Americans are worried about finding and keeping jobs. Many are desperate for any job at all in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Fifteen million people who want to work are stuck in unemployment lines. So it can be tempting to overlook dangerous workplaces and say now is not the time to prioritize workers' safety.
But disasters at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf tell us otherwise. There is never a right time for substandard and unsafe workplaces. Now, when economic conditions and our corporate culture give rise to corner-cutting, is exactly the time to safeguard working people on the job.
Workplace protection laws enacted more than 40 years ago and critical agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have reduced workplace deaths and injuries significantly. But they are weak and out of date. Currently, the criminal penalties are harsher for harassing a wild burro on federal land than for killing a worker on the job. Last year, the median civil penalty in OSHA fatality cases was just $5,000, not even a slap on the wrist for most employers.
Legislation is moving through Congress now that would provide stronger workplace safety enforcement tools and protect workers' rights. The Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 would give MSHA subpoena power in investigations and the authority to seek injunctions to stop hazardous practices while strengthening anti-discrimination provisions. It would also improve protections for workers at dangerous workplaces through stronger penalties and whistleblower protection.
Simply put, this legislation would finally put teeth into workplace health and safety enforcement, and we call on Rep. Harry Mitchell and the rest of the state congressional delegation to support it.
The nation has mourned the loss of the Massey miners, the BP oil rig workers, and others who have lost their lives on the job. Let's honor them by passing significant reform for the future.
Richard Trumka is president of the 11.5 million-member AFL-CIO.