September 8, 2017 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

Typically, we like to end the annual “The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety” on an uplifting note. But this time around — to be honest — that was a hard sell.

Take a quick look through the 2017 yearbook and you’ll quickly glean that worker health and safety is very much at risk under the new administration and from lawmakers in the states. From the attempted rollback of a new federal beryllium exposure standard to state efforts to weaken workers’ compensation systems, the view from 2017 does not seem terribly promising. On the other hand, the fight for workers’ rights has never been easy — it’s always been a movement defined by taking on the powerful by giving voice to the powerless. In that way, organizers and advocates are well prepared for the fight ahead — and they have a long history of labor accomplishments from which to draw strength.

On that note, we leave you with an excerpt from the 2017 yearbook — a section called “The Year Ahead”:

Let’s be frank, the year ahead does not look great. It looks hard and disappointing and upsetting. Beyond the politics and talking points and arguments, the cold, hard fact on the ground is that weakening key mechanisms that create safe and fair working conditions — like data collection, transparency, research and enforcement — emboldens unscrupulous employers and puts workers in harm’s way. This is a fact.

Just as this yearbook was going to press in August, worker safety advocates noticed that OSHA has scrubbed its worker fatality list from its home page and buried the link on an internal page. Now, the list only contains incidents for which a citation was issued and removes the names of deceased workers. A Department of Labor spokesperson told reporters the change was meant to protect the privacy of workers’ families. The truth is that OSHA leadership decided to weaken one its most useful enforcement tools. The truth is that removing workers’ names only protects the privacy of employers who may have needlessly put them at mortal risk. A decision like this dehumanizes workplace fatalities, erasing from the raw data the real people and families behind the numbers.

Word of OSHA’s website change began circulating around worker advocate listservs and on occupational safety and health sites. By that afternoon, the news had popped up in Politico. Just as quickly as advocates had spread word about the problem, they began discussing ways to ensure that the names and stories of fallen workers would not be washed from public view.

No one is surprised that the Trump administration is hostile toward OSHA, an agency whose mission is to hold employers accountable to the law. After all, it’s also a fact that private citizen Trump had a sizeable history of flouting labor laws and practicing ethically questionable behaviors in his own business ventures. Still, watching those inclinations manifest into public policy is hard to stomach.

All that said, we know worker advocates in communities across the country won’t be deterred. They’ll just work harder. They face anti-worker sentiment every day, working hand in hand with some of the most powerless people in the U.S. They know that the collective power of informed workers is greater than those who conspire to deny workers their rights and erase their names from view. Labor history is full of such stories. For example, just this year, farm workers in Washington state officially formed America’s first new farm worker union in 25 years. The union is aptly named Familias Unidas por la Justicia — or Families United for Justice.

With the future so uncertain and federal commitment to worker safety so unclear, it seems like a critical moment to support organizers on the ground and stand with workers in the streets. Let next year’s Workers’ Memorial Week be a forceful reminder that all workers, regardless of immigration status, deserve safety, dignity, respect, and justice on the job. To borrow a phrase from another social justice movement, workers’ lives matter. Keep telling their stories.

Like we wrote earlier this week, we also hope you’ll help share the 2017 yearbook far and wide — not only is the yearbook a call to action, it’s a source of inspiration and motivation. Download the 2017 yearbook here and find previous editions here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.

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