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Key Health & Safety Issues Heading into the Election
By Scott Schneider
A few months from now, millions of Americans will vote for the next president of the United States. Many of them probably wouldn’t list worker health and safety high on their list of issues. But for LIUNA and its District Councils, Local Unions, members and signatory contractors, working for stronger safety and health legislation is an integral part of making sure Laborers go home safely.
Federal and state laws set the safety standard in construction and stronger regulations help level the playing field for LIUNA signatory contractors. When low-bidders are forced to compete on safety, LIUNA signatory contractors win jobs and LIUNA members go to work every day in a safe environment.
The Past Eight Years
Looking back on the past eight years shows plenty of success for worker safety and health. The biggest is undoubtedly OSHA’s new silica standard, which is projected to save hundreds of lives and prevent thousands of silica-related diseases each year. Improved standards regulating confined spaces and cranes and derricks will also help prevent workplace fatalities, and the new injury reporting rule should contribute to safer working conditions across the country.
Despite all of these accomplishments, the Obama administration will still end with several important initiatives in limbo.
- Injury and Illness Prevention Programs: A rule requiring illness and injury prevention programs (IIPPs) would likely have a significant impact on workplace health and safety. A combination of OSHA’s lack of resources and choosing to prioritize other standards has left this incomplete for the time being.
- Chemical Hazards: OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs) have been outdated for years. OSHA has admitted as much, posting an annotated list on their website and providing alternative limits. However, this problem may be too big for a small agency like OSHA to fix and could require Congress to get involved.
- Infectious Diseases: OSHA is making some progress on this issue, but too slowly to make health and safety professionals think anything will be done soon. In the meantime, some states and organizations, including the LIUNA Training and Education Fund, with assistance from the LHSFNA, are forging their own path forward.
- Combustible Dust: Similar to infectious diseases, this is an area where some progress is being made, but the pace is slow. OSHA has begun the rulemaking process, but no final standard is expected anytime soon.
Looking to the Future
Our country’s next leader will have an important hand in shaping worker health and safety. The emphasis our next president puts on workers’ rights will go a long way towards solving many key issues still facing workers.
- Workplace Violence: More attention is finally being paid to workplace violence. It can affect anyone, but is especially prevalent among healthcare workers and social assistance workers, some of whom are LIUNA members. States like New York and California are working to solve this problem, but federal regulations should be a top priority for the next administration.
- Workers’ Compensation: Articles like ProPublica’s “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp” explain how states are slowly eroding workers’ compensation, either by cutting benefits or trying to opt out entirely. This is a complex issue for LIUNA members and signatory contractors, but it’s one that’s worth getting right, as it has direct effects on workers’ physical, emotional and financial health.
- The Cadillac Tax and Healthcare: With the implementation of the Cadillac tax being pushed to 2020, the next administration will now decide whether or not to repeal the flawed provision that threatens the solvency of LIUNA’s health and welfare funds. Our next president will also have a hand in either improving or repealing the Affordable Care Act.
- Preventing Backovers and Runovers: Every year, Laborers are killed by backing vehicles on construction sites. OSHA’s agenda includes a proposal to prevent backovers by requiring rearview cameras, radar systems and/or spotters. Already in effect in Washington and Virginia, a standard at the national level would be a big step forward.
- Safety for Tunnel Workers: Currently, tunnel workers using compressed air have to apply for a variance to avoid using outdated OSHA decompression tables that would actually harm them. Phase IV of the Standards Improvement Project should correct this issue before the end of 2016.
- Harmful Exposure to Noise: For years, construction workers have worked under an inadequate noise standard. Combining a hearing conservation program for workers overexposed to noise with task-based exposure controls similar to Table 1 in the silica standard could help address this chronic issue. Until this problem is corrected, thousands of construction workers will continue to suffer from hearing loss as part of their job, and that’s just not right.
There have been major gains in protecting workers over the past eight years, but there is still a long way to go. New proposals that affect millions of workers across the country are often given priority by OSHA, but safety and health professionals know those rules also face the most opposition and take the longest to bring to the finish line.
What will the next eight years bring for worker safety and health? The answer will depend in large part on the election. When it’s time to vote this year, remember which candidate is looking out for you at work. Your health and safety may depend on it.
[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]