« Live Like Slaves (Public Employees Threaten Democracy) | Main | Back in Iraq: Unions About to Be Destroyed »

August 31, 2005

Public Employees: Live Like Slaves, Die Like Dogs, Part V

Reprinted from Confined Space

I spend a fair amount of time in this blog ranting about how this country treats public employees as second class citizens -- barely even human. In return for the hard, unpleasant and dangerous work they do, they aren't paid terribly much, don't have the collective bargaining rights in half the states that private sector employees enjoy, and are under constant attack for those benefits they've managed to win by organizing wherever they can.

Public employees, over a third of whom are organized, also provide an example of what America could look like (in terms of pensions, health care benefits and political power) if private sector employers had the same generally passive acceptance of unions that public employers display. In fact, their very organizing success has made public employees and their unions a bigger target for the right wing which fears the example that a well organized sector of the economy makes on the less organized private sector. Their campaigns have focused on reducing the political power of public employees (such as the current "Payroll Protection" campaign in California) and making private sector workers jealous of the benefits that public sector workers haven't yet lost.

But I digress.

What I'm really writing about here is a life and death issue for public employees: the fact that public sector workers in over half the states still are not covered by OSHA -- in other words, they have not legal right to a safe workplace. And it's not just conservative red states, public employees in what is arguably one of the most liberal states in the country -- Massachusetts -- do not have OSHA coverage, often with deadly results:

On the evening of Aug. 3, 2004, Roger LeBlanc was one of nine Massport workers dispatched to restore power to the Hilton Hotel at Logan International Airport. Before beginning repairs, the electricians made sure they de-energized the hotel's switch station. After checking the five cabinets on the right side of the switch station, they turned on the electricity, confident that the five cabinets on the left side were powered separately.

They were wrong. When LeBlanc, 39, touched the top of one of the cabinets on the left, thousands of volts shot through him, and he died hours later. His death has spurred labor unions and workplace safety advocates to unite behind legislation that would strengthen protections for the 150,000 city and state workers in Massachusetts.

City and state workers in Massachusetts are not covered by safety procedures mandated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, even though private employers have been bound by them since 1970. According to an investigation by the state's Division of Occupational Safety, LeBlanc's death would have been prevented if the Massachusetts Port Authority electricians had followed OSHA rules.

And this statement really pisses me off after 16 years running AFSCME's health and safety program where I almost never made any public statement without mentioning the fact that public employees were not covered by OSHA:

Representative Michael J. Rodrigues, who co-chairs the Legislature's Labor and Workforce Development Committee and has served on the panel for eight years, said he was amazed to learn during a hearing on the bill that OSHA did not apply to public employees.

''I certainly feel that all state employees should enjoy the same protections for health and safety as any private employee in the Commonwealth," the Westport Democrat said last week.

Well, I'm delighted that he's concerned and wants to do something about it, but come on! He never knew? This is something that everyone needs to know, especially state legislators.

Without thinking, most people still view public employees as office workers whose main worries focus on paper cuts, and possibly carpal tunnel syndrome. But, of course, they're wrong:

The dangers that police officers and firefighters face are well-known, but other public employees also contend with workplace hazards. Water and sewer workers have to crawl in confined spaces and breathe contaminated air; airport workers are at risk of hearing loss; and road and bridge crews are threatened by hazardous fumes and dangerous heights. Between 1991 and 2003, at least 94 public employees died on the job, according to statistics compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

Those figures are comparable to the fatality rate in the private sector. In 2000, a US Department of Labor analysis of workplace injury and death data found that "the public sector poses the same or even greater overall risk of workplace injury and illness as the private sector."

In fact, in its report released last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nationwide, 526 government workers lost their lives on the job in 2004.

Although bills requiring public employee coverage nationwide are introduced into Congress every year, the last significant effort was made in the early 1990's when public employee coverage formed part of labor-sponsored OSHA Reform legislation. The interesting thing was that, although the bill never came close to passage, there was considerable support even among Republicans for correcting this clear injustice.

The public employer organizations -- the League of Cities, Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties -- opposed OSHA coverage. The states and cities were already doing a fine job protecting their public servants employees, thank you very much, and we don't need no stinkin' laws and regulations.

And we're still seeing the same thing in Massachusetts:

Romney spokeswoman Julie Teer said the administration has concluded that applying OSHA rules to public workers is up to the Legislature, but that the administration has taken other steps to strengthen workplace protections, such as designating a safety representative for each agency. Teer said the administration ''is committed to ensuring a safe workplace for all state employees."

Robert J. Prezioso, who has served as commissioner of the Division of Occupational Safety since former governor William F. Weld's administration, praised Romney's efforts and said his agency provides some safety advice to state agencies, as well as cities and towns.

''As the state's worker health and safety agency, we go out and help agencies protect workers every day, even though we currently don't have a mandate to do so," Prezioso said. He declined to comment on the legislation, or whether his agency would be equipped to enforce it.

But a leading workplace safety expert casts doubt on the efficacy of the state's efforts. Chuck Levenstein, emeritus professor of work environment at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and an adjunct professor of occupational health at Tufts University Medical School, testified on Beacon Hill last spring that, "there is no consistent set of policies across agencies that would provide adequate protection for state workers."

"Serious hazards to public employee could be prevented by extending OSHA coverage to them," Levenstein testified. "The cost of such fairness will be small compared with the great benefits derived from protecting the health and safety of the workers who serve the public."

So what's it going to take?
Unfortunately, it's not until enough momentum is generated around a death that there is action. It shouldn't have taken LeBlanc's death," said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, who heads the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. "It's always called 'tragic' or 'shocking.' In most cases, it's not shocking at all. It's that basic procedures were not put in place."
No, it shouldn't take LeBlanc's death, nor the hundreds of other preventable deaths and thousands of preventable injuries. But they happen, every day, year after year and our state legislators and governors in 24 states still see no reason to do anything about it.

A couple of years ago, I outlined my idea for a public employee coverage campaign in a letter to former Senator Bob Graham (FL) Florida Senator Bob Graham after one of his famous "workdays" when he does the job of an "average" worker. That time, he spent the day in a public workplace. I suggested that on his next workday, he mount a campaign for public employee OSHA coverage and kick it off by

going down in a 12 foot deep trench that is not shored or sloped. Climb down into a manhole or other confined space that has not been monitored for hazardous chemicals or oxygen deficiency. Go work on a locked, understaffed, overcrowded mental health ward or maybe in a high security prison. Go drive around in some old city vehicles with defective brakes. Maybe you could bring a few Florida state legislators and Governor Bush with you.

Assuming you live through the experience and that you think that this nation's public employees don't deserve to work and die under such conditions, please consider spending whatever time you have left in the public eye fighting for OSHA protections for public employees. They do the jobs that this country demand to make life safe and enjoyable. Safe workplaces are the least they deserve.

We should be sending the same letter challenging every state legislator in every state that doesn't provide OSHA coverage to public employees.

Related Articles

Posted by Jordan Barab at August 31, 2005 07:25 AM