Kennedy, Murray, Woolsey Relaunch the Protecting America's Workers Act

Despite an almost-certain veto by the Bush administration should the legislation make it to the White House, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Health and Safety Subcommittee, on April 26 reintroduced the Protecting America's Workers Act in the Senate, while U.S. Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Phil Hare, D-Ill., launched identical legislation in the House of Representatives.

“Since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, thousands of lives have been saved. But too many people still die at work and millions more become injured or sick,” said Woolsey, chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. “This administration has a dismal record on health and safety. OSHA has fallen down on its job and turned its back on workers. With this bill, we can make OSHA mean something again and can further the most important goal: to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for all workers.”

Saying the Bush administration “has weakened OSHA to the point that is almost obsolete - scrapping ergonomics standards and planned rules on cancer causing substances, reactive chemicals, and infectious diseases,” Hare, a member of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, added that “OSHA regulations are more than just words - they are often the only protection employees have from workplace hazards that can injure, sicken or kill them.”

Noting that April 28 is Worker Memorial Day, Hare added, “...there is no more appropriate time to reintroduce this bill to strengthen OSHA and increase penalties for employers who refuse to play by the rules.”

The “Protecting America's Workers Act” amends the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cover more workers, increase penalties, strengthen protections, enhance public accountability and clarify an employer’s duty to provide safety equipment. Specifically, it:

  • Covers more workers - Over 8.5 million American workers are not covered by OSHA’s protections. These include federal, state, and local public employees, and some private sector employees. The bill provides OSHA protections to these workers, which include flight attendants, state correctional officers and workers in government agencies.
  • Increases penalties for those who break the law - Under current law, an employer may be charged - at most - with a misdemeanor when a willful violation of OSHA leads to a worker’s death. The bill makes felony charges available for an employer’s repeated and willful violations of OSHA that result in a worker’s death or serious injury. The bill also updates OSHA civil penalties, which been unchanged since 1990, and sets a minimum penalty of $50,000 for a worker’s death caused by a willful violation.
  • Protects workers who blow the whistle on unsafe conditions in the workplace - OSHA whistleblower provisions have not been updated since their adoption in 1970. The bill updates those whistleblower protections by incorporating successful administrative procedures adopted in other laws, like the Surface Transportation Act.
  • Enhances the public’s right to know about safety violations - The bill improves public accountability and transparency by mandating the Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate all cases of death or serious incidents of injury; giving workers and their families the right to meet with DOL investigators; and requiring employers to inform workers of their OSHA rights.
  • Clarifies an employer’s duty to provide safety equipment - The bill clarifies that employers are required to provide the necessary safety equipment to their workers, such as personal protective equipment.

The legislators convened a press conference following their hearings, surrounding themselves with workers injured on the job and the family members of workers who suffered fatal workplace accidents. They included Michele Lewis, whose step-father, Mike, lost his life in a trench collapse in Florida. The company was cited for failing to follow OSHA safety standards that allegedly would have saved his life. Emanuel Torres-Gomez lost his father, Eleazar, when he was killed at a laundry processing plant in Oklahoma.

“On behalf of my family, I am here to lend support to this legislation hoping it becomes law,” said Torres-Gomez. “It is my family’s hope that this law will make workplaces across America safer and prevent tragedies like my father’s death from happing to others. No one should have to endure what my family has over the past 7 weeks.”

On March 6, Torres-Gomez' father was killed when he was dragged into an industrial dryer at a Cintas Corp. facility in Tulsa, Okla. Torres-Gomez was trapped for 20 minutes in the dryer, which could reach temperatures as high as 300 degrees. In 2005, OSHA fined Cintas for not putting guards on a conveyor at a laundry in New York. The equipment that was unguarded in that case was similar to the equipment involved in Torres-Gomez' death.

Said Torres-Gomez: “If the company had added the guards, which it knew was required by OSHA, my father would be alive today. ... My family and I came to the United States in 1987 in hopes of finding a better life. Our story is one not unlike many people who come to the United States looking for a better life that includes better working conditions, better pay – the American dream.

“That’s something my father didn’t get to fully enjoy due to an unsafe workplace,” Torres-Gomez said, adding, “My father’s death was preventable.”

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