osha summit

On September 27-29, OSHA hosted a Workers Voice Summit, an event “where workers, organizations and worker advocates come together to foster global community, build new relationships, and discuss ideas for addressing workers’ concerns.”  Officials from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, Office of the Solicitor, Women’s Bureau, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, and Office of Public Engagement also joined.

Below are accounts of the summit provided by National COSH, Communications Workers of America and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

If you attended the Summit and have anything to add, please use the comment section below.

From National COSH

A shattered arm. A cover-up of safety violations. Workers dying, with minimal penalties for employers.

That’s the kind of testimony rank-and-file workers and safety advocates brought to Washington DC last week. The occasion was a first Workers’ Voice Summit convened by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), since OSHA’s “OSHA Listens” meeting and various Latino and immigrant worker conferences held during the Obama administration.

“We know they don’t treat us right, it’s not safe most of the time,” said Eh Phaung, a forklift operator at a mattress factory near Albany, New York. She attended the Summit with National COSH affiliate NENYCOSH, and said she and her co-workers face hazards from long hours and repetitive carrying and heavy lifting.

National COSH and allies in the movement for workplace justice worked together prior to the Summit and advocated strongly for an inclusive, accessible event to genuinely represent and uplift the voices of workers who face dangerous, life-threatening hazards every day on the job. Collaborating with our COSH Network of 26 local health and safety groups, we reached out to engage workers whose voices are overlooked: Low-wage workers, temp workers, immigrants and workers of color.

“His arm got caught there,” said Miles, who had to pause to collect herself. “No safety guidelines, no training, they just placed him on the conveyor belt. Nineteen years old, he has broken every bone in his arm.” — Rebecca Miles, a worker leader from the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights

Our efforts succeeded in bringing diverse voices to the table – and workers had plenty to say.

“My grandson works at the postal service in Jackson, sorting mail,” said Rebecca Miles, a worker leader from the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, a National COSH affiliate based in Greenville, Mississippi. “Last Wednesday, they didn’t have enough employees at work, so they put him on the conveyor belt,” said Miles, during an open mic session.

Rebecca Miles, MS Workers’ Center for Human Rights

“His arm got caught there,” said Miles, who had to pause to collect herself. “No safety guidelines, no training, they just placed him on the conveyor belt. Nineteen years old, he has broken every bone in his arm. I mean, when does this stop? When does this stop? I don’t want this to happen to anyone else’s grandson.”

A common theme was the disconnect between legal protections that exist on paper and the day-to-day reality experienced by workers.

“When a worker files a complaint, he gets let go or faces retaliation, and he ends up without a job,” Martinez says. “Where is the justice? Where is there workers’ rights? We want action, OSHA, not words.”

”Too many construction workers are dropped off at the workplace with no safety information,’ said Mayra Molina, a painter and worker leader from MassCOSH. “I work in construction and I see this all the time. We don’t want to see this conversation just on paper, but we need action.

“A lot of times we’re think we’re mocked because we’re strippers and sex workers and not taken seriously,” said AM Davies, a leader with the California-based Strippers United. “Dirty bathrooms, broken staircases and harassment from customers are some of the problems faced by her and her co-workers”, Davies said.

“One of our colleagues in Orange County reported several OSHA violations and none of them were taken care of,” she explained. Instead of fixing an unsanitary bathroom used by dancers, “the employer sent different pictures where the customers use the bathroom, and OSHA wrote it off as being fixed. They have to go back and file more OSHA complaints, and now there are even more things wrong at the club.” Strippers United has been working closely with SoCalCOSH during their campaign to win safer working conditions and union representation at Star Garden in Los Angeles.

In addition to specific horror stories, workers and advocates at the Summit also raised important policy issues, including the demand for immigration reform, protections for meat and poultry workers, better coverage for domestic workers, and the urgent need for protection from extreme heat.

Workers also came armed with solutions. “As a member of the MassCOSH worker center,” said Milagros Barreto, “I am here presenting the five priorities COSH and other worker center networks have identified to ensure OSHA is accessible, protects the most vulnerable workers so we can work together for jobs with dignity and our voices are heard,” she said.

Barreto presented OSHA officials with ideas for progress that were developed by COSH Network members and worker leaders in advance of the summit, including:

● Engagement of workers and advocates as collaborators with OSHA
● Protection for workers from being silenced due to immigration status
● Enabling workers to fully participate in workplace investigations and enforcement proceedings
● Protections for temporary workers
● Collaboration with state and federal agencies to maximize worker protections, on issues such as wage theft, safe working conditions during disaster clean-up and other issues.

Wrapping up the three-day session, Doug Parker, who heads OSHA as assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said the Summit is “a beginning… for all of us to work together better.”

The agency is in a rebuilding process after four years of neglect, Parker said. OSHA is now hiring more staff, conducting more inspections and carrying out more enforcement actions. The agency is focused, he said, on bringing cases against the most “egregious” employers with “the most willful and repeat violations that often result in the tragic death of a worker.”

Language justice is essential in creating effective safety strategies; to be fully protected, workers need access to information and training in a language they can understand.

As COSH Network members and worker justice advocates have argued for years, language justice is essential in creating effective safety strategies; to be fully protected, workers need access to information and training in a language they can understand. So we were glad to hear Parker announce that OSHA is finally carrying out an idea that safety activists have suggested for years: a pocket card, available in English, Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese, that says:

“Is your employer putting your safety at risk? We’re here to help you, regardless of your immigration status.”

The card will be used by OSHA inspectors, investigators, and others who interact with workers, and will be available soon in additional languages. Further efforts are needed, safety activists say, to make sure workers’ voices are heard – and understood – by employers and public officials.

Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker

“Workers have too little power, employers have too much,” said Oscar Londono, co-executive director of We Count, a National COSH affiliate based in South Florida. “We need more worker engagement, more worker voices at the table with the Department of Labor.”

“This was a good start,” said National COSH co-executive director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, who was part of the team of safety activists helping to plan and prepare for the first-ever Worker Voices Summit. “Now it’s up to all of us to keep pushing and keep demanding that OSHA listen and respond to workers. When workers have a voice, we can prevent injuries and illnesses and save lives.”

From the Communications Workers of America

Troy Putman, a communications tower installation crew foreman at A&M Communications and a member of the Tower Climbers Union/CWA; and Micki Siegel de Hernández, CWA’s Deputy Director for Occupational Safety and Health, participated in the three-day summit.

Putnam explained that “Tower workers also face issues stemming from long hours, but that time is often spent hundreds of feet above the ground. Obviously our industry is a very dangerous, complicated industry. I’m here to be a pioneer in this industry. I’m passionate about it. Safety is a huge aspect we hope to fix.”

“We need the agencies to hear from the workers who are actually doing the work and that’s a main reason we are here,” said Siegel de Hernandez. “You can be sure that CWA members and health and safety activists will continue to push for stronger worker protections and actions on the part of the agencies.”

From the National Domestic Workers Alliance

The summit was filled with powerful testimonies from workers across a diverse array of industries, including domestic workers from across the Alliance. Domestic worker leaders raised not only the many ways in which domestic workers are excluded from basic workplace protections, but also shared impactful models to strengthen protections for this workforce like the essential workers board in Harris County TX, state level domestic worker bills of rights like in NJ, and the domestic worker health and safety oversight board in CA. We were able to bring a unique perspective to issues of immigrant workers, workplace violence and sexual harassment, and non-traditional work arrangements.

One thought on “Workers tell OSHA: We want actions, not words”
  1. There is no doubt OSHA can be more effective. But they choose not to be innovative or provide new pilots to try different things, The number one reason is that these workers in this hearing didn’t seem to mention anything about fines, and yet OSHA is the one hung up on fines. They measure their value with fines, and since Clinton ( an exception focusing on management and results!), the liberal administrations have done nothing but try to increase fines. OSHA has not interest and no innovation to try to get to more workplaces, and talk and help more workers or employers. No, they spend their time on enforcement. And, sadly the poor inspectors in federal are pawns in a crappy game where they can’t help, and have to do the dirty work they’ve been sent to do.

    OSHA managers will sit and commiserate with us safety professional about lousy rules, laws that don’t apply, workers that are not managed, and won’t agree to be managed, workers that are not actually employed, but are independent cash piece workers. The construction industry is full of these folks, that OSHA and IRS and ICE, and DHS, and the SSA have done nothing about. Indeed, it appears if some of the agencies, ‘like’ it ? SSA has literally millions of SS# in circulation carried by young workers that were issued to people long past, that are today over 110 years old. Many receive benefits! and many have taxes paid into the SSA and IRS from employer withholding, and many of them likely vote, too. The problem isn’t that they are immigrants, or ID thieves, its that, they do not have to obey on a jobsite since they can leave and take up with a new job, or even with new ID. Worse, the low end workers that have no names, no i.D. working for subcontractors (that do have an ID and ‘company’ name, are impossible in many cases to control. OSHA says management is responsible, but admits that workers not under direct employment or contract three tiers below are problematic, but still will NOT cite, or punish the ‘company’ they work for. Why? they can’t collect, and these company’s crop up the next day as another company. Its a major problem. Not necessarily a safety problem, but a management of safety problem, and and OSHA enforcement problem.
    The single biggest problem with the enforcement side is they will spend 20 to 40 hours per inspection, to visit, talk, take information, document, (film/recordings), and then toil away at a file that’s 2 inches thick and suitable for a prosecuting attorney, to take all the way to the supreme court if necessary. And they are so excited about fines, that they wallow and even enjoy the idea they’ll get a big case with big money. OSHA even gives their employees bonuses and extra pay, and raises for getting the big money cases.
    Compare that to a dedicated safety professional that is more experienced usually and more exposed to day to day reality than most any OSHA inspector, most of whom have NO experience in the field and do not come from the industries they inspect. The find superficial scary things, that are easy, but they can’t recognize endemic, and systematic breakdowns on projects or employments. The are “hazard hunters” . Like speed traps, the NHTSA and NHA/DOT and knowledgeable safety professionals all agree – they don’t work. They collect money, many actually cause domino effect accidents, and as soon as they are gone the problem (if its a problem at all) comes back. Speed is the least likeliest factor to develop into an accident, and yet that’s what we do – we look for a snap shot and some money from the poor slob that’s been caught or tattled on. And OSHA spends enough time to inspect 25 jobs, on each file for each inspection!
    A safety inspector (consultants) works on a project inspection and report for maybe 2-3 hours, probably 1/10th or less of the time, and conveys 10 or 20 items for attention to an employer, and on site management in that time, If he has to dictate a formal report, he can add 30 to 60 minutes, but could do it in a handwrite or a verbal, or actually walk the job with the site manager and simply tell him and let him work on the problems and make his lists for attention.
    Take the electrical (city, county, state), water, plumbing, road, building, air/silt/sediment/EPA compliance, waterways(if a job or employment is near navigable or flowing water), and various other inspectors that visit jobsites nearly every day in many cases. They inspect dozens of jobs in a week. Why, they walk in, review, see their specialty, see if its good or needs work, and writes a carbon paper form, tears off the copy and tells them to fix it, and he’ll be back. If employers try to fudge it, they can be fined, but the first two or three inspections are direct, succinct, official, helpful, and provide the solution – OSHA doesn’t tell you the solutions, nor come back nor help you. It takes 1 to 6 months to get your inspection report, often the jobs are closed!
    British Columbia OSHA ( called the WCB) rarely fines, and rarely issues written citations, why? Because employers call the actual inspectors, who are actual engineers, ex construction workers and are specialized, mostly, and they go through the employers plans to manage safety, get buy in, and are available for problems thereafter. When invited back, (they can go freely, or are often invited,) they see the problems the managers ran into, and will help them with a change, compromise, or work around, Maybe one-off, or maybe for a time period before they can get a permanent fix. OSHA is scary, rarely invited, and often unknowing. And, essentially prohibited from helping or telling what must be done. ONLY what the law says, even if its not applicable, not written for that hazard or kind of work, or its nearly impossible to comply with . If you ask OSHA for a way to do something, or if you have an idea, you will be told to seek an exception, or an interpretation. Variances are NOT issued, its a worthless legal requirement because its not useful, and virtually never used. (i am waiting for two from 25 and 20 years ago….) (one is moot because we wrote a new law incorporating the exception my engineers and I used, into the new law, that I was cited for and fined before – decades ago,) Another is still up in the air – literally, since the NIOSH people agree, but the lawyers at OSHA don’t want to let it become a rule, because they are afraid it somehow weakens the rule they like (that doesn’t even apply to this work…. they just want to apply it if they want to, so a whole industry is flummoxed, and abused by OSHA while trying to do the RIGHT thing, (a case of pissing off workers who do NOT need to be tied off, but they have to work 2x as hard, back and leg and neck strains, and huge loss of productivity on hot exposed work surfaces, because OSHA can’t make up its mind. (to help employers AND workers).

    If I was the head of OSHA i’d take a LOT Of steps to alleviate a lot of the headaches, and go after the non-compliant, not interested, evasive and abusive employers, only the non-compliant aren’t the ones that don’t know or are not informed or not educated in this case. those employers need to see OSHA 5 to 10 times in their first several years in business, be given a pass, and an instruction manual and training and assistance to make their companies successful. OSHA can do a lot of that, and refer these folks to associations, and other community places to help them. But, its the repeat, well informed, and corner-cutting and underbidding jobs and using unskilled workers, lousy machinery, broken tools and equipment, unlicensed and uncertified drivers, and operators, and not paying benefits. (not really OSHA but they go hand in hand a lot of the times). But OSHA sees these guys only over 10 or 20 years commonly. Often only when they have a third or fourth fatality. (and that’s not 50 or 100,000 employees nationwide – that’s a ditch/plumbing contractor with three or four little crews with that kind of fatal rate I’m talking about).
    Enforcement is a useful tool. OSHA is so concentrated on fat fines, that the companies spend time trying to figure out how to stay low, and not seek help, and if OSHA shows up, pray its not a very experienced inspector, and put on your best face, and if the fine is monstrous, plan on going out of business. Shame, actually.
    Employers and workers are in a tough position, when the enforcement side isn’t very accessible, not very helpful, is not very resourceful, cannot instruct, or allow for suitable adjustments to solve problems, most of which are not easily figured out from poorly written laws, or unavailable interpretations, or modifications of rules.
    In fixed locations, life is a bit different. And, it seems that OSHA has some of the same problems health and environment people may have in some places. But filthy bathrooms, no water, basic needs, should be a standard in our country, and OSHA should be able to get in, see it, photograph it, and go back in a week and see the fix, or go back twice like a good plumbing inspector does. But, instead, they’ll phone it in, or try to extort huge money for a minor easy fix that would satisfy the workers, and the employer, and free up inspectors to get on to a dozen other things. Trust me if that bad employer is truly bad, there will be another issue, probably soon, and then some special agents can build the federal case file, so a prosecutor can focus on the bad actors. Limited inspectors, spread them out and get going on LOTS of opportunity.
    Lots of ways to skin a cat. With 750 or 850 (or more?) million dollars, you can cover a lot of ground, and cut the legal and lawyers and fines, (for early first, 2nd, 3rd, minor or non-endemic, circumstantial, offenses, and employers that are dedicated to run right), and non-decision makers down, and increase the inspectors and the speed at which they can see, fix, and cover millions more jobsites. Paper tiger, and working the wrong end of the safety management equation, looks good, maybe, sells well in Labor, Congress, and Voters, maybe, but we safety professionals, and the workers know different. Most of my friends that are the BEST inspectors know I am right, too. And some of them quit OSHA since its so stressful, to be ineffective, and hamstrung by so much bureaucracy.

    Barry Cole – I have been a safety professional for helping labor, OSHA, and employers for 40 years, legislatively, and in the trenches, and on safety standards, and OSHA standards boards, and committees. Teacher and field expertise. I help OSHA, have tried for years, but its uphill all the way. Labor and Safety professionals have come a LONG way, and that is refreshing, but implementation and consistency in the field, is a bigger job, where OSHA can really make an impact, but their model and practices are contrary to success.
    Politics, and legal juggling of safety rules, and facts/interpretations, has to stop. The lawyers and politicians don’t work in the field, and w the speed of employments and commerce OSHA has to be more nimble, and less worried about the overall impact of very small things, Getting the word out, and allowable safe practices, with specific guarding for the parts of the jobs that aren’t properly addressed in OSHA rules, and proper insight and effective and fast inspections and seeing many more times as many employments as they presently are. I think it can be done – it takes a gutsy decision maker and likely some gutsy leadership inside the sacred cows that are too involved, now – Solicitors, Politicians, and wage and hour and work rules, and project agreements that are all important parts of DOL, but NOT safety. Safety is universal. OSHA should not be measured by anything but public perception, effectiveness, acceptance, and wide reach, without regard to dollars collected.
    Its kind of the community policing model, policy, and working effort. The ME-THEM paradox that your enemy is not also going to be your helper/assistant. Right now, THEY are not getting it done. And, its not the workers at OSHA, its their environment, leadership, management, their model/structure, interlopers that don’t really belong, and bad administrations, and politics being allowed to effect pure safety decisions. Most will be angry they read this, that right there is the beginning of the problem. I once told the truth about Asst. Secretary Jeffers, that HE WOULD HAVE TOLD IF HE’D BEEN ASKED, (i asked him about it later, and he laughed with me) but the middle and lower management of OSHA didn’t like me being honest, and they blacklisted me from teaching at the OSHA Academy – even though i got highest marks from attendees. When a government management system protects its turf, even when its not working well, that’s not management or leadership. Its survival. Meanwhile, the job is to help employers get better conditions and methods, and workers to get a better voice and results, as well as improve the compliance and acceptance of safety as a culture among the employees – another area Labor leaders have accepted mostly in 30 years, but that OSHA won’t speak to, and employers are frustrated with it.
    There is fertile ground to make some changes, and spend some resources way better.

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