Saturday, January 13, 2007

Maryland County Moves On Workplace Safety

One of the major problems with ensuring the ssafety of workers in the country is the lack of staffing and resources that federal OSHA or OSHA state aplans have to enforce the law. The AFL-CIO calculates that at its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 117 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.

But Montgomery County, Maryland seems to be strongly considering launching a new initiative that could effectively leverage Maryland OSHA's limited resources. On Thursday, December 14, the Montgomery County Commission on Health issued a long-awaited report calling for county action to combat occupational hazards in the region's workplaces.

The seven point plan includes proposals which range from making the issuance of building permits contingent on contractors providing safety training, to publicizing businesses with exemplary safety records. However, the key recommendation in the plan is a proposal to train health inspectors, building inspectors and others to identify workplace hazards and file charges with MOSH, Maryland's state OSHA program. The proposal would also funnel money to immigrant rights groups and other community groups to do the same.

The principal author of the plan is Commission member Jim Grossfeld, a member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild / CWA. Despite the fact that Montgomery County is one of America's most liberal counties -- and among its wealthiest -- he anticipates a tough battle to win approval of the plan by the County Council and County Executive.

Grossfeld points out that some have claimed that county action is unnecessary since Maryland's new, Democratic governor, Martin O'Malley, will revitalize MOSH. But he and others argue that, even with added support from Annapolis, MOSH "cannot be effective absent involvement by local government and community groups." He notes the recent study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) which found that, in order to make jobs safer, developed countries like the U.S. ought to have one health and safety inspector per 10,000 workers. "That means Maryland ought to have roughly 300 inspectors, but MOSH has fewer than a quarter as many today."

Supporters of the plan, led by organized labor and Casa of Maryland, say their approach could be used to extend MOSH's reach in other Maryland counties, too. However, they also warn that county officials shouldn't assume that the approach they're recommending is cost-free. "Any time you give a county employee additional responsibilities you need to be prepared to hire additional workers to help carry them out."

In addition to Grossfeld, the proposals have been backed by two other labor members of the Commission on Health: Silvia Casaro, who is the client services coordinator for the Metro Washington Council; and Lee Goldberg, policy director of SEIU's Long Term Care Division.

You can also see and hear Jim elaborating on the program here on The Coffee House, a cable TV magazine of public affairs and the arts.

Those seeking additional information on the effort in Montgomery County are invited to contact its supporters at: