From Rhetoric to Reality for Arkansas workers
No one should be hurt at work, and we believe strongly that the vast majority of workplace injuries are preventable.
We appreciate the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s good-faith effort in organizing the National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety, and the support expressed by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. “A safe job is fundamental to the dignity of every human being,” Solis said.
However, upon returning home from that recent conference to our Workers’ Justice Center in Northwest Arkansas, we were reminded of the reality of everyday life.
As only one example, we were appalled when one of our worker members came into the Center seeking help to secure his workers compensation benefits. In June 2009, a worker we’ll call Oscar began cleaning cars in a dealership. Oscar was never informed about the types of chemicals he worked with nor given proper safety equipment. One day, as he was working on a car, a piece of machinery jammed in one of the pneumatic cleaners. He tried to fix it, and because he did so without proper protection, chemicals splashed directly into his eyes.
He was taken to the hospital emergency room where he was told he ran a high risk of permanent blindness. It is tragic and unnecessary accidents like this that prompted our organization to partner directly with OSHA on preventative workplace measures.
We hear stories like Oscar’s almost daily — particularly since we serve members of the community who work in some of America’s most dangerous industries. But safety issues rarely capture the public’s attention until a catastrophe occurs like the explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners.
At the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, we partner with an international human rights organization, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, based in Cambridge, Mass., which puts our workplace safety issue in a broader perspective. We’ve learned that what workers experience here fits a trend that reaches across the country. In 2009, for example, 5,214 workers died on the job in the United States.
At first glance, the National Summit seemed like a dream come true for us. Employers, workers, unions, faith-based groups, and government agencies came together to discuss ways to improve health and safety conditions. While we were buoyed by the apparent solidarity of purpose at the summit, we were discouraged to hear OSHA representatives implore worker centers to take over investigating cases of worker injuries, which we feel that is their mandate, not ours.
OSHA may be severely understaffed and underfunded but we can only assume that they have greater access to resources than small community groups that rely on private donations. In fact, we wish that workers centers didn’t even have to exist. But we are needed to fill in the huge gaps left by inadequate labor laws, abuse of loopholes by employers, obstacles to union growth, and spotty government enforcement.
We feel it is not enough for OSHA to rely on our efforts as community advocates. The reality is that people, especially those from immigrant communities, do not trust government agencies but instead fear retaliation from them. Moreover, many workers are unwilling or unable to report violations in their workplaces because they have been threatened by their employers.
The summit was only the first step in what must be an ongoing process to gain the confidence of workers. OSHA needs to realize that it must familiarize itself with the specific needs and circumstances of its constituents, particularly low-wage workers who are struggling just to get by. It cannot simply stand by and wait for workers to come forward to speak out about unsafe working conditions, at great risk and when holding on to your job, especially in these difficult times, determines whether there will be food on the table.
By tackling the issue of fear and mistrust, OSHA will be better able to perform its job adequately and serve as the workplace watchdog. Workers will feel free to fully disclose any health and safety violations and to assist in the investigation. If OSHA can’t do this, workers will continue to be trapped between the negligence of employers and a passive government agency.
Ana Aguayo and Jose Aguayo-Herrera are staff members of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center in Springdale, Ark.