The Essential Role of Unions in Advocating for Workplace Safety

When it comes to creating safe workplaces, labor unions are workers’ strongest advocates. Time and again, we witness the tragic consequences of employers who prioritize expediency and cost savings over protecting the health, welfare, and very lives of their employees. This issue was starkly highlighted when Trey Michael Gray, a 20-year-old city utility worker, lost his life in a preventable workplace accident in Roswell, New Mexico, on October 21, 2023. His death stands as a solemn reminder of the ongoing struggle for workplace safety and the critical importance of advocating for the safety and well-being of workers across all industries.

Without the union’s involvement in the investigations that follow workplace tragedies, the truth can remain hidden. Too often, companies present a one-sided version of the story to OSHA and walk away with minimal consequences. In Gray’s investigation, representatives from both Local 51 and the National union were fully involved from the start, ensuring a thorough examination of the circumstances. Our involvement contributed to the substantial abatements issued by OSHA. These abatements, which change how work is done to improve safety, are more important than fines in preventing future tragedies.

The citations issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Bureau (OHSB) of New Mexico against the City of Roswell paint a troubling picture of negligence and disregard for safety protocols. The willful violations cited, including failures to train workers on excavation safety requirements and to ensure proper inspection of work sites, underscore the need for stricter enforcement of safety regulations.

Moreover, the magnitude of the fines imposed on the city, totaling over $600,000, reflects the seriousness of the violations and serves as a deterrent against future negligence. However, monetary penalties alone are not enough to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. It requires a concerted effort from both employers and regulatory bodies to prioritize worker safety above all else.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1971 was a landmark piece of legislation that promised every worker the fundamental right to a safe job. However, incidents like Gray’s death highlight the grim reality that this promise is not always upheld. In the aftermath of such tragedies, it falls upon organizations like labor unions to hold employers accountable and fight for safer workplaces.

Another recent example of our union’s safety advocacy took place this spring when we submitted a proposal to Sempra shareholders asking them to vote to require the company’s board to report on efforts to reduce environmental and safety risks. Sempra is the energy infrastructure company that owns the subsidiary where, in 2019, Local 132 member Wade Kilpatrick died while responding to a damaged gas pipeline. With the shareholder resolution, UWUA is not only holding Sempra accountable but also advocating for transparency and accountability in corporate governance.

Sempra objected to our proposal, saying it was unnecessary, but the Securities and Exchange Commission upheld the union’s position, signaling a small victory in the ongoing battle for worker safety.

The resolution filed by UWUA highlights the need for companies to analyze the underlying causes of safety incidents and take proactive measures to mitigate risks. The union’s stance is not just about protecting workers within Sempra’s operations but also about promoting a culture of safety across the industry as a whole.

This shareholder action was the latest in a series of efforts by the UWUA to ensure Wade Kilpatrick’s tragic death was not in vain. In 2021, we worked to ensure the enactment of the Wade Kilpatrick Gas Safety and Workforce Adequacy Act, a California law that prescribes increased civil penalties for operators or excavators who violate provisions related to excavations and subsurface installations, causing damage to underground utility infrastructure. The bill includes additional measures to promote safety and reliability while preventing repeat offenders from hitting natural gas or hazardous liquid pipelines.

The tragic loss of Trey Michael Gray serves as a poignant reminder that the fight for worker safety is far from over. Labor unions play an essential role in this ongoing battle, advocating tirelessly for the health and well-being of workers across all industries. Their efforts are vital in ensuring that the promises of the Occupational Safety and Health Act are fulfilled and that every worker can expect to return home safely at the end of the day.