Labor remembers workers killed on the job

Decades of struggle by workers and their unions have resulted in significant improvements in working conditions. But the toll of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths remains enormous. Each year more than 60,000 workers die from job injuries and illnesses and another 6 million are injured.

In Oregon, 98 workers were killed on the job in 1998, according to preliminary data released by the Department of Consumer and Business Services.

The unions of the AFL-CIO remember these workers on April 28 - Workers Memorial Day.

The first Workers Memorial Day was observed in 1989. April 28 was chosen because it is the anniversary of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act and the day of a similar remembrance in Canada. Trade unionists around the globe now mark April 28 as an International Day of Mourning.

On Workers Memorial Day 1999, U.S. workers will mobilize and call for an end to attacks on job safety laws, stronger enforcement and whistle-blower protections and the right of workers to organize and, through their unions, speak out and work for safe jobs and a better future, said the AFL-CIO Department of Occupational Safety and Health.

Today, the fight for safe jobs continues, with unions fighting for:

* The right of workers to organize and join unions without employer interference or intimidation.

In workplaces all over the country, workers are coming together and organizing unions for dignity and respect, to improve workplace conditions and to improve their lives.

But many employers are illegally blocking workers' efforts to organize, intimidating and firing workers who support union representation, refusing to recognize the union after the election and certification and refusing to bargain a first contract.

Workers have a right to organize. Employers who block workers' efforts to form a union should be held publicly accountable and penalized for their illegal actions. Labor law needs to be made stronger so workers can organize without employer interference.

* An end to employer and congressional attacks on workers' safety and health and workers' rights.

For the past two years, employers and their anti-worker congressional allies have tried to roll back job safety and health protections for America's workers. They've pushed legislation to weaken OSHA enforcement, to make it harder to set new safety and health standards, to take away workers' right to OSHA inspections and to cut the job safety budget. The labor movement has fought back these weakening measures successfully, but similar proposals are likely to be advanced in the 106th Congress. Senator Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., has introduced a new version of his Safety for Employees Advancement Act, the so-called "SAFE Act" (S. 385). The bill is a pared-down version of legislation introduced in the 105th Congress. It would:

* Immunize employers from OSHA penalties if they set up a safety and health program and are certified as in compliance by an employer-paid consultant.

* Take away workers' right to on-site OSHA inspections to investigate serious hazards. * Permit OSHA to issue warnings instead of citations for violations.

* Override OSHA standards by permitting employers to use any alternative methods they deem effective to protect workers.

To date, no OSHA "deform" legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, but proposals are anticipated to shield employers' safety and health audits from being used by OSHA in enforcement actions and to require formal peer review of OSHA proposed rules.

In addition to OSHA "deform " legislation, "regulatory reform" legislation is being pushed that will make it more difficult for OSHA and other agencies to set and enforce standards. Two regulatory reform measures - H.R. 350 and H.R.391 - have passed the House and other proposals are expected to be introduced.

* Stronger protections and enforcement, stiffer penalties.

With more than 60,000 workers dying every year from job injuries and illnesses, and more than 6 million injured, workers need more job safety and health protections, not less.

Standards for most toxic chemicals are more than 30 years old. New hazards such as workplace violence and needlestick injuries are emerging, while well-recognized hazards like silica continue to claim hundreds of workers' lives each year.

At current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 109 years to inspect each workplace once. In five states (Florida, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana and South Dakota), it would take more than 150 years for OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace.

Oregon and Washington have the lowest inspection frequency rates, according to the national AFL-CIO, at 22 years and 25 years respectively.

Penalties for significant violations of the law remain low. Serious violations carry an average penalty of only $681 ($875 for federal OSHA and $536 for state OSHA plans). A violation is considered "serious" if it poses a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm to workers.

Wyoming has the lowest average penalty for serious violations at $125, while the highest average penalty is Delaware's at $1,332. Oregon's average penalty for a serious violation is $356.

* Coverage for all workers under the job safety law.

Currently, millions of American workers are not protected by the OSHA law. This includes more than 8.1 million state and local public employees in 27 states, transportation workers and farm workers who have weaker protection under other laws and workers in the federal government where OSHA standards apply but are not enforceable. In recent years, Congress has extended OSHA protections to congressional workers and the Postal Service. It's time to provide full OSHA protection to all workers, the AFL-CIO said.

* Stronger whistle-blower protections for workers who report job hazards and injuries.

The OSHA law in theory prohibits employers from discriminating against workers for exercising their rights. But in practice, the law is failing to protect workers. Each year, thousands of workers are fired for reporting job hazards or injuries, but the law's processes and remedies are too weak to provide justice to these workers.

Stronger federal and state whistle-blower and anti-retaliation protections are needed so workers can speak out about job hazards, report injuries and seek compensation without fear of losing their jobs.

* An OSHA ergonomics standard and workplace protections to prevent repetitive strain injuries.

Injuries and illnesses caused by ergonomic hazards are the biggest job safety problem in the workplace today. Each year more than 600,000 workers suffer serious injuries from over-exertion or repetitive motion at an annual cost of $20 billion.

The labor movement has been fighting to protect workers against ergonomic injuries through an OSHA standard, collectively-bargained ergonomic programs and training and education.

But some employer groups and anti-worker members of Congress are actively opposing efforts to protect workers, trying to block an OSHA ergonomics standard, claiming that we don't know what causes or how to prevent these injuries. After many years of delay, OSHA again is moving forward to issue an ergonomics standard.

* The right of workers and unions to speak out for strong job safety laws and to have a full voice in the legislative and political process.

Unions have fought for and won strong regulations to protect workers against job hazards. Because of labor's efforts, workplaces are safer. But some lawmakers are trying to pass new federal and state laws that would limit a unions' ability to use members dues to speak out on these and other worker issues in the political process.

Last year, labor organized to defeat Proposition 226 in California and Measure 59 in Oregon, but similar measures are being pushed in other states. Labor will continue to fight these efforts.

April 16, 1999 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.