Reposted from New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health

The first and foremost thing workers can do to protect their safety and health is to join a union. Without a union to protect them, rights to safe and healthful working conditions are a legal abstraction.

This is particularly true with an agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which is understaffed, underfunded and has been politically under attack since its inception. That’s why passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — which will enable us to bring workers into unions, increasing our base and giving our movement greater power — is the single most important thing to be done for worker safety and health.

No one who has lived in New York since 2001 can ignore or dismiss the need for stronger safety and health protection for workers. We have seen too many of our brothers and sisters die, get injured, or become ill as a result of job-related injuries:

Tens of thousands who worked or volunteered in 9/11 rescue, recovery and clean up operations are sick and some have died.

We have witnessed an epidemic of construction worker fatalities from falls from scaffolds and crane collapses.

The crane collapses in the heart of New York City resulted in fatalities both of union members and residents.

The recent deaths of Jdimytai Damour, trampled to death by a crowd at WalMart, and MTA Bus Operator Edwin Thomas, stabbed to death by a passenger, were preventable.

The election of a new administration provides an opportunity to fight for stronger OSHA enforcement, including increased penalties, updated and new standards to protect workers from the chemicals and other hazards which workers face on the job, and increased safety and health training that enables workers to recognize and abate workplace hazards.

And we must take care of unfinished business. We must insure that one of the first acts in the new Congress is to pass legislation which provides medical treatment and compensation to those who are sick now and will become sick in the future as a result of exposure to toxic substances released by the attack on the World Trade Center.

To win, we will need to wage a concerted fight. We will make no forward movement without being organized. While we have high hopes for this new administration, our demands for safer and healthier workplaces will be met with stiff resistance from the business community. Passage of EFCA and increasing our numbers is a first necessary step in the fight for safe and healthful workplaces.

Denis Hughes is president of the New York State AFL-CIO.