Congress Pushes OSHA Coverage for Public Workers

Asserting that public employees in the 26 states without OSHA-approved state plans are consistently exposed to hazardous conditions, federal lawmakers expressed hope that a recently proposed bill would expand OSHA protections to public workers in those states and put an end to “senseless deaths.”

In a hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections – chaired by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif. – advocates for the bill explained why they believe it would make sense for the 8.5 million state, county and municipal workers who live in non-state-plan states to have the same coverage as private-sector employees and federal workers.

“The tragedy is that Congress gave the states the opportunity to cover their public employees with the promise of matching funding, but today, 37 years after the passage of OSHA, 26 states sill do not have OSHA-approved state plans that would cover public employees,” Woolsey said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 6,000 public workers were fatally injured while at work from 1992 through 2001. The most recent BLS data available notes that in 2005, another 520 government workers died, of which 107 were state and 300 were local government workers.

The proposed bill – dubbed the “Protecting America's Workers Act – would provide OSHA coverage to federal, state and local public employees and some private-sector employees who currently do not have OSHA protections.

Widow Finds Tragedy “Senseless”

Casey Jones, who lost her husband in a January 2006 explosion at the Bethune Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in Daytona Beach, Fla., told Congress that her husband's death could have been prevented had the city of Daytona Beach done more to protect its employees.

Her husband, who worked in general maintenance, was instructed by the city of Daytona Beach to remove a roof from a building that was damaged by hurricanes in 2004. Her husband was not a roofer and had not received any previous safety training. He died from severe burns as the result of a fireball formed by gases coming out of the vent.

“I know he did not have to die,” Jones said tearfully. “ ... My heart breaks for those that have lost family and friends in similar situations, all so needlessly. All so senseless.”

A report released in December by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) blamed the incident on a lack of safety procedures, inadequate equipment and maintenance. CSB investigators said Jones' husband likely would have survived if safety equipment had been in place or had been working properly.

Fillman: Lack of OSHA Coverage Is a Death Sentence

When the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act was passed in 1970, it excluded state and local government workers. Thirty-five years later, 26 states have exercised their option to operate their own state OSHA programs. Of those, 22 state plans cover both private-sector employees and state and local government employees, while four state plans cover public employees only.

According to David Fillman, executive director of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13, lack of OSHA coverage can be a death sentence for many public workers.

“This situation is not fair, and it is not right,” Fillman said. “Having the right to a safe job should not depend on the state in which public employees work.”

On the other hand, David Sarvadi, an attorney with the law firm of Keller and Heckman LLP, disputed the effectiveness of expanding OSHA coverage to the other 26 states, claiming that it would just “add another layer of bureaucracy to an already burdened system.”

Sarvadi argued that although the OSH Act does not cover states as employers, employees are still protected, as a number of the 26 states without state plans still have mandatory compliance requirements enacted under state law, while others require compliance with OSHA standards.

Accidents still happen even in the most protected environments, Sarvadi said. He asserted that the issue is more of a problem of education rather than enforcement.

“Having coverage doesn't guarantee compliance and having compliance does not guarantee safety,” Sarvadi said.

Sarvadi: More Training – Not OSHA Coverage – Needed

Sarvadi suggested that a better approach would be to expand safety training and hazard awareness programs as well as funding for such training. Providing grants and other forms of funding to tie in with state compliance programs would be a good incentive for employers to provide adequate safety measures for their workers, Sarvadi said.

“It is the responsibility of everybody involved, for the [safety] managers as well as the employees, to take the steps necessary to protect themselves,” Sarvadi said. “... Having a few more carrots on the table might help make a difference.”

John Turnipseed, safety supervisor for the Municipal Water Department of San Bernardino, Calif., and a representative of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), rejected the notion that amending the OSH Act to include OSHA protections for public employees was unnecessary or that it would “cost too much.”

“As a safety professional, I reject that safety costs too much,” Turnipseed said. “ ... Not spending money to protect state and local government workers' health and safety sends a message that such workers are expendable, that it is cheaper to kill or injure employees than to protect them.”

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