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September 2, 2014

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WORKER SAFETY:

Families make push for reform personal

They descend on D.C. for hearings, activities on Workers Memorial Day

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Tiffany Brown

Debi Fergen, the mother of a worker killed in a maintenance accident at the Orleans two years ago, testifies to a state Senate committee in March. This week Fergen is in Washington with other family members of victims.

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The grave of Travis Koehler has been decorated in recognition of Workers Memorial Day. His mother, Debi Fergen, has increased her involvement with United Support, a support and advocacy group for family members of workers killed on the job.

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After her brother was killed in an aluminum dust explosion six years ago, Tammy Miser called every agency and organization her frantic Internet searches could deliver.

Surely someone must have information for family members of workplace accident victims about how investigations into their loved ones’ deaths would progress and how she could become involved, Miser thought.

“I wanted to know from other family members how the process worked and how we could keep this from happening again,” said the 42-year-old from Lexington, Ky. “I thought there was something else out there, but I just couldn’t find it.”

In response Miser founded the United Support & Memorial for Workplace Fatalities as a resource for family members and a source of advocacy for the reform of workplace safety laws. The results of Miser’s efforts will be on display today, as she and other family members of workplace accident victims will be in Washington, D.C., to attend Senate and House hearings on strengthening Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforcement and to participate in other workplace safety events.

Miser’s group paid for a few family members of victims to fly to Washington, including Debi Fergen, the mother of one of two Las Vegas workers who died in a maintenance accident at the Orleans two years ago.

“I’ve been fighting in my own little world for so long,” Fergen said in an interview last week. “Now I’m broadening that and it’s making me realize, ‘Oh my God, there are all these people going through the same thing we have.’ ”

The people Fergen will meet in Washington include the mother and uncle of a worker who died in a crane accident a couple of weeks ago and have traveled to be with people who have experienced similar loss.

United Support’s trip to Washington coincides with Workers Memorial Day, which was set aside by the AFL-CIO to remember workplace accident victims and mark the 1971 adoption of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Thanks to support for OSHA legislation from the new administration, Miser’s efforts and other factors, advocates are expecting more activity than they’ve seen in years for Workers Memorial Day.

United Support members visited with acting head of FedOSHA Jordan Barab on Monday. Today they plan to gather for a rally in front of the U.S. Labor Department before participating in the congressional hearings. Later they will watch the labor secretary deliver a key policy speech on her vision for the direction of FedOSHA at the National Labor College, where the college is breaking ground on a worker memorial that will feature the names of accident victims.

The busy schedule is a far cry from last year’s Workers Memorial Day, when Washington, D.C., played host to very few events.

Celeste Monforton, a professor at George Washington University who runs a public health blog, attended a short lecture at her university last year. This year she hosted Miser’s group at her home and helped produce posters of their fallen family members to display during today’s rally.

“By having the family members sitting there in the front row of hearings, that will mean more to the senators than any numbers. They will remember that this is really about people’s lives,” Monforton said.

Part support group and part movement, organized family member advocacy has at times been a missing link, longtime advocates say, in efforts to strengthen OSHA, which oversees workplace safety. This year, it seems to be solidifying.

With a $162,000 grant from the Public Welfare Foundation in October, Miser quit her job as a house cleaner and began working full time as a workplace safety advocate.

Fergen has slowly become one of the 10 or so core participants in Miser’s group, and testified at Nevada Senate hearings last month about the need for OSHA reform at the state and federal levels.

Last week, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., introduced the Protect America’s Workers Act, similar to legislation introduced in each of the past few sessions. It would raise OSHA maximum fines and increase criminal penalties for workplace accidents. It also would allow family members to appeal OSHA settlement decisions. The Senate is expected to introduce an OSHA reform bill soon.

Nevada operates its own OSHA but if changes are made at the federal level, the state agency would have to be as strict as the federal agency. Reform efforts at the state Legislature have largely stalled.

Business groups are expected to fiercely oppose efforts to increase OSHA enforcement.

Bob Shull, a program officer for the Public Welfare Foundation who oversees the grant to Miser’s group, said in past work as a consumer advocate he witnessed in other campaigns the power family members can have.

“I’ve seen how family groups can have an enormous impact because they’re relentless and they have a compelling story,” Shull said. “Business has all sorts of sophisticated arguments for why they don’t need to be regulated, for why the status quo should be held. But it’s hard for them to overcome the arguments of family members.”

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