Washington Update

Washington Update: In Congress, who will take the lead on worker safety?

Over the past several years, many faces familiar to safety and health professionals have been disappearing from Capitol Hill.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), a longtime worker safety advocate and head Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee for the past 14 years, retired at the end of the 113th Congress. His California colleague, Lynn Woolsey, who chaired the Workforce Protections Subcommittee from 2007 to 2012, retired at the beginning of 2013.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) – former chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – retired in 2014. Harkin took over the committee’s chairmanship in 2009 following the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), a staunch workplace safety and health proponent.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) died in 2010 after spending years fighting for the rights of miners. Fellow West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who introduced several mine safety bills in the Senate, declined to run for another term and instead retired in early 2015.

Reflecting on these departures of occupational safety champions in Congress, Celeste Monforton, a professional lecturer at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, said now is the time for current members of Congress to rise up and take on the calling of worker safety.

“It is the responsibility of the worker health and safety community to develop those relationships for those members who don’t really have the experience,” she said.

Filling the void

Probably the most prominent and vocal worker safety advocate in Congress these days is Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member of the HELP Committee.

Murray’s home state has seen its share of workplace disasters, including a 2010 refinery explosion that killed seven workers. The senator has been the lead sponsor on the Protecting America’s Workers Act – legislation that would update OSHA – and is well-spoken on workplace safety matters, according to Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO.

“She’s been the lead on all the safety and health issues,” she said. “She’s really stepped up.”

The Senate Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee, which Murray formerly chaired, now will feature Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) as ranking member. Will he be a leader, too? Franken’s selection gave Monforton pause, and she called his opposition to a Department of Labor proposal requiring additional protections for young agricultural workers “a disappointment.” The administration later abandoned the proposal in response to industry pressures.

Seminario is less concerned with the agriculture issue. “Whatever he jumps into, he jumps into,” she said of Franken, noting his past leadership on safe patient-handling measures for health care workers.

On the House side, Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Frederica Wilson (D-FL) will be the top Democrats for the Education and the Workforce Committee and the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, respectively. Seminario called Scott a “longtime” supporter of worker rights, but neither Seminario nor Monforton knew much about Wilson.

However, Seminario was quick to add she didn’t know much about Woolsey when the former representative took the reins of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee. In her time, Woolsey became one of the more vocal worker safety advocates.

“It’s a challenge to have so many new leaders, but it’s also an opportunity to get new people engaged,” Seminario said.

But what of Republicans?

Years ago, safety was a bipartisan issue. The Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed into law in 1970 by President Richard Nixon (R), and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter fought for worker safety rights as both a Republican and a Democrat.

More recently, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) was actively engaged in workplace safety and health as the HELP Committee chair 10 years ago. Although Enzi is still on the committee, he doesn’t hold a leadership position related to occupational safety.

Seminario believes the current committee chair, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), will focus more on educational issues than worker safety, which likely will not be a priority for the committee. (Alexander’s office did not return a call asking for comment.)

Still, Seminario doubts that the ideological attacks OSHA endured during the Gingrich Congress 20 years ago – when Republicans attempted to weaken OSHA – will occur this session.

Republicans are more concerned with proving they can govern, and picking fights with Democrats over workplace safety issues won’t be at the top of their agenda. As to whether some of the aforementioned Democrats – or anyone else – will pick fights to push worker safety to the forefront, time will tell.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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