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WSLC’s Johnson: Renew focus on safety, accident prevention

Following are the remarks of Jeff Johnson, President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, at Tuesday’s Workers Memorial Day event at the state Department of Labor & Industries building in Tumwater. See this week’s remaining Worker Memorial Day events.

johnson-jeff-13All throughout this week, in gatherings like this, people all over the country are coming together to pay their respects to the families of  those who have lost their lives at the workplace through accidents or illnesses. To the families who have lost loved ones here today, on behalf of the unions I want to express our most sincere sympathy for your loss.

We come together also to recognize workers who have been injured or become ill from work and to encourage their recovery and return to work.

We come together to recognize the work of thousands of workers in public and private employment who labor to make our workplaces safer.

And finally, we come together to recognize our moral obligation to make work as safe as it can possibly be so that we can all expect our loved ones to return from work at the end of each day.

Reported workplace injuries and illnesses and workplace fatalities have decreased in Washington State and across the nation again this past year — and that is a good thing.

But tragedies like the explosion at Deep Water Horizon, which took 11 lives, or Massey Ferguson Upper Big Branch Mine explosion which took 29 lives, or the Tesoro Refinery explosion which took 7 lives, or the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in Texas last week which took 14 lives, dramatically illustrate the inadequacy of our workplace safety laws and their enforcement.

The West Fertilizer Company was last inspected in 1985 — fully 28 years ago. Yet given the number of OSHA health and safety inspectors we can expect workplaces to be inspected on average only once every 131 years. The state’s DOSH inspectors can inspect all businesses in Washington State on average once every 40 years and consultation experts can visit every workplace on average once every 125 years.

This is unacceptable.

OSHA and DOSH are woefully understaffed to do the job the way it needs to be done. Good intentions and great science don’t get the job done if we don’t invest the resources needed.

While Congress gridlocks over whether to raise the taxes of the wealthy, sequestration has further eroded OSHA’s budget — this is wrong.

But fortunately we are not Congress. We don’t think that way. We want to get things done. We know that every workers’ compensation claim is a missed opportunity for prevention and savings. And we know that every dollar directed towards prevention is an investment in safe, productive jobs and healthy workers.

It’s time, perhaps long past time, for us to roll up our sleeves as labor, business, injured workers and their families, and government and shift our priorities towards focusing on prevention.

Let’s drill down on the most common causes of workplace accidents, illnesses and fatalities, bring our best health and safety experts together, use the best science available to us, look at the best practices of others, and figure out together how to drive down accident rates.

We know from data in our own state and studies from other states that workplace injury and illness rates fall dramatically in the year following health and safety inspections, consultation and compliance activities. Some studies point to decreases of workplace injuries of between 19 and 24%. This is something to aspire to.

I believe that people of good will who are willing to leave their biases at the door can make a real difference in driving down injury, illness , and fatality rates.

When labor, business, and government have come together in the past around creating the Centers for Occupational Health Excellence and real vocational retraining options for injured workers, everyone has gained from those efforts.

We owe it to the families that are here today, we owe it to workers and business owners, and we owe it to ourselves, to invest our time, energy, resources, and good will into focusing our attention on creating safer and more healthy workplaces.

If we do this, I am sure that these efforts will be rewarded with less heart ache, fewer injuries, illnesses, and fatalities and safer workplaces.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!