Dispatches

Violence Against Transit Workers

Transit workers and labor unions across America are sounding the alarm over the trend of violence, assaults, and abuse that workers in the transportation industry. In New York, at least one worker a week, on average, has reported being assaulted on the job, and dozens report experiencing verbal harassment. An Amalgamated Transit Union survey found that more than 75% of transit workers expressed fear of being assaulted on the job on a daily basis. “We didn’t sign up to die on these jobs,” said John Costa, ATU international president. Problems such as drug use, vandalism and assaults on transit lines have worsened through the pandemic.

More than 20 national labor unions wrote a letter in March to the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Authority, demanding federal action to protect transit workers on the job. They are asking for FTA tracking data on transit worker assaults; updating a national safety plan to include workers’ voices; denying all waiver applications from transit agencies to exempt themselves from safety obligations required by the new law; and establishing minimum level of assault protections.

Vioence Against Retail Workers

If you read the newspaper, or The Weekly Toll, you will have noticed that almost every week, at least one retail worker is killed on the job as a result of a shooting or some other kind of assault. Violence-related injuries don’t generally appear in the news.  And it’s getting worse.  From 2018 to 2020, assaults reported to the F.B.I. by law enforcement agencies overall rose 42 percent; they increased 63 percent in grocery stores and 75 percent in convenience stores.

The New York Times reports that workers and unions are starting to do something about it. The United Food and Commercial Workers has negotiated a contract that that ensures workers have the right to defend themselves if a customer attacks them. They are also trying to get stores to take shoplifting and employee safety more seriously

Heat Kills

A new report by Public Citizen concludes that environmental heat is likely responsible for 170,000 work-related injuries and 600-to-2,000 worker fatalities every year, and possibly many more. Heat ranks  third among all causes of worker injuries.  California and several other states have an OSHA heat standard, and federal OSHA is working on one, although it may take many more years until it’s issued. The Public Citizen report estimates that the heat-safety standard issued by California reduced injuries by 30%. Based on that, the authors estimate that at least 50,000 injuries and illnesses could be avoided nationwide if OSHA adopted a simple heat standard.

Massachusetts Set to Become the 6th OSHA Public Employee-Only State Plan

OSHA has issued a proposal to approve a new occupational safety and health program that would cover public employees in the state of Massachusetts.  The plan would cover approximately 6,500 public sector employers and nearly 434,000 public employees throughout the state. Public employees in 23 other states still have no right to a safe workplace, more than 50 years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct).

The OSHAct does not cover public employees. Only those in employees in the 21 state plan states (and Puerto Rico) are required to cover public employees. States also have the opportunity to develop a program that covers only public employee and the feds continue to cover the private sector.  Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Maine (as well as the Virgin Islands) currently have public employee programs. Massachusetts is thus set to become the 6th public employee-only state, and the 27th state to cover public employees. The public employee states, as well as the other state plans, are required to run programs that are at least as effect as the federal OSHA program. The 20 day comment period ends August 1.

Climate Change and California Fires Leading to PTSD and Suicide Among Firefighters

For firefighters battling California wildfires, emotional injuries are a serious and growing workplace hazard. Longer and more intense fire seasons have taken a visible toll on the state. Firefighters recall horrific sights of friends trapped by flames. The stress is leading to an alarming rise in post-traumatic stress disorder and  urges to take their own lives. One Cal Fire battalion chief in Riverside CountyJeff Burrow, said 80% of his station house crew got divorced in a single year. Sleep deprivation, and alcohol and drug abuse are on the rise, firefighters and therapists said.

Fifty-four California firefighters have died in the line of duty since 2006, according to the Cal Fire Benevolent Foundation, and nationally, more than 3,000 firefighters have died from job-related injuries and illnesses since 1990. 2020 was the state’s worst fire season on record, with more than 8,600 blazes taking 33 lives and burning 4% of the state. Once-feared megafires are now dwarfed by the state’s million-acre “gigafires.”   Staffing shortages create punishing shifts, forced overtime and long deployments.

House Calls for Higher OSHA Budget for FY 2023

The House Appropriations Committee has released a draft FY 2023 appropriations bill that calls for a  $712 million OSHA budget, $11 million more than requested by the White House. The Committee will  mark up the bill on June 30.  Aside from slight increases in state plan and Harwood grant funding, it is not yet clear where the increases appear. The appropriations bill also seeks around $403.8 million for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is about $15 million less than the Biden administration’s request of $423.5 million. The White House request was $40 million more than FY 22.

OSHA and MSHA Training Grants Available

OSHA has announced this year’s round of $11.7 million in Susan Harwood Training Grants to support the delivery of training and education to help workers and employers identify and prevent workplace safety and health hazards. Applications are due by 11:59 August 1. The grants are available to non-profit organizations, including community-based, faith-based, grassroots organizations, employer associations, labor unions, joint labor/management associations, Indian tribes, and public/state colleges and universities, and cover a variety of topics. OSHA posts grantees’ training materials, where they may be accessed and downloaded at no charge.

Meanwhile, MSHA has announced up to $1 million in grants through its Brookwood-Sago grant program to support education and training to help the mining community identify, avoid and prevent unsafe and unhealthy working conditions in and around the nation’s mines. The grants focus on a variety of hazards, including exposures to respirable dust and crystalline silica, powered haulage and mobile equipment safety, mine emergency preparedness and rescue, electrical safety, improving training for new and inexperienced miners, and managers and supervisors performing mining tasks and other topics, in addition to training on miners’ statutory rights, including the right to a safe and healthy working environment, to refuse an unsafe task, and to have a voice in the safety and health conditions at the mine. The closing date for applications is Aug. 23, 2022.

Texas is the Deadliest State for Latino Workers

For over a decade, Texas has been the deadliest state for Latino workers. The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the 2020 fatality rate for Hispanic/Latino workers is 4.5 per 100,000 workers, up from 4.2 in 2019. The rate for all other groups decreased during 2020, which Gonzales ties to the COVID-19 pandemic. [Note: BLS statistics do not count COVID-related deaths]. In 2020, 1,072 Latino workers died, 22.5% of that year’s total workplace deaths. The Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce is planning an awareness campaign and hope to see legislative action when the Texas Legislature returns for their next regular session. They are focusing on making sure workers know they can contact OSHA. Would that the US Chamber of Commerce was so concerned about worker safety, and less concerned about getting rid of protective OSHA standards.

Workplace Safety and Health is Finally a Fundamental Principle and Right at Work

The International Labour Conference (ILC) has finally recognized occupational health and safety as the fifth fundamental principle and right at work. This is the first extension of workers’ fundamental human rights in a quarter of a century. The  ILC  is the United Nations’ parliament for workplace issues.  The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation,  Sharan Burrow said: “The COVID-19 pandemic showed beyond doubt that action was needed to protect workers who are all too often forced to choose between their health and their livelihood. No one should die just to make a living. Workers and unions around the world have marked International Workers’ Memorial Day every 28 April mourning the dead and fighting for the living. Now we should celebrate this win and get down to making these rights effective.”

According to British health and safety activist Rory O’Neill, who was instrumental in gaining this accomplishment, it wouldn’t have happened without the actions and platform built by global labor unions and international workplace safety networks.  O’Neill says the next step is for unions to campaign to increase the number of countries ratifying and implementing all ILO health and safety conventions, giving workers the right to consultation over risk assessments, eradication of toxic chemicals and toxic work organization including long hours, as well as free protective equipment and training and the right to refuse dangerous work. Unions will also campaign to extend access to occupational health services beyond the 20% of workers worldwide who currently have it, as well as universal sick pay from day one, more powers for union workplace safety reps and more joint safety committees.

Workplace Violence in Healthcare Getting Worse

According to a National Nurses United union survey of more than 2,500 registered nurses, there have been significant increases in staffing issues, workplace violence, and moral distress compared to NNU’s previous survey results released on Sept. 27, 2021. Around 7 out of 10 recently surveyed nurses say staffing has gotten slightly or much worse recently, while nearly half of hospital nurses report an increase in workplace violence. An NNU nationwide survey of nearly 2,600 union and nonunion nurses conducted earlier this year found that sixty-nine percent of the nurses reported that staffing issues have worsened in recent months – a 20.2% increase from NNU’s most recent survey in September. 8% of hospital nurses reported a small or significant increase in workplace violence – up from 30.6% (a 57% increase) in September and 21.9% (a 119% increase) from March 2021.

Meanwhile, OSHA’s recent regulatory agenda reveals that the agency continues to slow-walk OSHA’s workplace violence standard for healthcare and social service workers, which has made minimal progress despite being on the regulatory agenda for over 5 years.

One thought on “Dispatches from the Front Lines of Workplace Safety and Health”
  1. In light of the audacity and hubris of an activist, radical supreme court (lower case intentionally) is it time to get the basic right to a safe and healthful workplace into state constitutions? Since it appears that we will be dwelling in a strange universe of “free” states where citizens’ rights are mostly honored and of “minority rule” states where citizens’ rights are systematically curtailed, should we be working more actively at the state level until we can mount a more politically robust movement at the national level? Any thoughts appreciated

    A frustrated and angry activist

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