public employees

This week’s Weekly Toll included the deaths of two public employees. One in Missouri and one in Georgia. Both died in one of the 23 states where public employees are not covered by OSHA. They died in states where public employees do highly hazardous work, but have no legal right to a safe workplace; no right to come home alive to their families at the end of the day.

One was Harold Parker, age 56, a public works employee for the city of Normandy, Missouri who was crushed to death when a tree they were working on fell on top of him.  Shawn Kornacki, age 40, was a Georgia Department of Transportation worker who was killed during Thursday’s storms in Lafayette, Georgia.

I’ve written this same story — with different names and slightly different circumstances — many, many times before. And I’ll likely keep writing it as long as I’m writing — or as long as the law continues to treat public employees as some kind of sub-human species not deserving of the same rights that other workers in this country have.

Parker’s story is particularly heartbreaking. His children want to know why he died. They have lots of questions, but will likely get no good answers.

Normandy city officials are not saying much, except that all work is on hold indefinitely. FOX 2 checked with other area municipalities about their tree trimming policies and found most cities reported contracting with private companies for large tree removal or rotting and damaged trees that can be unpredictable. They cited “specialty training and supplies” as well as “insurance coverage.”

Normandy won’t answer about its decision to use public works to remove trees, which had recently been marked with red Xs.

The tree in question also fell on a park sign, which may be a clue that it did not fall in the direction workers wanted.

Investigation? Don’t Hold Your Breath

So will there be an investigation?  Will it look into the real causes of this tragedy?

“Normandy Mayor Mark Beckmann said the city will conduct an internal investigation once they get past the shock of what happened. He said they are also in the process of contacting Missouri OSHA as part of that review.”‘

Good, right?  Not so fast.

A couple of things. First, generally when cities (or companies) investigate the deaths of their own employees, you can be pretty sure the cause will be “worker error.”  The deceased made some kind of mistake: didn’t follow procedures, wasn’t paying attention, etc.

Or just one of those crazy, unpreventable things:

Mayor Beckman, who showed signs of shock throughout our conversation, called it a “tragic, fluke accident,” in which Parker somehow found himself under the falling tree. The public works director, who was one of the witnesses, said it appeared to be a fluke, in which nothing appeared to be going wrong until the tree was down.

Yeah, right, “a tragic fluke accident.” I mean who’s ever heard of loggers getting killed by falling trees? Things that happen frequently (and for which there are OSHA standards) are not “fluke” accidents.

Contacting OSHA? Good Luck With That

And they’re contacting Missouri OSHA?  Good luck with that.  First, there is no Missouri OSHA. There is federal OSHA, which enforces workplace safety laws in Missouri. But federal OSHA only enforces workplace safety laws in Missouri for private sector employees. When public employees like Harold Parker die, there is no independent investigation. No identification of what OSHA standards were violated or how the death could have been prevented. No citation. Likely no lessons learned.

They’re contacting Missouri OSHA?  Good luck with that.  First, there is no Missouri OSHA. And second, Federal OSHA doesn’t cover public employees

Contact Missouri OSHA?  Good luck with that. The response will be “Sorry, OSHA doesn’t cover public employees in Missouri.

Most people — apparently including the author of this article (and likely Harold Parker’s children) have no idea that Mr. Parker had no right to a safe workplace, and no one was obligated to investigate his death.

Parker’s daughter Christina “wanted desperately to add her memories but said she could not do it without crying” and sent a letter to the paper:

“My dad was everything to me, and it hurts so bad that this tragedy has taken away my father so soon. I’ve lived with my dad for 19 years, and within those years I’ve learned so much from him and about him. My dad was a hardworking man and tried his best when it came to providing for his household, my siblings, or anything my dad wanted to do he put his mind to and got it done. My dad was special, and he was truly loved by all his family and friends, may he rest in peace.”

What do you think the result would be if someone conducted a poll asking people if public employees should have a right to a safe workplace?

What Is To Be Done?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed in 1970, exempted public employees from OSHA coverage under two circumstances. States that have their own OSHA state plan are required to cover public employees. Federal OSHA covers at least half the funding for those programs, which must be “at least as effective as” the federal OSHA program.  There are 21 states that have their own OSHA programs.

And states without state OSHA plans were given the opportunity to cover the public employees, which the feds would continue to cover the private sector. The feds would also fund 50% of those programs.  To this date, only 6 states (Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Maine and — most recently — Massachusetts) have public employee-only state plans.  Public employee campaigns have been going on for decades in Pennsylvania. But otherwise, not much action to protect the lives of those who fix our roads, deal with our sewage, maintain our parks, care for our sick and mentally ill, teach our children, rescue us from storms, protect public safety, or guard dangerous convicts. Sure, we name highways after public employees killed on the job. But actually pass laws to keep them from dying. Please!

The Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) has been introduced by Democrats in Congress every session for the past decade or so. Among other things, PAWA would require coverage of all public employees. It generally hasn’t gotten any Republican support. And it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere on the Republican agenda, even though both Parker and Kornacki lived and worked in states with Republican governors and legislatures.  In fact, the only Republican OSHA bill I see in the current session is HR 69, introduced by Rep Andy Biggs (R-AZ) calling on Congress “To abolish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

Well at least then public employees won’t be treated any differently than private sector employees. So there’s that.

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