Forgotten Workers

by OSHAL

It is worthwhile reading the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report (report PDF here; Jordan Barab’s take here) that recommends a review of the effectiveness of current strategies for workplace safety and health. Of particular interest to me is the attitude and direction of this Administration’s OSHA, in particular for those workplaces with the dirtiest jobs, where the lowest wages prevail, where many do not speak English, and where there is no union to defend their rights or speak for them.

Where are these “forgotten workers”? They are in meatpacking and poultry plants, at residential construction sites, in office buildings at night laboring as janitors, in fast food shops…the list goes on and on. Oh yes, you may say that many of these sites are not subject to inspections and enforcement of health and safety standards because “there are 10 or fewer workers at the site,” but wait, there are thousands of these sites across this country. What kind of loophole is that? Given it, do we really know the injury and illnesses rates for US workers? Does anyone really believe that this Administration’s “compliance assistance” measures protects these workers?

Yes, there have been improvements in workplace safety and health over the last 20 years, and the protections provided by the OSH Act (and enforcement of them) have contributed to the improvement. I will also concede that initiatives like OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program have elevated the status of occupational safety and health in the 1,000 or so (mostly large corporations) who have adopted it. But a thousand workplaces out of 6.2 million doesn’t account for much in the big picture—only 0.0167 percent of the all US worksites. What about the 99.98 percent?

When I look at the kinds of work, the characteristics of the workforce, and protections provided by OSHA for the “forgotten workers,” I feel like we are back in the early 20th century when jobs for a significant portion of workers were in sweatshops, textile mills, and a 7-day week steel mill in America. Many of these workers spoke little English, were of color, and not organized. Americans read about them, Congress acted and the Occupational Safety and Health Act became law. Where are the Selikoffs, Samuels, Mancusos, Mazzocchis, and Loren Kerrs of this generation? The workers need you.

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