By Graham Trainor, Oregon AFL-CIO president
More than 50 years ago on April 28, Workers Memorial Day, the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect, promising every worker the right to a safe job — a fundamental right. The law was won because of the tireless efforts of the labor movement, which organized for safer working conditions and demanded action from the government to protect working people. Since then, unions and our allies have fought hard to make that promise a reality, winning protections under the law that have made jobs safer and saved lives.
But our work is not done. Each year, thousands of workers are killed and millions more suffer injury and illness because of dangerous working conditions that are preventable.
Here in Oregon, an alarming statistic has reinforced this point. Oregon is often seen as a model for strong labor standards and working conditions, but it ranks lowest in the nation when it comes to OSHA penalties, and has an injury and illness rate much higher than the national average. That’s why lawmakers are currently taking a concrete step to making work safer with Senate Bill 592.
Sebastian Francisco Perez, a farmworker and Guatemalan immigrant, died on the job on June 26, 2021, during a heatwave in 100+ degree weather.
After an investigation found that his employer failed to protect workers from heat-related illnesses and did not train all workers on how to protect themselves from extreme heat, they were fined only $4,200 by Oregon OSHA. They had even been cited in 2014 for failing to provide water to its workers, but Oregon OSHA opted not to issue them a fine.
In an ideal world, workplace safety and health dangers would be remedied by employers voluntarily. Unfortunately, we know this is not always the case, as the story of Sebastian Perez highlights. And while penalties alone can never be relied upon as the only deterrent to bad employer behavior, they are an important part of a strategy to encourage responsible and safe employer practices.
Since 2015, federal OSHA has consistently increased the average penalties it levies on violators. While many argue they should still be higher to properly value workers’ health and lives, they far outpace those levied by Oregon OSHA. In fact, the $615 average penalty levied by Oregon OSHA in 2021 for serious violations is lower than its 2017 average when adjusted for inflation.
That’s one of the many reasons why the Oregon labor movement introduced Senate Bill 592, which will do three main things: 1) Align Oregon OSHA penalties to Federal OSHA penalties and adjust them for inflation; 2) Trigger a comprehensive worksite investigation within a year of a work-related fatality connected to a violation or after three or more willful violations within a year; and 3) Require at least annual reporting to the legislature on the number of inspections, penalties, and appeals.
We were proud to see the Oregon Senate pass this bill on March 8 with bipartisan support, and we look forward to swift action in the Oregon House.
This Workers Memorial Day, as we honor the 47 workers who died as a result of an injury or illness on the job last year, we need to see less talk and more action to make work safer. Because the lives of working people are literally on the line.
The Oregon AFL-CIO is a federation of labor unions.