At Hearing, Advocates Urge State to Avert Worker Death

December 29, 2014

At a public hearing before the state’s Department of Labor Standards, safety experts and labor representatives urged the administration to move forward with proposed regulations on state employee safety, ensure that the labor agency has sufficient resources to enforce the law, and strengthen whistleblower provisions of the new regulations. The regulations follow the passage of a new law requiring the state to apply federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) safety protections for state employees, a practice common in many states. Prior to the passage of the new law, only private sector employers were required to comply with OSHA standards.
In his testimony, Chris Landry, a state employee and member of SEIU Local 509, described a bedbug problem at his agency.
"Management initially denied that there was a problem…then when they were spraying, management told us to stay and work,” said Landry. “But people were coming out of the office coughing. I am glad to see that state employees will now have OSHA protections so that if something like this were to happen in the future, we would be able to address it."

“For more than five years, MassCOSH, state employee unions, and the Patrick Administration have worked toward this day, when we can realize our shared goal of dramatically reducing the risk of injury, illness and death of state employees,” testified Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH).
Goldstein-Gelb noted that the regulations incorporate three essential components:

  • Clearly articulating the responsibility of state agencies to comply with federal OSHA;
  • Asserting the right of workers to report a violation and be assured that the state Department of Labor Standards will investigate the complaint;
  • Ensuring that a union representative be able to participate in the investigative process, allowing workers to bring their critical perspective to the investigation.

At the hearing, occupational experts and labor representatives urged the administration to provide sufficient funding to enforce the law. Without sufficient enforcement, they argued, the Commonwealth would continue to see injuries and death, causing pain and suffering for employees and costing the state more than $40 million in workers’ compensation costs.
Christine Pontus, associate director of health and safety of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, spoke about the importance of strong protections against retaliation of state workers who lodge a complaint or speak up about health and safety.
"I do not believe we can truly speak about worker safety without the voice of the worker," Pontus emphasized. As the regulations are currently worded, Pontus stressed that state employees do not enjoy the same worker protections as stated under OSHA’s 11c of the Act.
“When protections are not in place, workers may not feel comfortable enough to speak up,” said Pontus. “A lack of a supportive work environment often results in an atmosphere of intimidation and bullying."
"These requirements are consistent with the federal law and have proven to be a success story in the private industry cutting workplace fatalities in half and reducing injuries and illness rates by at least forty percent," testified Joe Dorant, President of Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists. "There is no doubt the public sector will see the same achievements if the program is properly implemented."