March 14, 2008 The Pump Handle 1Comment

Yesterday we learned that former Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) passed away at age 90.  His former colleague, Sentor Edward Kennedy issued a statement, saying:

“He was the conscience of the Senate, who never shied away from the difficult fights, and never apologized for standing up for workers.”

I had the unforgettable opportunity to watch Senator Metzenbaum in action at numerous congressional hearings on worker safety and health topics.  Whether the topic was right-to-know, protections for hazardous waste clean-up workers or inadequate OSHA penalties, he was always well-prepared and GRUMPY.  I don’t know if his ornery disposition was just his public persona, but it surely sent the message to senior OSHA officials that Senator Metzenbaum took serious his oversight responsibility.

Searching the Washington Post archives, I easily found a few examples of the fire in Senator Metzenbaum’s belly for protecting workers’ rights:

Back in 1986, the Senator introduced the “High Risk Occupational Disease Notification Prevention Act” which would have established a system to indentify and notify workers when the government learns that exposure to a particular chemical hazard causes severe adverse health effects.  Metzenbaum said:

“I think workers are entitled to be notified of the risks of cancer from exposure to hazardous substances.  To do anything less is to participate in a conspiracy of silence.” (Wash Post, July 13, 1986)

About a 1988 hearing on OSHA rulemaking, the Washington Post’s Frank Swoboda wrote:

“Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) used the hearing yesterday to make repeated personal attacks on [OSHA Asst. Secretary] Pendergrass for what he characterized as unwarranted delays on OSHA regulations. ‘How can you possibly not have some sense of embarrassment or guilt?  Why did you take on this job? Why did you take on the responsibility and then fail to meet it?  I say, Mr. Pendergrass, that you’ve let down the workers of this country.  You haven’t been doing a good job by all objective standards.'” (Wash Post, Apr 21, 1988)

That same year, Senator Metzenbaum had had enough with OSHA’s delay in issuing a lockout/tagout standard.  The Washington Post’s Frank Swoboda wrote:

“Two weeks ago, the Labor Department began a series of informal public hearings on a proposed standard, which would require locks or warning tags on electrical switches.  But the rule exempted agricultural, maritime and construction industries. …Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) who has championed a lockout standard since Paumier’s death [a worker killed in 1985], said the only reason OSHA finally came out with the standard when it did was because it had Congress breathing down its neck.  Testifying at the OSHA hearing on the proposed lockout standard, Metzenbaum accussed the OMB of ‘interference and obstruction’ in trying to get the scope of the rule reduced.” (Wash Post, Oct 2, 1988)

Senator Metzenbaum had a 19-year career in the U.S. Senate, and today’s Washington Post offers a brief recap on the causes he made his own, including:

  • age-discrimination protections
  • health benefits for retirees
  • waiting period for hand-gun purchases
  • ban on assault weapon purchases
  • protecting the jobs of striking workers
  • nutrition labels on foods
  • 60-day notice to workers before plant closings

And I will remember him as the Senator on the dias, who was a committed advocate for all workers’ rights to safe and healthy workplaces, and to complain about potentially dangerous workplace conditions without fear of retaliation, and a robust enforcement system with meaningful penalties.

One thought on “No Apologies for Standing Up for Workers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.