Pennsylvania is making progress, but there’s still a long way to go

MournBy President Rick Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO

During this time of the year, the Labor movement and working people across the globe honor the contributions of the men and women who build our economies.  On April 28th, we observe Workers’ Memorial Day in the United States, marking the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and commemorate the lives of working people lost on the job due to workplace injuries or illnesses.  International Workers Day, held on May 1st in remembrance of Chicago’s Haymarket Affair, an historic event in the fight for the eight-hour workday and a pivotal moment in the movement for economic justice. 

As we remember the lives of those we’ve lost, we become even more resolved and dedicated to the fight for dignity, fairness, and respect on the job.  No one should lose their life on the job due to preventable, hazardous workplace conditions or violence.  We cannot accept inaction or neglect when working people go to work, but never return home to their families.

At this time of the year, the national AFL-CIO releases a report detailing the workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities compiled from data released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent year data available, in this case, 2016. While 2016 will be remembered for many reasons, in that year alone 163 Pennsylvanians unnecessarily lost their lives on the job due to workplace injuries and illnesses.  Their families, friends, and co-workers will no doubt remember them, and the tragedies that took them away too soon. 

Between 2015 and 2016, Pennsylvania’s fatality rate improved, moving our Commonwealth from 20th in the country to 10th.  While the national rate of workplace fatalities rose from 3.4 per 100,000 in 2015 to 3.6 in 2016, Pennsylvania’s dropped from 3.0 to 2.8, taking us well below the average.  And this is great news, but it is not enough.

Nationally, deaths from workplace violence rose 23% and are now the second leading cause of workplace-related fatalities.  No worker should ever be subjected to violence on the job, nor should they work in conditions that present hazards to their safety and health.

The passage of OSHA in 1970 instituted lifesaving health and safety measures for private sector workers, but it could not extend those protections to our brothers and sisters in the public sector.  While more than 20 other states have passed legislation that protects state and local employees, our Commonwealth has not been one of them. Across Pennsylvania, more than 578,000 state and local public-sector workers are not covered by OSHA or similar safety and health protections.  

Public sector workers are more likely to be injured or become ill due to workplace conditions with local government employees even more vulnerable than their state government brothers and sisters. Workplace violence, on the rise nationally, disproportionately affects public-sector workers.  The rate of injury caused by workplace violence is greater than 861% higher for state and local government employees than those who work in the private sector.  Musculoskeletal disorders, illnesses derived from workplace conditions, occur at a significantly higher rate in public sector workers, with local government employees experiencing a 52% higher incidence rate than their private sector brothers and sisters.  

Pennsylvania’s General Assembly has an opportunity to reverse this trend of inequality.  House Bill 1082, the Jake Schwab Worker Safety Bill will extend OSHA-style workplace safety and health protections to more than 578,000 of the Commonwealth’s workers.  The bill is named after one such worker, an employee of the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority and member of ATU Local 568, who was tragically crushed to death in a workplace accident that should never have happened. 

Jake’s story is tragic but does not stand alone, and it need never be repeated.  This year when we celebrate Workers Memorial Day and International Workers Day, we can make an actual difference in the fight for worker safety and health.  We can call our state representatives and ask them what they’ve done to keep their constituents and neighbors safe.  We can demand that they bring House Bill 1082 out of committee and have a real vote.  This year we can take action and make sure that next year 163 families won’t be without their loved ones.