Pennsylvania’s public workers don’t have workplace safety protections. This bill would change that

    AFL-CIO PA chapter president Rick Bloomingdale speaks in favor of public sector workplace safety protections Monday, April 29, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

    For 577,000 Pennsylvanians, no state agency oversees their workplace safety. Legislation that’s being pushed by organized labor and its allies would change that.

    On Monday, lawmakers and officials from the AFL-CIO — a labor conference that represents 900,000 union workers across Pennsylvania — called for the General Assembly to adopt a bill to regulate public workplace safety standards.

    Legislation sponsored by Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, a former Teamster, would implement the same statewide workplace safety standards for transit mechanics, janitors, and anyone else pulling down a paycheck from state or local governments that the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration now imposes on private employers.

    In 2017, 172 workers died at work in Pennsylvania, according to the AFL-CIO. Another 132,500 workers were victims of workplace injuries.

    However, those numbers do not include public sector workers, because government employers don’t have the same reporting requirements for workplace incidents as a private company.

    Despite nearly 50 years of OSHA regulations for private employers, public sector workers are not covered by federal guidelines for on-the-job security. No inspector checks their workplaces, and no fines can be levied for poor conduct.

    Some public sector workers represented by a union may negotiate for safety requirements, but that only applies to individual workplaces.

    According to OSHA, 22 states already have state-level labor safety codes that cover both public and private employees, while another six have state codes to protect just public employees.

    The standards would match OSHA’s federal standards, as well as allow for the state to pass stricter rules if necessary. Violations could result in a maximum fine of $20,000 or result in a year in prison for a supervisor found liable.

    The bill has been dubbed Jake’s Law, in honor or an Erie transit worker killed from an exploding airbag he was repairing.

    Labor has made pushes for the bill earlier, both in the ‘90s as well as this decade. But it has been held up by opposition from county and municipal governments.

    “Nobody should have a loved one go to work and never come home,” Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin, said at an event Monday to honor the founding of OSHA. He and other elected officials, including Harkins and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, laid a wreath in the Susquehanna River to honor those killed on the job.

    In 2017, in testimony before the House Labor and Industry Committee, Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, expressed skepticism that the bill’s “stringent regulatory requirements” and “substantial fines” would improve worker safety.

    He also pointed to the lack of information on public sector worker injuries or deaths on the job, and asked for the state Department of Labor and Industry to study the issue before the Legislature takes action.

    “Both proponents and opponents of the legislation have argued its need or lack of need based primarily on philosophy and anecdotal evidence,” Hill said. 

    Harkins’ bill currently has 27 co-sponsors from both parties. It is now before the House Labor & Industry Committee.

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