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Published: May, 2009; Vol 5, Num 12

 

SUMMARY:

THE PROTECTING AMERICA’S WORKERS ACT OF 2009

The Protecting America's Workers Act (PAWA) makes significant changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), which was passed in order to ensure that employees work in safe and healthy workplaces. PAWA strengthens the OSH Act, which has not been significantly altered since its original passage in 1970.

Specifically, PAWA expands the OSH Act’s coverage to include state and local public employees, federal government workers and millions of other workers who are inadequately covered by other laws. These include employees who work for airlines, railroads, as well as Department of Energy contractors, who fall through the cracks because their health and safety coverage is left to other government agencies that do not treat worker safety as a priority.

PAWA raises civil penalties on employers for violations of the OSH Act and indexes them to inflation. The Act establishes mandatory minimum penalties for violations involving worker fatalities. It authorizes felony criminal prosecutions against employers who commit willful violations that result in death or serious bodily injury and extends the reach of such penalties to responsible corporate officers.

PAWA improves upon current whistleblower protections and codifies regulations that give workers the right to refuse to do hazardous work. It clarifies that employees cannot be discriminated against for reporting injuries, illnesses or unsafe conditions, and brings the procedures for investigating and adjudicating discrimination complaints into line with other safety and health and whistleblower laws.

The bill requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the health and safety arm of the Department of Labor, to investigate all cases of death and serious injuries (i.e., incidents that result in the hospitalization of two or more employees); it provides workers and employee representatives the right to contest OSHA’s failure to issue citations, the characterization of citations that are issued and proposed penalties; and it gives injured workers and the families of workers injured or who have died in work-related incidents the right to meet with investigators, to receive copies of citations, and to have an opportunity to appear and make a statement before parties involved in any settlement negotiation.

In recent years, OSHA has reached settlement agreements with employers that, at the employer’s request, have changed the designation of willful citations to an “unclassified” citation – meaning that the employer avoids the potential consequences of having a “willful” OSHA violation on its record. PAWA prohibits OSHA from designating a citation as “unclassified.” In addition, any worker or his or her representative can object to the modification or withdrawal of a citation due to a settlement with the employer on the grounds that the proposed agreement fails to “effectuate the purposes” of the OSH Act, and be entitled to a hearing before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

PAWA clarifies that the time spent by an employee accompanying an OSHA inspector during an investigation is considered “time worked,” for which a worker must be compensated.

Since the passage of the OSH Act, much progress has been made. It has been reported that over 390,000 lives have been saved. Nonetheless, too many workers are still dying and millions of others are injured or become ill by working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. The Protecting America’s Workers Act strengthens and enhances the OSH Act so that it can fully meet its promise to ensure safe and healthy workplaces for America’s most valuable asset, its working men and women.