Violent Assaults Against Workers Continue
While OSHA continues to sloooowly make progress on its standard to protect healthcare workers against workplace violence, the problem continues to grow. Workplace violence in healthcare institutions is a national problem. Fox News reports on one example affecting nurses at Seattle Children’s Hospital say they feel unsafe at work and are demanding protection. According to the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA), patients in the psychiatry and behavioral medicine unit of the hospital have choked workers, attacked them with equipment. Staffing shortages is one problem and shortages got much worse during the COVID pandemic, And the wave of violence causes more works to quit, making the problem worse. National Nurses United, on the other hand, blames the problem on “a failure by hospital industry executives to put nurses and the patients they care for above corporate profits.” Finally, declining resources means that psychiatric patients spend more time in overcrowded facilities. The hospital’s nurses are demanding more safety officers, additional nurses, a maximum ratio of eight patients to every one nurse and double pay for all overtime and mandatory shifts.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia (and undoubtedly in other cities), non-law enforcement public employees are facing growing threats of violence and actual violent attacks. Overall gun violence declined for a 2nd straight year in the city, but threats of gun violence & actual attacks on non-police public employees increased. Three non-law enforcement city employees were shot in FY2023, and two shot in FY 2024.
On October 26, Bernard Gribbin, a retired U.S. Army veteran and a city bus driver for 12 years, was killed after being shot multiple times in the torso and neck. In 2022, Tiffany Fletcher, a city pool maintenance employee, was killed during a gun battle outside a rec center. An employee of the Philadelphia Parking Authority was shot on the job in November 2022. Streets Department employee Ikeem Johnson was fatally shot while collecting trash. A week later, Timothy McKenzie , a Philadelphia Parking Authority officer was shot in the head, leaving him critically injured.
OSHA Penalties Rise
As we show over and over again, OSHA penalties are too low. Although they’re getting higher. OSHA penalties are legislated by Congress as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In 1990, Congress set OSHA penalties at around $7000 for a serious violation and $70,000 for a willful or repeat violation of the law and they stayed there until 2015 when Congress passed . In 2015, Congress passed the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act to adjust monetary penalties assessed by OSHA. The law increased the level of maximum OSHA penalties to where they would be if they had been adjusted for inflation starting in 1990, and also mandated annual increases in OSHA penalties adjusted for inflation.
On January 11, OSHA announced its 2024 penalty increase: OSHA’s maximum penalties for serious and other-than-serious violations will increase from $15,625 per violation to $16,131 per violation. The maximum penalty for willful or repeated violations will increase from $156,259 per violation to $161,323 per violation.
Still not enough. But getting better.
Construction Employer Gets Death Penalty
Not really. But his business did.
As just mentioned above, OSHA penalties are far too low to act as a deterrent for medium size or large businesses who cut corners on workplace safety. Although penalties are slowly getting higher, they are still only a cost of doing business for many companies. Criminal penalties would have a much greater impact, but the Occupational Safety and Health Act makes criminal prosecutions very difficult. So what else can OSHA do to have an impact on employers who endanger workers?
OSHA, working with the state of Massachusetts, has come up with a more effective sanction on companies who receive OSHA citations and refuse to pay the penalties.
The Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards has revoked William Trahant’s construction supervisor’s license for at least two years as the result of a complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Labor citing seven separate citations issued to his company since 2014 for violating federal fall safety regulations, as well as his continued failure to pay more than $300,000 in related penalties.
The department’s Regional Solicitor’s Office and Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Boston presented evidence against Trahant — owner of William Trahant Jr. Construction Inc. — before the board’s hearing officer and obtained a favorable decision on Nov. 17, 2023, which revoked his license. In the decision, the hearing officer ordered Trahant to return his license and cease any work on active building permits he holds until a successor license holder is substituted or Trahant regains his license.
And this isn’t just a job or two: OSHA has found that Trahant held hundreds of such permits in just five counties between 2020 and 2022.”
In other words, if you repeatedly endanger workers and refuse to pay the penalties when you’re caught, you don’t get the privilege of running a business.
It’s not quite hard time in the Big House. But the threat of not being able to run your business may be catch the attention of bad employers more than a small fine that they simply just refuse to pay.
NY Food Delivery Workers Are Getting Killed on the Job
Food delivery is deadly. New York City estimates the fatality rate for bicycle delivery workers was 36 deaths per 100,000 workers from Jan 2021 to June 2022, 5 times more the fatality rate for construction workers. They’re forming unions to push for better pay and protection. Most of New York’s 65,000 food delivery workers are immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala. Many have died in traffic incidents, but some have been murdered.
Organizers have developed a Facebook page, “El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana” (The Diary of Delivery Boys in the Big Apple) which provides “online support network, a space to alert of bicycle thefts, traffic accidents and discriminatory encounters reported by Spanish-speaking immigrants who brave the urban frenzy to satisfy a New Yorker’s takeout cravings.” The site, which has 52,000 followers, also “has helped ensure that each fallen compañero is given a remembrance — a practice that has become almost ritualistic, reminiscent of the farewells to police officers killed in the line of duty.”
Year Opens With Some Increases in the Minimum Wage
There’s already some good news in 2024.
Work is more than a paycheck. It can be dangerous, boring, challenging, engaging, satisfying, or fulfilling. A joy, a calling, a grind, a necessary evil. And unless it’s volunteer work, it comes with a paycheck that at least prevents the worker from falling into poverty
The good news is that the new year ushered in an increase in the minimum wages in 22 states, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The National Employment Law Project says 40 cities and counties will do the same. Washington state has the highest U.S. minimum wage at $16.28 per hour. And in California, workers cannot face retaliation for discussing their wages, asking how much co-workers earn, or encouraging them to seek a raise.
Currently, 30 states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour; five states have not adopted a state minimum wage: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. (see current minimum wages by state here).. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage lags way behind at $7.25 The Raise the Wages Act of 2023 would increase the federal minimum wage to $9.50 per hour and then increase annually by $1.50 an hour, reaching $17.00 an hour beginning 5 years after such effective date.
An adjustment to the federal minimum wage is LONG OVERDUE. See more here.
Agencies Join Forces to Protect Worker Health, Safety and Labor Rights
One thing we know for sure about our federal agencies that have mandates to protect workers’ health, safety, and rights is that they are woefully underfunded and understaffed. For example, the AFL-CIO estimates that it would take over 190 years for OSHA to inspect every company in the United States just once. The National Labor Relations Board, which protects the rights of private sector workers to take organize unions and take collective action to improve their wages and working conditions, is also understaffed and underfunded and faces increasing demand for its services.
With so few resources and inspectors, and so many workers and workplaces in need of assistance, deciding where help is most needed can be a daunting challenge for these agencies. That’s why it’s good news that OSHA and the NLRB have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to strengthen their cooperation and information sharing, including the possibility of coordinated investigations and inspections and a mutual desire to address certain anti-retaliation and whistleblowing issues.
Under this MOU, NLRB investigators will inform OSHA when they spot a likely health and safety problem in the course of their investigation, and OSHA would inform the NLRB when they find worker rights violations or unfair labor practices in the course of theirs. Neither agency would be empowered to enforce the other agency’s laws, but under the MOU, their staff would be trained to recognize violations of the other agency’s laws and how to report those potential violations.
The MOU will also help workers who have been subject to retaliation by their employer for engaging in actions to protect their health and safety at work. The Occupational Safety and Health Act has a very short time period — only 30 days – in which employees who have been retaliated against can file a whistleblower complaint. But the NLRB, which has similar protections for workers, has a 6-month time limit. If a worker has missed OSHA’s 30-day deadline, OSHA inspectors can alert them that they can still file with the NLRB.
MSHA Submits Silica Standard for Final White House Review
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has finally reached the last stage of its silica standard: White House review.
Silica dust, created by drilling through solid rock, has been shown to cause particularly severe cases of black lung disease called progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). The MSHA standard would follow OSHA’s silica standard, issued in 2016, that applied primarily to construction and foundry workers. The agency will attempt to issue a final standard before the end of April, the estimated deadline after which a Republican Congress and President can use the Congressional Review Act to repeal the standard.
According to a recent study, nearly 1,200 cases of progressive massive fibrosis, a severe and debilitating form of black lung disease that affects coal miners, have been identified at U.S. health clinics in recent years.
Published Jan. 4 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study adds to the growing science showing that PMF, an occupational illness once considered to have been nearly eradicated, is resurging among U.S. miners and especially young miners.
Study researchers identified 1,177 cases of PMF among patients at 11 Black Lung Clinics over six years. Located primarily in the Appalachian region of the U.S., the clinics provide screening, medical care and education to coal miners and their families.
Most of the miners with PMF said they had worked underground for all or part of their careers. The patients were overwhelmingly male and had an average age of 65, though 6% of them were under age 50. The majority worked in Kentucky, Virginia or West Virginia, home to much of the U.S. mining industry.
Upon screening, more than a third of the workers had small, rounded dense or hazy areas in their lungs known as r-type opacities, implicating silica dust exposure as a key risk factor, the researchers said. In June, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed new measures to strengthen silica dust protections for the 50,000 miners who work in the industry.
Although U.S. PMF rates reached historic lows in the 1990s, cases in some states have since resurged at rates not seen since the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today’s coal miners are more likely than workers from past decades to die from black lung disease, particularly those working in Central Appalachia, another study found last year.
Much more information on black lung and PMF here.
Elections Have Life or Death Consequences For Workers
Some say it doesn’t matter who we vote for; nothing good ever gets done. Well, the state of Maryland is proving those naysayers wrong.
In 2020, the Democrat controlled state legislature passed a law requiring Maryland OSHA to issue a heat standard for workers and Republican Governor Larry Hogan, Maryland OSHA proposed a disastrously weak heat proposal. But it was mostly a heat standard on paper: essentially leaving protections up to the employer without any real requirements for what employers had to do to protect workers. The two page proposal required no written program and didn’t trigger until the temperature reached 90 degrees.
With the election if Democrat Wes Moore to the Governorship last year, things changed. Moore appointed former federal Department of Labor official (and former Ted Kennedy staffer) Portia Wu to be Maryland’s Secretary of Labor. And with the urging of health and safety and labor activists in Maryland, the state OSHA has now issued a new proposal applicable to indoor and outdoor workers — this one with teeth similar to standard issued by California, Oregon and Washington.
Stakeholder hearings are being held to get public input. One has already passed, but there are three more: a virtual meeting on January 31, at Chesapeake College in Easton on Feb 15 and MOSH headquarters in Hunt Valley on February 26. The Hunt Valley hearing is hybrid: in person and on line.
Again, it is a good proposal. But it can always get better, for example providing workers with the right to shut down jobs. The powerful agriculture, construction and restaurant industries will put all their efforts into killing this life-saving standard, so provide your support at the stakeholder meetings and submit comments to email@example.com.
Journalists and UN Employees Killed in Record Numbers
I usually don’t focus on the deaths of workers outside the United States. Not because they’re not important, but because I just don’t have the time. And there are other publications, like Hazards, that cover the world. But I don’t want 2023 to slip totally from our memories without mentioning the high numbers of deaths among workers that are crucial to maintaining a well informed public, civil society and a reasonable world: Journalists and United Nations employees.
120 journalists and media workers, including 11 women, were killed in 2023, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IJF). The IJF reports that 68% of journalists and media workers killed worldwide have been killed in the Gaza conflict. 75 Palestinian, four Israeli, three Lebanese journalists were killed as a result of the war in Gaza, and three media workers were killed in Syria. 12 journalists have been killed in the Asia-Pacific region and ten were killed in North and South America.
IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger said:
It is a democratic right of citizens to be duly informed; it is governments’ responsibility to ensure journalists are protected to report independently. The deadly figures from this year illustrate how badly we need an international binding instrument forcing states to adopt key mechanisms to protect journalists’ safety and independence,” said
Meanwhile, as of November, over one-hundred United Nations Relief and Works Agency staff had been killed during the war raging in Gaza. By the end of 2023, the number had reached 136. UNRWA is mandated by the UN General Assembly to serve Palestine refugees. their deaths represented the highest number of aid workers killed in any conflict in UN history.
The UNRWA staff members “embodied the spirit of the United Nations, standing on the frontlines of conflict zones to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance and support,” said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking at its headquarters in Geneva.
“Their unwavering dedication to peace, justice, and the well-being of others serves as a guiding light and a reminder of the importance of our shared mission,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus told WHO personnel.
Recent Public Health Reports
As a long-time member of the public health community, I (Kathleen) try to read and follow public health publications and news. In my view, occupational health doesn’t get the priority it deserves. After all, working people are the backbone of our families, our communities, and our economy. [And as a former Acting Director of the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH), I can’t stop myself from commenting that I’d like to see the CDC – our nation’s premiere public health agency—give more prominence to NIOSH and defer much more often to NIOSH on matters of infectious disease control and prevention in the workplace.]
That said, I was pleased to see the January 2024 issue of the American Journal of Public Health include three articles related to occupational health.
- Characterizing the Burden of Occupational Chemical Exposures by Sociodemographic Groups in the United States, 2021
- Public Health Workforce: Retention, Enumeration, and Safety
- Standard Occupational Classification Codes: Gaps in Federal Data on the Public Health Workforce
And also a report in the November 17, 2023 issue of the weekly Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on multiple respiratory hazards in the cannabis cultivation and production industry.
Finally, I was deeply moved by a New York Times report and video on the plight of aging agricultural workers. These forgotten workers put food on our tables and in our shops. They work in deplorable conditions for low wages. And no benefits. These workers deserve better – so much better. Surely, the least we can do is provide for them in their old age. I will continue to follow this issue, and let you know if I see anything on the horizon.