Just another tragic story in America?

Plainville DPW worker killed in accident

PLAINVILLE , MA — A public works employee died Thursday when the lawn tractor he was driving overturned and landed on top of him, police said.  The employee, whose name was not released pending notification of family, was cutting grass at the town pumping station on Walnut Street when the accident happened, according to local police. A motorist passing by saw the overturned tractor and called for help around 1:20 p.m., according to a press statement released by Police Chief James Alfred.

Firefighters and police pulled the 900-pound tractor off the unconscious victim and firefighters performed CPR before taking him to Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, where he was later pronounced dead, according to police.

But this one has an unfortunate twist. There will be no OSHA investigation. There will be no citation, no penalty. It will be chalked up to just a terrible accident. And move on.

There will be no OSHA investigation. There will be no citation, no penalty.

Why? Because this unidentified employee of the Plainville Department of Public Works, a public employee. And in Massachusetts and 23 other states in this country, public employees are second class citizens. These are the people that fix our roads, watch our criminals, deal with whatever we flush down the toilet, staff public hospitals and mental health institutions, fight fires, protect us from bad guys, teach our children, keep our parks together, and much, much more.  In other words, they do the hard work that makes life n this country safe and enjoyable.

Yet their lives are apparently not worth as much as private sector employees.

Sound harsh? Maybe. But if public employees were as valued as private sector employees, wouldn’t public employees have the same right to a safe workplace that private sector employees have?

For those who don’t understand this strange, uniquely American, situation, here’s a little background. The OSHAct exempts public employers (and therefor public employees) from coverage, despite the fact that they do work that is as dangerous or more dangerous than private sector workers: they work, get hurt and die in wastewater treatment plants, on the highways, in hospitals and mental health institutions, prisons and parks. They protect our public safety, rescue us from traffic accidents and save us from fires.

When a state runs its own OSHA program, as 21 states do, they are also required to cover public employees, and federal OSHA funds up to 50% of that program.  The law also allows federal states to set up their own “public employee-only” programs, where the state covers the public sector and the feds cover the private sector. Federal OSHA also provides 50% of the funding for those program. Only 5 states (New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois and Maine) have chosen to adopt public employee-only programs, and only two — Illinois and Maine — in the past 15 years.

Legislation that would require public employee coverage nationwide are introduced into Congress every year, usually as part of the Protecting America’s Workers Act, this year introduced by Al Franken in the Senate and Joe Courtney in the House.  The last significant effort was made in the early 1990’s when public employee coverage formed part of labor-sponsored OSHA Reform legislation. At that time, there was considerable support even among Republicans for correcting this clear injustice.

But the public employer organizations — the League of Cities, Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties — opposed OSHA coverage. The states and cities were already doing a fine job protecting their public employees they said, and anyway it would costs cities and counties too much. (How something they are already doing would cost too much money was never explained.)

I’ve been working to extend coverage to public employees since I started working at AFSCME 35 years ago.  I wrote last month about public employee coverage in Massachusetts, and I wrote 12 years ago about public employee coverage in Massachusetts.

How long is it going to take for America to wake up and realize that public employees are people who deserve to come home to their families at the end of every day, just like everyone else?


2 thoughts on “City Worker Killed. Too bad. So Sad. Move on.”
  1. This has been going on for a long time in Massachusetts. Every couple of years, several public employees are killed on the job and it later found out that adhering to one or more OSHA Standards, like Confined Spaces, would have prevented the fatalities. I guess if one of the governor’s kids were killed, it might get some attention.

  2. The Commonwealth’s Department of Labor Standards is actively investigating this fatality and a report of findings will be issued. The department does has the ability to levy civil penalties.. The Commonwealth has legislatively incorporated by reference OSHA regulations for the protection of state employees near the end of the Deval Patrick administration and legislation is filed to extend this protection to municipal employees. Governor Baker has supported the passed legislation and the department’s budget. If Massachusetts was a state plan state you might still conclude it would take 150 years to visit every employer and that the 1.5 million dollar fine levied and criminal charges pending in the Boston double fatality excavation incident by OSHA was simply too little too late. Too bad, so sad, move on, is an inaccurate oversimplification. I share your anger at preventable deaths and support efforts to evolve Massachusetts into a State plan state. All it takes is money and commitment yet the fact that safety is rarely seen as a priority is a genuine tragedy.

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