Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Inferior workplace health and safety regulations are killing us (literally!)

May 20th, 2011 | Kate Thomas

Image: Kate ThomasOn Monday, May 16, SEIU member Cathy Stoddart, RN, BSN spoke at a briefing with U.S. Senate staff about the importance of strong health and safety workplace regulations. The briefing familiarized HELP committee staff with the benefits of regulations for American consumers and workers, as well as the costs of government’s failure to ensure a safe workplace.

In her dual role serving an Executive Board member of her SEIU Healthcare PA and as a nurse at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital, Cathy is no stranger to making her voice heard on workers’ rights and workplace safety issues. She spoke in detail on Monday about how we might easily and affordably strengthen health and safety regulations to prevent injuries and illnesses, save lives, and improve patient care. “Regulations don’t kill jobs,” Cathy pointed out, “but a lack of workplace health and safety regulations does kill workers.”

The reality is much more needs to be done to regulate hazards that healthcare workers face. The statistics speak for themselves…

Healthcare workers have higher injury and illness rates than workers in mining, manufacturing or construction; yet very few health and safety standards for these caregiving workers exist.

For example, there are currently no standards to protect healthcare workers from the leading hazard they face: an epidemic of neck, back and shoulder injuries from manual patient handling. A Safe Patient Handling regulation that required the provision of lifting devices to protect healthcare workers from career-ending back, neck and shoulder injuries would go a long way towards solving this pervasive problem. With the recent anti- worker rhetoric combined with staffing cutbacks, we are also seeing an alarming increase in workplace violence. We need a national OSHA workplace violence prevention standard to protect healthcare workers from getting assaulted by patients, residents and clients.

A bill that’s currently making the rounds in the House Judiciary and Rules Committees presents a huge potential barrier to removing the threats healthcare workers still face on the job. H.R. 10 (the REINS Act) would require both Houses of Congress to approve virtually all new major regulations before they go into effect, which means that any new regulation would get caught up in Congressional gridlock.

What would passage of the REINS Act specifically mean for working people? Nothing good, that’s for sure. HR 10, if enacted, would essentially make it impossible to ever issue another regulation to protect workers from on-the-job hazards. Consider that in the year 2010 alone, federal agencies issued more than 90 major new rules that could likely have been subject to the REINS Act’s requirements. There are simply not enough hours in a day to allow Congress to allot the time necessary to consider and approve even the most important rules (much less 90 of them).

The OSHA standard setting process currently in place is essentially broken. Standards that previously took a year to promulgate now take decades, if they come out at all. We need to expedite rulemaking, not slow it down, like the REIN Act aims to do.

This article originally appeared in SEIU Blog on May 19, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.

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