Workers’ Memorial Day: A Time for Action on Workplace Safety

April 28, 2010 
Workers’ Memorial Day: A Time for Action on Workplace Safety
Statement of Lena Pons, Policy Analyst, Public Citizen

 Fourteen workers die on the job in the United States every day. Tens of thousands more die from occupational disease. In 2008, there were more than 5,000 fatalities on the job. In April alone, there have been several tragic workplace incidents resulting in fatalities. The mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. A refinery explosion in Washington state killed seven workers. And less than a week ago, an explosion on an offshore oil rig left 11 workers missing and presumed dead.

 Today, on Workers’ Memorial Day, it is important to remember that these tragic events are preventable, and workers deserve for them to be prevented. The deaths are the predictable result of deliberately weakened federal agencies charged with ensuring workplace safety, coupled with intransigent employers who cut corners on safety, injuring and killing their workers to pad the company’s bottom line.

 The Upper Big Branch mine had been cited for safety violations hundreds of times this past year, many times for methane buildup, the suspected problem in the April 5 explosion. In light of this record, the mine should have been subject to tougher scrutiny and sanctions by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA). But the MSHA is hampered by a backlog of more than 16,000 contested violations at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC), which reviews appeals of safety citations. This backlog has put MSHA years behind on identifying and acting on chronic safety problems at particular mines. MSHA and FMSHRC should be provided with the personnel and resources necessary to address all serious mine safety violations quickly.

 The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also needs several improvements. Both MSHA and OSHA need, among other things, tougher enforcement authority and stronger penalties to tip companies’ incentives toward keeping workers safe. Better protections are also needed for whistleblowers to ensure that workers feel free to report violations that occur in the workplace. Congress should act quickly to remedy problems at the agencies. A good start would be to strengthen and quickly pass the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (S-MINER) Act and the Protecting America’s Workers Act.

 Too many workers needlessly die in the workplace due to preventable and foreseeable hazards. Employers must know that violating health and safety regulations is not the cost of doing business. The human cost is too great.

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