Public Sector OSHA Hearing Demonstrates Urgent Need For Change

This week, the Senate Democrat Policy Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 310, Senator Tartaglione’s public sector OSHA legislation. Several union leaders submitted testimony at the hearing in favor of the legislation. Additionally, opponents from the County Commissioners Association of PA and the Pennsylvania School Board Association opened up their remarks with their reasoning why money is more important than human life and safety on the job.

Here are some highlights from the unions’ testimony at the hearing:

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale put the decades long fight for public sector OSHA protections in context of today’s urgent need for action:

“According to the National AFL-CIO’s 2019 Death on the Job Report, state and local public-sector employees are 64% more likely to be injured on the job than private- sector workers. Public sector workers face higher rates of workplace violence in comparison to workers in the private sector, with an incidence rate of 745% higher for state employees and 535% higher for local government workers. When fatalities occur, due to the lack of reporting requirements and regulatory protections, families are often left with unanswered questions and face serious difficulties getting answers and closure.

“On top of the standard workplace health and safety issues that public sector employees face, we now must factor in the impact that COVID-19 has posed on our unprotected workforce. While we cannot presently know the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on workplace health and safety, the preceding years do not bode well for outcomes. We know the challenges faced in Pennsylvania’s nursing and residential care homes have been front and center of the pandemic’s destructive impact on communities, residents, and workers.

“In its previous introductions, public sector OSHA legislation has been called the Jake Schwab Worker Safety Bill. It is named after an Erie Metro Transit Authority mechanic who was tragically killed on the job. Sadly, Jake was not the last public sector worker to be killed or injured on the job. Earlier this month, a 38-year-old worker, Cody Gipprich, at the West Berks Water Authority in Reading, Berks County, died in a concrete pit after a pipe burst, while his colleagues and bystanders tried to save him.

“There have been many workers who have suffered injuries and fatalities on the job in the years between Jake and Chip, but the lack of guaranteed safety and health protections implies that information on these tragic incidents is not recorded or tracked.”

AFSCME Council 13 Legislative Director Mike Maguire told the story of a recent, devastating workplace injury, that is neither the first or the last of its kind:

“Tom Vitale is a member of AFSCME Local 2143 and an Equipment Operator for PennDOT in Luzerne County. On April 26, which happened to be the first day of National Work Zone Awareness Week, Tom was struck by an oversized load while operating a jackhammer in an active work zone. Tom was hit from behind, thrown and seriously injured. Tom has a broken pelvis and a broken back and several other injuries. He will require multiple surgeries and extensive medical care.

“If a worker doing the same kind of job on the same roadway was part of a private company or contractor, he or she would have been covered by OSHA. Tom was not covered as a PennDOT employee. While it is difficult to say whether OSHA protections would have prevented Tom’s injuries, I am confident in saying that extending such protections to public employees like Tom would avoid countless injuries and deaths down the road.”

Jeff Ney of the Pennsylvania State Education Association stated:

“Like me, so many public employees are shocked to learn that these basic protections don’t apply to them or to their place of employment. That is why PSEA remains strongly committed to enacting Senate Bill 310.

“In my current statewide role, I have heard from countless members about the hazards that exist in the schools in which they work. Reports of even the most obvious or egregious hazards are primarily anecdotal, and one reason is that public employers in Pennsylvania are not bound by the same reporting and record-keeping requirements as their private sector counterparts. Unfortunately, this means that far too many hazards go unaddressed until after a preventable tragedy has occurred. That is, if they are addressed at all.”

PFT Local 3 President Jerry Jordan related the story of a Philadelphia teacher and student who are subjected daily to the neglect of public facilities’ safety:

“Decades of neglect that led to a devastating mesothelioma diagnosis for PFT member Lea DiRusso, who spent her career teaching in buildings with known, damaged asbestos. Decades of neglect that led Chelsea Mungo, then a fourth grader at Cassidy Elementary, to write to her State Senator and ask why the color of her skin impacted how her school is funded, and shared with him that she feels like she is in prison or a junkyard when she is in what is supposed to be a sacred place of learning.

“As Lea DiRusso shared in this searing and devastating Inquirer profile, “It’s like holding a grenade in your hand, and you’re pulling the pin out,” DiRusso said. “Do people not understand that this is deadly? Let me tell you, it is.”

Watch the Full Hearing Here