How the Build Back Better Bill Would Save Workers’ Lives

Yves here. Sometimes articles reveal more than they intend to. This post by Tom Conway, international president of the United Steelworkers Union, reveals (again) how much workers’ protections have eroded in the US. And that includes on Team Dem’s watch, which has pretended to be the friend of labor while participating in kicking it to the curb.

Biden’s Build Back Better is very much in trouble. That partly reflects the Democrat’s precarious hold on Congress. But it also reflects the poor job the Administration has done of explaining what is in the bill, why it is worthy of support, and why the big cost figures bandied about are misleading. The fact that CNN is running 10 things you didn’t know are in the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill at this late juncture speaks volumes. Of course, if the Democrats were serious about representing anyone other than special interests and the affluent, they would have gone on a PR war with the CBO long ago.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

When Ron Brady drives through highway construction zones, he makes a point of looking for safety violations that threaten workers’ lives.

He’s seen more and more of them the past few years as employers, emboldened by the weakened state of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), grew increasingly comfortable flouting the rules.

Funding and staffing shortages engineered by the previous presidential administration hobbled OSHA and put workers in numerous industries at risk. But now, Congress is poised to pass a bill that would help revitalize the agency and provide the resources needed to protect workers in a growing economy.

Along with many other provisions helping workers and their families, the Build Back Better legislation recently approved by the House would position OSHA to respond to more work sites, investigate additional complaints and proactively address a greater number of hazards.

“They’ve been woefully understaffed for a long time,” observed Brady, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14614, which represents about 1,200 workers in the chemical, construction, gaming, manufacturing and other industries in West Virginia.

“They’re very professional,” he said of OSHA inspectors. “I’ve always found them to be very well trained. I think a lot of them are frustrated. They don’t have the resources to really do the job. There simply aren’t enough of them to cover it.”

The number of OSHA inspectors fell to the lowest level in half a century in 2019, and the agency conducted fewer investigations into top hazards like chemical exposure and musculoskeletal risks, as the previous president deliberately undercut the agency to benefit corporations.

Brady maintained a close watch on his members’ safety.

But in recent years, he said, he’s seen other construction workers navigate high beams without fall protection and risk their lives in work zones lacking the proper signage. And he knows that the starving of OSHA also put workers in other industries at higher risk.

“Everybody’s cutting corners and cutting budgets and trying to do more with fewer people. It’s something that’s going to get worse and worse,” Brady said.

After taking office in January 2021, President Joe Biden quickly took steps to put OSHA back on course. He filled key vacancies and appointed proven, experienced advocates to top leadership positions. But more is needed to reenergize the agency’s mission of prevention and deterrence.

The Build Back Better legislation, now before the Senate, would help Biden realize his goal of doubling the number of inspectors, to about 1,500, while also empowering the agency to impose significantly higher fines, as high as $700,000 per willful violation in some cases, on employers who flout safety rules.

The bigger penalties are needed to deter safety lapses. Brady said the current low fines merely encourage employers to gamble with workers’ lives.

The additional resources provided through the Build Back Better bill would also enable OSHA to focus on other kinds of prevention, like development of national standards to protect workers against growing and emerging threats.

After a combustible dust incident killed a colleague in 2015, for example, workers at the former International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, New York, and the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Department worked with OSHA and the company to implement new safety measures intended to ensure no tragedy like that ever happened again.

But workers worried about their counterparts at other facilities across the U.S. who remained vulnerable, and they looked for OSHA to implement industry-wide safeguards.

They’re still waiting.

OSHA began working on a combustible dust standard even before the tragedy at Ticonderoga underscored the need for it. But the agency shelved the project during the previous administration because of “resource constraints and other priorities.”

“If there was a combustible dust standard, everyone would have rules to follow,” explained Paul Shaffer, president of USW Local 005, which represents workers at the paper mill, now owned by Sylvamo.

“It would make work much safer for everybody in the industry,” he said, noting standards both raise awareness and spell out the steps employers are required to take to keep workers safe. “You can’t protect against something you don’t know about.”

Combustible dust is just one threat requiring OSHA’s attention. Workers also need national standards to help protect them from heat stress—a growing danger because of climate change—as well as infectious diseases and workplace violence. Without OSHA specifying the safeguards employers must take and holding them accountable, observed Shaffer, workers and unions “spend a lot of time trying to get companies to do what’s right.”

It’s essential to strengthen OSHA as the nation prepares to carry out the historic, $1 trillion package of infrastructure investments that Biden signed into law in November.

Upgrades to roads and bridges, airports, locks and dams, energy systems and communications networks will sustain millions of middle-class jobs, benefiting construction workers as well as workers who produce the raw materials, parts and components needed for infrastructure projects.

Those workers will rely on OSHA to respond to complaints, inspect work sites and take other measures needed to keep them safe.

Brady recalls the days when OSHA inspectors regularly visited job sites and looks forward to a time when they once again not only respond to complaints but also make spot checks to provide safe and healthy workplaces.

“It makes management more safety-conscious,” he said.

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  1. BeliTsari

    Sorry, I’ve worked in every USWA plant with a API Monogram and virtually everyone I know’s been a USWA or other heavy industry union member. It’s a JOKE to say “President Joe Biden®” in reference to workers’ safety, health, bargaining rights, sanity or economic well being. Pro Act or Build Back Better & Biden BS Bail-out Boondoggles, while feeding now 1099’d virtual share-cropping gig-serfs to yet another Catastrophe Capitalism feeding frenzy is apparent to EVERY worker nowadays (notice how Latinx workers have followed us blue-collar ofay hillbillies out of the Kleptocrats and Black workers SAW the big unions exactly for the bigoted crooked gatekeepers they’ve ALWAYS been… Nevermind, it’s simply TOO upsetting. Just speaking last night to two OLD friends, working at the former Bethlehem/ Steelton WAY past any “retirement.” 1099’d into a OSHA-free, nightmare of government, union, employer collusion; while lying union bosses get a free pass to spew agitprop (as we hunker down for Omicron to take more loved-ones’ lives, homes).

    1. Jackiebass63

      A union is only as strong as the support it gets from it’s members. Since Ronald Regan there has been a campaign to destroy unions. Reading your post shows me it has worked very well. You are correct to criticize democrats for abandoning unions. It happened big time under Clinton who in my opinion was really a moderate republican. What destroyed the democrat party was their going to Wall Street for their funding. They in effect abandoned their traditional base. Because you don’t like the Democratic Party ,turning republican isn’t the solution. We actually need a new party that represents the average person. Neither party works for the people.

      1. Questa Nota

        Back in the Clinton Years, Team Dem realized that they could make a lot more money from Wall Street. They abandoned any pretense of representing the average person, not surprising because the average dollars weren’t as enticing as the big money. They provided some lip service, if one can still say that after l’affaire, but there wasn’t much substance left.

        My late mother had voted Dem beginning with FDR and would’ve been disgusted at how the party abandoned her and so many others.

      2. BeliTsari

        HiYa Strawman! Not OUR union, not OUR party. I was UAW/ Solidarity’s events photographer/ video-grapher through Reagan’s Miracle as many White, Democrat union bigots destroyed everything their grandparents worked, fought & frequently bled for. Don’t LECTURE me on our experience, sneering LIBERAL! I haven’t seen you working amidst terrified, debt ridden, PASC suffering coworkers REPEATEDLY betrayed & fed to a frigging virus, having to sign away ANY say as the bosses unremittingly sell us out! It’s the same as, “you don’t trust President Joe Biden or Hillary… you MUST be for Putin!” All UAW’s leadership did at the meetings (selling-out to Chrysler, making the M1A1 Abrams tank) was while and bitch about the servers, bussers & smugly abuse the (union) female “help!”

    2. Pat

      There are many indications that our government is anti labor, not just anti unions but that they despise workers period. Living wage level minimum wages, free healthcare, standard leave laws (not just parental/family leave but mandated vacation and sick leave) all are normal in first world countries but not here. Still the two biggest red flags for me are the incredibly friendly H1B1 visa laws AND the lack of absolutely necessary definitions and limitations that should be part of independent contractor regulations. Uber may be the poster abusive parent for its use of 1099 employees, but a whole lot of others classify necessary employees as independent contractors. Our lax standards are still too onerous for our incredibly generously compensated betters, none of their returns should go to the people who actually do the work in their companies, hence the institutionalization of the abuse of those programs.

      And no Joe was never going to upset that.

  2. lyman alpha blob

    “….CNN is running 10 things you didn’t know are in the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill.”

    I’m assuming that’s directly related to the Greenwald tweet from yesterday’s links about corporate media meeting with White House officials to figure out how to give Biden’s economic policies better coverage.

    I’ll give these corrupt propagandists credit – they do work fast.

  3. Maggie

    I have significant concerns about drug provisions in “Build Back Better”. I was looking into why CVS sent us notification in November no longer covering as of 1/1/22 an anticoagulant my husband has been on since 2016. I stumbled upon how Build Back Better provisions had a bullseye on 50 meds including Eliquis. From the link below….”Sections 139001, 139002, and 139003 of the Build Back Better Act would amend the non-interference clause by adding an exception that would allow the federal government to negotiate prices with drug companies for a small number of high-cost drugs lacking generic or biosimilar competitors covered under Medicare Part B and Part D. The negotiation process would apply to no more than 10 (in 2025), 15 (in 2026 and 2027), and 20 (in 2028 and later years) single-source brand-name drugs lacking generic or biosimilar competitors, selected from among the 50 drugs with the highest total Medicare Part D spending and the 50 drugs with the highest total Medicare Part B spending (for 2027 and later years). The negotiation process would also apply to all insulin products.”

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