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by Mike Hall, Apr 28, 2010


With Workers Memorial Day and the recent deadly workplace tragedies that have claimed dozens of workers lives, two congressional committee hearings focused on job safety and strengthening worker protections.

This morning, the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee explored ways to protect workers who blow the whistle on unsafe and dangerous workplace conditions from retaliation, harassment and even dismissal by employers.

The hearing room was packed with workers who have been victims of on-the-job injuries and surviving family members of workers killed on the job, including many families of the 12 coal miners killed in the 2006 Sago (W.Va.) Mine explosion.

AFL-CIO General Counsel Lynn Rhinehart told the panel that “workers see firsthand the hazards posed by their jobs and their workplaces.”

But in order for workers to feel secure in bringing hazards to their employer’s attention, they must have confidence that they will not lose their jobs or face other types of retaliation for doing so.

She said that that the current whistle-blower protections in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act “are exceedingly weak.”

As a consequence, workers who are fired or face other retaliatory action for filing an [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] complaint or raising concerns about workplace hazards are left with very little recourse, unless they are fortunate enough to be covered by a union contract, which provides far stronger protections and quicker remedies.

The Protecting America’s Workers Act would provide “more meaningful anti-retaliation protections to workers” and

will help encourage employees to speak out when they become aware of hazardous workplace conditions.

Click here for witness testimony.

Yesterday, at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing held to explore strengthening job safety laws, committee chairman Sen. Tom Harkin put it this way:

Too many workers remain in harm’s way, and it is long past time to strengthen the critical laws that keep Americans safe on the job.

He particularly cited the need for stronger enforcement and penalties for “a population of employers that prioritize profits over safety, and knowingly and repeatedly violate the law.”

The deadly blast at the Upper Big Branch coal mine earlier this month was a tragic example of the dangers of this approach.

The problem of repeat offenders is certainly not limited to the world of mining….Unfortunately the penalties for breaking the law are often so minimal that employers can dismiss them as a minor cost of doing business.

Click here for video excerpts from the hearing and witness testimony, including the Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts and AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario.

While hundreds of ceremonies are taking place across the United States today, Workers Memorial Day is being observed in more than 140 countries around the globe. International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Guy Ryder says that every day around the world, 1,000 workers are killed on the job and more than 900,000 are hurt.

On top of the already unsafe and precarious working conditions many workers face around the world, these times of economic crisis—and unscrupulous employers—mean less protection and more insecurity. Unions are key for ensuring that safe and sustainable work is not a privilege for the few, but a right for every worker. That is why the ITUC has chosen “Unions make work safer” as the motto for our actions on this 28th April 2010.

The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Union (ICEM) today published a special online newsletter that examines workplace deaths, injuries and job safety around the globe and the “major role that trade unions play to constantly monitor—and improve—occupational safety and health.” Says ICEM General Secretary Manfred Warda:

Each year, Workers Memorial Day gains more significance and more recognition. It is only fitting that this year, with the vast number of workers and their trade unions who vigilantly monitor everyday workplace safety and health, the theme “Unions Make Work Safer” has been chosen.

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