Ken Peterson: Fight for safer workplaces continues in Minnesota, worldwide

Workers Memorial Day is observed each April 28 because President Richard Nixon signed the OSHA law on that date in 1970. He called it the most significant legislation for working people enacted in American history. The new workplace-safety law was the culmination of decades of work by unions and safety advocates to reduce on-the-job deaths and injuries of American workers.

Every workplace death and injury is one too many. Nevertheless, there is a lot less pain and death today than there was in 1970.

Since then, despite a doubling of the U.S. workforce, workplace deaths have dropped from 13,800 to 4,679 in 2014. In 1970, there were 18 fatalities for every 100,000 workers in the U.S. There were 3.3 in 2014. Minnesota has even fewer — 2.6 fatalities for every 100,000. There has been a similar decline in on-the-job injuries and illnesses as well.

In addition to OSHA enforcement and advice, the decrease in deaths and injuries is due to factors like the growth of the service economy and the decline in manufacturing, as well as better use of technology in fields as diverse as meatpacking and logging. Pressure from unions and their own enlightened self-interest in cutting workers’ compensation costs and maintaining a skilled workforce has also led many employers to adopt better safety practices. There’s no question that Minnesota has a large number of employers that care a great deal about worker safety.

However, improvement in overall job safety doesn’t mean much if you or a loved one is ill because of exposure to hazardous materials or is hurt because of sloppy safety practices on the job. If all else fails, it is Minnesota OSHA’s job to make sure employers provide safe workplaces to their employees.

Much of MNOSHA’s work is aimed at reducing threats from safety and environmental hazards, using two unique Minnesota laws. The most frequent citation for employers is not providing training under the “Right-to-Know” (handling hazardous materials) law. The third most common citation is failure to involve employees in A Workplace Accident and Injury Reduction (AWAIR) program. When implemented, compliance with both right-to-know and AWAIR have been shown to reduce workplace injuries and illnesses.

The second most common MNOSHA citation is failure of construction contractors to provide employees adequate protection from falls. Residential roofers are frequently cited by MNOSHA for not protecting workers from falls. Citations are also commonly given for unsafe scaffolds and ladders, as well as failure to provide fall protection from elevated platforms. These charges are necessary, since every year too many people are killed from falls in construction projects. In fact, six out of 10 non-transportation construction fatalities are due to falls.

At one time, injuries and deaths were an acceptable part of the American workplace. Today, that’s not the case because conditions and attitudes have changed. Sadly, at times it has taken workplace disasters to force change, such as New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911, which killed 146 workers and provided impetus for workers’ compensation laws and a crackdown on unsafe buildings.

Another disaster that should be remembered is the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed 1,113 and injured 2,500 workers. Even though cracks appeared the day before the building collapsed, employees were ordered to come to work the next day or lose their $43-a-month jobs making clothes for American and European retailers.

As with other developing world garment makers, the Bangladesh workers’ employers had very short production deadlines to meet the “fast fashion” requirements of their giant retail customers. These retailers’ supply chain business models are based on maximizing speed to market to combine low-wage employees and fast-turnaround production with tight inventory controls. That way, the latest designs can be moved quickly from fashion catwalks in Paris or Milan to retailers’ shelves with relatively low prices for their ultimate customers.

Although these low prices are key to producing fast fashion, the Rana Plaza catastrophe shows there was little priority for employee safety.

Since the publicity surrounding the Rana Plaza building’s collapse, its owner has been charged with murder and retailers and the government say they have improved safety requirements. Hopefully, law changes have made it easier to organize labor unions to advocate for worker safety. Clearly, much more needs to be done both in Bangladesh and internationally.

We can never forget that every workplace death and injury in Bangladesh or any other developing nation causes the same anguish, loss and pain as one does in Minnesota. A family member with all their dreams, love and responsibilities is either gone forever or seriously hurt.

All of us need to continue to advocate for safer workplaces throughout Minnesota, the U.S. and around the world.

– Ken Peterson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.