As the AFL-CIO executive council has noted, “Protecting the safety and health of workers is among the union movement’s most important priorities. Safe jobs are critical to preserving and improving our quality of life. Our goals have been and must continue to be the greatest protection for all workers—organized and unorganized, here in the United States and around the globe.”
Thanks in large part to the labor-backed Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), tremendous progress has been made in reducing the toll of workplace injury, illness and death suffered by workers in this country. Still, there are a number of disturbing trends, if left unchecked, that could have serious repercussions for American workers.
Workplace deaths still average nearly 6,000 a year; workplace injuries hover around 6 million. Changes in the workforce, the workplace and the economy have put new groups of workers at risk and created new hazards. Most seriously, many business groups have been carrying out an unrelenting attack on worker safety and health protections in an attempt to limit the government’s regulatory and enforcement role and the right of workers and unions to have a say in workplace safety matters. These groups have pushed legislation to weaken the enforcement powers of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies like the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The staffs of these agencies are being systematically cut, making enforcement problematic. Pro-business groups keep on pushing to replace government standards with a system of voluntary self-enforcement. This is a recipe for disaster. As the AFL-CIO has noted, enforcement of the law is key to safe jobs.
Efforts also are underway to loosen record keeping requirements. Programs to train and educate workers about safety and health hazards and rights must be enhanced. Nearly four decades have passed since passage of the enactment of OSHA; millions of workers still lack full rights and protections. For example, more than 7 million state and local public employees are excluded from OSHA coverage. Protection for whistle-blowers must be enhanced.
Organized labor is working on the state and local levels to guarantee an adequate safety net of workers’ compensation insurance for injured workers. For the past several years, it has been a leading advocate for a strong ergonomics standard to deal with an epidemic of work-related musculoskeletal injuries, including repetitive motion injuries, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, back injuries and other related disorders.