course, the late afternoon release is designed to forestall criticism in the same news cycle that will report the White House spin on the rule.  But we know enough about it to make some basic observations.

Our sources informed us that the rule will allow companies to have processing lines that run at the speed of 140 birds per minute—that’s 2.3 chickens every single …

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