After a tumultuous year – including the deepest and most enduring recession since the Great Depression – American workers, nevertheless, have some important gains to celebrate this Labor Day.

Approaching Labor Day a year ago, the 2008 Presidential campaign was moving through a sluggish summer, employment was steady and the stock market was still in cruise control.  Acknowledging some evident progress in the most recent construction fatality data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), LIFELINES ONLINE still struck a note of caution, citing the recent deaths on the Las Vegas Strip. Overall, our report indicated continuing ambivalence toward OSHA and concern about the stagnant safety culture of the United States.

What a difference a year makes! A couple of weeks after last year’s Labor Day, the banking industry collapsed, the stock market crashed, the economy shut down, layoffs ensued and the nation honed in on new leadership. In November, Barack Obama was elected President, and he named pro-labor Congresswoman Hilda Solis as his Secretary of Labor. 

Citing the desperate need to get Americans back to work, the President then pushed through the largest economic stimulus program in the nation’s history. As the program takes hold, construction contractors and Laborers will be prime beneficiaries. In May, Secretary Solis followed up by naming Jordan Barab as the Acting Assistant Secretary for OSHA.  In July, a former miner and safety director for the United Mine Workers, Joseph Main, was nominated as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Then, a little more than a month ago, the President and Secretary Solis announced the nomination of David Michaels, an epidemiologist with a long record of workplace safety advocacy, as Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. 

The new energy at the Department of Labor (DOL) – and at OSHA, in particular – is exhilarating. Both Barab and Michaels have progressive credentials, Barab as the founder of the Confined Space blog and Michaels as the recent author of Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your HealthBarab, setting an active agenda for the agency, has ordered a re-examination of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), a study that will look into the relationships among standards, enforcement, training and company safety culture. Michaels favors an OSHA campaign to change the way the nation thinks about workplace safety, something the LHSFNA has long encouraged.

Congress is also getting into the act. In his last legislative initiative, Senator Ted Kennedy (D – MA) introduced the Senate version (S. 1580) of the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) in August, a bill that matches last April’s House version (H.R. 2067). The Act would amend OSHA law by:

  1. Expanding coverage of current job safety laws to public employees and transportation workers not already covered in various states
  2. Providing protections for workers who speak up about unsafe conditions at work
  3. Allowing victims and family members access to documents and input into OSHA citation decisions
  4. Increasing civil penalties and adding a criminal penalty for willful violations that result in worker deaths

Because he was such a champion of workers’ safety and health – as well as health care in general – Kennedy’s death raises the question of which Senator might now rise to fill the large void he leaves behind. 

The LIUNA Action Network urges LIUNA members to contact their Senators and Representatives in support of PAWA.

Labor Day is a time to focus on the interests and progress of the Labor Movement. It has been a very difficult year for working people, but once the stimulus kicks in, employment should improve. In the meantime, Labor’s new influence at DOL, OSHA and in some corners of Congress offers promise of a better day for workplace safety and health.

[Steve Clark]