OP-ED: More must be done to protect workers

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb and Jessica Martinez
Tribune News Service
A gardener works outside Windsor Terrace Healthcare Center in Van Nuys is seen on April 13, 2020 in Los Angeles, Calif. She is a cashier at Food 4 Less. Eighty nine percent of the nursing homes in LA County with COVID outbreaks have been cited for poor infection control in the last three years and Windsor Terrace Healthcare Center is among those most cited. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

As the death toll mounts from COVID-19, we’re seeing heartbreaking reports from critical workplaces. Nurses in Detroit, transit workers in Boston and Philadelphia and poultry workers in Georgia are dying after exposure to infection while doing their jobs.

Essential workers are not getting the gear and working conditions they need to stay healthy — and when they become sick, we are all at risk from the wider spread of a deadly disease.

Health care workers are scrambling for personal protective equipment, or PPE. Slaughterhouse workers are working elbow to elbow without masks. Grocery workers are being denied paid sick leave, even when co-workers test positive for COVID-19.

Under U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, U.S. employers have a legal responsibility to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards … likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The law doesn’t say “except during a public health crisis.” Workers need more protection — not less — during an infectious disease outbreak.

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But OSHA, charged with enforcing workplace safety, has been largely missing in action during the war against COVID-19, failing to require employers to establish a comprehensive safety plan.

The Centers for Disease Control has actually weakened worker protections, telling employers they can require potentially exposed employees to stay on the job. That’s a far weaker standard than the 14-day quarantine recommended for the general public.

While the government fiddles, workers are on fire, using their leverage to win important gains through a wave of strikes, job actions and successful negotiations. Amazon workers won paid leave for seasonal and part-time workers. Nurses in California won the right to bring their own PPE to work. And hotel workers in New York and New Jersey will be able to keep their health insurance while they are furloughed.

Workers and safety advocates are also filling the void created when employers and government officials fail to act by putting out a toolkit for essential workers, guidelines for grocery store employees, and recommendations for safe cleaning and disinfecting.

But more needs to be done. Nonessential work should be discontinued, and truly critical workplaces must implement the best possible health and safety practices.

Every day in America, workers labor in all kinds of hazardous environments, often without adequate safety protections. Every job has its own set of hazards, some more deadly than others.

In a typical year, more than 100,000 U.S. workers die from occupational hazards including cancer and lung disease, or from sudden workplace trauma. Just as we can reduce the risk of COVID-19, we can also reduce workplace fatalities by involving workers in the process and improving safety protections.

The current crisis has demonstrated, more clearly than ever, that worker health cannot be separated from public health. Life-threatening hazards don’t stay put in a single building or worksite, but spread to family members, neighbors and the public at large.

To protect ourselves — and one another — we need to hold employers and governments accountable and keep essential workers as safe as possible. And let’s not forget that every worker is essential to their family — and deserves to come home safely at the end of their shift.

— Marcy Goldstein-Gelb and Jessica Martinez are co-executive directors of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a network of local worker health and safety coalitions. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.