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October 21, 2014

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Worker Safety:

Compliance comes first

Labor secretary, lawmakers make it clear that safety does not take a back seat to profit

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LISA MASCARO / LAS VEGAS SUN

Debi Fergen, left, is among relatives of fallen workers appearing at a congressional subcommittee hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

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Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis dedicates a brick for Department of Labor employees who died in service as Richard L. Trumka, Secretary Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, looks on. Memorial bricks, inscribed with the names of workers who lost their lives on the job, are displayed during the groundbreaking ceremony for the new National Workers Memorial

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The National Workers Memorial, depicted in this rendering, is planned for the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., and is scheduled to open within a year. Labor leaders, government officials and families gathered for the site's groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday.

Sun Topics

Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration vowed Tuesday to strengthen workplace safety laws and step up their enforcement, moving away from the Bush administration’s belief in voluntary compliance.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis drew loud applause at a worker memorial event as she dismissed the previous administration’s “ideological response” and called for a new direction.

“Let me be clear: The Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business,” Solis said. “No one in America should go to work fearful for their health and safety.”

On Capitol Hill, House and Senate committees held hearings on workplace safety that were punctuated in the House by discussion of construction deaths on the Las Vegas Strip. Members of workers’ families, including Debi Fergen of Las Vegas, came to Washington to memorialize loved ones killed in job accidents.

Family members wore stickers that said: “Mourn for the Dead. Fight for the Living.”

Fergen sat in the front row at a Senate hearing, holding a poster of her son, Travis Koehler, one of two workers who died in a maintenance accident at the Orleans in 2007. He was 26.

“They need to see that these were real people,” she said. “And how this case in particular was a preventable accident.”

In Solis’ remarks, she announced initiatives that include a program targeting severe violators of workplace safety regulations. Solis had previously announced the hiring of as many as 250 new Labor Department investigators.

Under her watch, OSHA “will be about workers, not voluntary programs and alliances,” she said, speaking before dozens of labor leaders and workers at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md. They had gathered for the groundbreaking of a memorial for workers killed on the job.

“The government has a fundamental responsibility to protect workers,” she said.

Much of the debate over OSHA will play out in Congress, where Democrats have tried unsuccessfully in recent years to update the three-decade-old Occupational Safety and Health Act.

A House bill authored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., beefs up civil fines on employers who violate safety laws. Maximum fines would increase from $70,000 to $120,000 for willful violations, and from $7,000 to $12,000 for serious violations. The legislation also would create a felony category for criminal violations and provide a mechanism for accident victims and families to have a say in penalties.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, plans to offer a similar bill. However, the Senate is also considering legislation tightly focused on just two areas — penalties and victims’ rights. Streamlined legislation could pass more swiftly in the Senate, where Republicans have opposed sweeping OSHA legislation.

Family members say they often encounter tremendous obstacles in obtaining basic information about their loved ones’ injury or death. Employers often negotiate lower penalties during private meetings with OSHA officials before families become involved. In several of the Las Vegas Strip construction deaths, fines were reduced or eliminated and families had little input.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of a subcommittee on workplace safety, said that while “no fine or penalty could ever make up for losing a loved one, families like those in this room deserve a voice in ensuring there is a price to pay.”

Similar testimony came during the House Education and Labor Committee hearing, where Danville, Ark., mother Becky Foster said penalties were reduced from $4,500 to $2,050 in the death of her 19-year-old son. He was strangled when his T-shirt became caught in a piece of machinery that, according to Foster, was illegally modified by the employer, Deltic Timber.

“It was as if OSHA patted Deltic Timber on the back and said, ‘Good job, guys. You only killed one person,’ ” Foster said.

David Uhlmann, a professor at the University of Michigan, told the House committee that shooting and transporting a deer across state lines can result in five years of imprisonment. But killing a worker is punishable by a sentence of no more than six months.

“Surely a willful violation should be at least as great as killing a deer,” Uhlmann said.

Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, who serves on the House committee, said criminal penalties are needed.

“When a worker dies because of a knowing violation of the worker safety laws, the maximum sentence should be measured in years, not months,” Titus wrote on the committee’s blog following Tuesday’s hearing.

“Anything less sends the wrong message about the value of a worker’s life,” Titus wrote. “Too often profit is put ahead of compliance as penalties are seen as a ‘cost of doing business.’ This is not an acceptable cost.”

Last spring the Las Vegas Sun documented 12 workplace fatalities in 18 months among construction workers during the frenzied pace of building on the Strip. The Sun’s stories led to safety improvements in June — and the deaths stopped.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. and chairman of the House committee, pointed to the Strip accidents and called the investigations at the MGM Mirage CityCenter project “an outrageous example.”

“But negotiating away egregious violations is not uncommon,” Miller said. “Penalties are often key enforcement mechanisms but they must be real and they must get people’s attention.”

Celeste Monforton, an assistant research professor at the George Washington University school of Public Health and Health Services, suggested creating a federal advisory committee made up of workers and victims’ families to give the Labor Department advice on its enforcement of workplace rules and accident investigations.

Also, family members should be given access to all relevant documents regarding an accident investigation, with fees waived, Monforton said. Families have been forced to file Freedom of Information Act requests for documents regarding a loved one’s accident, then required to pay hefty fees to the government for compiling the paperwork.

Lisa Mascaro reported from Washington and Alexandra Berzon from Las Vegas.

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