Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Workers Memorial Day 2004

Here's To OSHA: Protecting Employers From The Hazards Of Standards and Enforcement

I have been "celebrating" Workers Memorial Day since the very first event in 1989, the first year of the Bush I administration. Usually they're sad occasions. Workers dying from perfectly preventable causes, children left to grow up without parents, parents having to bury their children. Sad stuff.

This year, however, it looks like there's actually something to celebrate. After just over thirty years of OSHA's existence, humankind has apparently advanced to the point where we don't need workplace health and safety regulations any more. We have apparently been cured of the desire to save a few bucks by cutting corners, speeding up the job and skipping those pesky trench boxes and guard rails. We've advanced to the point where we only need voluntary programs, educational materials, and compliance assistance. All those mandatory standards, inspections, citations, fines and penalties are so 20th century. We've evolved. We've arrived.

But this is just the beginning. I hear that next year we're getting rid of speed limits, drivers licenses and traffic cops. Everyone will be issued fact sheets about how safe driving saves lives and money. Fire and building codes? Who needs 'em? Safe buildings save money. Just give landlords and builders the facts. They're mature adults. They don't want to kill anyone. Environmental regulations? Just tell coal plants and oil refineries how to run their businesses more cleanly. And if information and compliance assistance doesn't work, we can always form some more Alliances.

Yes, we're on the dawn of a brave new world.

The original purpose of Workers Memorial Day was to bring national recognition to the price -- in preventable illness, injury and death-- that too many workers still pay just for going to work every day. The idea has clearly caught on. Although Workers Memorial Day was created by the labor movement, even OSHA has honored the day for the past decade. Of course, I remember the time when OSHA would actually do substantive things on Workers Memorial Day. In 1998, for example, OSHA issued its Workplace Violence Guidelines for Retail Workers. Even this Republican Administration has traditionally attempted to include some substance in its Worker Memorial Day Press Releases over the past two years. But not anymore. Read OSHA Director John Henshaw's Press Release. Better yet, don't waste your time. I'll give you the shorter version:
Mourn their loss, cherish their memories. Pay tribute, reduce hazards, play nicely with stakeholders, and work harder.

So how do we honor workers in 2004? Let me count the ways.

OSHA has decided not to issue aTB standard, not to collect real data on musculoskeletal injuries, and that low income and immigrant workers can damn well pay for their own personal protective equipment. We don't need to add reactive chemicals to the Process Safety Management standard. And workers have had enough of that boring classroom training. Let them play computer games instead. Nursing home workers’ problems have been solved so we don’t need no stinkin’ nursing home initiative.

Meanwhile, the state of Washington has honored disabled workers by deciding that they don’t need no stinkin’ ergonomics standard, and Colin Powell’s State Department has decided that toxic chemical have more rights that terrorism suspects and should continue to be considered innocent until the proven, smoking gun deaths of workers proves them to be guilty.

I could (and often do) go on and on. But for more of the Complete Bush Record on safety and health check out the AFL-CIO's Bushwatch.

There is no doubt that at this time in American history, the greatest tribute we can pay to those who have lost their lives and those who have been injured or made ill in the workplace is to elect John Kerry for President. With an administration that values tax cuts for the rich and a costly crusade in Iraq over any kind of human needs at home, we'll be lucky if OSHA's budget only takes small hits over the next few years. And unless it's stopped, OSHA's preference for "voluntary" activities over enforcement and standards will soon begin to take a bigger chunk out of enforcement and standards.

OSHA still has some excellent staff in Washington D.C. and in the field who are dedicated to aggressively protecting workers regardless of the anti-worker ideology coming from the White House. But how long will they stick around facing another four years of forming alliances and being nice when some employers would clearly respond better to a kick in the butt than a pat on the ass?

So lets rededicate ourselves to the fight. Read back over The Weekly Tolls for the past year and think about the lives lost -- almost ten times as many as we've lost in Iraq so far, almost twice as many as we lost on 9/11.

And while we're remembering the dead and their loved ones, let's also take a moment to think of ways to provide support for those who are continuing to fight for the living: the families of the men and women who have died in the workplace and have vowed to fight so that their loved ones will not have died in vain; the union and COSH group activists focusing on the fight for safe workplaces when there are so many other problems and priorities to deal with; OSHA, MSHA and NIOSH career staff who have dedicated their lives to assuring that American workers have safe workplaces despite the political winds that try to blow them off course. And finally, let's also not forget those health and safety directors and staff at companies around the country who are trying to convince their bosses and the bean counters to invest in safety even though there may not be any OSHA requirement and the chance of being inspected is smaller and smaller all the time.

And finally, let's all work for better times by next Workers Memorial Day.