Four days after undergoing surgery for a neck injury caused by years of lifting patients at a state hospital, Martha McNamara, a nurse, asked the Massachusetts legislature to pass a law that would protect other nurses from suffering similar occupational injuries.
Joining a diverse group of workers, workers compensation insurers, occupational health experts and union leaders, Mcnamara testified before the legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, urging them to pass legislation that would require the state to comply with national occupational safety standards. While private sector workers are covered under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, public employees are not. Currently, a state law provides some safety and health protections for municipal and authority employees, but state employees are excluded.
“For the past 20 years, I've witnessed many colleagues sustain career-ending injuries, most of which could have been prevented if state agencies complied with safety standards, as they do in the private sector,” said Mcnamara, a member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “No state employee should have to worry about a loss of life or serious injury while caring for the commonwealth’s most vulnerable patients.”
“In addition to pain and suffering, injuries are costly,” said Neal Freedman of Atlantic Charter Insurance Co., a workers’ compensation provider in Boston. State data discloses the commonwealth spends over $48 million in workers’ compensation medical and wage costs. According to Liberty Mutual’s Research Institute for Safety, employers save $4 to $6 for every dollar spent on a health and safety program, further proving Freedman’s claim.
A majority of states (26) provide safety protections to state employees. In New Hampshire, workers' compensation was reduced by 48 percent ($2.6 million) between 2001 and 2004, following a 1998 executive order instituting health and safety measures in the state.
“As an insurer of exclusively private sector businesses, we have seen the impact of our safety and health programming efforts to not only control [clients’] workers’ compensation costs, but also improve the health and safety of their work forces,” said Friedman. “Massachusetts will save millions of dollars – or even tens of millions of dollars – in workers’ compensation and related sick leave costs by adopting OSHA standards. I believe strongly the same OSHA protections that are afforded to private sector employees should be extended to state employees.”
Rick Rabin, an occupational health expert who recently retired from the state’s Department of Labor Standards, noted that it wasn’t only injuries that can cause harm to state employees. He testified that the state’s Lead Registry includes number of state police troopers and officials of the Department of Corrections who suffer from lead poisoning. “Had these state employees been covered by OSHA regulations, their exposure to lead [and] their risk of grave illnesses would have been greatly reduced,” said Rabin.
“What does New Hampshire, and 24 other states know that Massachusetts doesn’t?” asked Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director MassCOSH. “They know that, aside from doing the right thing by protecting their employees, when you reduce injuries, you save money.”
State employees do jobs that are just as or more dangerous than those in the private sector, noted Joe Dorant, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers & Scientists. “This legislation is an essential step toward instituting safety measures that will prevent needless workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths,” he said. “It is a tremendous opportunity to provide state workers the same protections that private employees enjoy.”