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This Workers Memorial Day: Blow the Whistle on Unsafe Working Conditions

Today, we remember the victims of fatal workplace hazards and observe Workers Memorial Day. We have all encountered a hazard in the workplace at one time or another. Whether it was a slippery floor, unguarded machinery, blocked emergency exits or a frayed electrical cord, hazards in the workplace come in many different shapes and forms.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, during 2013 (most recent data available) 4,585 workers died on the job, averaging 13 fatalities per day nationwide. Although it is true that the rate of occupational fatalities has decreased since the inception of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970, far too many families are still losing loved ones due to employer negligence and workplace accidents.

Recent examples of workplace fatalities around the nation during the past several weeks have been prevalent in the media. In New York City, a 40 year old worker was crushed by a crane that collapsed. In Philadelphia, a 42 year old carpenter fell 80-feet to his death from a scaffold. In San Francisco, a 28-year old was struck and killed by a rolling pipe in a job-site accident near Highway 101.

The resources that have been appropriated to OSHA to protect worker safety and health are dismal at best. For the 2015 fiscal year the agency has been assigned $565 million to ensure safety and health for 130 million workers at more than 8 million workplaces in the United States. Even worse, OSHA has only 2,200 inspectors responsible for the health and safety, which translates to about one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers. According to the AFL-CIO, it would take OSHA 139 years to inspect each workplace once. Sadly, OSHA’s tight budget inhibits its ability to carry out its mission.

However, workers can speak out against unsafe workplace conditions by blowing the whistle on hazardous workplace conditions. Not only does OSHA inspect workplaces for safety and health violations, it also enforces 22 whistleblower statues that cover a wide range of employment situations.

As it stands today, workers cannot necessarily rely on a random OSHA inspection at their workplace to correct hazardous conditions given the tiny amount of resources appropriated to the agency. Workers must take matters into their own hands and speak up about hazards on the job and demand that employers address hazards immediately. There are numerous whistleblower protections that will ensure that employers will not retaliate against workers for pointing out poor conditions. When employers do retaliate against workers, the laws work in the employees’ favor to get them reinstated and to recover lost compensation.

On this Workers Memorial Day, let’s be mindful that we all have the power to demand change in the workplace, feel free to stand tall and call out hazardous situations in the workplace. No one should have to risk their life for a paycheck.

Keith Wrightson is the workplace safety expert for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

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