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U.S. needs to do more to protect workers' health

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the Manhattan garment district. On March 25, 1911, 146 people, mostly young Jewish immigrant women, met their deaths after a fire started in a scrap bin. Unable to escape from the upper three floors of a 10-story building -- the owners had locked the only door from which they could have escaped -- 60 women jumped to their deaths, 50 burned to death and others died when a fire escape collapsed.

They died needlessly. Safety measures available to the employers (automatic sprinklers and fire walls and doors) were ignored -- too expensive, they said.

Frances Perkins, an eyewitness to the fire who later became Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt, noted, "the New Deal was born that day, the day the Triangle burned." But it took nearly 60 years of sustained labor union and public health activism to get an Occupational Safety and Health Act and a Mine Safety and Health Act requiring employers to provide safe and healthful workplaces.

Since the passage of OSHA 40 years ago, more than 431,000 workers can now say their lives have been saved due to safety and health standards that require employers to eliminate or reduce workplace hazards. Standards were set requiring employers to prevent worker exposure to coal and cotton dusts, asbestos, lead, a variety of toxic chemicals and to unsafe conditions such as electrical and construction hazards.

But we can do better. On an average day, 149 workers will die from workplace injuries (12 per day) or workplace diseases such as asbestosis, black lung and silicosis (137 per day). Another 11,344 will be injured or become ill.

Why the high injury and illness rate? Why do we rank 29th among the industrialized nations? Quite simply, our workplace protections are antiquated.

Seventy thousand chemicals are routinely used in our workplaces, but we have comprehensive standards for only 30. Large segments of our workers are exempted from OSHA coverage, including 8.2 million public employees. OSHA's enforcement budget is so small that most workplaces aren't inspected. And employers like Massey Energy (Upper Big Branch Mine explosion; 29 dead) and Halliburton/Transocean (Deep Water Horizon explosion; 11 dead) can't be charged with criminal negligence under our current safety and health acts.

In their attempt to slash the budgets and powers of regulatory agencies like OSHA, Republican conservatives are blocking needed reforms. They are breaking faith with 85 percent of American workers who ranked workplace safety first in importance among labor standards, even ahead of family and maternity leave, wages, paid sick days and overtime pay, according to a recent University of Chicago National Opinion Research Study.

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Roger A. Cook is the former executive director of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health.

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