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National COSH E-News June 2019

“Not one more death!”

Advocates and families and community leaders observed Workers’ Memorial Week (WMW) in communities across the U.S. this year with banners, candles, symbolic coffins and powerful photos of women and men who lost their lives on the job.

We honor those we have lost by taking action to make our jobs safer. In Houston, laborers are winning new protections, with a boost from Fe y Justicia Worker Center. In Buffalo, WNYCOSH is working with National Guard members, firefighters and others to extend health protections for 9/11 responders. Also: Coast-to-coast events from all around COSH Network.

A win for safer work in Houston: 

Workers helping the city dig out from Hurricane Harvey will have important new protections as a result of Build Houston Better, announced by Mayor Sylvester Turner at a Workers’ Memorial Day event at Houston’s City Hall on April 23, co-hosted by National COSH affiliate Fe y Justicia Worker Center/Houston COSH.

More than 100 workers died at work in Houston during 2018. Reconstruction work following a disaster like Harvey poses special risks, including toxic debris, unstable buildings and unsafe water. Fe y Justicia has highlighted the issue with hands-on train-the-trainer events, giving workers the tools to recognize and prevent hazards.

The Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council and the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation then worked with city officials to craft Build Houston Better. It guarantees a $15 per hour wage, workers comp insurance and OSHA construction training for workers on federally funded housing projects.

“The workers who are dedicated to rebuilding Houston after a storm should not have to pay with their lives,” says Alejandro Juniga, health and safety organizer at Fe y Justicia. “This new program is an important step to guarantee that our hard-working construction workers can do their job and return home safely.”

Advancing just compensation for 9-11 responders:

At an April 25 Workers’ Memorial Day event at the Connecticut Street Armory in Buffalo, WNYCOSH called attention to the need for permanent benefits for 9-11 responders. The current September 11th Victims’ Compensation Fund (VCF), which aids responders who were exposed to toxics and other hazards at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA will run out in 2020. Compensation payments to survivors have already been slashed by as much as 70 percent, even though many who are eligible for benefits have yet to apply.

“Before we worked with WNYCOSH on Workers Memorial Day, most of our Guard Members and their families didn’t connect their illnesses or deaths to their 9/11 service,” says Louise Schone, wife of a National Guard member and family support coordinator with the New York Army National Guard. “Along with WNYCOSH, we are going to make sure that Congress doesn’t turn their back on first responders and provides the compensation so urgently needed.”

With renewal of the VCF currently before Congress, WNYCOSH is working with 9-11 responders to share their stories with the community and elected officials. 

WMW Events around the Network:

Augusta, ME: The Maine Labor Group on Health host a Workers' Memorial Day Breakfast on April 26, with Maine Commissioner of Labor Laura Fortman.

Boston: MassCOSH and allies gathered at the statehouse on April 26th and released “Dying for Work in Massachusetts,” documenting 69 on-the job deaths in 2018.

Concord and Hooksett, NH: New Hampshire COSH hosted a Workers’ Memorial Day Dinner on April 23 and a workers’ vigil on April 25 at the New Hampshire State House in Concord.

Milwaukee and Waukesha WI: WISCOSH sponsored a showing of “A Day’s Work,” the award-winning documentary about the death of a temp worker in Waukesha on April 24 and April 24, and a luncheon and memorial honoring fallen workers in Milwaukee on April 28th.

New Brunswick, NJ: NJWEC and New Labor sponsored a rally and march, starting at the Anshe Emeth synagogue, highlight health risks to workers from climate change

New York City: NYCOSH and the NY Central Labor Council hosted a Workers’ Memorial Day event on April 26 at the Manhattan intersection where Uber driver Bing Wan was killed in a hit-and-run last October.

Oakland, CA: Worksafe and allies gathered in downtown Oakland on April 26 and released the 2019 edition of “Dying at Work in California,” showing 376 workplace deaths in California in 2017.

Pawtucket, RI: RICOSH joined with the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, IUPAT, Fuerza Laboral, CLUW, the RI Labor History Society and others for a march to the site of the Hope Webbing Mill, where three workers were badly injured in October 2018.

Philadelphia: PhilaPOSH and the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO hosted a program and procession on April 26, featuring Mayor Jim Kenney and documenting 115 workplace deaths in PA, NJ and DE.

Riverside, CA: On April 25, SoCalCOSH co-sponsored the first-ever Workers’ Memorial Day event in California’s Inland Empire.

Two Dirty Dozen companies get cleaner; another feels more pressure:

The 2019 Dirty Dozen report from National COSH, released on April 24th, puts a spotlight on unsafe employers. Since the report came out, two of those named have taken steps to clean up their act – and there is additional public pressure on a third.

Better pay, mental health support for Facebook contractors: In May, Facebook announced it would boost pay to $22 an hour and provide better mental health support for the contractors who moderate social media feeds, a job that required long hours of reviewing violent and disturbing images. The changes, the company said, will take place in 2020. “Facebook earned $22 billion in net income in 2018,” responded National COSH co-executive director Jessica Martinez. “Why should workers wait until 2020 to receive pay raises?”

Johns Hopkins Hospital settles unfair labor practice charges: Four out of five nurses at the renowned medical center report they have been victims of workplace violence, but one of four say managers ignore these dangerous incidents. In June, hospital executives settled unfair labor practice charges filed with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. The hospital agreed they would no longer interfere with the right of RNs to talk with co-workers and organize a union – a key step in advocating for a safer workplace.

MOMA doesn’t want opioid dollars: On May 15th, the New York-based Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA) announced it will stop taking donations from members of the Sackler family with close ties to Purdue Pharma, the  pharmaceutical firm which became an industry powerhouse while owned by brothers Raymond, Mortimer and Arthur Sackler. Purdue Pharma was cited in 2019 as a Dirty Dozen company for unscrupulous practices that targeted injured workers and their doctors to boost sales of highly addictive prescription drugs.

Climate crisis is urgent for workers:

As global temperatures continue to rise – 18 of the 19 hottest years ever recorded have taken place since 2001 – workers in both indoor and outdoor locations faced life-threatening risks from heat stress and dehydration. In Massachusetts, Teens Lead @Work (TL@W) is finding ways to make school buildings safer, while South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice (SFIWJ) is advocating for the state’s large pool of agricultural and construction workers. And National COSH is teaming up with Public Citizen to campaign for a nationwide OSHA standard on heat stress.

Yeah, it’s real. Wanna see my rash?

How do youth peer leaders from MassCOSH’s TL@W program know climate change is real?  For one thing, several of them have come down with rashes due to extreme heat. With both staff and students and risk, they teamed up with teachers to tackle high temperatures in outdated school buildings and are now working on legislation to address the problem.

“There are so many schools that don't have air conditioning because they are too old,” says Adam Gahn, a junior at Cristo Rey Boston High School who has been a member of TL@W for two years. “Me and my friends are coming down with rashes, headaches and dehydration. So we’re working to make sure that schools taking steps to educate students and staff and make our schools a safe environment for all of us.”

High temps, high risk in Florida:

Florida is one of the hottest states in the country. It’s also a leading agricultural producer, and a growing state with an active construction industry – meaning thousands of workers labor outdoors in high temperatures.

“Florida is only becoming more unbearable for workers with the effects of climate change and extreme weather,” says Jeanette Smith, executive director of SFIWJ) “Outdoor workers, such as construction workers are at risk for both heat stroke and other illnesses due to the debilitating effects of heat exacerbated by high humidity. We have to step up and address this issue before we see more workers and their families suffer."

A study by Public Citizen and the Farmworker Association of Florida found that in seven of 10 Florida counties with the state’s highest concentration of agricultural and construction workers, summer temperatures exceeded a NIOSH standard for outdoor heavy labor during more than 70 percent of daylight working hours.

Worker advocates in Florida are backing a  heat illness prevention bill, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando). The legislation would require 10 minute rest breaks, shade, and access to water for outdoor workers, as well as training on signs of  heat exhaustion.

Heat can kill. A national OSHA standard will save lives.

At least 815 U.S. workers died from heat stress from 1992 through 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 70,000 more suffering severe injuries. These figures are almost certainly an underestimate, due to difficulty in accurately diagnosing and recording heat-related injuries and fatalities, which have symptoms that overlap other diseases.

As temperatures continue to rise, so will the risks for workers exposed to high heat in both indoor and outdoor settings. That’s why National COSH joined Public Citizen and 130 labor, public health, environmental and civil rights organizations in 2018 to petition the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a “federal heat stress standard for outdoor and indoor workers in all industries so that workers are protected from dangerous heat on the job.”

Since then:

Learn more about the campaign for a national heat stress standard here.

Winning new protections for vulnerable workers:

In New Hampshire, New York and Arizona, local COSH groups and National COSH are advocating for – and winning – new protections for public sector workers, construction workers and victims of workplace fatalities.

NH COSH wins investigations for deaths of public workers:

When municipal worker Tom Wooten was crushed to death by a tractor trailer while working for the highway department in Northfield, his daughter Samantha was devastated. “I have to live every day,” she said, “without seeing my dad’s bright eyes and handsome smile.” Samantha wanted answers but was shocked to learn that no in-depth investigation was required. State and local employees are not covered by the federal OSH Act, which mandates investigations of fatalities in private sector workplaces.

Teaming up with New Hampshire COSH, Samantha pushed the state legislature to pay more attention to the lives of public workers, with gathering information a first step toward preventing further tragedies. The campaign was a success: On May 22, Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law a bill requiring state and local governments to quickly report workplace injuries and fatalities, as well as investigations of workplace deaths by the state Department of Labor.

NYCOSH campaigns for “Carlos’ Law”:

After the 2015 death of immigrant construction worker Carlos Mancayo in a preventable trench cave-in, his employer, Harco Construction, was found guilty of manslaughter – and fined a mere $10,000. The absurdly low value placed on a worker’s life outraged workers, unions, safety advocated and New York’s immigrant community. NYCOSH played a key role in advocating for change with release of “Deadly Skyline,” which highlights fatalities in New York’s booming construction industry.

“Carlos’s Law” named for Montoya, will create a real deterrent by hiking fines to $300,000 for misdemeanor convictions for workplace fatalities, and $500,000 for felonies. The bill passed New York’s State Assembly last year and has been re-introduced in the current session. “Our ’Deadly Skyline’ report demonstrates the need for action to end the crisis of preventable construction fatalities in New York state,” says NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer “Carlos’s Law offers a critical step forward to improving construction safety by increasing maximum fines against negligent contractors.”

National COSH forces AZ to back off reducing workplace safety fines: 

When the Arizona Daily Star published an exposé on questionable practices by the Industrial Commission of Arizona (ICA) to reduce fines for workplace safety violations, National COSH took action.

The paper’s research uncovered that after hearing from employers – but with no meaningful input from workers or unions – ICA was “routinely” reducing penalties for hazardous working conditions recommended by the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) although the “cuts often appear to lack clear justification.” Arizona is one of 26 states authorized to enforce federal workplace safety laws but must do so according to OSHA standards.

 Peter Dooley, safety and health project consultant for National COSH, filed a Complaint Against State Program Administration, or CASPA with U.S. OSHA.  The federal agency found that Arizona was “reducing penalties in a seemingly arbitrary manner.”  After initially defending its policy of reviewing and reducing penalties recommended by ADOSH, the ICA has agreed to abandon the practice.

“Cutting back on penalties that are too low to begin with is unfair to employers who follow the law,” said Dooley. “And it’s dangerous for workers, who become sick get injured or die when employers don’t take seriously their responsibility to provide a safe workplace.”