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AFL-CIO calls for more action on worker safety

March 16, 2012
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workerA Statement by the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO:

The Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act promise workers the right to a safe job. Unions and our allies have fought hard to make that promise a reality, winning protections that have made jobs safe, saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented millions of workplace injuries and illnesses. But there still is much work to be done.

Many job hazards are unregulated and uncontrolled. Some employers, such as Massey Energy and BP, cut corners and flagrantly violate the law, putting workers in serious danger and costing lives.

The toll on workers, their families and communities is enormous. In 2010, 4,547 workers were killed on the job, and an estimated 50,000 lost their lives due to occupational diseases. For 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 3.1 million job injuries and illnesses among private-sector workers and 820,000 injuries and illnesses among state and local public employees. But due to underreporting, these numbers understate the problem. The true toll is estimated to be two to three times greater—or 4 million to 12 million injuries and illnesses a year.

The cost of these injuries and illnesses is enormous—approximately $250 billion a year, similar to the economic cost of cancer, according to a new study prepared by the University of California, Davis.

After eight years of neglect and inaction by the Bush administration, the Department of Labor under the Obama administration set an ambitious agenda to develop and issue much-needed standards to protect workers from serious and life-threatening safety and health hazards. At OSHA, new standards to protect workers from silica dust, confined spaces in construction and combustible dust, and to require employers to set up safety and health programs to find and fix hazards, were top priorities. And at MSHA, stronger rules to protect miners from coal dust, silica and underground mining equipment dangers headed the list.

But business groups have fought aggressively to stop these new protections, and in 2011 were joined by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which has launched an all-out assault on government regulations. These lawmakers are pushing so-called “regulatory reform” legislation that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to issue any new protections. And they have sought to block individual rules through the budget process, attempting to prohibit OSHA, MSHA and other agencies from moving forward on needed protections. To date, for the most part these efforts have not been successful but, unfortunately, opponents were able to stop OSHA’s injury reporting rule on musculoskeletal disorders through such an attack.

Business groups also have intervened aggressively with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the gatekeeper on federal regulatory actions, and the Small Business Administration (SBA), which reviews rules for small business impacts, seeking to stop or weaken safety and health protections.

In the face of this intense assault, many safety and health rules have been delayed, particularly at OSHA, and only one new final OSHA standard—the construction cranes and derricks rule—was issued in the last three years. Delays in issuing needed rules leave workers at risk of unnecessary injury, disease and death.

The AFL-CIO is particularly concerned about the extraordinary delay in the development and promulgation of OSHA’s silica dust standard, which is urgently needed to protect workers from silicosis, lung cancer and other diseases. According to public health experts, each year more than 7,000 workers develop silicosis and 200 die as a result of this disabling lung disease. The current rulemaking to protect workers from silica was initiated in 1997, nearly 15 years ago, but years of foot dragging by the Bush administration stalled progress on this rule.

Under the Obama administration, DOL has made the promulgation of a new silica standard a top regulatory priority and worked to move this rule forward. In February 2011, OSHA submitted the draft proposed rule to OMB for review under Executive Order 128666. Under that order, OMB was supposed to complete its review within 120 days. But more than a year later, the draft proposed silica rule still is being held by OMB, with no indication as to when the review will be completed and the proposed rule issued. During this review, more than 30 industry groups have met in private with OMB trying to derail this important standard.

We call on the Obama administration to direct OMB to release the proposed silica rule so the public rulemaking on this important worker health standard can begin, and a final standard to protect workers from silica can be issued without further undue delay. Similarly, the administration must ensure that other priority rules, including MSHA rules on coal dust and underground mining equipment, are issued this year, to ensure these protections are put in place.

The AFL-CIO will do everything possible to see that these important worker safeguards are issued. We will vigorously oppose and fight efforts by business groups and the Republicans in Congress to block these measures through budget riders or other legislative measures. American workers need and deserve safe jobs and protection from injuries, disease and death.

 

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