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LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“This bill attacks a number of long-standing problems and is an important step in the right direction,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, noting the introduction in April of the Protecting America’s Workers Act. “Similar legislation had no chance in the last Congress, but we hope to achieve significant bipartisan support this time around.”

The bill was introduced on April 26, following two days of hearings in the House and Senate to determine whether OSHA standards have kept up with workplace hazards. Representatives from both OSHA and its critics provided testimony. Though the hearings were not particularly contentious, the debate sharpened in the following days.

At one hearing, LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider described OSHA’s standard-setting process as “broken” and made several recommendations to fix it. In contrast, Representative Joe Wilson (R – SC), defending OSHA’s record, said, “To date, the Bush Administration has implemented 22 standards, with more than a year left in the term.”

The seeming incongruity was resolved through an investigation by public health student Christina Morgan that was posted on The Pump Handle (www.thepumphandle), a public health blog. Morgan’s examination of the Federal Register showed that OSHA and Wilson had inflated the agency’s record. Half of the claimed “implementations” involved merely correcting typos, updating footnotes, limiting employer obligations or giving states permission to run their own workplace safety programs. In only one case – airborne hexavalent chromium – was a new standard actually promulgated, and that was under court order.

“The fact is,” says Schneider, “OSHA’s standard-setting agenda, especially in construction, has just about come to a halt.” As an example, he cites the confined space standard. “Fourteen years ago, OSHA adopted a standard for general industry, and confined space fatalities dropped by about 50 percent. At the time, OSHA also promised to develop a standard for construction, but it still does not exist. Meanwhile, over these 14 years, more than 80 construction workers have died due to exposures in confined spaces.”

While the proposed legislation does not address standards-setting (except for PPE, see below), it is a critical first step to improve worker safety and health protections.

For instance, it extends OSHA coverage to 8.5 million state and local public employees. Most federal employees are already covered as are public employees in states with state OSHAs. However, public workers in certain states – including LIUNA members, are not now covered. The bill would correct this problem.

The bill would also make felony charges available for an employer’s repeated and willful violation of OSHA citations that result in a worker’s death or serious injury. In addition, the bill would offer more protection to whistleblowers and provide more accountability and transparency in OSHA’s death and serious incident investigations.

The one standard addressed by the legislation is the PPE (personal protective equipment) standard. It has been ten years since OSHA announced an intention to adopt a rule requiring employers to pay for PPE, but the agency has continually failed to meet self-imposed deadlines. The bill would force OSHA’s hand, requiring it to issue a PPE rule within six months.

“This bill is a necessary first step,” O’Sullivan concedes, “but getting OSHA back on track in standards-setting will require additional and sustained political action and lobbying. The voters opened the door last fall. With this bill, labor and its allies are stepping up the fight. As long as this administration is in power, it will be an uphill battle, but we are beginning to see the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.”

[Steve Clark]