The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 17, 2019

Lawmakers push worker safety bills

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON PAI)—The majority Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee will push two key pro-worker safety bills this year, but the exact timetable is uncertain.

In an informal conversation after the first congressional briefing in years on worker health and safety, a top committee aide on the issue said he expects the legislation will hit the floor this summer.

One is the Protecting America’s Workers Act, HR1074. It would be a comprehensive update of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, extending it to all government workers, turning OSHA penalties against law-breakers into felonies when a worker dies or is seriously injured and ordering firms to fix unsafe conditions even while they battle OSHA citations. Right now, they don’t have to fix those unsafe conditions.

The other, HR1309, pushed by National Nurses United, would order OSHA to write a rule forcing hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities to create and implement plans to prevent violence against health care workers. Health care workers are 12 times more likely to be assaulted and injured at work than other workers, one briefer noted. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Act “was great in 1970, but it could use some improvement,” explained one panelist, AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department Director Peg Seminario, who’s been in the post and the field for several decades. 

“It’s a sound statute for the people it covers,” she said. But it doesn’t cover state and local government workers in half the states – they’re exempt in those states where the federal OSHA does inspections, but not where state OSHAs act – or farmworkers, Seminario and other speakers said. 

So there’s the odd situation, one told sponsoring Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., where if the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation employs workers to rebuild a road and one gets hurt or killed, federal OSHA can’t come in, even though it runs safety and health inspections in Pennsylvania. But if PennDOT employs a private firm to rebuild the road and the worker gets killed, federal OSHA does come in. 

Overshadowing all of the problems and holes in job safety and health law is the fact that in common with its actions in other fields, from food safety to worker rights, the GOP Trump administration is rolling back worker health and safety protections and slashing Occupational Safety and Health Administration staff, all at the behest of the corporate class. 

Some other holes in workplace enforcement include:

• Small fines and low penalties. After a recent increase, the maximum fine OSHA can impose for each violation of worker health and safety is $11,000. If a worker dies, OSHA can recommend prosecuting the employer to the Justice Department – but only for a misdemeanor. The labor-backed Protecting America’s Workers Act would make such a case a felony, and would extend the responsibility to corporate executives.

• “You can’t sue your boss” who breaks the OSH Act, Seminario said. The law bans workers from battling their firms if OSHA won’t. The labor-backed legislation lets workers sue. 

• Bosses can toss away job safety and health records. The Obama administration’s Labor Department announced a rule requiring firms to keep such records for five years. That would help OSHA track patterns – at firms and within industries – of deaths and injuries on the job and focus its enforcement. Trump dumped that plan, and reinstated a prior rule, letting firms trash the records after six months.