Steve Catanese, president of SEIU Local 668, a union representing thousands of state human services workers, speaks at a press conference on September 11, 2019. The conference was to push for legislative action on a bill to expand state workplace protections for public sector employees (Capital-Star photo).
By David Henderson
In the coming months, state lawmakers will have an opportunity and responsibility to deliver lifesaving protections to roughly 685,000 Pennsylvania workers who are employed by public agencies across the state. These workers include police officers, nurses, and caregivers in county nursing homes, teachers, and the thousands of workers at state universities, local government, and the commonwealth itself.
Every day, these workers are on the job serving our families and communities. They face unnecessary risks because Pennsylvania does not provide Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) protections to public sector workers.
OSHA applies to private-sector employers and their employees only. These workers have benefitted from OSHA safeguards for 50 years. For public-sector employees to be protected, states must enact their own OSHA-approved state plans. The difference between these two worlds can be deadly.
Consider that, under current law, a private construction worker for a private business is protected from working in trenches more than 5 feet deep without shoring protections against collapses and cave-ins. That is just plain common sense. But a public sector worker in the same comparable jobs is often compelled to work in even deeper trenches without these protections.
A private school employee concerned about asbestos for instance, can file a complaint and request an OSHA inspection. Teachers in Pennsylvania’s public schools cannot.
I am proud to represent over 65,000 public and private non-profit Pennsylvania employees – those who protect and serve the citizens of the commonwealth.
The simple fact is that any worksite can be dangerous, from an office to a school or a local roadway. Our members are employed at the state, county, township, borough, and city level, and in health care facilities, social service facilities and prisons and jails throughout Pennsylvania.
We represent frontline workers who delivered assistance to Pennsylvanians in need of assistance throughout the worst – and most dangerous times – of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That these workers do not have the same protections as other essential workers in the private sector puts them in jeopardy every day. Police officers, firefighters, EMS, highway workers, nurses, support staff, corrections officers…you name it; every one of these workers has a right to a safe workplace.
Data in our state is thin because, without the OSHA level standards, the state does not have a strong enough reporting system. Still, the national data is telling.
The National AFL-CIO’s 2019 Death on the Job Report shows that state and local public-sector employees are 64% more likely to be injured on the job than private-sector workers. Public sector workers face higher rates of workplace violence in comparison to workers in the private sector, with an incidence rate 745% higher for state employees and 535% higher for local government workers.
Public sector workers deserve the same protections as their private counterparts. They have a right to additional job training, including extensive equipment training before they risk putting themselves in harm’s way, and we should grant protections for employees who file complaints or violations.
Already, 26 states have approved such a plan. Pennsylvania lawmakers have been debating this issue for many, many years and, finally, some progress is being made.
After 50 years, it seems that this effort is gaining momentum. Earlier this year, Indiana University of Pennsylvania issued a report, that was commissioned by the state, on the costs of legislation to protect these workers.
Pennsylvania House Democrats, under the leadership of Rep. Jason Dawkins, convened a hearing on HB 299, which would enable public sector OSHA. It passed out of the Labor & Industry Committee in a bipartisan vote. It cleared the full House on a 116-85 vote on Tuesday.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Patrick J. Harkins, D-Erie, now goes to the state Senate.
It is long past time for Pennsylvania to pass legislation to implement a state plan. Every worker deserves these protections.
David Henderson is the executive director of AFSCME Council 13. He writes from Harrisburg.
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