"That any workplace injury, illness, or death is unacceptable is no longer a shared value in this country, and until it is we won''t make any progress." That pessimistic assessment of the current situation comes from the second annual Workplace Safety Summit keynote address delivered April 12 by Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO''s director of occupational safety and health.
The "stunning" silence on ergonomics by OSHA Administrator John Henshaw when he addressed the summit April 11 appeared to heighten Seminario''s pessimism - and deepen the divide between OSHA and the AFL-CIO.
"This is the biggest job safety and health problem in the country, and the administration has just unveiled a plan of action, but it wasn''t even important enough to bring to this summit addressing safety and health," maintained Seminario. "I found that stunning."
She contended that thanks to OSHA and a national consensus on the need for government action to protect workers'' safety and health, there has been real progress in certain sectors of the economy.
Seminario, who has been active in workplace safety for over 20 years, said that one of the most significant changes she has seen in that time is that opposition to government action on behalf of workers'' safety and health has grown.
The recent voluntary approach to ergonomic hazards announced by the Bush administration was only one of the examples she cited of this trend.
Because of what she called the growing deadlock surrounding workplace protections, Seminario argued a "two-tier society" has developed. "There are those who got their protections when we had agreement and a foundation for providing those protections," she said. "And there are the other workers who are being left behind."
She pointed out that a majority of workers are now in the service sector where they are exposed to such hazards as workplace violence, infectious disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and poor indoor air quality. "We have no protections in place for workers in this country from these hazards," she said.
Seminario also noted that most of those who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were workers. According to Seminario, two groups whose members fought heroically against the terrorists, firefighters and flight attendants, have no safety and health protection.
"Flight attendants are not covered by OSHA, " she said, "and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has refused to cover them."
More than 100 workplace safety policy makers and experts attended the two-day event, held, like the one last year, in Washington, DC. Event organizers said the theme of this year''s summit, "Exploring New Paradigms and Partnerships," reflected the desire of the workplace safety community to work more cooperatively.
Last year, Seminario said she was skeptical about the value of holding a summit given the deep divisions in the safety and health community. In her remarks this year, Seminario praised some of the results of last year''s summit, including the foundation of Georgetown University''s Center for Business and Public Policy, which hosted the event this year.
But it appears that because of her desire to address concrete problems immediately with real solutions, Seminario is not fully satisfied with the summit''s results so far.
"We''ve got to find a way not just to come together to talk about activities like education and partnerships," she said. "Those are important, but we have to figure out how to talk about the specific hazards that are affecting workers'' safety and health, and then come up with a strategy to control particular problems."
Seminario called on those in the business community and trade associations who are dedicated to workers'' safety and health, to come forward and voice their concerns.
"Do not cede that voice," Seminario said, "to the Chamber of Commerce, the NAM (the National Association of Manufacturers) and others who will oppose any real effort to address these major problems that involve legal protections."
Event organizers said that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and NAM were invited to this year''s summit. No representatives from either organization attended.
Following Seminario''s speech, OSHA contacted Occupational Hazards with the following statement from John Henshaw: "My remarks at the Georgetown Summit were part of a national dialogue on leadership in safety and health. The summit was not a forum on OSHA activities or on any single issue the agency is addressing. To suggest it should have been so narrowly focused completely misses the mark."
by James Nash