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Public Citizen reports underscore value of protecting workers' safety

Our friends at Public Citizen are keeping us busy today with the release of two new reports touching on workers’ safety and health.

The first, “It’s an Outrage: Regulations Are Entirely to Blame for Unemployment and a Leading Cause of Death in the U.S., According to Industry and Its Allies,” is a tongue-in-cheek account of how the Big Bad Bureaucrats over the years have brazenly exerted their powers to do shocking things, like protect the health and safety of workers and the public alike.

Take, for instance, OSHA’s “overreach” in 1974 in proposing a rule that would require manufacturers reduce workers’ exposure to vinyl chloride, a substance used to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – which was discovered to cause fatal liver cancer in those exposed to it. Industry balked, with Firestone Corp. claiming that the new vinyl chloride standard would put the PVC industry “on a collision course with economic disaster” and would “throw 2 million jobs down the drain.”

Despite the PVC industry’s battle cry, production of PVC expanded enormously – and new cases of that form of liver cancer had been “virtually eliminated,” the CDC said.

Talk about scary safeguards…

Public Citizen’s report also details industry’s fight against incremental raises of the minimum wage since the late 1970s and opposition to requiring employers to provide unpaid family leave – neither of which have crippled the economy, as industry had predicted.

Check out the report for other examples of how industry has cried wolf about modest reforms that protect workers, the environment and the public.

Public Citizen’s second report released today, “The Price of Inaction: The Cost of Unsafe Construction in New York City,” discusses the shocking number of construction worker deaths in the Big Apple and the lack of state-approved safety training those workers received. 

While 36 workers died on construction jobs in New York in 2011 and 2012, 72 percent of those deaths occurred on sites where workers did not participate in state-approved training and apprenticeship programs, the report said. Those fatalities came at a cost of more than $180 million, the report estimated.

On-the-job safety training has been proven to reduce construction industry injuries and fatalities, but the existing laws mandate only that it be provided by employers operating under conventional city contracts.

“Most construction workers are being put at far more risk than they ought to be, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” said report author Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate at Public Citizen. “We owe it to construction workers to improve safety policies, and expanding training requirements would be an effective change.”

The Safe Jobs Act, pending in the New York City Council (Intro 1169-2013), would ensure training for all construction workers on taxpayer-funded projects, not just those people working on city contracts. It also would require construction companies to disclose violations of labor, safety and health, or tax laws, which would give city officials an opportunity to weed out less scrupulous developers and contractors. The bill would require construction companies working on projects larger than $1 million that are taxpayer-supported to run apprenticeship programs, which help create a highly skilled workforce that is less susceptible to injury.

National COSH has long pushed for government contractors’ safety and health records to be considered during the public bidding process.

A lot of the people you see doing public works project – paving public roads or laying municipal sewer lines, for example – are not public employees. They work instead for contractors, who were hired through a public bid process that rewards the lowest bidder. All too often, these low bidders manage to obtain contracts because they cut corners on safety, putting workers’ lives and health at risk.

Learn more about our Responsible Contractor Campaign. 

National COSH applauds Public Citizen for issuing these reports and keeping workers’ safety and health in the spotlight. We look forward to future reports.

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