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Workplace safety is not a game: It's the law

Workplace safety is not a game: It's the law
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With political leaders now rallying around a relief package that could include a moratorium on COVID-19 lawsuits against employers, we cannot forget just how brazenly many large corporations continue to disregard the lives of frontline workers. In November, The Washington Post reported that supervisors at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, made a game out of their own deliberate ignorance on workplace health and safety. As 1,000 workers at the plant contracted the novel Coronavirus, and six of them died, a manager at the facility “organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool… to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.” Just last week, new reports surfaced about additional misconduct at the same plant as the result of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of one of the Tyson workers who died. Supervisors allegedly provided false information to interpreters, claiming the plant was free from the Coronavirus, even as infections were raging.

Tyson, a multibillion-dollar firm and the largest meat and poultry processor in the United States operating 110 U.S. plants, is one of the companies that could receive legal immunity in the new COVID relief package.

We’d never know about these kinds of egregious violations — much less be able to address them — if corporations like Tyson are shielded from accountability.

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Negligent employers routinely suppress the voices of frontline workers who are trying to ring the alarm about the dire risks they are facing at their jobs. The top priority for COVID relief — and other measures — should be to protect these workers, not their employers.

In far too many cases, workers’ concerns about safety are simply mocked or ignored — they also face retaliation from their employers for simply speaking up about unsafe workplaces. Black and Latinx workers are treated the worst, reporting harassment at more than two times the rate of their peers. Up until now, the government agency that is supposed to protect workers — the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) —  hasn’t done much to enforce the law, responding only to a miniscule fraction of complaints.

A new Harvard study shows how short-sighted it is to ignore worker concerns. Researchers found a direct link between complaints about unsafe workplaces and reported deaths from COVID-19 in the same counties where those facilities are located. If workers are unprotected and get sick in their workplaces, what do you suppose happens when they go home? Co-workers, friends, family members and neighbors are also at risk. Even with an effective vaccine, we’ll be unable to stop the spread of COVID-19 until we reduce the risk of workplace exposure.

The immense danger of a deadly pandemic has exposed critical weaknesses at OSHA, which has been running on empty for decades. The agency currently has fewer inspectors than it did in 2014, long before a pandemic brought deadly new risks into U.S workplaces. Right now, it would take OSHA 167 years to inspect each workplace in the U.S.

OSHA could hold companies accountable by providing better protection for whistleblowers, encouraging collaborative workplace infection control efforts, and improving inspection procedures. Instead, the agency has issued soft guidelines with no enforcement, allowing employers to set their own rules, resulting in profit and efficiency over lives and livelihoods.

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Black and Latinx essential workers face the greatest harm because these workers are overrepresented in some of the most dangerous industries: meatpacking, agriculture, warehousing, and service work. A new report from the Urban Institute demonstrates that more than half of all Black, Latino and Native American workers hold jobs that require in-person contact. The disproportionate number of COVID-related deaths among Black and Brown workers is not an accident or a byproduct of the pandemic. It’s the outcome of systemic racism coupled with decades of neglect for the health and safety of working people.

A new approach is desperately needed.

Instead of shielding employers who ignore basic safety guidelines, the Biden administration must act on promises made to frontline workers. During his campaign, President-elect Biden proposed doubling the number of OSHA investigators and implementing an emergency temporary standard (ETS), which would require employers to implement a plan to control infectious disease in all their facilities.

Biden also supports the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which will strengthen federal labor laws that protect workers’ right to organize. OSHA exists today because of strong campaigning by organized labor and the environmental movement, and worker health and safety is consistently better in places where employees are organized. Workers are leaders on safety at their jobs and should play a bigger role in determining what they need to do their jobs safely.

Above all, workers and worker organizations need to be co-enforcers on workplace safety, and in order to do that, they need a permanent and powerful place at the table within the government institutions meant to protect them. Successful grassroots campaigns in states like California, Michigan, Virginia, and New Jersey have produced strong enforcement mechanisms for COVID safety standards and allowed unions and worker centers to be active participants and co-enforcers. Prof. David Michaels, (who led OSHA during the Obama administration) and Dr. Gregory Wagner have developed a robust 11-point plan for preventing workplace transmission of COVID-19, which the new administration should begin implementing rapidly.

The recent breakthroughs on a COVID-19 vaccine will inevitably spark new conversations on “returning to normal.” But for millions of essential workers, the pre-pandemic norm was far from healthy and safe. With a significant change of leadership at the federal level, we need a fundamentally new normal in our country, shaped by workers themselves and federal agencies that follow essential workers’ lead on issues of workplace health and safety.

Jessica E. Martinez and Marcy Goldstein-Gelb are co-executive directors of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH).