Workers mobilize to stop GOP’s job safety cuts

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Coast to coast on Workers Memorial Day, April 28, workers are rallying and marching at job sites and government offices not just to remember those killed on the job, but to oppose GOP attempts to dismantle job safety laws.

"Republican attacks on job safety at the federal and state levels are putting workers' lives in jeopardy," said Mike Hall, an AFL-CIO spokesperson. "House Republican budget cutters are working to make deep cuts in OSHA to help fund tax cuts for billionaires. Legislators in no less than 10 states have launched attacks on workplace safety laws."

From a prayer vigil in Cumberland, Md., to a march in Tucson, Ariz., led by the Pima Area Labor Federation, the theme is the same - honor our fellow fallen workers by exposing Republican attacks on job safety regulations and by demanding that state and national lawmakers make job safety a priority.

The demonstrations come on the heels of the release by the AFL-CIO of its 2011 annual job safety report. The study, titled "Death on the Job," finds that 40 years after the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, "there is much more work to be done" and that job safety laws must be strengthened.

The report warns, "Business groups and Republicans are trying to block new regulations and have targeted key Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration rules. Attempts have already been made in this Congress to slash OSHA's budget with cuts that would decimate OSHA's already inadequate enforcement."

To underline the urgency of its warning, the federation notes that in 2009, 4,340 workers were killed on the job - an average of 12 workers daily - and an estimated 50,000 died of occupational diseases.

More than 4.1 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported in private, state and local workplaces. The federation's report says, however, that the 4.1 million "understates the problem," and the actual number is more likely eight to 12 million.

As the job safety act reaches its 40th anniversary, the labor movement sees the White House as an ally. Labor is pleased that the Obama administration, after years of neglect by the Bush administration and in the face of stiff opposition by Republicans, is finally refocusing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration on protecting workers and enforcing safety laws.

Unions note, however, that given the current political climate an ally in the White House is not enough.

The "Death on the Job" report says that last year's major tragedies call out for tougher laws and enforcement. The disasters cited include the Upper Big Branch, W. Va., coal mine explosion that killed 29, an explosion at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown, Conn., that killed six, another at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State that killed seven and the BP/Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil rig explosion that killed 11 and caused a massive environmental and economic disaster.

"The nation must renew the commitment to protect workers from injury, disease and death and make this a high priority," the report said. "Employers must meet their responsibilities to protect workers and be held accountable if they put workers in danger. Only then can the promise of safe jobs for all of America's workers be fulfilled."

The report's state-by-state breakdown of job deaths and injuries finds that Montana leads the country with the highest rate of worker fatalities, with Louisiana, North Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska following close behind. The report also finds that Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of dying on the job, with a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2009.

The size of the OSHA staff is "woefully inadequate," the report says, with just 2,218 inspectors to keep tabs on the 8 million workplaces under OSHA's jurisdiction.

In addition, OSHA penalties for employers that violate health and safety laws are too small to deter violations, the report notes, with an average fine of just $1,052 per serious violation. Even in cases involving deaths, the median total penalty was only $5,600.

The AFL-CIO hopes to use data in the report to protect federal job safety and health programs.

Although the Obama administration and Senate Democrats were able to hold off Republican attempts to slash OSHA in this fiscal year, Peg Seminario, the federation's Occupational Safety and Health Director said the report will help stave off renewed attacks, which she expects in the near future. Seminario warned that Republicans in Congress are "pondering new attacks. We still have too many workers injured, killed and diseased on the job," she said.

Photo: An OSHA team, made up of staffers from throughout the United States, discusses air sampling procedures at the World Trade Center site. Since September 11, OSHA has taken more than 3,500 air and bulk samples for asbestos, silica, lead and other heavy metals, carbon monoxide, and numerous organic and inorganic compounds, as well as noise. Photo by Shawn Moore/OSHA News Photo.

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