OSH Act Critics Chime in for Workers' Memorial Day

To honor fallen workers on this Workers’ Memorial Day, Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of safety and health, urges the public to stop and think about the fact that an average of 16 individuals die each day in the workplace and more than 11,000 workers were injured or made ill each day in 2006.

“People should stop and think about why is it that we, as a country, don't value the lives of workers more than we should,” she said to OccupationalHazards.com in an interview. “Why is it that in 2008, we still have workers being killed because of trenches that are too short, machinery that is not properly guarded, lack of fall protection, things that could easily be prevented?”

Seminario referenced the AFL-CIO's latest Death on the Job report, which highlighted some of the latest figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 17. According to BLS, there were 5,840 workplace deaths due to traumatic injuries in 2006, an increase of 106 over the 5,734 deaths reported in 2005.

“The most troubling thing we [AFL-CIO] found, was seeing the numbers of job fatalities going up,” Seminario said. She also noted many of the fatalities involved falls, exposures to hazardous environments, fires and explosions – common workplace hazards that could easily be avoided, she said.

For the first time this year, the organization looked at how companies involved in fatality cases were penalized. The fact that the average national total penalty in fatality investigations was $10,133, is according to Seminario, “really troubling and outrageous.”

Seminario: OSH Act at Fault

Seminario claimed the fault lies in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which hasn't been updated since its inception in 1970. She said criminal penalty provisions need to be improved and penalties for significant violations of the law also remain low.

“When you look at OSH law and line it up with other federal safety laws and environmental laws, it's the weakest,” Seminario stated. “What I think needs to happen is that the structure of law needs to be changed so that there are serious consequences that doesn't flow just to corporation, but also to the individual who is responsible [for a worker's death].

Seminario said she believes that bill proposed by Senators Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., Protecting America's Protecting America's Workers Act, is a good start. The bill amends the OSH Act to cover more workers, increase penalties, strengthen protections, enhance public accountability and clarify an employer’s duty to provide safety equipment. However, while Seminario said the Act would address “core fundamental problems,” she said she doesn't believe it goes as far as the mine safety and environmental laws, which has harsher criminal penalty provisions.

Legislators Issue Statements

Seminario wasn't the only one critical of the Act. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the Democratic Congress will do everything it can to push for a “new direction in order to improve health and safety in U.S. workplaces.”

“Throughout its two terms, the Bush administration has done everything in its power to roll back basic workplace protections that workers have fought for decades to achieve,” he said. “We are working hard to reverse this course.”

Rep. Phil Hare D-Ill., in a statement, said that OSHA's role in improving occupational safety has been “weakened to the point where it is almost obsolete” after it was, for many decades, a driving force improving workplace safety and health conditions across the country.

“On this Workers’ Memorial Day, let’s demand that OSHA returns to its original mission of guaranteeing a safe workplace for every American,” Hare said.

On the week of Workers' Memorial Day, the House is expected to vote on the combustible dust bill, which was introduced after a fatal explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., killed 13 workers earlier this year.

Seminario will testify April 29 before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which will hold a hearing to investigate OSHA enforcement in cases of worker fatalities.

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