Workers Gather to Urge New OSHA Protections

by jeeg 2. June 2010 21:52

Advocates for workers' rights, including former Pfizer Inc. scientist Becky McClain, gathered Tuesday to share stories about lax workplace safety and push passage of a new federal law to strengthen civil and criminal penalties for violating workplace regulations.

"When workers die on the job, somebody needs to go to jail," Steve Schrag, co-chair of the Connecticut Council on Occupational Safety and Health told about 30 people at the Boilermaker's Union Hall.

"Workers need to unite," added McClain, a molecular biologist who lost her job at Pfizer after lodging safety complaints. "If workers don't unite, employers will make all the rules."

Labor advocates believe passage of the federal Protecting America's Workers Act would go a long way toward making workplaces safer across the country. Schrag, McClain and others attended the first of a statewide series of meetings to try to push voters and Connecticut congressmen - all of whom have said they will support the bill - into generating even more support for the legislation to reach a critical mass of 150 co-sponsors in the House.

Among other provisions, the bill would:

• Protect whistleblowers and expand Occupational Safety and Health Administration protection to all workers.

• Establish mandatory minimum penalties for violations resulting in workplace deaths.

• Raise penalties for workplace violations and allow felony prosecutions for those who commit willful violations that result in death or serious injury.

• Require OSHA to investigate all incidents in which at least two employees die or are hospitalized.

• Clarify that discrimination won't be tolerated when employees report injuries, illnesses or unsafe working conditions.

Schrag said 16 workers die every day on the job across the nation, yet the set-up of OSHA has changed little since its inception in 1970. Fines are too low, he said, and OSHA has too few inspectors - 1,700 to cover seven million private workplaces nationally - to protect most workers.

"OSHA is not our friend," McClain said.

"Employers are not afraid to violate the law because the fines and consequences are so small," Schrag added. "There are not enough cops on the beat to make employers do the right thing."

At the same time, he said, workers face daunting problems if they complain about workplace safety, including the possibility of being fired, winding up in bad work assignments or receiving unfavorable reviews.

And when they get hurt, said Pamela Puchalski, injured workers coordinator for the Connecticut Council on Occupational Safety and Health, employees often enter a netherworld where insurance companies and employers have more control over their health care than doctors.

She cited the case of pregnant Yale-New Haven Hospital employee Sandhya Desmond who was injured on the job but was repeatedly denied the treatment her doctor recommended.

"People need basic medical treatment and they can't get it," Puchalski said.

Other workers at the meeting - attended by state Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, state Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and a representative of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District - complained that they were forced back into unhealthy environments with the threat of losing their jobs if they didn't comply.

Even when workers die, Schrag said, companies face relatively minor fines and families are forced to go through the workers' compensation system rather than being able to file wrongful death suits - unless gross negligence can be proven. What's more, families are often left out of the investigative process after a workplace death - another problem the new legislation is trying to fix, said Mike Fitts, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Occupational Safety and Health.


Lee Howard

The Day  Published 06/02/2010

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