Thursday, April 23, 2009 | 4:58 p.m.
WASHINGTON -- House Democrats today introduced a sweeping bill to beef up worker protections laws under the Occupational Safety and Health Act that lawmakers believe have been too lax, leading to injury and death, including of construction workers on the Las Vegas strip.
The Protecting America’s Workers Act would stiffen fines for violations of workplace safety law and create a new felony category for criminal violations. It also covers more workers and adds protections for workers who disclose problems on the job.
Notably, the bill would give workers and their families an avenue for challenging reductions in fines OSHA assesses on employers. Those fines are often reduced during company appeals.
“We found that far too many employers were subject to a slap on the wrist or even let off the hook when they put their employee in danger,” said California Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The bill was introduced two years ago, but is even tougher this year as Democrats have expanded their majority in the House and have a potential ally in the Obama administration’s White House.
Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California authored the bill, as she has previously.
“While thousands of workers have been saved as a result of OSHA, 16 workers are killed and 11,200 workers are injured or made ill each and every day,” Woolsey said.
“This legislation will strengthen OSHA by expanding coverage to millions of workers who are currently unprotected or inadequately protected, increasing civil and criminal penalties for those who violate the law, and by protecting those who blow the whistle on unsafe employer practices.”
Woolsey said she looks forward to partnering with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis “to ensure that every American worker gets the protections that they deserve.”
The Las Vegas Sun’s stories about the high rate of fatality among construction workers on the Strip were cited last year as Congress debated the bill. The Sun’s investigation found a high rate of worker fatalities during the frenzied pace of building.
The Sun further exposed how fines the state OSHA levied on employers were often substantially reduced during appeals.
The legislation would increase civil penalties for willful violations from a maximum of $70,000 to $120,000. For serious violations, the maximum penalty is increased from $7,000 to $12,000.
The bill comes in advance of Workers' Memorial Day on Tuesday, which commemorates workers who have been killed on the job and focuses on efforts to make workplaces safer.