June 5, 2015 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

Back in 1970 when the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established, local policymakers could choose whether or not to extend OSHA protections to state employees. Unfortunately, Massachusetts took a pass. But decades later — and after years of advocacy, organizing and research on the part of worker advocates — employees of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can now look forward to safer and healthier workplaces.

In June 2014, then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation that expanded OSHA protections to executive branch employees — that’s more than 150,000 workers. The law, which went into effect in March, requires that the new executive branch safety and health measures be at least as protective as OSHA standards. Advocates estimate that the new protections will not only save lives and avert preventable injury, illness and disability, it could save the state significant costs in medical care and workers’ compensation. While current Gov. Charlie Baker proposed $500,000 in funding to support the state Department of Labor Standards in implementing the new law and establishing safety standards, community advocates will continue to play a central role in making the law an on-the-ground reality.

“I think (the law) will save numerous lives and it will certainly save the Commonwealth money, some of which can be reinvested in preventing illness and injury,” Margaret O’Connor, associate director of health and safety at the Massachusetts Nurses Association, told me. “This whole process is about creating an infrastructure that supports health and safety.”

Nurses employed by state hospitals are among the thousands of executive branch workers who will benefit from the OSHA extension, as will highway engineers, electrical workers, community college employees, law enforcement officers, custodial personnel and many more occupational sectors. Before the new law, state employees weren’t covered by the same worker protection standards as their peers in the private sector, with each state agency addressing workplace health and safety on its own.

But with 150 state agencies, the process was not terribly effective and many agencies simply lacked the technical expertise to implement and keep abreast of ever-evolving worker safety science and standards. In essence, the fragmented system was primarily reactive, not proactive. In contrast, the new law centralizes the work of protecting executive employee health and safety, takes full advantage of OSHA’s evidence-based practices and protocols, and prioritizes prevention.

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), described the new law as “groundbreaking.” MassCOSH was part of a broad coalition of employee organizations, labor unions and safety advocates that spent years working with state labor officials on the issue of extending OSHA protections. A pivotal point in the process was the 2009 signing of Executive Order 511, which established the Massachusetts Employee Safety and Health Advisory Committee and charged it with examining safety among state workers and making recommendations to prevent further injury and illness. The order also established individual worker health and safety committees within state agencies. Overall, the order called for the “creation of an infrastructure that will allow for on-going assessment and improvement of health and safety conditions for Commonwealth employees on the job.”

“At the time, there was a complete inconsistency in safety protections (for executive branch workers),” Goldstein-Gelb, a member of the advisory committee, told me. “But to have so many stakeholders united on this front was so exciting.”

In March 2014, the state advisory committee released its report, finding that the state spends about $31 million every year on direct medical care and workers’ compensation wage costs associated with work-related injuries and illnesses within the executive branch and about $48 million across all branches of state government. However, when including lump sum settlements, rehabilitation, lost time, replacement worker costs, reduced productivity and administrative time, the costs doubled to $62 million for the executive branch and $96 million across all state agencies.

Based on reported claims between fiscal years 2010 and 2012, the report found that more than 3,000 state workers experienced job-related injuries serious enough to require time off from work and four workers died. The three agencies with the most lost-time claims were the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, where, for example, nurses face high risks of ergonomic injuries as well as assault by violent patients; the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, whose employees are at high risk of motor vehicle injuries; and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, where workers also face the risk of workplace violence. The report reads: “There is a clear need for full use of the technical worker protection standards, such as the OSHA standards, as well as a health and safety management system. Both are needed in concert to protect the Commonwealth’s workforce from preventable injuries and illnesses.”

Goldstein-Gelb provided me with a memo from the state’s Department of Labor Standards comparing the cost of workplace injury to the cost of prevention. Here’s just one insightful example: During fiscal years 2010 through 2012, there was an average of more than 1,000 injuries per year across the executive branch in the lifting/moving/walking category. To date, the cost of such injuries neared $77,000. The cost of investing in prevention? About $50 per employee to receive training in proper lifting techniques. Also, the same year former Gov. Patrick signed Executive Order 511, MassCOSH and Massachusetts AFL-CIO released a report on work-related fatalities in conjunction with Workers’ Memorial Day that highlighted the death of a state electrical worker. In investigating the death, state officials found the incident might have been prevented if certain OSHA standards had been in place.

The state advisory committee report issued a number of recommendations in response to Executive Order 511, including implementing a statewide policy that all agencies use nationally recognized worker safety standards and formalizing the role of health and safety committees. Goldstein-Gelb told me that while some policymakers were initially uneasy about the cost of extending OSHA protections, the report made it clear that closing safety gaps would not be prohibitively expensive and would likely save money in the long term.

“It certainly took a lot of effort, but in the end, many (decision-makers) were very receptive,” she said.

In addition to extending OSHA protections to executive workers, the new law also codified the advisory committee, which is now known as the Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Board. The board includes a representative from MassCOSH, four labor representatives, a representative from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and representatives from the administration. The advisory board will have a central role in implementing the law, including training, technical assistance and enforcement.

Goldstein-Gelb said the state Department of Labor Standards promulgated regulations related to the new law late last year, effectively adopting most OSHA standards. However, she said one OSHA standard is notably missing from the new Massachusetts protections — Section 11(c) of the OSH Act, which protects workers against retaliation for speaking up about unsafe or unhealthful workplace conditions.

Today, MassCOSH is working with public employee unions and state officials to educate state agencies on the new OSHA protections and continues to advocate for the funding necessary to effectively implement the law. Goldstein-Gelb said MassCOSH also recently launched an effort to bring workplace health and safety to municipal employees as well.

According to O’Connor at the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the new OSHA protections bring the science of prevention to the lives of executive workers.

“I think this is, without a doubt, one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Commonwealth has seen in years,” she said.

To learn more about the new OSHA protections, visit MassCOSH.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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