Last Friday was a beautiful, sunny day in Philadelphia. A perfect day for PhilaPOSH’s annual Workers Memorial Day celebration. This was the 3rd Workers Memorial Day I’ve attended in Philadelphia, and as usual, it was a moving and powerful affair.
We heard from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia Labor Council President Pat Eiding, UFCW Local 1776 President Wendell Young IV, PhilaPOSH Director Nicole Fuller, OSHA Assistant Secretary Doug Parker and several workers who described hazardous working conditions and the help that Philaposh provided. I was invited as Keynote Speaker.
After the program, the hundreds of workers and families of workers killed on the job solemnly marched over to Penn’s landing carrying a rose and signs with the names of workers killed on the job in the tri-state area over the past year, and how they died. Cars and trucks honked in support as we marched. At Penn’s Landing, each person read the name and circumstances from the “grave makers” and tossed a rose into the Delaware River.
Below is my (unabbreviated) keynote speech.
Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health
Workers Memorial Day 2022
Friday, April 22, 2022
I want to thank you for inviting me to this 2022 Workers Memorial Day event
Philaposh has a special place in my heart and in my career. My first workshop when I started at AFSCME in 1982 was in Philadelphia for DC 47. Former Council 47 Director Tom Cronin, in the audience today, invited me to town. I knew nothing. I majored in international economics, so my first years at AFSCME were learning.
So, on that trip to Philadelphia, I stopped by PhilaPOSH, had a long talk with Jim Moran and headed home with a briefcase full of materials that helped me understand not only the specific hazards that workers faced, but how to organize to make workplaces safer.
In the years since then, PhilaPOSH has been a beacon of hope for Pennsylvania workers. So, whenever I hear skeptical comments about workers organizing for safety in the workplace, or what labor unions can do to help workers stay alive, I say LET THEM COME TO PHILAPOSH!
I think the last time I spoke at this gathering was in 2015 when I was Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA, and we were approaching the end of the Obama administration.
Now, 7 years later, we’re in a very different world. We have survived 4 years of Donald Trump — more or less. Those of us in this room have survived COVID so far, although many of our friends and loved ones have not.
The good news is that out of the ashes of the past two pandemic years, we are seeing a resurgence of the labor movement as well as a new realization of the important and essential role that workers play in our economy. We need to build on this momentum to ensure that American workplaces are more democratic and more safe. And I’m grateful that PHILAPOSH and you in this audience are leading that fight in Pennsylvania.
But we have a lot of work to do to ensure that the American public appreciates the contribution of essential workers in fighting COVID and the price they paid.
Late last year the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics gave us what looked at first like very good workplace safety news. According to the 2020 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, “There were 4,764 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2020, a 10.7-percent decrease from 5,333 in 2019.”
That’s the lowest number of workplace deaths since 2013!!
Great news and a great year for workers, right?
Not so much. One detail the BLS failed to look at — a failure only mentioned below the main headlines at the bottom of the first page of the press release — was worker deaths due to COVID-19.
Despite the alleged good news from BLS, the reality is that 2020 likely saw the greatest workplace death toll in modern American history due to COVID-19. These were mostly so-called “essential workers,” those who had no choice but to show up to work in person, risking their lives, and bearing the brunt of work-related COVID-19 fatalities. And these workers were disproportionately people of color.
The problem is that we don’t really know how many workers died of COVID that they contracted in the workplace, and much less the extent to which workers got COVID at work and then transmitted it to their family members.
The sad fact is that, with very few exceptions, no one tracks workplace COVID deaths.
One exception is the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services which tracks COVID infections for long term health care workers. In 2020 alone, CMS reported around 1300 deaths of long-term care staff. Had those been counted, they would have comprised over 27% of total workplace deaths for 2020. Just adding those deaths to the BLS total would have meant that 2020 saw the highest workplace death total in the past 25 years.
And that’s just adding in long-term care workers. Not the likely additional thousands of deaths in acute care hospitals, meatpacking plants, warehouses, transportation or any of the other industries where essential workers kept our lives going.
And what has the federal government, and more specifically, OSHA done about this ongoing tragedy?
Not enough, to say the least.
The first year of COVID was during the Trump administration which refused to issue an OSHA emergency temporary standard, provided too little and too late enforcement of unsafe conditions and actively colluded with the meat processing industry to keep open plants where COVID was running wild due to substandard working conditions.
In the worst of these plants, with the most egregious working conditions and documented worker deaths, the only penalty Trump’s OSHA could muster was a measly $13,000 citation.
I wish I could say the Biden administration had solved all of those problems.
They certainly began well, issuing an Executive Order the first day of the administration calling for OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard by March 15.
Unfortunately, March 15 came and went, as did April 15 and May 15. Finally in July, hoping that the vaccine would take care of everything, OSHA issued an ETS, but only for health care workers.
Soon afterwards, the Delta variant, along with increasing evidence that vaccine protection against infection deteriorated over time and growing vaccine resistance made clear that workers needed more protection than just the hope that everyone gets vaccinated.
But instead of rethinking its position, the Biden Administration doubled down on their reliance on the vaccine, requiring all unvaccinated workers in companies over 100 employees to wear a mask and get tested weekly.
That mask mandate, characterized as a vaccine mandate, met a sorry, if not unexpected death in a Supreme Court, the majority of whom failed to understand that workers are much more at risk from COVID than non-workers.
As a retiree, I can choose where to spend my day, with whom and how long I want to be indoors. Workers, on the other hand are forced to spend 8 to 12 hours a day in a possibly unventilated workspace with co-workers who may or may not have been vaccinated. Somehow the rigged Supreme Court managed to ignore that evidence.
The problem we’re still facing is that workers need more than just a vaccine. All workers – not just health care workers — need a comprehensive COVID-19 standard – or better yet, overall infectious disease program that includes not just vaccines, but also improved ventilation, personal protective equipment, recordkeeping, outbreak reporting, paid sick leave and better protection against retaliation.
OSHA is now working on a permanent COVID-19 standard to protect health care workers and a comprehensive infectious disease standard.
And they will need your support.
Now I’m going to move from a disappointment to an atrocity.
Over half a century ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, guaranteeing a safe workplace to all American workers.
“All” American workers left out public employees – unless their state happened to have a state plan or a public employee only state plan.
Many of you know that earlier in my career, I spent 16 years running AFSCME’s health and safety program. When I started at AFSCME in 1982 there were 21 states that ran their own private (and public) sector state program. And two states — Connecticut and New Jersey — had public employee OSHA plans.
Today, almost 40 years later, there are still 21 states that have full state programs — a grand total of five states have public employee only plans — only New York, Illinois and Maine have been added to the list in the past 40 years.
Massachusetts is now close to adopting a public employee OSHA plan, but at this moment 24 states still do not cover public employees.
Over 8 million public employees in this country still do not have the right to a safe workplace and well over half a million in Pennsylvania.
What does this mean? It means that public employees legally die in conditions that would be illegal if they had been doing the exact same work as private sector employees.
One of those states that leave public employees out is Texas. Last Fall, Fort Worth, Texas, Transportation and Public Works Department employee Jorge Gomez-Guzman, was electrocuted while working on a streetlight. The city of Forth Worth assured us that “His death is under investigation.”
But who will be investigating the causes of his death? Not OSHA. Because Texas doesn’t cover public employees. What will the city’s “investigation” show?
Well, it’s unfortunately not hard to predict. My experience over the past 40 years indicates that when an employer investigates the death of one of its own employees, the cause is almost always “worker error” or a “freak accident.” Basically carelessness. “Terrible tragedy, but what are you going to do? People make mistakes. So sorry. Let’s move on.”
Will there be any investigation into root causes? Maybe
- equipment maintenance issues,
- lack of training,
- short staffing,
- inadequate procedures,
- short deadlines,
- budget cuts?
- And investigation into any OSHA standards that had been violated?
Probably not, because blaming any of those causes could raise uncomfortable questions that would piss off a lot of people. So, no real investigation, no citations, no penalties and no lessons learned.
Let’s move over to Alabama:
Last September, 55-year-old Bobby Green, an employee of the city of Huntsville, Alabama, was crushed to death when a 20 foot deep unprotected trench collapsed on top of him. The trench that killed Green was 4 times as deep as OSHA allows. So, did we see a huge OSHA penalty for this clearly preventable death?
In your dreams.
Because Green worked as a public employee in Alabama, there was no OSHA investigation, no OSHA citation and no OSHA penalty. The city of Huntsville promised to do an investigation itself.
But a local television station tried for months to get a copy of the investigation. Finally, Huntsville Director of Communications Kelly Schrimsher revealed that “…the city hired an outside consultant to investigate. In an email last week, Schrimisher said ‘the city did have safety equipment in place and there is nothing more to report.’ She didn’t elaborate on what specific safety equipment was in place, nor did she tell us who the outside consultant was, or what the city paid them. She also did not explain what the consultant found.”
Nothing more to report.
Turns out there’s nothing to see here, according to the city of Huntsville. Move along.
That’s life — and death — for 8 million public employees in this country, 51 years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
I know this is not the first time public employee OSHA legislation has been considered in Pennsylvania. Every previous time it has failed. Will it have a different fate this year? I see the bill has strong support from the Governor who has commissioned a study, which can’t hurt.
But what about the Republican legislature?
That will be up to you. It will be up to you to talk to reporters, to talk to legislators and to talk to voters.
I would wager that if you asked 100 people on the street, or 100 reporters or even most legislators, not more than a tiny fraction would know that public employee aren’t covered by OSHA.
Many don’t even know what kind of work public employees do. And they don’t know that in many job categories, public employees suffer higher rates of injuries, illnesses and deaths than their private sector counterparts.
And don’t forget that this is an election year.
So go to campaign forums and raise this issue. But don’t just ask them if they support S.B. 310 and H.B. 1976. That’s a boring question a yes or no answer.
Instead, ask them this:
- Senator, instead of coming to your office tomorrow, you have to work in a 20-foot-deep trench. Would you rather be protected by OSHA regulations in that trench or whatever your employer wants to do to protect you – and fits in with his budget and his deadlines?
- Would you rather work on top of a 30 foot roof with OSHA required fall protection or your employer’s warning to “be careful?”
- Would you rather go down into a confined space with OSHA required ventilation and rescue equipment, or just hope for the best?
- And when you object to unsafe conditions, would you rather be protected against retaliation, or looking for a new job the next day?
- Do you want to be forced to choose between your life or your job every day?
Because that’s what we force Pennsylvania public employees to do every day.
Fight Like Hell
Which brings me to my final point. In order to make progress in safety and health, we have to continue to educate people – not just workers about how to stay safe in the workplace, but voters, politicians and especially the media.
First, we need to take advantage of every teachable moment. Last year, we had 4,764 “teachable moments” nationally when workers lost their lives in the workplace (not counting the 50,000 to 100,000 workers who die each year of occupational diseases.) Over 150 deaths in Pennsylvania in 2019.
We need to take those moments to educate not just our members and our students, but also journalists. Our best hope is the media.
You should not tolerate headlines that claim that a workplace death resulted from a “freak accident” when the unprotected walls of a 12-foot trench cave in on top of a worker.
- We should not let journalists get way with calling the death of a worker a “mystery” when he suffocates in an unmonitored, unventilated manhole.
- We can no longer let journalists blame a severed limb or crushed head on “employee error” because someone accidentally turned on the machine while her head was inside making repairs.
- No longer can we let articles go unanswered that neglect to note that well recognized safe practices were ignored, that laws were broken.
- And no longer can we let writers discuss the history of the occupational safety and health act without discussing the role of workers and unions in whatever progress we’ve made over the past 40 years.
When we see one of these articles, we need to
- call reporters or e-mail them.
- Tell them about the OSHA standards that were probably violated,
- give them questions to ask the employers,
- encourage them to talk to family members and co-workers to find out if there were any previous warnings or close calls.
- Teach them how to look up the company’s history on OSHA’s website.
- Put them in touch with experts.
I want to thank the workers and unions in this room and Philaposh for having the courage to stand up and say NO to
- Employers who retaliate against workers who are exercising their right to a safe workplace
- Employers who expose workers to fall hazards and unsafe trenches
- Employers who expose workers to hazardous chemicals and deadly viruses
- Employers who put workers in any unsafe workplace
What you all need to remember is that for many workers in this country, your work tomorrow and the next day and the day after that is the only thing that will make a difference between whether these workers come home alive at the end of the day or come home in a box.
And finally, we won’t rest until every worker – EVERY worker – in this country actually has the right to a safe workplace as the Occupational Safety and Health Act promised over 50 years ago.
Thank you. Keep fighting.