Monday, May 30, 2005

Who Loses If OSHA's Worker Training Grants Are Eliminated?

Journalist (and former labor organizer) Brendan Coyne seems to have found a new passion: workplace safety and health issues. Following up on his excellent articles on the elimination of the AFL-CIO's Safety and Health Department and a story on the fatal BP Amoco Texas City explosion that killed 15 workers, Coyne's current work focuses on the fate of OSHA's worker training program and how it will effect workplace safety.

As I've written before, after four years of attempting to slash OSHA's Susan Harwood worker training grant program, the Bush Administration has proposed complete elimination of the program next year. The Senate -- largely due to the efforts of Senator Arlen Specter -- has saved the program every year, although it's too early to tell what will happen this year.

The grant program provides around $11 million to unions, COSH Groups, business associations and other non-profits. It's a ridiculously small amount of money, but did they do any good? Definitely, according to Western NY COSH Director Roger Cook:
From 1997 through 2000, WNY COSH ran a joint labor-management ergonomics safety training program funded entirely with a Susan Harwood Grant at grocery warehouses in Western New York. The results were dramatic, as evidenced by a 35-page report -- complete with letters from employers thanking the group and touting the results of the program -- provided to TNS.

One warehouse, the Tops Distribution Center in Buffalo, NY, experienced a 30 to 50 percent drop in work-related injuries during the years it participated in the program. The grocery chain’s freezer facility reported a remarkable drop in injuries during the same time, from 1 in 5 when the program started to 1 in 50 two years later. Tops’ parent company, Ahold USA, liked the results so much that it initiated similar programs at Giant and Stop & Shop stores in Maryland and elsewhere, according to documentation provided with the report.

Other companies enrolled in similar COSH-run programs reported parallel results. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York saw its worker’s compensation costs drop by $150,000 within three years of beginning an ergonomics program, and Try-It Distributing, a Western New York beverage distributor, reported a 44 percent reduction in injuries within just one year of implementing a similar educational regimen.
Hardest hit by elimination of the grants would be COSH groups -- and the populations they serve:
"If the COSH groups do lose this funding," said William Johnson, co-editor of Labor Notes, "it will mostly be noticed at the local level, where they operate., But the impact could be quite substantial. These groups fill in the gaps where unions either can’t or don’t want to operate. They’re on the shop floor and out in the community, reaching out to immigrants and others who desperately need the training." Labor Notes is a monthly magazine that focuses on the union movement and is operated by a nonprofit organization of the same name.

On average, an individual COSH receives $20,000-$30,000 a year from the Harwood grants, [New York COSH Associate Director Susan] O’Brien said, making the grant funding a substantial portion of most groups’ budgets, which vary from less than $50,000 to over $1 million a year.
And what does OSHA propose to replace the training program that currently provides direct training to thousands of workers every year?
Funding levels are only one aspect of a larger problem, according to Tom O’Connor, national coordinator for COSH. A bigger obstacle for COSH groups and labor safety educators comes from the technology-oriented approach OSHA has increasingly embraced in the last several years, he said.

The shift in priorities has been noticed by health and safety advocates ever since Bush took office, but it began in earnest with the 2005 budget request, they say. For that year, Bush proposed revising the Susan Harwood training grants program to "focus on new technologies and emphasize development of training materials rather than delivery of training."

O’Connor said, "The top people at OSHA in this administration are greatly enamored with high-tech training, web-based training, production of DVD’s and the like."

He continued, "These bureaucrats are so removed from the reality of low-income workers that they don’t seem to realize that few of the workers who most need this training have the capacity to access such methods."

Workplace health and safety advocates also blame OSHA’s increasingly cozy relationship with businesses -- a relationship marked by employer-focused training programs and increased efforts to help companies comply with the law.

O’Brien, of New York COSH, said the new direction OSHA appears to be heading cannot achieve the same results groups like hers do, namely because grassroots training casts a wide net, offers situation-specific programming, and teaches employees to be proactive and work with all elements of the communities they work in.
And, of course, combined with the AFL-CIO's recent decision to dissolve its Safety and Health Department, threats to the training grants and the survival of COSH groups does not bode well for workers:

"I’m actually scared to death about the direction workplace safety and health are heading," [Director of Labor Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Tom] Juravich said. "Workplaces are becoming more dangerous. My real concern is that there hasn’t been enough thought given to the effect the Federation’s decision will have on the national level. They’ve played a strong coordinating role with employers, OSHA, and the COSHes. I don’t really know what the other options are now. "

Unions have long organized around the issues of workplace health and safety, and a study of workers’ attitudes towards their jobs conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO in 2001 found that health and safety issues ranked highest among their priorities, with 98 percent of respondents citing a "safe and healthy workplace" as an essential or very important right at work.

Statistics like these give pause to labor educators observing the changes in organized labor. Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University’s New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations questioned the wisdom of focusing on organizing at the expense of core services unions have traditionally supplied.

"If you defund education, and health and safety and other critical functions at the center, you hurt organizing and political action because these are the departments that are at the core of motivating and educating people around the critical issues which you are trying to mobilize them around," Bronfenbrenner explained.


Johnson, the Labor Notes co-editor, takes this critique one step farther in assessing the future of organized labor and workplace health and safety, especially the grassroots sort of efforts that the COSH groups undertake. "Why are we in a situation where the most reliable workplace health and safety advocates are government -- and not union -- sponsored," he asked. "Why would workers want to join unions that have stopped devoting resources to protecting them on the job?"