Should Your Job Kill You?

SoCalCOSH coordinator Shirley Alvarado-del Aguila

SoCalCOSH coordinator Shirley Alvarado-del Aguila

“Regulation kills jobs.” We keep hearing that mantra from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What became clear at the forum called on Tuesday evening by the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health is that we need to say loud and clear that “Lack of regulation kills people.”

According to “Dying at Work in California,” recently released by SoCalCOSH and Oakland-based Worksafe, 40 years after President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), an estimated 6,500 workers in California die from chronic exposure to chemical, biological, or physical agents each year and in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available) there were over 300 confirmed worker deaths and 491,000 reported work-related injuries.(The report can be downloaded here)

The evening of June 21, SoCalCOSH coordinator Shirley Alvarado-del Aguila briefed workers and activists on the status of Cal/OSHA, the state enforcement agency which as been long plagued by poor training, slow (or nonexistent) responses to complaints of hazards, and understaffing. (According to “Dying at Work,” California has one of the lowest staffing levels per capita in the U.S. There are more Fish and Game Wardens than there are Cal/OSHA inspectors.) “The system is broken,” said Alvarado, but “there’s new leadership. Ellen Widess won’t attack Cal/OSHA. She’ll hold people accountable.”

Prospects aren’t so rosy on the federal level, said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Agencies including OSHA are indeed under attack. Even after Obama’s election when Democrats controlled both House and Senate and “the time seemed right to strengthen OSHA,” the proposed legislation “couldn’t even get a vote on the Senate floor.” And that was in the immediate aftermath of explosions at the Tesoro refinery in Washington State (which killed five workers and could have been prevented) and the Kleen Energy Systems power plant in Connecticut (where five died); the 30 miners killed in the worst US mine disaster in decades (at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine which had been cited by federal regulators for “substantial violations” of safety protocols no fewer than eight times during the previous 12 months); and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, with the House taken over by Republicans, “there’s no chance for improved legislation.”

Tom O'Connor, executive director of the national Council for Occupational Safety and Health

Tom O'Connor, executive director of the national Council for Occupational Safety and Health

Of course Obama’s executive branch could write and implement new regulations. Safeguards now are often weak, enforcement is lax, and penalties for noncompliance are minimal. Many worksites and occupations fall outside the scope of the original law while since 1970, the American workplace has evolved. (In Nixon’s day, who’d ever heard of carpal tunnel or computer vision syndrome? Or solar panel installation? Or balers for recycling?)

But instead of moving forward, said O’Connor, “We have to fight back against bad ideas.”

Ideas like the REINS Act–the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act” which was introduced in the House. If passed by House and Senate, it would prevent the implementation of any new “economically significant” regulatory proposal until approved by both House and Senate. The regulations could therefore be stopped by doing nothing, by not bringing them to a vote.

Obama’s OSHA has already backed off and withdrawn two proposals on health and safety standards–one of which merely restored the original standard that Reagan had weakened. In addition, O’Connor said, the OIRA–Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs which was created by Reagan to stop regulation–reviews every proposed new rule and even if it doesn’t stop it, can delay it indefinitely. OIRA delays are already having impact on OSHA.

O’Connor urged more work on the local level, citing a statewide campaign in Massachusetts to protect workers hired through temp agencies and a success in Austin, Texas where–after seven construction workers died of heat-related illness–the City Council mandated 10-minute rest breaks every four hours on construction sites.

Here in California, many people are aware of the danger high temperatures pose to farmworkers. The heat-related death in 2008 of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez after nine hours of work in the blazing sun spurred demands for water, shade, and rest.  Chloe Osmer, California Labor Federation campaign coordinator working on behalf of carwash employees know it’s an issue for these workers as well who may work 8-10 hours in the hot sun. (Standing in the sun in-between customers does not constitute rest!) The CLEAN Carwash Campaign has taken water bottles and information about heat stress to 100 carwashes around Los Angeles and has helped workers file OSHA complaints about other problems as well, including the lack of protective gear when they use sulfuric acid to clean rims.

Published by the LA Progressive on June 23, 2011
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About Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal; the crime novel Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as "sifting the ashes of America's endless class warfare" and, most recently, her historical novel The Fiery Alphabet, which tells a woman's adventurous life-story against the backdrop of the 18th-century tension between Enlightenment values and religious faith.