Amazon is guilty of underreporting when it comes to COVID-19 cases, as are meatpacking plants and farm operations. The entire state of Texas is guilty of underreporting workplace incidents like injuries, as it’s the only state without universal workers comp, which means companies have even fewer incentives to do the right thing since they’re ostensibly setting their own rules. As workplace tragedies—like the eight lives lost to a tornado at the Mayfield Consumer Products plant in Kentucky—continue to mount, legislation has been introduced to at least address some of the issues. The Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, named for a worker who died of heatstroke in 2004, was introduced last year to address heat-related deaths in the workplace. And, last week, OSHA finally announced the launching of what it dubs a National Emphasis Program on heat-related hazards.
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“Tragically, the three-year average of workplace deaths caused by heat has doubled since the early 1990s. These extreme heat hazards aren’t limited to outdoor occupations, the seasons, or geography. From farmworkers in California to construction workers in Texas and warehouse workers in Pennsylvania, heat illness—exacerbated by our climate’s rising temperatures—presents a growing hazard for millions of workers,” Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in a statement.
Missing are requirements instead of guidance for natural disasters or grievous workplace incidents, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred 12 years ago today in the Gulf of Mexico. The largest oil spill in American history, it led to the deaths of 11 workers, irrevocably damaged the environment, and has continued to impact the Gulf South today. Damning reports following the incident found that safety regulations were regularly flouted for the sake of expedience. These problems persist to this day. Despite establishing new oversight in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill, journalists found that offshore worker deaths remain underreported.
As the president pushes for bold, sweeping changes to reach net-zero, so too should the Biden administration push for a country in which workplace deaths rarely, if ever, occur. Committing to a greener future means ensuring those who play key roles in reaching that goal are protected from exploitation, paid a livable wage, and protected from entirely preventable disasters. The Department of Labor has indeed issued reports touching on environmental justice but, like its guidance-over-rules approach to handling such matters, it is altogether lacking. The time to act is now, especially given the fact that it takes years for OSHA to fully adopt a regulation. The agency must act before more are senselessly lost for the sake of profit.
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