Sustained Outrage

Protecting workers: Progress under Obama?

This image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon Wednesday April 21, 2010. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard)

Yesterday was Workers Memorial Day, a day set aside by worker safety and health advocates to remember men and women who are killed on the job across this country.

Worker deaths, injuries and illnesses are a major problem here in West Virginia and not just in the coal industry. As the AP reported, based on the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report:

The national report says 4,340 workers — an average of 12 per day– died of traumatic injuries on the job in 2009, down nearly 900 from the 5,214 deaths reported in 2008. Tens of thousands more died of occupational diseases.

The overall rate of fatal injuries was 3.3 per 100,000 workers, the report said, down from 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2008.

Montana had the highest death rate with 10.8 per 100,000, followed by Louisiana and North Dakota (both 7.2), Wyoming (6.8) and Nebraska (6.1).

West Virginia finished in the bottom 10 at 42nd, with a death rate of 5.4 per 100,000 workers.

And the Obama administration’s worker safety regulators and agencies are making a big deal about this day of commemoration, and tying it to the 40th anniversary of the creation of OSHA.

OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels said yesterday:

Today we mourn the workers who died in the last year because their employers failed to provide personal protective equipment, training or supervision, or because their employers failed to follow basic safety procedures such as lock-out/tag out.

So, today we dedicate our memorial to these workers and to all the workers over the years whose lives were cut short by preventable workplace hazards.

And Dr. Michaels’ boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, reminded us in her departmental blog:

On my first day as Labor Secretary, I said, “There is a new sheriff in town.” The comment made a few waves. I said it because I wanted employers to know that labor laws would be enforced under my watch. But any good sheriff knows that punishing the bad guys is the last resort. A good sheriff knows her first responsibility is to protect and serve.

That’s why under my watch, the Labor Department is focused on being proactive, not reactive. OSHA is about helping employers do right by their workers before tragedies happen.

But as I read the speeches, and studied the AFL-CIO report, something just jumping out at me … it was the list of terrible workplace disasters that our nation has suffered over the last two years. From the labor union report, for example:

But too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death, as demonstrated by the series of major workplace tragedies that occurred this past year: a horrific explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners—the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years; an explosion at the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown, Conn., that killed six workers and another at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State that killed seven workers; and the BP/Transocean Gulf Coast oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused a massive environmental and economic disaster.

But in the next breath, the AFL-CIO report proclaims:

The Obama administration has returned OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to their mission to protect workers’ safety and health.

Wait a second … that list of disasters? Those things didn’t happen when George W. Bush was president. They happened on President Obama’s watch. And they happened after Hilda Solis was confirmed as Labor Secretary.

But the labor group report does little to hold the White House or its agencies accountable for the death toll. Over on our Coal Tattoo blog, I wrote about the AFL-CIO not mentioning any of the problems that continue under Joe Main at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

And while I don’t doubt that Hilda Solis and David Michaels want to improve things, and I’m sure they mourn every worker who dies on their watch, if something like Worker Memorial Day is to be taken seriously, it has to involve actually looking at the record of these agencies and the folks who run them. Most labor groups don’t want to do this, at least not publicly. They figure a Democrat is better in the White House than a Republican, and most of all right now, they’re afraid of what a GOP House of Representatives is going to do to worker safety budgets and regulatory agendas.

But even as OSHA was marking Worker Memorial Day, one huge example of how slowly things are moving at this agency under President Obama jumped out at me, in this press release:

Since 1980, nearly 150 workers have been killed and more than 850 injured in combustible dust explosions. To explore methods for preventing such explosions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration invited outside experts to participate in a Combustible Dust Expert Forum May 13, 2011. OSHA will gather experts’ views on possible regulatory options for addressing combustible dust hazards.

Discussions will include identifying regulatory options that can minimize the costs to small- and medium-sized businesses of reducing or preventing combustible dust hazards, while protecting workers from these hazards. Representatives from various industries, academia, research groups, insurance-underwriter organizations, labor, and government will comprise expert representation.

A forum? Discussions? Stakeholder groups? The U.S. Chemical Safety Board first recommended a comprehensive standard to protect workers from the dangers of combustible dust back in November 2006 … how long will workers have to wait for OSHA to actually take action on this?

What about a new limit to protect workers from the dangers of respirable crystalline silica? A comprehensive rule to overhaul and reform the system for counting worker injuries and illnesses? Reforming OSHA’s whistleblower system? How about beefing up penalties employers pay for violating worker health and safety rules? How about writing new rules to prevent gas blow disasters like the one at Kleen Energy?

Remember earlier this year when President Obama made that big pitch in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about how he was going to move the country toward a 21st-Century Regulatory System? The president wrote:

… we are also making it our mission to root out regulations that conflict, that are not worth the cost, or that are just plain dumb.

Two of the regulations the administration immediately went after and dropped?

One would have helped to protect workers from Work-related musculoskeletal disorders — only the leading cause of workplace injury and illness in this country. Another would have protected workers from excessive noise that causes hearing loss.

In These Times observed:

Many labor observers say OSHA’s decision not to regulate MSD workplace injuries shows that the Obama administration is slowly shifting away from its focus on tougher regulation of workplace safety. The decision to delay implementation of rules to regulate MSD workplace injuries follows a January 19 decision by OSHA to withdraw a proposal to better protect workers from extreme noise on the job, which affects the hearing of many who work in the construction and manufacturing industries.

People in organized labor are upset about the proposed regulation being withdrawn. “All of these actions are coming because of the November elections and the fierce business opposition to anything,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of health and safety. “Just because the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups scream doesn’t mean there is a legitimate reason to retreat. There are real negative impacts here that can harm workers.”

The ability of corporate forces to stop the implementation of these rules may signal the ability of big business to block or water down other rules protecting workers. One has to wonder: Will the elimination of such regulations actually save any jobs, as the president seems to believe? Or will their elimination hurt workers’ lives?

Pallbearers leave the First Church of Christ Congregational with the casket of Raymond Dobratz after his funeral in Old Saybrook, Conn., on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010. Dobratz, 58, was one of five people killed in an explosion at Kleen Energy Systems in Middletown, Conn., on Sunday, Feb. 7. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)