These are not heady days for U.S. workers, given the shipping of tens of thousands of jobs overseas and the stagnation in wages. But those aren't the only concerns facing working Americans. Health and safety are a major concern on the job, but increasingly it seems they are getting short shrift by government officials and the private sector.
|The Teamsters stand for safety and respect on the job.|
A series of articles by online magazine Slate this month detail both the past and present reality of workplace safety, and they don't paint a pretty picture. Companies for years kept their mouths shut to workers about the toxic conditions they were toiling in, even to expecting mothers whose fetuses could be harmed.
Despite the existence of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the power of the agency has largely been curbed by lawmakers.The voice of big business is being heard, while hardworking Americans are paying the price, Slate explains:
[H]ealth hazards such as mercury continue to plague America’s workers. OSHA has issued only 36 health standards and relies on mostly outdated exposure limits for the 470 substances it regulates; many more substances go unregulated. It rarely uses the general duty clause to cite alleged health violations, having concluded that the burden of proof is too steep. Hindered by court decisions, the White House, an often-hostile Congress, a weak underlying statute, and—some say—its own timidity, the agency is still searching for ways to protect workers from fumes, vapors, dusts, fibers, and liquids that can kill or incapacitate them.
Other sources support such reporting. A document released last month by researchers at the University of Illinois' School of Public Health found, for example, that recycling work is unnecessarily hazardous to workers' health and safety. The document noted that 17 U.S. recycling workers died on the job between 2011 and 2013.
Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said better workplace training is key to keeping workers safe:
Recycling is the right thing to do, but we have to do it the right way. That means educating and empowering recycling workers, and using proven prevention strategies which we know will reduce exposure to hazardous conditions. That’s how we can avoid tragedies like the death of a recycling worker just last [month] in Florida.
For years, unions like the Teamsters have been a voice to speak out for such worker controls. But increasingly, many elected officials are doing all they can curb union influence. Instead, they side with corporations and protect their interests -- no matter who gets hurt because of it.
Congress needs to provide adequate funding for OSHA so it can ensure robust enforcement of safety laws and regulations. Basic workplace protections and labor standards are essential steps toward strengthening our economy and rebuilding a robust and stable middle class.