Paid sick leave, new rights for temp workers, and extending OSHA protections to public sector employees were among the many victories that unfolded at the state and local levels in the last 12 months and that we highlight in this year’s edition of “The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety.”
In California, a number of new worker safety laws went into effect. Among them, a new law that holds companies responsible if they contract with staffing agencies that engage in wage theft and fail to maintain workers’ compensation insurance. California health care workers gained new protections as well, with a new state regulation requiring hospitals to implement safe patient handling programs. Also, a new sick leave law went into full effect in July 2015 and which applies to nearly every employer in California, with no exception for small businesses or employers with less than a particular number of employees. In San Francisco, local officials passed the nation’s first Retail Workers Bill of Rights, which takes on fair scheduling practices and job retention. Within the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), officials tightened standards to protect workers from heat illness. In addition, employers who are cited for violations by Cal/OSHA will now no longer be able to avoid fixing the problems while filing endless appeals.
Across the country in Massachusetts, worker safety advocates and their partners celebrated the extension of OSHA protections to public sector workers — an issue advocates have been working toward for years. Also in the previous year, Massachusetts public health officials released new recommendations for the prevention of work-related injuries among health care workers. Following last November’s successful ballot initiative, a new sick leave law took effect in the New England state, benefiting nearly 1 million workers who were previously unable to accrue time off to care for themselves or their loved ones.
In Arizona, new safety measures aim to better protect firefighters — measures that were inspired by the deaths of 19 firefighters in 2013. Public sector workers in Maine welcomed new OSHA-approved safety protections, while advocates and workers in Washington state celebrated a court ruling that requires employers to pay farmworkers during their rest breaks. In Wyoming, advocates teamed up with policymakers to draft legislation that would assess a non-negotiable $50,000 fie against a firm that “willfully and knowingly” violates safety laws, resulting in an occupational fatality. Unfortunately, that legislation didn’t make it to the governor’s desk.
In addition to new rules and protections at the state and local levels, reporters at local media outlets chronicled the lives of workers who experience injury and illness on the job. Among the many notable pieces we cover in the report was James Gordon’s piece in the Dallas Morning News, “Death on the Job,” which found that a worker in Texas is 12 percent more likely to be killed on the job than workers performing the same task in a different state. At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reporter Raquel Rutledge told the story of coffee roasting workers who became seriously ill after being exposed to the flavoring chemical diacetyl. And at the New York Daily News, Greg Smith exposed injuries among workers at the World Trade Center site, finding more than two-dozen incidents that were not reported to OSHA.
We write about these news stories and many more state and local activities in this year’s report, which we released on Labor Day. As we mentioned earlier this week, we hope you’ll share the report with your colleagues and partners. Also, add your own comments to this post below — what’s happening in your community or state to advance or threaten worker safety? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, which will highlight some of the previous year’s most notable peer-reviewed literature in occupational health and safety.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.