April 28 marks the 34th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the 16th commemoration of Workers Memorial Day. Though the concurrence is intentional, it has never been more ironic.

More than 5,500 Americans were killed on-the-job in 2003. More than 4.3 million were injured, and another 60,000 died due to occupational disease.

The death of workers on the job, of course, has always been a paramount concern of the American labor movement. Throughout the 50s and 60s, the movement fought hard to get American employers to take responsibility for the safety of their workplaces. Yet, most persisted in the traditional stance that work is simply dangerous and employees must be more careful.

That stance, of course, did little to improve safety conditions, so Labor had little choice but to press for government action. Throughout the 1960s, in conjunction with other civil rights struggles of the time, the movement advanced until, on December 29, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, signed the act mandating the creation of OSHA. By spring 1971, the agency was operational.

“As a hundred year-old union of mainly construction laborers, LIUNA has experienced the tragic loss of far too many members to the hazards of work sites,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “The construction industry, by its very nature, remains a dangerous one. No one understands better than we the value and necessity of government action for the protection of workers’ lives.”

Today, OSHA is a large, well-established agency with a dedicated and expert staff. “Unfortunately,” O’Sullivan says, “OSHA’s shift in tactics under the Bush Administration now undercuts its strategic mission. Increasingly, the agency is focused more on adopting voluntary compacts that commit to no action in particular than on taking direct action to improve workplace safety. We’ve come full circle. OSHA’s gone back to the ‘50s.”

Workers Memorial Day
April 28The AFL-CIO offers suggestions for organizing Workers Memorial Day activities and provides support information and materials through its website.

Among the suggested activities are candlelight vigils or memorial services to honor workers who have lost their lives on the job, rallies to highlight job safety concerns and outreach to Congress to stress the importance of these issues.

Posters, clip art, factsheets, stickers and a report on the status of workplace safety are available. Most can be downloaded directly from the website.

Hexavalent Chromium Standard

Recently, for instance, OSHA took testimony on its proposed standards for hexavalent chromium. Yet, the hearings took place only because a U.S. District Court, after a lawsuit by Public Citizen, ordered the agency to issue a standard by 2006. Hexavalent chromium is a cancer-causing metal that is released in respirable form during a variety of industrial processes, including the mixing of Portland cement with water to make concrete. In wet concrete, it is highly toxic, causing contact and allergic dermatitis.

As is common practice, OSHA proposed separate standards for general industry and construction, then went on to exclude Portland cement from the construction standard. Building Construction Trades Council (BCTC) representatives, including Derrick Deans of New Jersey LIUNA Local Union 500, offered compelling testimony about the toxicity of cement and its devastating impact on the health and careers of those who work with this most common construction material. They pointed out that gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) do not keep the cement off workers’ skin, saying that clean water and pH neutral soap should be available on all construction sites. Such sanitation facilities would greatly reduce the problem, but OSHA could completely eliminate the danger by following the lead of European Union regulators. In Europe, low-cost ferrous sulfate is added during the manufacture of Portland cement, and the chemical interaction transforms hexavalent chromium into a non-absorbent variety that is completely non-toxic.

Opponents testified that further regulation of construction is unnecessary because the general duty clause can be interpreted to require personal protective equipment for cement workers and, despite the BCTC testimony, such PPE provides adequate protection. A decision by OSHA is expected later this year.

Susan Harwood Grants

OSHA’s recent request that Congress cancel all funding for the Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant program offers another example.

“OSHA is now insisting that its goal of ensuring quality training for workers can be accomplished through the purely voluntary efforts of industry partners,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and New England Regional Manager Armand E. Sabitoni. “This logic flies in the face of historical facts.  If volunteerism worked, we would not have had to create OSHA in the first place.”

Three years ago, with a Susan Harwood grant from OSHA, the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA) brought together key partners– the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Trust Fund and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) – and, together, created the Roadway Safety Program. Today, that program is one of the most innovative, useful and popular training aids available to the industry.

Yet, “clearly, OSHA’s grant was essential to this whole collaboration,” says Sabitoni, who also is Labor Co-Chairman of the LHSFNA. “After the training program was created, OSHA suggested that the partnership be formalized as an OSHA Alliance, and we agreed. It is just good policy for agencies to foster collaborative industry efforts, especially when they further the purpose for which the agency was created.  Without the training grant, there would have been no Roadway Safety Program at all.” The Laborers have urged Congress to ignore OSHA’s proposal and restore funding for the grant program.

“No one appreciates voluntary cooperation more than the Laborers,” says O’Sullivan. “In fact, the LIUNA Tri-Funds set the standard in labor-management cooperation in the construction industry. Yet, we know if things are voluntary, some will choose not to participate. Unfortunately, when it comes to providing safe and healthy working conditions, far too many nonunion employers make a practice of cutting corners and avoiding costs. As a result, far too many workers are injured, have their health impaired or, tragically, are killed on the job.

“That’s why we fought for the establishment of OSHA,” O’Sullivan concludes, “and that’s why, on this Workers Memorial Day, as we ‘mourn the dead and fight for the living,’ we point out its backslide. We urge OSHA to refocus on its mission and pursue direct action to protect the lives and well-being of all working men and women.”