States and localities are where it’s at, opportunities to win safer workplaces

Luis Castaneda Gomez, 34 and Jesus Martinez Benitez, 32 were asphyxiated in June 2011 when they were doing repairs inside a manhole. Their employer, Triangle Grading and Paving, was hired by the City of Durham, NC to make water line repairs. The firm had a history of violating worker safety regulations. Worse yet, it was not the first time an employee of Triangle Grading was killed on-the-job.

Durham, like most municipalities, did not have effective policies in place to guard against giving business to safety scofflaws. But that changed in Durham when it adopted a policy in 2012 requiring all bidders to provide information on their safety performance.

This example and many others are described in Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform.” Liz Borkowski and I wrote the guide, along with the Center for Progressive Reform’s James Goodwin, Michael Patoka, Matt Shudtz and law professor Rena Steinzor. The document includes more than a dozen ideas for reforms that would empower workers, make sure crime doesn’t pay, and strengthen institutions. Ideas contained in the guide came from worker safety advocates and experts, including those with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) and its network of COSH groups. Mary Vogel, the group’s executive director, welcomed the manual. “It’s exactly what’s needed to help strategize, advocate and win improved health and safety so we can prevent illness, injury, and fatalities on the job.”

Vogel can point to successful state and local campaigns to improve worker protections.  A grass roots campaign led by MassCOSH, for example, won a bill of rights for temp workers. A coalition of faith leaders, labor organizations, safety advocacy groups and others in Massachusetts worked with state agencies to write legislation to better protect temp workers from employer abuse. The result was a 2013 law that requires staffing agencies to provide temp workers basic information, including the type of job they’ll be doing, requirements for special protective clothing and safety training, and the firm’s workers’ compensation insurer.

The topics presented in “Winning Safer Workplaces” are meant to enhance the conversation among workers and their allies about ways to strengthen protections and hold irresponsible employers accountable for failing to eliminate or control safety and health hazards. The key U.S. law addressing worker health and safety dates back to 1970. Working conditions have improved in those 44 years, but much still needs to be done to eliminate workplace hazards and retaliation against workers who speak up about safety concerns.

There’s little point in expecting change to come anytime soon from Washington, DC.  Most of those “leaders” could care less about improving conditions for working people—and some are even hostile to such an idea.  Just as we’re seeing with efforts to raise the minimum wage and provide paid sick leave, action to improve worker health and safety is not happening on Capitol Hill. States and localities are where it’s at.

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