May 1, 2020
Leslie is joined by Steve Sallman, Assistant Director of the United Steelworkers Health, Safety and Environment Department, where he’s worked for more than 16 years. He has 28 years of safety and health experience, investigating fatalities and life-altering accidents, providing assistance to local unions and working closely with employers’ safety and health professionals. Mr. Sallman serves as a labor representative on the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) and NFPA’s 652 Technical Committee on the Fundamentals of Combustible Dust.
Leslie and Steve discuss Workers’ Memorial Day and the Trump administration’s responsibility to workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus has introduced a host of new health and safety concerns into the workplace: both for essential workers who have been on the job for the past two months and for workers who will be entering the workplace again as the economy begins to reopen. During this pandemic, many USW members have been and continue to go to work each day in oil and chemical plants, paper and steel mills, hospitals, power plants, and many other workplaces.
Unions, including the USW, have made a series of common sense recommendations and some employers have been taking steps to keep workers safe. However, there are still real challenges, including access to appropriate PPE, the need for appropriate distancing, still sometimes limited opportunities to regularly wash hands, and more. The biggest challenge has been a lack of leadership from the federal government, which has left everyone to tackle these problems piecemeal. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency charged with keeping workers safe, has been largely absent from this conversation. In March, a group of unions demanded that OSHA implement an emergency, temporary infectious disease standard that would specify the steps employers must take to keep workers safe. But OSHA still has not done so. Instead OSHA merely provided guidance that employers are free to accept or reject. As a result, since January, more than 3,000 workers contacted OSHA to complain about employers’ failure to take basic steps to protect them from COVID-19. Yet another problem is that OSHA has all but stopped investigating complaints. This has left the states, and other stakeholders, to fill in the holes. Oregon, for example, ramped up enforcement of state-level occupational safety rules and began spot checks of employers to ensure workers practice social distancing.
This is sadly unsurprising. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia has long sided with corporations over workers. The Trump administration has also targeted the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which has broad bipartisan support, and rolled back chemical safety regulations. A recent paper mill explosion in Jay, Maine is another example of how the CSB should be responding to understand how this happened, what lessons can be learned and shared with the industry, workers, unions and the public. It is truly a 'miracle' no one was hurt after the mill exploded.
This week the USW marked Workers Memorial Day, a somber day that we observe every year in the fight for safe jobs. This year, their union remembered the 29 workers who were killed at USW-represented workplaces in the USA and Canada over the past twelve months. And, as they always do, they resolved to fight for the health and safety of their members and all workers.
But in light of COVID, and the administration’s failure of leadership, they’re also mobilizing to fight for the safety of all workers by supporting H.R. 6559, The COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020. This legislation would require OSHA to put out an enforceable standard for COVID-19.
On April 28, 2016, Workers Memorial Day, President Obama signed a Presidential Proclamation. On April 28, 2020, Workers Memorial Day, President Trump keeps meatpacking hotspots open as he signed an executive order under the Defense Production Act to compel meat processing plants to remain open amid the coronavirus pandemic. The President should instead be using the DPA to mandate the production and distribution of personal protective equipment, while issuing an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from COVID-19.
The USW's website is USW.org and their handle on Twitter and Instagram is @steelworkers.