by the Spirit of Frances Perkins

During last week’s Latino Action Summit on Worker Health and Safety in Houston, Labor Secretary Solis said:

“…I am urging Congress to pass the Protecting Americas Workers Act to give vulnerable workers more security when they speak out to defend their lives.”

That was the first time I’ve heard the Labor Secretary publicly mention PAWA and those were some welcome words.  The bill, HR 2067, is quite modest in its approach to enhancing the OSH Act.  It would:

  • adjust monetary penalties for violating H&S standards to the inflation rate
  • improve whistleblower protections and procedures for workers who exercise their H&S rights
  • ensure State and local employees are given H&S protections
  • require OSHA to investigate all fatalities and serious injury incidents
  • give family-member victims of workplace fatalities the right to meet with OSHA before citations are issued, make a victim’s impact statement to the OSH Review Commission

Yet, prior to last week, Mrs. Solis had been largely silent about it.  In fact, it was just a month ago that we first heard officially the Obama Administration’s position on the bill when Dr. David Michaels, the OSHA Assistant Secretary testified in support of the legislation.  (TPH post here)

Regrettably, it seems that the death of six refinery workers in Washington State from a blast on April 2 and the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 coal miners has focused the Secretary’s attention on worker health and safety.   Better late than never, I suppose.

Now that Secretary Solis told the audience in Houston that she strongly supports PAWA, I hope she contacts key Members of Congress—especially in the Senate—and convinces them that the nation’s working people need these and more workplace H&S protections.  The Senators who currently endorse the bill are:

  1. Daniel Akaka [D-HI]
  2. Jeff Bingaman [D-NM]
  3. Barbara Boxer [D-CA]
  4. Sherrod Brown [D-OH]
  5. Robert Casey [D-PA]
  6. Christopher Dodd [D-CT]
  7. Richard Durbin [D-IL]
  8. Russell Feingold [D-WI]
  9. Al Franken [D-MN]
  10. Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY]
  11. Thomas Harkin [D-IA]
  12. Frank Lautenberg [D-NJ]
  13. Patrick Leahy [D-VT]
  14. Robert Menéndez [D-NJ]
  15. Jeff Merkley [D-OR]
  16. Patty Murray [D-WA]
  17. John Rockefeller [D-WV]
  18. Bernard Sanders [I-VT]
  19. Charles Schumer [D-NY]
  20. Debbie Ann Stabenow [D-MI]
  21. Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI]

It’s time for the Secretary to pay some visits to lawmakers and explain why PAWA is needed.  She can repeat for them what she told the audience in Houston:

…These senseless deaths must stop.  And of course we know that its not just mineworkers that need protection — it’s housekeepers, carwash workers, meatpacking workers, construction workers, farmworkers — in other words, all workers.  Every day in this country, more than 14 workers lose their lives in preventable workplace accidents — close to 100 every week. 

…evidence shows that too many employers cut corners and place their workers at risk.

…When workers have a voice in the workplace, they can become fully involved in ensuring their workplaces are safe.  Who better can determine whether a job is safe or not than a worker who has thoroughly trained in workplace safety?  Who better can police the workplace to prevent unscrupulous employers from endangering workers than those workers themselves?

…But still, too many workers, especially Latino workers, do not report violations. Some fear getting fired or blacklisted for filing an OSHA complaint. Many fear that they will lose their job or face disciplinary action whenever they suffer an injury and report it. 

…The Occupational Safety and Health Act has language forbidding discrimination against workers for exercising their health and safety rights. But, the language is nearly 40 years old and is very difficult for workers to use.

That is why I am urging Congress to pass the Protecting Americas Workers Act to give vulnerable workers more security when they speak out to defend their lives.  The Act will increase penalties and make it a felony when a workers death or serious injury results from a willful violation. Today, it is a misdemeanor.  OSHA needs these new tools to keep workplaces safe. 

…Workers have the right to know what a safe workplace looks like and what hazards they are facing.  They have a right to talk to their employer about unsafe conditions and, if necessary, call OSHA.  They have a right to access safety equipment required by law and get paid for it by the employer.  They have a right to be trained in a language and in a way that they understand. 

Workers need to know how to use these rights and not fear retaliation.  And finally, every worker needs to know that they have the right to come home alive at the end of the day.

Next week, workers across the globe will mark International Worker Memorial Day.  The Secretary of Labor needs to speak louder and more often about the legislative changes needed to make OSHA and MSHA more steadfast defenders of worker’s health and lives.