Government Workers in Maine to Get Protections; OSHA Green-Lights State Safety Plan

Keith Wrightson thumbStatement of Keith Wrightson, Worker Safety and Health Advocate, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

This post was updated May 22, 2015

It appears that state and local government workers in Maine will finally get the full range of workplace protections they deserve.

Today, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a proposed rulemaking to form a new occupational safety and health plan for Maine’s state and local employees. Maine had previously adopted some of OSHA’s safety and health standards to protect state and local employees from hazards on the job, but had not formally established its own state OSHA enforcement agency.

The 1970 federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) established OSHA to protect workers from occupational safety and health hazards, but the OSH Act excluded state and local government employees from protection under the law unless a state creates its own occupational safety and health plan.

As of now, 25 states and two U.S. territories have federally approved state OSHA plans. If approved by OSHA, Maine’s state plan would mean that a majority of states have protections for state and local government employees. In April, Public Citizen released the first-ever comprehensive database of state-level worker health and safety rules.

Today’s announcement by OSHA is a clear indicator that Maine has received preliminary approval to create its own occupational safety and health plan. Maine’s state and local employees have been waiting 44 years for full safety and health protections that workers in the private sector enjoy; these new protections will cover over 81,000 workers.

The OSH Act permits states to substitute their own rulemaking and enforcement agencies for federal OSHA as long as the state programs, also known as state OSHA plans, are “at least as effective” as the federal agency. This flexibility allows states to address local needs and unique industries.

It has been estimated by OSHA that in 1970 approximately 14,000 workers were killed on the job. That number fell to approximately 4,340 in 2009. This is evidence that worker health and safety protections save lives, and it shows why these safeguards should not apply exclusively to private-sector workers.

It is the hope that Maine’s state plan will reduce occupational accidents and work-related illnesses and will save lives. The remaining 24 states and territories that do not offer their state and local employees the safety and health protections afforded to their private-sector counterparts should follow Maine’s example and establish their own occupational safety and health plans.