The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 03, 2017

Doomed bill to bolster OSHA a reminder of the agency's importance

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI)—It went nowhere in the prior, Republican-run Congress, but House Democrats who specialize in workers’ issues have reintroduced their bill to strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The measure comes just after OSHA announced inflation-adjusted increases in fines for job safety and health violations – but it is unclear if the new GOP Trump Administration plans to roll those fine hikes back.

The Protecting America’s Workers Act, which unions, workers and their allies strongly back, “would give OSHA the tools to ensure that employers promptly correct hazardous working conditions, protect workers from retaliation when they blow the whistle on unsafe working conditions, and hold employers accountable for violations that cause death or serious injury to workers,” said the lawmakers, led by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn.

Courtney also noted the “OSHA Act has not been meaningfully updated since it was passed in 1970.” Courtney cited the anniversaries of two fatal plant explosions, one in his district, in taking the lead on the legislation. Seven years ago, he said, the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown, Conn., blew up.  That blast “cost the lives of six workers – including my friend Ron Crabb – and injured dozens more,” said Courtney. 

“As Middletown and the catastrophic explosion in 2013 at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas demonstrate, the benefits of ensuring a safe and healthy workplace are not just confined to the facility’s property. Local communities also have a major stake in the safety of these workplaces,” he pointed out.

The West fertilizer plant blast killed 12 of the firefighters who responded to the catastrophe, plus two members of the community. It injured hundreds of people.

“Since OSHA was first created, great strides have been made in protecting American workers, but too many workers are still injured, falling ill, or even killed when working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. We need to make sure OSHA can continue its vital mission to protect America’s workers, so that moms and dads across this country will safely return home to their families after a hard day’s work,” Courtney said.

The Protect America’s Workers Act, first introduced almost a decade ago, would extend OSHA coverage to state and local government workers in 25 states, and all federal workers and mandate that while an employer must correct “serious, willful or repeat” hazardous conditions  OSHA finds -- even as the firm contests the agency’s citations of those hazards.

It also would  improve whistleblower protection and greatly increase fines for willful or serious violations that kill workers or seriously injure them. It also tells OSHA to update 1970-era standards incorporated in the original law and creates felony charges against corporate honchos who allow such deaths and injuries. 

And families of dead and injured workers would have the right to meet with OSHA investigators, get copies of citations and make statements in settlement talks OSHA holds with firms. Those talks often produce sharply reduced fines.

“The fact remains that penalties for harming workers are often dismissed as the cost of doing business for some employers. Congress needs to increase these outdated penalties and give real teeth to the law, so that workers can remain safe while trying to earn a living,” said cosponsoring Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., top Democrat on the GOP-run and ideologically polarized House Education and the Workforce Committee.

That Republican-controlled panel received, and will probably bury, the bill.