SAFETY CORNER – Get to Know Your OSHA Labor Liaison

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of workplace safety. Everyone now has a much better understanding of how challenging it can be to stay safe, and keep others safe, so people can go home at the end of the day in the same condition they left to go to work.

No one knows the importance of safety better than UWUA members. Whether working in water, gas, electric, or any other industry represented by the UWUA, members are taught the importance of safety and practice it every day on the job.

OSHA turns 50

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December 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Congress’s enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, promising workers the right to a safe job. Still, as this year has shown, too many workers remain at serious risk of illness, injury or death on the job.

The act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce the law.

OSHA has 10 regional offices located in major metropolitan areas and 89 offices scattered throughout the country. According to the OSHA website, “Each office has a labor liaison whose job it is to maintain communication with organized and unorganized workers… You can contact them if you need help, if you want to establish a relationship between your group and OSHA, or if you want to establish or update a health and safety system in your workplace.”

It is very important for every UWUA local to know who their OSHA liaison is and to develop a relationship with them. In this way, if an employer does not address safety concerns at a worksite, you can call in OSHA to hold your employer accountable.

A recent case of OSHA’s power involved Columbia Gas in Massachusetts. At the height of the pandemic earlier this year, Local 273 (now merged with Local 369) sent a letter to the local OSHA office alleging a number of workplace hazards relating to the company’s failure to meet COVID-19 safety requirements.

Among the alleged hazards were: the employer was not providing PPE to employees, no wipes, no head and shoe covers, no hand sanitizer, no N-95s, no gloves; not maintaining social distancing; a field crew not being notified of a customer who cancelled a home visit due to illness; non-working radios in trucks; and the worksite not being cleaned appropriately.

The OSHA office notified Columbia Gas of the alleged violations of CDC and OSHA safety requirements and gave the employer one week to report back on their findings and implement the recommendations.

OSHA’s recommendations to address the alleged violations, included: developing an infectious disease preparedness and response plan; implementing basic infection prevention measures; developing policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people; providing PPE and training in accordance with OSHA standards; and communicating and training employees regarding measures to take to reduce potential exposure.

File complaints in a timely manner

OSHA cited the following in its response to the union’s concerns: “Section 11(c) of the OSH Act provides protection for employees against discrimination because of their involvement in protected safety and health related activity… You should file this complaint as soon as possible since OSHA normally can accept only those complaints filed within 30 days of the alleged discriminatory action.”

Union members have more safety protections than their non-union counterparts, thanks to the union contract. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s August report Why unions are good for workers — especially in a crisis like COVID-19, “During the crisis, unionized workers have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, paid sick time, and a say in the terms of furloughs or work-share arrangements to save jobs. These pandemic-specific benefits build on the many ways unions help workers.”

Still, as the AFL-CIO’s recent report, Death on the Job the Toll of Neglect, makes clear, through October 1, OSHA had opened investigations into only 198 of the more than 9,000 employee complaints it received related to COVID-19.

There is much work to be done to make our workplaces safer. With the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, we expect a reinvestment in OSHA by the federal government that will result in safer workplaces for everyone.