Every day, an average of 12 workers die on the job, a total of over 4,500 people every year. Locally, the New Hampshire Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health was able to identify 16 Granite Staters who were killed at work in 2016. We will be honoring those who died on the job during Workers’ Memorial Week, which begins today.
There has been a lot of rhetoric about being on the side of working people lately, the election last fall was nothing if not a referendum on working in America in the 21st century. Jobs and trade policy dominated the conversation, but conditions for workers such as livable wages and paid time off also entered the conversation. One aspect of the conversation that was neglected was policies that protect our health and safety at work. Unfortunately, these policies have not been ignored since the election, they are being systematically repealed and delayed.
The first repeal was to an Obama executive order called the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order on March 27. The order came on the heels of a report showing the high incidence of labor law violations among federal contractors and was an effort to ensure that wage and other labor violations were taken into consideration during the contracting process to curb illegal practices by companies receiving public money. Federal contractors account for almost a quarter of the American workforce and took in more than $470 billion in taxpayer funds in 2016, according to USASpending.gov.
The next worker safety protection to fall was an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule clarifying how long companies should keep workplace injury and illness records. For over 40 years, larger employers in high-hazard industries have been required to keep accurate records of serious workplace injuries and illnesses and to maintain those records for five years. These records are vital to understanding the extent and nature of serious workplace injuries and illnesses.
On April 3 this rule was repealed so that employers may now use their own discretion for injury record retention. This rule had no additional cost to employers; it is simply a loophole for employers to dump records to avoid oversight.
The new administration is also delaying OSHA standards that protect workers from hazards on the job. One example is the beryllium standard. Beryllium is a common and useful metal used in a large number of industries but it is also a very dangerous carcinogen. OSHA estimates that approximately 62,000 workers are potentially exposed to beryllium in approximately 7,300 establishments in the United States. The dangers have been documented since the 1930s and a standard was set in 1949. In 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended strengthening the 1949 standard, but industry objected. After literally decades of research and testimony, the new standard was to begin enactment on March 21 but was delayed on March 3. Unfortunately, the president’s 2-for-1 executive order stating that federal agencies must now remove two rules for every new one means OSHA must decide which workplace protections to remove in order to protect workers exposed to beryllium.
Similarly, an OSHA rule protecting workers from silica dust exposure has also been delayed. This rule has the potential to save 600 lives per year by preventing workers from getting silicosis and dying of this deadly disease caused by exposure to silica dust. Its enactment has been delayed for the administration to vet it through the second part of the 2-for-1 executive order – cost to business. Industry has been fighting enactment of this rule for over 16 years citing the cost of silica reduction measures, but what about the cost to the 600 families every year who lose a breadwinner? What about the costs to the health care system and social services that those with silicosis incur? The 2-for-1 executive order is silent on costs to workers, but can we truly put a price tag on workers’ lives anyway? Is cost to business really all that matters in policymaking?
The final example of the current Congress and administration’s apparent war on workers deals with the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget. One item that is completely eliminated is a tiny $11 million agency called the Chemical Safety Board. Eleven million dollars is approximately the cost to taxpayers of four presidential trips to Mar-a-Lago, but the CSB is a much better value for taxpayer dollars.
The CSB is an independent agency that makes no laws or rules, they make recommendations after a major chemical accident. Much like the National Transportation Safety Board after a plane crash, the CSB investigates root causes and ?it’s not unusual for the industry itself to look at CSB recommendations and implement them voluntarily. ?The Deepwater Horizon blowout and the large explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas that killed 15 people and destroyed hundreds of homes in 2013 are examples of incidents investigated by the CSB. There is no other mechanism to study and learn from these accidents if the CSB is eliminated.
April 28 is International Workers’ Memorial Day. During this week we remember those who lost their lives at work. Those we remember are our family members, friends and neighbors who left for work one day never to return home.
These deaths are not just a tragedy for families and friends, but to all of us who work for a living because workplace fatalities can happen to anyone at any time and because they are largely preventable through strong workplace protections and analysis. NH COSH is an organization dedicated to a vital 21st-century workforce and good, safe jobs are the most important element of that goal. We need strong worker protections and strong enforcement agencies that work with industry to balance their concerns with the wellness and safety of American workers.
(Susi Nord works for the New Hampshire Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.)