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Conversation with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh

COSH groups commend OSHA for issuing significant fines
and protecting whistleblowers in the much preventable Gainesville tragedy

Meeting Called for Strong Protections of Immigrants, Whistleblowers and a COVID Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for All Workers

On August 2, National COSH Network leaders met with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, acting chief of OSHA Jim Frederick, and other federal labor officials to draw attention to urgent priorities from the National Agenda for Worker Safety and Health. The meeting followed up on a National COSH Town Hall with Frederick where workers shared their concerns, experiences and questions about OSHA’s efforts and enforcement protocols under new leadership.

National COSH Co-executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb began the discussion by noting that the COSH Network has collaborated with OSHA for many years on common goals, working to ensure that every worker can earn their living and return home alive and well.   She also recalled that Secretary Walsh — a lifetime trade unionist — worked closely with MassCOSH during his years as a state legislator in Massachusetts and Mayor of Boston, passing a state ban on a dangerous floor-stripping product and giving the city tools to keep irresponsible contractors from receiving construction permits.

Protecting Immigrant Workers: Rosanna Coto-Batres, who is executive director at NENYCOSH and treasurer of the National COSH board of directors, applauded OSHA’s commitment to protect immigrant workers, citing the recent significant fines against companies responsible for the tragic nitrogen leak at a Food Foundation Group plant.   The preventable incident claimed six lives in Gainesville, Georgia this past January.

“OSHA has demonstrated its commitment to protecting workers by citing the company for endangering workers, and by ensuring that immigrant workers would not be silenced during the investigation, said Rosanna.   “When immigration officials appeared at the plant, terrifying workers and hindering the investigation, OSHA acted quickly to stop the immigration threats.”

Unfortunately, there are still incidents — such as an arrest by ICE agents in Boston during an OSHA investigation — where immigrant workers are put at risk after speaking up about safety. Rosanna urged Secretary Walsh to strengthen the DOL’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ICE’s parent agency, and to devote more resources to OSHA’s whistleblower program.

“We would like to implore OSHA,” Coto-Batres said, “to use its bully pulpit influence, to hold employers accountable, and to protect workers’ rights to speak up about safety without fearing retaliation.”

COVID-19 safety measures needed for all workers: Thais Forneret, who is Director of Development and Operations at Worksafe and vice chair of the National COSH board, spoke about the ongoing need for protections against COVID-19. Her husband is a healthcare worker and her child is too young to be vaccinated. The COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for health care workers, issued by OSHA in June, provides protection against hazards that her husband might encounter on the job and bring back home to their family.

But millions of workers outside of healthcare are still at grave risk. “Given the rapidly changing nature of the coronavirus, as we can see in new variants that are much more contagious than the original,” Forneret asked Secretary Walsh, “how can we now move forward workplace protections to insure the health of the public and of those who can’tbe vaccinated? How can National COSH work with you to get the ETS [for all workers] back on the table?

Climate change — a growing danger: Cecilia Leto, who is project director at the New Jersey Work Environment Council (NJWEC) and a member of the National COSH board, acknowledged that while the pandemic is now front and center, the growing and even more intense effects of climate change are also a major hazard for workers, ranging from excessive heat to the dangers of wildfires and extreme flooding.

“As the country moves from fossil fuels to solar and wind, said Leto, “we believe there needs to be a just transition for displaced workers in the energy sector to good paying, union represented, safe, clean energy jobs. We also feel that environmental justice communities should benefit from a clean energy economy that is focused on providing new opportunities and equity for all.”

Secretary Walsh responded to the concerns raised during the discussion. He is especially concerned with how policy and actions at OSHA and the entire Department of Labor affect workers and their families. With growing concern about the Delta variant and the continuing spread of COVID-19, Walsh said, there will be discussions at OSHA about how workers can best be protected.   The Department of Labor, he said, will also look into issues relating to the current MOU with DHS.

Jim Frederick said that OSHA was working to make sure that the sensitivity to the needs of immigrant workers that was part of the Gainesville investigation is incorporated across all of OSHA’s activities.   He said the agency is also working to increase staffing in the whistleblower program, so complaints can be more readily addressed.

All participants agreed on the benefits of an ongoing dialogue and continued collaboration between COSH groups and OSHA. On August 4, Secretary Walsh met with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), New Immigrant Community Empowerment, and Adhikaar (Rights), an advocacy organization for Nepalese workers, to discuss workers’ rights, immigration and health and safety.

National COSH and local affiliates will continue to advocate for supporting and involving both union and non-union workers, their representatives and impacted families in all OSHA programs, including inspections, investigations and education efforts.