Dying for a Job

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The number of serious on-the-job accidents this year has yet again made very clear the urgent need for expanded and tightened government safety regulation. The toll on workers has been high, as union officials told a House committee recently. They noted, for example, the explosion at a West Virginia coal mine in that killed 29 workers, a blast at a refinery in Washington state that killed seven, the BP oil rig blast in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11.

Those were but a very small sampling of the on-the-job accidents that kill nearly 6,000 American workers every year and seriously injure more than two million others. Another 50,000 die yearly from cancer, heart ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic materials.

The union officials came before the House committee to urge passage of a bill that would significantly strengthen worker protections. Greater profit and productivity, not safety, has been the main concern of too many employers and government regulators. They've allowed too many workers to suffer for lack of proper protections.

The federal safety laws -- now 40 years old -- are way out-of-date. They've rarely been strengthened to meet new hazards, and their penalties are relatively slight. And the laws give workers who raise job safety concerns little protection from employer retaliation. The proposed job safety bill would give them that protection and guarantee them the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.

Sponsors of the bill face stiff opposition, though, including the National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and nearly two dozen other industry groups that are not particularly eager to spend more money on job safety.


The Bush administration was assuredly on their side. The safety laws were only lightly enforced, if enforced at all, by the Bush appointees who ran the federal safety agencies. Union safety experts say it will take a long time to reverse the many bad policies and practices that the Bush appointees put in place.

The Obama administration is pledged to do just that and to otherwise strengthen job safety laws, which is essential if American workers are finally to gain meaningful protection from the on-the-job hazards that have for many years killed or maimed millions of them.

With a Perspective, this is Dick Meister.