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Workers' Memorial Day with Worksafe

Posted on May 13, 2010
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Workers’ Memorial Day Makes Sure Workplace Dead Aren’t Forgotten
Cal/OSHA Reporter
May 6, 2010

OAKLAND — Numbers play an important role in occupational safety and health. For instance, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that 61 more workers died in California in 2008 than were originally reported (see p. 9744). But sometimes lost in those numbers are the names of the dead and injured. Each year, labor makes sure those names aren’t forgotten by holding Workers’ Memorial Day (WMD) events throughout the state and nation.

Under the rallying cry “Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living,” labor held WMD events up and down California on April 28, with a backdrop of a number of high-profile workplace incidents around the country and new safety legislation that labor is trying to advance. The WMD events came at a time when Fed-OSHA is stepping up enforcement, increasing penalties and hiring more inspectors to go after repeat offenders.

A WMD event in Oakland sponsored by Worksafe featured posters naming many of those dead and providing details on how they lost their lives in the workplace. For instance, there was 31-year-old security guard Juan Silva, who was shot to death Feb. 10, 2009, in Northridge. Nelson Tan, 50, died at a Torrance refinery after being burned by steam on April 28, 2009 — Workers’ Memorial Day. As the year came to a close, 76-year-old Vicente Zavala died at a Petaluma-area composting operation when he was run over by a tractor.

“Unfortunately, the news of workers, young and old, who have been burned, crushed, electrocuted, struck by equipment or who have died in falls is a regular occurrence,” said Ken N. Atha, administrator for Fed-OSHA Region IX, based in San Francisco. “Employers must do more to protect their workers,” he added. “We must continue to make strides to stop these senseless sacrifices. These tragedies are not acceptable.”

President Obama also issued an official proclamation of Workers’ Memorial Day, a first for a United States President. He noted that while the nation’s attention is on the high-profile incidents, such as the oil platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the mine disaster in West Virginia and the refinery explosion in Washington state, most workplace deaths involve a single worker at a time. Each day, 14 workers are killed in on-the-job incidents in America.

Atha noted that U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Fed-OSHA Administrator David Michaels are “returning to the original intent of the OSHA Act” to assure as much as possible that each working man and woman returns home safe every day. “I believe that workers must have a strong voice in the workplace and for workplace safety,” Atha stated.

Workers had plenty to say about the subject.

Marcia Beauchamp, a hairstylist, told the crowd of about 100 people at Nile Hall in downtown Oakland’s Preservation Park about her experience with p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), a key ingredient in hair coloring, but a potential hazard for workers. She found this out in 2007 when she discovered a patch of scaly skin that she thought was the result of constant exposure to water.

When the patch didn’t go away, she had it biopsied and found out she had an autoimmune disease, and had developed eczema as well. She discovered a link between her conditions — exposure to PPD. Beauchamp was forced to quit her job and apply for workers’ comp. She’s back working as a hairstylist now but advocates for safer hair dyes. “What we need is a clean, safe alternative that can deposit pigment in natural-looking shades” without harsh chemicals,” she said. She also advocates for stronger regulation of beauty salon chemicals and for a public-awareness campaign.

“We have a right to know about and have control” of workplace substances, Beauchamp said.

Vietnamese immigrant Connie Nguyen, a nail salon worker, said she fled a Communist regime and survived the dangers of being one of the “Boat People” in the 1970s, but even though she describes her life in the United States as “precious,” she sees a new kind of danger for the many Vietnamese women who work in nail salons.

“Doing acrylic nails is my least favorite” task, she said in halting but still vivid English. “My inhaling all day at nail salons with very poor ventilation, my x-ray technician at the hospital asked if I had been smoking for a very long time.” Nguyen is not a smoker.

“I did run from Communist[s] for my life, but I will not run from nail salon manufacturers [with little] concern about our workers’ health,” she said. And while she was afraid of the pirates she and her fellow travelers faced, she said, “I’m not afraid of California legislators.”

Labor is backing two pieces of safety and health legislation, one national and the other a proposed change to California law. One is HR 2067, the Protecting America’s Workers Act, sponsored by Reps. Lynn Woolsey, George Miller and Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The act would expand OSHA coverage to public employees, increase penalties for employers “who kill or endanger workers,” as Worksafe puts it, enhance whistleblower protections, give workers and their families greater rights in OSHA cases, prohibit employers from discouraging injury and illness reporting, increase penalties and require employers to abate serious hazards.

The bill needs more co-sponsors to move forward in the House of Representatives.

Closer to home, labor is sponsoring AB 2774, which would define “serious physical harm” to track the definition in the Fed-OSHA Field Operation Manual. The change is intended to increase the number of serious violations that the Cal/OSH Appeals Board upholds. Labor and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health believe that the board adheres to a too-strict standard on serious violations and dismisses far too many.

The Assembly Labor and Employment committee was scheduled to hear the bill May 5.
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