One of us (Alejandro) nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning while working as a janitor and now spends his days on street corners in Houston helping day laborers protect themselves on the job. The other (Michael) spent a career enforcing federal labor laws, including those intended to assure workers return home from their job with life and limb intact.
We have seen the havoc that COVID-19 can wreak in the workplace. And we know that when workplaces become coronavirus hot spots, the virus spreads to our neighborhoods and communities. That’s why making our workplaces safer is crucial to keeping all of us safe.
It’s also why we’re eagerly awaiting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s announcement of an enforceable new emergency temporary standard for COVID-19. Judging from guidance issued on Jan. 29, the new rule will likely give workers a leading role in ensuring safety in their own workplace. That will signify a hard-fought victory for worker advocates.
The guidance highlights what we’ve known for a long time: employers of every shape and size need to listen to their workers. They know the shop floor, the classroom, the warehouse conditions better than anyone. Recognizing that fundamental truth, the new standard requires that every workplace have a COVID-19 prevention program — and that workers be engaged in every phase of its development and implementation.
Workers, particularly those in high-hazard, low-paying jobs, are often understandably reluctant to voice concerns about safety issues. From Texas to New England, workers are routinely assigned to dangerous jobs with little or no safety training or personal protective equipment. And they often face retribution when they complain, particularly immigrants and workers of color.
The result is that dangerous conditions go unreported, with deadly consequences. That’s why loud, clear messaging that it’s against the law to retaliate against workers who voice workplace safety concerns — whether or not these are related to COVID-19 — is key to any safety program’s success.
Alongside a strong anti-retaliation message is the need for amplified whistleblower enforcement. An August 2020 audit by the Labor Department’s Inspector General documents a surge in alleged retaliation complaints during the pandemic, a reduced workforce to handle them and serious delays in addressing them.
When issued, the new standard’s safety requirements will need to be vigorously, and visibly, enforced. Too many employers cut corners if they think they can get away with it, and workers pay the price. The Inspector General recently said as much in another report on OSHA’s shortcomings in stemming COVID-19 workplace hazards under the Trump administration’s watch, finding that “reduced and remote inspections leave U.S. workers’ safety at increased risk.”
For appropriate enforcement to occur, OSHA needs more inspectors. Last year, their numbers fell to the lowest point since 1975. Rescue Plan earmarks of at least $5 million for COVID-19 workplace safety enforcement will help. So will hiring new inspectors with the language and cultural skills needed to engage with workers, who are often not fluent in English.
The fight against COVID-19 isn’t over yet — and workers are being called to the front. OSHA’s guidance recognizes how crucial it is that workers talk to each other, learn about effective ways to protect against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, and take those concerns to their employers. At the same time, OSHA can only benefit by deepening its engagement with workers, Coalitions for Occupational Safety and Health groups, and worker centers, rebuilding the trust and information-sharing that has frayed in recent years.
These collaborations — among workers, and between workers and government — are proven ways to reduce workplace hazards. We still need to use every means available to bring this pandemic under control. Workers’ eyes, ears and voices may be the sharpest tools in the kit.
Alejandro Zuniga, an organizer with Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, serves on the board of directors for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). Michael Felsen spent 39 years enforcing federal worker protection laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and is now an Access to Justice Fellow with the nonprofit legal group Justice at Work. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.