Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with PennDOT workers in southeastern Pennsylvania in 2017. (Gov. Tom Wolf’s office)
A Pennsylvania state university is set to begin a study of the working conditions and safety standards for public sector workers in the commonwealth.
Professors in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Safety Sciences will conduct the study, which is due to be finished in fall 2022, administration officials announced at a press conference Monday.
Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the study in an October 2021 executive order on worker safety.
Administration officials said the study, starting with the commonwealth’s 77,000 employees, before surveying other public employers, will try to put a number on public sector workplace injuries and deaths, which are not currently tracked.
The study will also compare Pennsylvania’s current standards to federal workplace safety standards, and the costs associated with workplace injuries right now and the cost of implementing the changes in the future.
“The safeguards of OSHA standards have protected private-sector workers in Pennsylvania for 50 years,” state Labor and Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier said in a statement. “This feasibility study will give us a roadmap to making these workplace protections universal to all Pennsylvania workers.”
Right now, tens of thousands of public sector workers in Pennsylvania, from state social workers and transit authority mechanics to correctional officers and trash collectors, labor with minimal occupational safety standards.
Unlike private sector employers who answer to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, public sector employers have little oversight in the state.
Whether employed by a municipal authority or a local government, these workers are currently protected by a 1950s-era law that state officials have previously described as more reactive than proactive.
There are also no reporting requirements for on-the job injuries in public sector workplaces. Labor leaders, such as Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale, said this made the study even more critical.
He also argued that workplace standards would protect not just workers, but the general public when they need to get state services.
“The public goes into the public workspaces every single day,” Bloomingdale said. “Whether it’s your township office, the [Labor and Industry] building; whether it’s a state mental institution, whether it’s a correction facility to visit an inmate, and whether it’s a school to pick up your kids. All those things would be impacted by a strong OSHA law.”
Local governments have historically opposed expanding workplace protections, pointing to the same lack of information to claim stricter protections are an unfunded mandate and a solution in search of a problem.
State Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, has introduced a bill with bipartisan support to implement workplace protections for public sector workers, named after an Erie bus mechanic killed on the job.
If put to a vote, Harkins, a former Teamster and UPS driver, said he was sure it would pass.
“I think it just needs a push from people,” Harkins said. “And if you’re a public sector worker and you’re not covered, speak up.”
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