Nearly 50 Years after OSHA, American Workers Are Still Dying to Work

Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace, by Jonathan D. Karmel. ILR Press, Cornell University Press, 2017.

The outrage is palpable in Dying to Work, the book to read if you want to know what’s happening with worker health and safety in these difficult times. Author Jonathan Karmel gives us detailed accounts of the experiences of 14 typical workers: a grocery clerk, a hotel housekeeper, an electrician, a coal miner, an oil and gas driller, a dredging barge crewman, a logger, a worker exposed to combustible dust, a warehouse worker, a packinghouse worker, a worker in a steel wire plant, a grain elevator worker, a registered nurse, and an elevator repair worker.

Throughout, the author’s sympathies are with the workers and the families whose lives have been ruined or ended by workplace carnage. Without sentimentality, Karmel, a Chicago trial lawyer who works the labor beat, artfully weaves together the circumstances behind each injury. He exposes the quality of the company’s response and the difficulties most injured workers or their survivors experience in getting medical care and an income to sustain them when, in a flash, their ability to work comes to a halt.

In his accounts you can sense Karmel’s expertise as an attorney, working to convince juries in forceful, direct language to take the side of injured clients. His real-life anecdotes from around the country, in the vein of Mark Twain or Guy de Maupassant, disprove the myth propagated by insurance companies and Chambers of Commerce: that most injured workers are lazy, malingering con artists looking for a handout.

I [had] expected, as a lawyer, to be told that they wanted to be awarded large sums of money for their injuries. Their pain and suffering….But to a person…they all told me ‘I just want to work.’….And finally I began to understand.

Karmel’s account of the health problems caused by jobs like hotel housekeeper was an eye-opener to someone like me, who may make a bed several times a week but never thought about what it would mean to clean 15-30 rooms per day, work usually done by women of color and immigrants like Angela Martinez.

At Chicago’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, she must make the beds, scrub the toilet bowl and bathroom surfaces, dust, empty the trash, and vacuum. Then she has to scrub the coffeepot, polish the mirrors, clean the hairdryers, and restock shampoo and soap, all in 15 to 30 minutes. Martinez told Karmel that her supervisor “uses a cotton swab to inspect the tiniest nooks and crannies, so she has to get down on her hands and knees to clean the tubs and floors in the bathrooms.” To make matters worse, the mattresses are twice as heavy as when she started at the Hyatt in 1988.

Not surprisingly, hotel housekeepers have injury rates twice as high as the average worker in the United States, according to the American Journal of Occupational Medicine. They also suffer 71 percent more injuries than other hotel workers. In 2012 Martinez was diagnosed with a herniated disk and the Hyatt doctors recommended “Ibuprofen and ice,” but she still works in pain. When she gets home she is too tired to do anything but sit with her granddaughter on the couch, but if she has to go on workers’ comp, all she will earn is 65 percent of her wages.

“So don’t forget to leave your towels on top of the toilet seat or vanity,” counsels Karmel. “This little courtesy may save a housekeeper from bending down and injuring her back…and leave a generous tip.”

NO ERGONOMICS STANDARD

Karmel points out that the federal ergonomics standard passed in the dying weeks of the Clinton administration in 2000 was killed by a Republican Congress that took advantage of the then obscure Congressional Review Act for the first time. Shortly afterward, President George W. Bush declared his pious wish “to work with Congress, the business community, and our nation’s workers to address this important issue.” The idea of a federal ergonomics standard has been dead as a door nail ever since.

Fortunately for the tens of thousands of housekeeping workers in California hotels, the state safety and health agency, CalOSHA just passed a standard mandating written injury prevention programs, worker training, personal protective equipment, and record-keeping. The new standard followed years of advocacy by UNITE HERE, the hotel workers union, and is scheduled to go into effect in April 2018.

OSHA IN THE OCEAN

Dying to Work is frank regarding the vicious, unrelenting opposition of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from the day the law was signed by President Nixon. Six years later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford vowed “to throw OSHA into the ocean,” and in 1979 Republican Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, called OSHA “the most despised federal agency in existence."

Things were somewhat more favorable to workers under the “New Democrat” presidents starting with Bill Clinton, though Clinton was already beginning to tilt away from labor in favor of the corporate agenda whose signal victory was the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA.

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But during President Obama’s first term, Cass Sunstein, Obama’s faculty acquaintance from the University of Chicago Law School, took charge of an obscure agency called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Sunstein, while claiming his only interest was to simplify the regulatory system, applied cost-benefit analysis to every proposed new environmental or OSHA regulation and managed to weaken or create “chronic delays” in the implementation of 75 percent of new OSHA regulations, according to Professor Rena Steinzor, founder of the Center for Progressive Reform. Sunstein's eagle eye focused on cutting the costs to business rather than protecting the health of workers and the general population.

President Obama appointed Dr. David Michaels, author of the important book Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, to lead OSHA. Under Michaels, the agency passed new standards that aimed to greatly limit legal exposure to silica and beryllium, but the Trump administration has been sandbagging their implementation. Michaels also initiated a policy of publicizing the names and offenses of businesses that had been cited and punished, in order to “remind” employers of the existence of health and safety problems at work and to encourage voluntary compliance. Soon after President Trump took office, regional OSHA offices were ordered to halt that practice.

SANDBAGGING OSHA

Since the 1970s union membership has declined from over a third of the workforce to around a tenth today, almost five decades since the passage of the OSHA law.

Sources for Activists

It’s too bad that Dying to Work pays too little attention to the safety and health activities of the AFL-CIO, the Steelworkers, and the Service employees, among other unions. Karmel spends little time discussing the more than a dozen regional Committees on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH groups) such as NYCOSH, LACOSH, MassCOSH, PhilaPOSH, and WORKSAFE (Oakland). The COSH groups work closely with local labor movements and the unorganized and will commemorate Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health—a coalition of COSH groups-- holds a national convention in early December every year near Baltimore and publishes a list of local COSH groups at coshnetwork.org.

See also Celeste Monfortin’s weekly report at thepumphandle.org, and Jordan Barab’s articles at jordanbarab.com/confinedspace. Garrett Brown’s insidecalosha.org focuses mostly on California.

The sandbagging of OSHA, an agency symbiotically linked to labor, has accompanied the seemingly inexorable decline of organized labor itself. Since its high point in 1980 under Dr. Eula Bingham, OSHA’s budget has stalled at around $550 million in 2015 dollars. The number of health and safety inspectors declined from 14.8 to 5.4 per million workers in those 35 years, while the number of workers covered by the law rose from about 99 million to over 130 million.

Trump’s inauguration, combined with Republican control of both houses of Congress, has accelerated the trashing of OSHA. The House Committee on Appropriations has proposed to cut OSHA’s FY 2018 enforcement budget by 6.5 percent compared to FY 2017, and the overall OSHA budget will be cut by 4 percent. The House proposes to totally eliminate Susan Harwood grants, which have trained thousands of rank-and-file unionists in job health and safety since the Carter administration. The funding for coal mine inspections under the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been slashed by $11 million, around 7 percent. The Interior Department killed a study on the negative health impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining, which clogs up and poisons nearby rivers and creeks, despite President Trump’s loudly proclaimed love for American miners and the imaginary “clean coal” they produce.

Dozens of local Committees on Safety and Health, or “COSH groups,” and immigrant-oriented labor centers have kept alive struggles for better health on the job, but times are tough. Is it any wonder that occupational health advocacy sometimes feels like a movement in suspended animation?

To escape relatively high U.S. wages and somewhat stringent environmental controls, industries like asbestos, steel, and automobiles have been emigrating to countries where labor is cheap and enforceable health and safety regulations are a mirage. The assaults on new protective regulations on workers’ health are symptomatic of the “business über alles” mentality promoted by the Trump administration in almost all areas of government policy.

Karmel's final chapter, “Are There Really Any Accidents?” throws the responsibility where it belongs, on cost-cutting employers and on an economic system that make the risk of injury and death a nagging reality for millions of American workers.

Dan Berman wrote Death On the Job in 1978. He also co-authored Who Owns the Sun? with the late John T. O’Connor. Berman has been an organizer on worker health and environmental issues in the U. S. and Brazil, and has worked at many different jobs. He is a retired member of SEIU Local 1000 in California and is writing a sequel to Death On the Job.