Workers must be included in safety plans, say health experts, as wave of walkouts leads to new protections
Los Angeles – “My co-workers are getting sick and we know this disease can be fatal,” said Sofia, a pseudonym for a worker at a Case Farms poultry plant. “We want to do our jobs and help feed people during this crisis. But we need to know our employer is listening to us and doing everything possible to make our workplace safe. Right now, that is not happening.”
To ensure safety for Sofia – and millions of others who are still working or will return to work in the coming weeks and months – the Work Environment Council of NJ (WEC) and its national association, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), jointly released a new report today: “A Safe and Just Return to Work.”
The United States is far from being ready to open for business without putting not only workers but entire communities at grave risk of illness and death.
The document, with comprehensive guidelines for workplace safety, worker participation and fair compensation for sick, injured and at-risk workers, was prepared by experts convened by National COSH. Writers and contributors include certified industrial hygienists, academicians, attorneys, physicians and leaders of non-governmental and nonprofit organizations.
“In order to reopen the economy and mitigate a second wave, worker protections have to be front and center and critical safety measures must be in place and enforced,” said Debra Coyle McFadden, Executive Director, WEC. “The guidance presented in this report protects and empowers workers and in the long-term, builds a more inclusive and equitable economy and an end to health, social and economic disparities.
“The post-COVID world will be different in many ways,” said Jessica Martinez, MPH, co-executive director of National COSH. “One difference we insist on: Workers must be at the table, actively involved in decisions about workplace safety — at their own workplaces and when creating local, state and federal guidelines.”
U.S. workers are at high risk in workplaces identified as hot spots for the spread of COVID-19, including distribution centers, slaughterhouses, nursing homes and prisons. “A Safe and Just Return to Work” calls for the inclusion of workers and their unions on all task forces, commissions and advisory boards established by governors, mayors and other public officials to establish rules and procedures for workplaces currently operating and those scheduled to re-open.
“Unfortunately, both before and during the current crisis, an unequal balance of power in the workplace means that safety often takes a back seat – especially for workers of color, immigrants and others in marginalized communities,” said Martinez. “The risk and horrible consequences of COVID-19 have led to an unprecedented number of walk-outs and other job actions – and in most cases, workers have been successful in winning protections to reduce risks to themselves, co-workers, their families and the public at large.”
“COVID-19 is highly contagious and can be deadly,“ said Sherry Baron, MD, MPH, a professor of public health at Queens College in New York City who assisted in the preparation of the National COSH report. “Employers who adopt a ‘business-as-usual’ approach could cause workers and their family members to become sick or even die. The right way to reduce risk and limit harm is to include workers in making the plan and implementing effective safety programs, based on the best available scientific evidence.”
The report emphasizes that a safe, just return to work – now and into the future – requires, at a minimum, the following elements:
- Effective and stringent health and safety protections, informed by science, backed by robust enforcement, and designed with meaningful input by workers, worker center/COSH groups, unions and employers.
- A planned, detailed and meaningful system of screening, testing, contact tracing, proper isolation and epidemiological surveillance.
- Guaranteed job protection and just compensation for those working, and for those who can’t.
- Inclusion of and respect for meaningful worker and union involvement in all planning, protocols and decision-making regarding safety in the workplace and return-to-work.
- Measures to ensure equity, inclusion and a path to end health and economic disparities.
If the above measures are enacted, it would send a clear message to employers.
“Employers have a moral responsibility to keep their workers safe from injury and infection as they return to the workplace in this time of pandemic. These measures will help to ensure the safety and health of all employees,”said Del Vitale, Director of United Steelworkers District 4 representing workers in New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and the territory of Puerto Rico.
John Pajak, President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 877 representing over 600 oil, chemical and terminal workers in New Jersey, has experienced first hand the beneficial impact of implementing the hierarchy of controls.
“I have been a frontline worker and Union leader for frontline workers in the PetroChemical industries for decades. I have benefited from the hierarchy of safety through engineering improvements and environmental controls. Performing jobs now with zero ppm of hydrocarbons – in the 1990’s his members were exposed to large amounts of hydrocarbons – that were removed through good engineering controls,” said John Pajak. “The risk from covid 19 is the single greatest health risk I have confronted in my three decades on the job. I need proven safety and health strategies to prevent a disaster and OSHA to enforce the hierarchy of safety standards to fight this disease and to keep the USA workforce safe.
“A Safe and Just Return to Work” report stresses that Covid-19 safety protections must align with the “hierarchy of controls” recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The hierarchy emphasizes system-wide engineering and process controls — such as improved ventilation and — which reduce exposure most effectively across an entire workplace in addition to life-saving personal protective equipment.
“A Safe and Just Return to Work” is available on the National COSH website. It is the latest addition to Coronavirus resources for workers, available in English and Spanish with resources in multiple languages, including specific industry and occupational guidelines for grocery workers, health care workers, poultry workers, seafood workers, warehouse workers and others.
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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter. Follow @NJWEC on Facebook and @NJWEC on Twitter.