We Can Do More for Worker Safety

Workers Memorial Day is this Sunday, April 28, when we honor workers killed or injured on the job. On this day in 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed.

For almost half a century, OSHA has been charged with helping to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for men and women across this country. But under the Trump administration, OSHA is failing us. As we observe Workers Memorial Day, it’s clear that we can do more – much more – for worker safety.

OSHA works. Since 1970, workplace fatalities have dropped some 65 percent. Although the U.S. workforce has doubled, the number of workers killed on the job decreased from 14,000 in 1970 to a low of 4,340 in 2009. It was 5,147 in 2017, the most recent year for which such data are available.

OSHA helps prevent workplace deaths and injuries by setting and enforcing standards, as well as providing training, education and assistance. But OSHA under the Trump administration is doing less – much less – and endangering workers’ lives.

According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the agency now has the lowest number of safety and health inspectors in its 48-year history. And it’s not because of budget cuts. Rather, it’s because the agency has stopped filling vacancies when inspectors leave, a sign that enforcement of its health and safety standards is not a priority.

“The low number of OSHA inspectors and the resultant decline in enforcement activity has a real impact on worker safety,” wrote Deborah Berkowitz, of NELP. The Trump administration “is scaling back OSHA enforcement activity, putting workers’ lives at risk and undercutting businesses that play by the rules and prioritize worker safety.”

Although Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) numbers for 2018 worker fatalities will not be released until later this year, the signs are not encouraging. As NELP points out, the number of necessary OSHA inspections due to work-related deaths or catastrophes has risen dramatically during the Trump administration. In other words, as the agency cuts back on enforcement activity, its own data suggest a large increase in workplace deaths.

The Trump administration has also been busy dismantling health and safety protections that have proven so effective. For example, earlier this year it gutted an Obama-era rule meant to help inspectors identify dangerous work conditions, as well as pressure businesses to comply with workplace safety laws.

AFSCME members are public service workers who make their communities better every single day. Many of them, too, put their lives on the line – not just law enforcement officers and corrections officers, but also transportation maintenance workerssewage treatment plant workerschild protection investigatorssanitation workers and more.

You’ll hear lots of statements from some of our leaders in government calling for stronger protections. This one, from the Director of OSHA on the occasion of last year’s Workers Memorial Day, strikes all the right notes.

But lip service is not enough. As we honor workers killed or injured on the job, let’s not forget that we have what it takes to make workplaces safer and healthier. OSHA has a history of success in making it happen.

We can do more for worker safety. Now let’s demand it from our elected leaders.