Op Ed: To Honor Fallen Workers, Strengthen OSHA for Future Generations

Today, as people across the world celebrate the 19th annual Worker Memorial Day, we pay homage to those Americans who lost their lives, were injured in the workplace or suffered crippling diseases because of exposure at their jobs.

April 28 was chosen because it marks the date that OSHA was established. Since its creation in 1970, OSHA has been a driving force in improving workplace safety and health conditions across the country. However, the Bush administration has sought to stifle that progress by downsizing OSHA and favoring employer voluntary programs over real enforcement.

A weakened OSHA has real life-or-death consequences for American workers. One such worker is Cintas employee Eleazar Torres-Gomez – a father of four – who died March 6 in Tulsa, Okla., when he reportedly was dragged by a conveyor belt into an industrial dryer. He was trapped in temperatures up to 300 degrees for more than 20 minutes. The company already had been cited for similar safety problems in another plant.

Mr. Torres-Gomez’s fate is unfortunately too common. Statistics tell us that 16 workers die everyday in our country from work-related injuries. In 2005 alone, over 5,700 workers were killed at work, and millions more were injured.

These numbers may be staggering, but they are not surprising given that the Bush administration has abolished dozens of worker protection measures under development at OSHA, including ergonomics standards and rules on cancer-causing substances, reactive chemicals and infectious diseases. For 6 years, the administration also failed to issue a rule requiring employers to pay for personal protective equipment, begrudgingly agreeing to a November 2007 issuance date only after the AFL-CIO and others filed a lawsuit.

The Bush administration has further undermined workplace health and safety by weakening OSHA to the point of crisis. Since fiscal year 2001, the OSHA budget has been cut by $25.4 million and hundreds of personnel have been eliminated. In the United States, there is one OSHA inspector for every 63,670 workers compared to the International Labor Organization benchmark of one labor inspector for every 10,000 workers.

Furthermore, OSHA currently has only enough staff to inspect each workplace about once every 133 years.

As a member of the Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, I have called for OSHA to undertake a nationwide investigation of machinery safety hazards at Cintas’ laundries, the nation’s largest uniform service. Despite Cintas’ dreadful record on workplace safety, they, like too many other employers, often have avoided making real reforms by opting to pay small fines and engaging in a drawn-out appeals process. When companies fail to act responsibly, OSHA must use its authority to intervene on workers’ behalf.

This week, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., introduced the “Protecting America’s Workers Act.” It amends OSHA to cover more workers, increases penalties, strengthens protections, enhances public accountability and clarifies an employer’s duty to provide safety equipment.

On this Worker Memorial Day, the best way to honor Mr. Torres-Gomez and all those lost in the workplace is to quickly send this bill to the president’s desk.

U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., is a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor and worked for 13 years as a lining cutter at Seaford Clothing Factory in Rock Island, Ill. The views expressed in guest editorials do not necessarily represent those of OccupationalHazards.com. Guest editorials are edited for clarity, grammar, style and brevity.

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