public employee

Like the moral universe, the arc of workplace safety and health protections is long, but bends slowly toward justice.  Today, OSHA announced today that more than more than 430,000 state, county and municipal employees in Massachusetts will finally gain the legal right to a safe workplace.  For the last 50 years, while private sector employees have enjoyed OSHA coverage, public employees were exempted except in the 26 states that have state plans or public employee-only state plans.

When the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) was passed in 1970, public employees were exempted from coverage, with two exceptions. State plan states that covered their private sector employees are also required to cover their public sector employees. 21 states run their own state plans.

States covered by federal OSHA were also given the opportunity to cover only their public employees and OSHA would fund up to 50% of those programs. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, only 5 states — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Maine have chosen to adopt public employee only plans.

Massachusetts now joins Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Illinois and Maine with public employee only plans. Federal OSHA will remain in charge of the private sector in those states.  Federal OSHA will fund half of the state public employee program.

States where public employees can still legally go to their deaths from workplace safety violations that would be illegal if they were private sector employees are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island,  South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

States where public employees can still legally go to their deaths from workplace safety violations that would be illegal if they were private sector employees are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island,  South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

“Massachusetts’ new state plan is a milestone for its public employees and the state’s development of its occupational safety and health program,” said Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker. “We commend them for their ongoing commitment to the well-being of government workers who provide vital services to make the state of Massachusetts livable and enjoyable.”

Public employees work jobs as dangerous or more dangerous than private sector workers. Law enforcement, highways, sanitation, health care, wastewater treatment are occupations rife with life-threatening hazards.  state government health care and social service workers were almost 9 times more likely to be injured by an assault than private sector health care workers.  Close readers of the Weekly Toll will note that public employees are killed on the job almost every week.  In addition to several police officers, the last Weekly Toll also listed the deaths of Ali Shabazz, 48, a CalTrans worker was struck and killed on the highway, 63-year-old Charles Ricky Graham, a Spartanburg County, South Carolina employee died following a crash, Tonya Brand, an Altus, Oklahoma employee was killed when operating a piece of heavy equipment at the city landfill, and utility worker Julio Angel Flores Figueroa who was hit by a car while marking utilities.

Nothing to Report

Public employees who go down into trenches, work on the roads and highways, in prisons, in parks, in utilities, in wastewater treatment plants, in public works, in hospitals and mental health institutions, as social workers, firefighters or police are out of luck if they work in one of the states with no OSHA coverage. Not only do public employees die from hazards that would be illegal if they were private sector employees, but no OSHA coverage also generally means no investigations, no sanctions and no lessons learned.  Last Fall, for example,  55 year old Huntsville, Alabama employee Bobby Green was crushed to death when a 20 foot deep unprotected trench collapsed on top of him in Huntsville, Alabama. Two other workers in the trench were rescued with minor injuries. The trench that killed Green was 4 times as deep as OSHA allows.

Public employees who go down into trenches, work on the roads and highways, in prisons, in parks, in utilities, in wastewater treatment plants, in public works, in hospitals and mental health institutions, as social workers, firefighters or police are out of luck if they work in one of the states with no OSHA coverage.

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 apparently did an investigation (or their insurance company did). What was the conclusion of the investigation?  Huntsville Director of Communications Kelly Schrimsher revealed that “…the city hired an outside consultant to investigate. In an email, Schrimisher said ‘the city did have safety equipment in place and there is nothing more to report.’”

End of story.

What is to be done?

Over 7 million employees in 23 states still lack the right to come home alive at the end of the workday. A campaign is currently underway in Pennsylvania to convince the (Republican) state legislature to pass legislation covering public employees. The Protecting America’s Workers Act, which is introduced into Congress every year, would also provide coverage for all of the nation’s public employees.

Meanwhile, most people in the 23 states where public employee lack OSHA coverage do not realize that the people that fix their roads, make their water safe, protect their safety, care for the ill and guard prisoners are treated as second class citizens. And I’d bet most would be outraged if they knew. Most reporters and politicians don’t know either. If we are to make progress in the 23 remaining states, reporters and political leaders need to be educated — and activated.

Organizations like the League of Cities, Conference of Mayors and National Association of Counties have traditionally opposed public employee OSHA coverage. Why? Because they are allegedly already adequately protecting their public employees, and OSHA coverage would cost too much. How something they’re allegedly already doing would cost too much I’ve never understood.

In any case, more than 50 years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, it’s unacceptable.

Congratulations to the workers, unions and activists of Massachusetts who finally forced their state legislature to protect the lives of those workers who make life safe and livable to Massachusetts residents.

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