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An energized safety movement steps up for essential workers


(March 11, 2021) — A reinvigorated safety and health movement is taking on the long historic injustice of work-related illness, injury and death. It’s also digging deep into structured inequality to reveal the race/class/gender discrimination that shapes that inequality in both small and screamingly obvious ways.

During this pandemic we became newly able to see into each other’s daily labors. With an honest look, we see the stark inequalities and injustices visited on those who’re doing the work and bearing the risk. We are reminded again that work can sicken and kill.

The pandemic has injected groups organized to promote worker health and safety with a new sense of purpose. An electrified urgency is driving an intent to deal with the hazards, the lack of rights, the absence of medical leave, the exclusion from workers’ compensation, the risks of being a whistleblower, the threats of retaliation.

Essential workers — celebrated and dismissed

One of the most grotesque features of this period is the simultaneous ennoblement and abuse of workers. We — as a society — need people to be on the front lines to hold it together for the rest of us: emergency workers, health care workers, transit workers, food service workers, agricultural workers.

Many of these essential workers are treated as disposable and replaceable. They are exploited and drafted into positions that put them at great risk, with no assurance of protection.

Reinventing occupational health and safety

Worker health projects are linked together in the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). Composed of councils or committees on OSH, labor councils, health care providers and related organizations that focus on immigrant communities and social justice, the COSH movement is reinventing itself around the current crisis.

In December, the COSH network convened two weeks of intensive collective learning about the crisis. They followed up with more online organizing and the Feb. 3 launch of a “Day of Action” to set the stage for an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights.”

National COSH Co-Directors Jessica Martinez and Marcy Goldstein-Gelb reported on the impact of the Day of Action:

All across the country, workers joined with labor and nonprofit allies in a Day of Action to demand a seat at the table in workplaces and in policy arenas:

  • Workers from Nashville-based Workers’ Dignity and Houston-based Fe y Justicia Worker Center shared powerful testimonies on a national call to release the document
  • Members of Cincinnati Interfaith Worker Center rallied in front of OSHA
  • In Massachusetts, MassCOSH worker-leaders and organizers spoke out at a livestream event
  • In Richmond, Va., Legal Aid Justice Center held charlas (talks) throughout the day
  • Activists used our Tool Kit of posters and social media images to blitz their networks.

Workers and advocates have continued to speak out ever since: At a recent OSHA Listening Session, hosted by the Secretary of Labor’s office, dozens of COSH and other labor advocates spoke out about the urgent need for an emergency standard protecting workers from COVID. They urged the Administration to require all employers to have safety programs with workers at the table and to back them with strong enforcement.

Workplaces that respect and protect their essential workers

A driving force today is the push for “Model Workplace Safety & Health Demands for Essential Workers.” Based on the real daily work of people across the country, the COSH network has laid out the following program:

  • Determination of points of exposure
  • Comprehensive worker-led training and updated information
  • Activation and empowerment of real S&H Committees (not paper committees controlled by management)
  • Making sure workers can report illnesses and exposures, take time off without penalty and have access to testing on a steady basis.
  • Provide supplemental pay to all essential workers.

Another layer of risk for immigrant workers

Immigrant workers pay a special price — they are absolutely essential and at extreme risk. The National COSH movement is monitoring and resisting the workings of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) around workplaces.

Immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to their employers and federal/state authorities if they report hazards, seek medical leave or try to file for unemployment when they’re out of work. Workers who dare to report concerns and provide information about COVID and other exposures may find an ICE officer at the door when they leave work.

Their experience across the country leaves them in the crosshairs of interlocked authority systems devised by corporations, employers, immigration regulations, and even labor and health agencies. The current COVID-crisis highlights the virtual plantation conditions afflicting many workers called “essential” but treated as expendable.

Protections on the books but limited enforcement

Here in Washington state, where agriculture is a key part of the economy, many workers are at high risk. We do have a reasonable system of safety and health protections, but their potential is weakened by the lack of steady enforcement, especially in agriculture. As the impact of COVID became clearer and workers started organizing in self-defense, Governor Inslee issued a preliminary and promising Executive Order in May 2020.

This was a decent start, but there are loopholes. Workers are still at risk if they openly report violations. They are not assured steady testing and personal protective equipment. They face hazards if they depend on employer-provided housing.

Fortunately, our region has some political momentum with substantial organizing by such groups as Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Communities to Communities, United Farm Workers, Washington State Labor Council, and the Washington Labor Education & Research Center.

Abuses that don’t come to light

Many workers suffer in the shadows. It is simply too risky for worried or injured workers to come forward, especially in the agricultural economy. A recent article in the Northwest Inlander describes how a Mexican worker here on an H2-A visa encountered the eerie Catch-22 set up by employers. COVID exposure, the fight to get treatment, the denial of coverage, the lack of testing, the fight to prove the illness is workplace-related — and then the refusal of the employer to cover costs even after ordered to do so by the state Department of Labor and Industries.

On top of the usual hazards (exposure to agricultural chemicals, musculo-skeletal strains of the work) farmworkers this year faced the frightening prospect of COVID. Add a fire-and-smoke filled summer that left farmworkers in the fields with virtually no protection, under unyielding pressure to bring in the harvest and the picture is grim.

Important partnerships to secure immigrant rights

The immigrant rights movement embodied by WAISN (WA Immigrant Solidarity Network) is working hard in the Legislature and at the grassroots to obtain emergency and long-term funding for health and safety, especially for undocumented workers and their families. WAISN has conducted an in-depth survey on immigrant health, including at the workplace, in partnership with the ACLU and Northwest Health Law Advocates.

Our work, our bodies, ourselves

The movement for workplace health in the age of COVID offers a powerful remedy for some of our ills. It addresses daily structural damage and risk; it brings people together across differences that have to be negotiated respectfully for the movement to go forward; it reminds us who we are and who we can be.

We can ignore these grim conditions… defensively protecting ourselves, staying apart, forgetting the historical and continuing injustices. Or we can work on building strategies that recognize the rights of labor and shared rights to health—as we move together into a very challenging future.

Contact regional organizations:

Find all kinds of resources in English and Spanish, including toolkits, learn more about the safety and health movement at

Lin Nelson is a retired college teacher and was an active member of United Faculty of Evergreen/WEA/AFT. This opinion column was originally posted at Works in Progress and is shared here with the author’s permission.

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