Gazette editorial: Don’t pitch out rules that save workers’ lives

Source: Charleston Gazette-Mail

In 1970, nearly 14,000 workers in the United States died while on the job. That year, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The number of workers killed in their workplaces has been significantly reduced since the OSH Act became law. But now, worker safety might be headed in the wrong direction.

In 2016, nearly 5,200 workers died on the job, according to “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” the annual worker safety report compiled from federal statistics and released last month by the AFL-CIO. About 350 more workers died in 2016 than the previous year, according to the report.

Labor leaders worry that those numbers will continue to rise because the politicians in control of the White House and Congress have shown a disturbing eagerness to repeal worker protections already in place.

That includes rules meant to keep West Virginia coal miners from contracting black lung disease. Last December, Trump administration officials said they would re-examine a rule, put in place in 2014, that lowered legal coal dust levels in mines, closed loopholes and improved air sampling practices.

In the mining sector, which includes the oil and natural gas industries, workers died at three times the national rate in 2016, according to the AFL-CIO report.

David Zatezalo, the longtime West Virginia coal industry official who now heads the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said a few days after the report that he doesn’t have any plans to implement new mine safety rules. Zatezalo did acknowledge that “history shows that some people will not adopt safety technology until it becomes a rule.”

When business owners and their politician friends talk about the evils of government regulation, and the need to speed up permits and other necessary steps so businesses can operate unfettered, worker safety is one of the things that can be neglected.

The proposed reconsideration of the black lung rule was part of a Trump administration-wide effort to eliminate government regulations. Many West Virginia politicians eager to tie themselves to Trump have touted the initiative to get rid of such rules.

In the past, strong unions have guarded against the erosion of workplace safety and insisted that employees be protected. Decades of effort by corporations and Republican politicians to weaken organized labor has many consequences, and a more dangerous workplace might be one of them.

The report also mentioned the increasing incidence of fatal workplace violence. In 2016, 500 workers were victims of homicide at their jobs. As mass workplace shootings become more common — and as lawmakers in West Virginia and elsewhere do things like preventing private business owners from banning guns on their property — it’s not hard to see that number continuing to rise.

Older workers — those 65 and older — are 2.5 times more likely to die on the job than their younger co-workers. That’s a serious concern in a state with a higher proportion of older residents, like West Virginia. It’s also worrying because the lack of a solid health care and pension system means more and more Americans must work well into what might have been their retirement years.

Millions of Americans toil every day to feed their families and better their lives. It is reasonable for them to expect employers to make workplaces as safe as possible, and to expect governments to enforce rules for the benefit of all.

Written by: Editorial Staff