NACOSH unveils comprehensive job safety/health strengthening plan
Ventilation is just one of many safety concerns at workplaces | nycosh.org

HOUSTON—One year after the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, Marcos Vasquez, a 20-year day labor construction worker in Houston, still toils for employers who won’t provide him an anti-viral mask. Or gloves. Or other personal protective equipment.

“There’s not enough social distancing,” he adds. “The bathrooms” on worksites “are dirty and they lack water and soap” for frequent hand-washing workers need to help protect themselves against the modern-day plague. The coronavirus has killed 445,465 people in the U.S. as of Feb. 2—40,000 more than the number of service members’ deaths in World War II.

And Vasquez told a Zoom press call organized by the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), that federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors are nowhere in sight.

It’s that lack of inspectors, and so much else wrong with protecting workers against the pandemic, along with other illnesses and injuries on the job, that prompted NACOSH to issue a report and recommendations to the new Democratic Biden-Harris administration for strengthening worker safety and health protections.

“If we are going to survive, we need to be told the truth” by employers, said Daysi Cruz, a ceramics worker from Nashville, Tenn. “We need water filters, clean bathrooms, paid family and medical leave” for workers the virus sickens or impacts and “personal protective equipment for construction workers,” said Cruz, herself a coronavirus survivor from last July.

“And we don’t know when we’re going to get the vaccines yet” against the virus, all the workers said.

The report and recommendations kick-started a national campaign for such safeguards. So NACOSH brought Vasquez and other workers to tell about perils of their jobs, especially due to the virus. But Cincinnati worker Manuel Perez couldn’t make it and the camera told why: Workers there were already on the streets, campaigning on the issue.

NACOSH’s eight-topic comprehensive plan is worker-centered and features strengthening the 51-year-old Occupational Safety and Health Act, enacting other pro-worker laws—such as the Protect The Right To Organize comprehensive pro-worker labor law reform—and beefing up OSHA enforcement. The plan is available at www.nationalcosh.org.

Besides strengthening and enforcing the act and the agency, the report also demands stronger protections for whistleblowers—an area OSHA also handles—a seat at the table for workers in crafting and implementing worker protection plans, “safe workplaces for all” with special emphasis on safety for workers of color, a “guarantee (of) fair and just compensation for workers, and no special deals for corporations,” and creating “worker-centered protocols to track, prevent and protect against COVID-19,” the official name for the coronavirus.

NACOSH is also demanding firms and the government “confront the workplace effects of climate change,” especially those that threaten and harm workers of color. And it wants the government to institute tougher measures to “prevent chemical catastrophes and harmful exposures,” such as the nitrogen explosion that killed six poultry plant workers in Georgia days before. Five of the six were Latino or Latina.

And the plan also demands firms take full and constant responsibility for protecting workers, not just waiting for OSHA citations or responding to a death on the job. Bosses don’t do that now.

That’s what Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., a strong supporter of workers and a former AFL-CIO Deputy Organizing Director, told the group he learned when he worked in the Auto Workers’ Safety and Health Department. Levin strongly supports the report’s goals and promises to lobby other lawmakers for them.

“The Trump administration was nowhere in sight,” Levin said. But the government wasn’t the only culprit. At the UAW, “I learned the bosses wanted to put the responsibility on us” as workers to protect ourselves. “How about forcing them to protect us?”

“We also need government agencies to listen to our needs—something that didn’t happen in the previous administration,” Martinez commented.

But the workers, NACOSH, Levin, and their allies face a tough task, even with the Biden-Harris administration on their side. The pro-worker majority in the Democratic-run House is razor-thin. It’s non-existent in the 50-50 Senate, where one Democratic defection could doom pro-worker laws, including those to strengthen the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act.

And corporate lobbying plus GOP-inspired budget cuts and freezes left OSHA with fewer inspectors now than when it got started. The GOP Trump regime didn’t enforce the law, either, the workers and NACOSH Co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez said.

The workers and their allies, in unions, worker centers, groups representing people of color, and other civic organizations, and will counter by taking the cause public, as they did in Cincinnati. NACOSH will hit Congress and raise its recommendations in ongoing talks with the new Biden administration, Martinez explained.

“We’ll also continue talking with OSHA so it can take these goals down to the state and local level,” she added. OSHA had better be prepared to do so in multiple languages, Levin warned. It isn’t now. Foreign languages are multiplying among U.S. workers. In his Detroit-area district alone workers speak not just English and Spanish but Ukrainian, Chaldean, and others.

Meantime, it’s back to the streets, backed not just by NACOSH, but by its 23 local and state affiliates, and more than 100 organizations that endorsed the report. Union backers include the Coalition of Labor Union Women, National Nurses United, Professional and Technical Engineers Local 194, the Hudson County Central Labor Council, the Iowa AFL-CIO, and its Western Iowa affiliate, and New Jersey’s Education Association and its state Industrial Unions Council.

Others include One Fair Wage, the National Employment Law Project, Temp Workers Justice, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of the Bay Area.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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