Bill to boost protections for workers in America

Posted June 06, 2010, at 7:41 p.m.

We’ve all seen and heard the grim news, 29 miners dead in West Virginia; 11 oil rig workers dead in the Gulf Coast. Repeated violations of health and safety laws. Widows and children weeping.

Think it can’t happen in Maine? Think again.

Last year, 33 men and women died on the job here in Maine; 24 men and women in 2008; 21 men and women in 2007.

While none of these deaths occurred in a single tragic accident such as the ones in West Virginia and the Gulf Coast, the total numbers are equally startling. Fishermen, firefighters, truck drivers, nurses, maybe even friends and neighbors. Fellow Mainers.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of the importance of workplace safety as I attended a Workers’ Memorial Day ceremony. An honor guard of firefighters stood at attention while the names of the 33 workers in Maine who died last year were read. I listened to the names, looked at the grieving friends and family and thought to myself there must be a way to protect our workers.

As it turns out, there is a way; Congress can pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act, or PAWA.

Our workplaces have changed significantly in the 40 years since our nation passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This new act will strengthen OSHA penalties and enforcement and expand the law’s coverage to the millions of workers who have no OSHA protection.

Every day in this country, 14 people are killed on the job. Nationally, 5,071 workers lost their lives in the workplace last year. Throughout the previous administration, many regulations protecting workers were weakened. Major hazards were not addressed. The job safety budget was cut. Voluntary compliance replaced strong enforcement.

We have seen what happens when we let businesses choose between the importance of the lives of workers, or in fact the larger community, and company profits. Large financial companies, mining companies and oil companies have all recently proved the need for stronger regulations to protect the people.

Many of the items in PAWA are common sense, yet they are not being required by the nation’s businesses.

PAWA would extend the Occupational Safety and Health Act and existing job safety protections to all state and local public employees, federal workers and millions of other workers who are inadequately covered by other laws.

The bill would raise penalties for OSHA violations to $12,000 for serious violations and $120,000 for willful and repeat violations. For violations resulting in worker deaths, new higher penalties would be set and include a mandatory minimum, so fines could not be reduced to a slap on the wrist, as now is the case.

Keep in mind those fines go to the government, not the worker. What is a worker’s life worth? Well, in Maine, if a worker is killed on the job and has no spouse or children, the company has to pay only the funeral costs for the worker. Isn’t a life worth more than $4,000? It should be. How can we encourage businesses to treat workplace safety seriously if the value of a human life is worth less than a used car? We need those stricter OSHA penalties.

Workers need to be able to raise concerns about job safety or report injuries without fear of retaliation. The bill makes clear employers cannot retaliate against a worker for reporting a job injury or illness, and it prohibits the establishment of any employer policies or practices that discourage or discriminate against workers for reporting injuries and illnesses.

PAWA would also make it easier to track regular violators of workplace safety laws by banning the practice of issuing violations as “unclassified.” “Unclassified” violations make it impossible to keep a record of serious, willful and repeat OSHA violations, which may count against a business in litigation or contract awards.

PAWA would also protect workers while the employer contests the violations by requiring employers to correct violations during the review — not afterward as is the case now.

Workplace fatalities and injuries will continue to take place if we keep ignoring the need for new regulations. Let us encourage Congress to pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act before the next devastating workplace catastrophe takes place.

Jeffrey Neil Young is a lawyer and shareholder at the law firm McTeague Higbee. His practice is based largely in the Bangor area.

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