My Turn: An election to prolong workers’ lives

For the Monitor
Published: 8/28/2020 6:10:09 AM

Four years ago, many U.S. workers helped elect the first tycoon in nearly a century to the presidency, and the time has come for those workers to ask how that is working out, for themselves and for their loved ones who depend on them. Many workers may have been, or may remain, pleased with Donald Trump’s views on social, foreign-policy, or other issues, but perhaps they should now consider the effects of his presidency on their life expectancy.

The Trump administration’s treatment of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in food production and health care, has been barbaric, but even when this crisis finally ends, we could find ourselves back in the midst of a failure to take seriously all of the other health and safety problems workers face.

Most Americans are not aware of just how dangerous jobs can still be in 2020, despite some progress since the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act was enacted 50 years ago this winter. The tip of a very large “mortality iceberg” consists of the roughly 5,000 fatal injuries that occur on the job annually. Scientists estimate, however, that roughly 60,000 to 90,000 additional deaths occur prematurely each year from diseases caused or aggravated by workplace exposures to hazardous substances. That makes occupational disease the ninth leading cause of death in the United States.

It’s as if every young person upon entering the U.S. workforce is made to pick a card from a deck, with one of the 52 cards having this message on it: “Sorry; your job is going to give you cancer, or respiratory disease, or Parkinsonism.”

Congress certainly knows how intolerable a one-in-50 involuntary risk of death is; in various laws it has instructed the EPA to reduce environmental risks facing the general public to one chance in one million. This reveals a lack of concern for worker risks that are tens of thousands of times larger than this general-public goal.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Since 1970, we were supposed to have had an energetic, science-based regulatory agency – OSHA – writing and enforcing regulations whose health and safety benefits dwarfed their costs to employers. But for 42 of those 50 years, Republicans controlled the White House, the Senate, or the House (or two, or all three), and demonized every sensible, modest proposal to reduce worker risks.

I was OSHA’s chief regulatory official for five of those 42 years (1995-2000). We did manage in that time to regulate two industrial carcinogens, accidental needlesticks in health care settings, and unsafe or ill-fitting respirators.

What “tyranny” did we unleash in this “tsunami” of regulations? Why did Republican congressmen, including a former speaker of the House, refer to OSHA inspectors as “the Gestapo”? Literally, our rule reducing exposures to the toxic solvent methylene chloride required many establishments to install fans in their windows and give workers brushes with longer handles so they didn’t have to stick their heads inside tanks full of vapors. That’s all; nothing “punitive,” just some late 19th-century technology finally made mandatory.

The list of things the Trump administration has done for worker safety in the past 3½ years is a blank page. Trump is the only president in OSHA’s history not to even appoint a person to run the agency, and the acting head is kept on such a short leash she would not even answer this question at a congressional hearing: “Does COVID-19 present a grave risk to workers?”

Meanwhile, the administration encouraged meat and poultry plants to increase their line speeds, forcing thousands of workers to huddle together at unsafe distances. The result, of course, was tens of thousands of COVID cases, with no OSHA enforcement whatsoever.

But this administration had already repealed rules for employers to keep certain records of injuries in their facilities. It stopped work in 2017 on a rule to protect workers from “airborne infectious diseases” (?!) and it made sure that the EPA, which Congress instructed in 2016 to consider workers when it analyzed especially dangerous uses of chemicals, would pass the buck back to an ineffective OSHA, contrary to a law that took 40 years to revise.

This is not a plea for more federal funding, despite the fact that the OSHA budget of about $580 million equates to each U.S. taxpayer contributing about $4 per year (the “annual cappuccino”) to improve worker health and safety. Meanwhile, each taxpayer pays about $4 every seven hours to fund the military, and averages about $4 every month on potato chips.

Rather, American workers need a new president and Senate, one that will move quickly to adopt legislative reforms many experts have urged for decades. These include:

■Giving workers a right to sue their employer for violating OSHA standards;

■Extending coverage to the nearly 10 million state and local public employees whom the original OSH Act doesn’t protect;

■Allowing OSHA to presume that certain obvious failures to protect workers were done “willfully” and deserving of high-dollar fines or criminal penalties; and

■Proposing new chemical exposure levels that will at least keep workers’ lifetime cancer risks below one chance in 1,000 per substance.

As we look to Nov. 3, I’ve never seen an election where workers face such a stark personality choice between presidential candidates – one with obvious respect for work and one with disdain for it. Mary Trump recently wrote of her uncle Donald that “honest work was never demanded of him, and no matter how badly he failed, he was rewarded in ways that are almost unfathomable.” Outside this fantasy world of work, of course, rewards are more modest, they come from the dignity of labor, and they follow success, not failure.

Both candidates revered their fathers, but the lesson Joe Biden learned from his father is the opposite of what Donald Trump learned about regarding workers as commodities. In Biden’s autobiography, he tells how his father was sales manager at an auto dealership, whose owner decided to amuse himself at the firm’s Christmas party by spilling a bucket of silver dollars to watch his workers scramble to scoop them up. Joe Sr. walked out of that party, never to return. Fred Trump’s son, we can safely assume, would have thought this display would make a profitable reality-TV show.

I also think it’s a good sign for workers that Biden always mentions Chariots of Fire as his favorite movie. Its title comes from the famous William Blake poem “Jerusalem,” which could well be an anthem for the long-arced “resistance” against worker exploitation.

In the poem, the narrator vows never to “cease from mental fight” until we have replaced “those dark Satanic mills” with a green and pleasant land. My former colleagues at OSHA have waited a long time for a united government that will have their backs, so they can finally fight effectively for your freedom as workers to give your strength, but not your limbs, your health, and your very lives, to your jobs.

(Adam M. Finkel, of Princeton, N.J., and Dalton, N.H., is a clinical professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. These views are his own and not necessarily those of UMSPH. He served as a senior executive at OSHA in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.)




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