The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Budget, Alliance Uncertainties Threaten Grassroots Work Safety Efforts

by Brendan Coyne

Following major reductions in health and safety oversight by the country’s largest labor federation, the government has announced drastic cuts in its own worker education efforts, leaving advocates worried and weakened.

May 30, 2005 – With workplace fatalities on the rise, the government is once again on the verge of eliminating one of its most substantial sources of funds for groups that work to mitigate the dangers of employment. For the fourth time in as many years, a federal grant program that supports workplace health and education training and serves as an integral source of financial support for a loose-knit coalition of worker training organizations is on the chopping block, leaving the future of such efforts up in the air.

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Named for a former official of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Susan Harwood Training Grant is a decades-old program that provides monetary backing for a variety of research, training, and educational efforts run by nonprofit organizations associated with universities and colleges, religious centers, businesses and organized labor.

Over the last several years, the Bush administration has proposed cutting the training grant by millions with each budget, only to have the efforts rebuked at the last minute by legislators. Proposed cuts to the overall OSHA budget have followed a similar route. As a result, funding has barely kept pace with inflation, according to OSHA budget figures.

Meanwhile, workers continue to die and suffer injuries on the job at alarming rates. In 2004, OSHA reported that 5 percent of the private sector workforce had incurred work-related injuries or illnesses in 2003, the last year for which it has compiled statistics. Of the 4.1 million incidents of injury, 68 percent affected service workers. The Department of Labor reports 5,575 work-related fatalities for the same year.

Health and safety advocates say many of the work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths can be abated through the delivery of one-on-one and small group training.

Funding for the Harwood grants has hovered around $10 to $11 million for the past several years, but, in a quiet February budget announcement, OSHA announced that the program was to be droppd outright, despite the agency’s expected $2.8 million budget increase.

Before learning of the Harwood cut, workplace safety advocates had been happy to hear about new measures for standards enforcement and compliance, such as an additional $4.6 million to go for federal enforcement, which includes a planned 37,700 workplace inspections, and the proposal to provide $1 million for states to use in compliance assistance. But the proposed defunding of the Harwood grant quickly dampened their spirits.

Workplace Safety Training Works

Health and safety advocates say many of the work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths can be abated through the delivery of one-on-one and small group training, the very types of programs OSHA is moving away from funding.

Roger Cook, director of the Western New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (WNY COSH) can attest to the effectiveness of such training programs. COSH groups all over the country are regular recipients of the Susan Harwood grants.

A bigger obstacle for COSH groups and labor safety educators comes from the technology-oriented approach OSHA has increasingly embraced in the last several years.

From 1997 through 2000, WNY COSH ran a joint labor-management ergonomics safety training program funded entirely with a Susan Harwood Grant at grocery warehouses in Western New York. The results were dramatic, as evidenced by a 35-page report -- complete with letters from employers thanking the group and touting the results of the program -- provided to TNS.

One warehouse, the Tops Distribution Center in Buffalo, NY, experienced a 30 to 50 percent drop in work-related injuries during the years it participated in the program. The grocery chain’s freezer facility reported a remarkable drop in injuries during the same time, from 1 in 5 when the program started to 1 in 50 two years later. Tops’ parent company, Ahold USA, liked the results so much that it initiated similar programs at Giant and Stop & Shop stores in Maryland and elsewhere, according to documentation provided with the report.

Other companies enrolled in similar COSH-run programs reported parallel results. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York saw its worker’s compensation costs drop by $150,000 within three years of beginning an ergonomics program, and Try-It Distributing, a Western New York beverage distributor, reported a 44 percent reduction in injuries within just one year of implementing a similar educational regimen.

"I think we actually underestimate the role COSH and labor groups play in keeping the workplace safe," Tom Juravich, director of Labor Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told The NewStandard. "They’re out there, they know the system, and a lot of times they just know much more than OSHA -- or even employers -- know about the actual conditions that people work in."

"COSH groups are usually the only groups in a community doing this sort of training -- and the only ones doing it for free or at a very low cost," explained Susan O’Brien, the associate director of New York COSH. "This sort of one big blanket approach OSHA appears to be embracing doesn’t work effectively. There are segments of our society who aren’t going to get access to the items they’re [OSHA] offering."

National leadership on workplace protection measures at the AFL-CIO appears to be in danger.

"If the COSH groups do lose this funding," said William Johnson, co-editor of Labor Notes, "it will mostly be noticed at the local level, where they operate., But the impact could be quite substantial. These groups fill in the gaps where unions either can’t or don’t want to operate. They’re on the shop floor and out in the community, reaching out to immigrants and others who desperately need the training." Labor Notes is a monthly magazine that focuses on the union movement and is operated by a nonprofit organization of the same name.

On average, an individual COSH receives $20,000-$30,000 a year from the Harwood grants, O’Brien said, making the grant funding a substantial portion of most groups’ budgets, which vary from less than $50,000 to over $1 million a year.

Houston COSH director Diana Dale admitted $30,000 does not sound like a lot of money, but she said groups like hers can do a lot with that much cash.

Dale said she expects OSHA to clarify the status of the Harwood grant money this summer, possibly by early July. She said her organization is quite dependant on the money, and she is worried that resources intended to go for training will have to be expended finding new sources of funding if the grant money isn’t restored to the budget.

OSHA’s Changing Priorities at Odds with Data

But funding levels are only one aspect of a larger problem, according to Tom O’Connor, national coordinator for COSH. A bigger obstacle for COSH groups and labor safety educators comes from the technology-oriented approach OSHA has increasingly embraced in the last several years, he said.

The shift in priorities has been noticed by health and safety advocates ever since Bush took office, but it began in earnest with the 2005 budget request, they say. For that year, Bush proposed revising the Susan Harwood training grants program to "focus on new technologies and emphasize development of training materials rather than delivery of training."

O’Connor said, "The top people at OSHA in this administration are greatly enamored with high-tech training, web-based training, production of DVD’s and the like."

He continued, "These bureaucrats are so removed from the reality of low-income workers that they don’t seem to realize that few of the workers who most need this training have the capacity to access such methods."

Workplace health and safety advocates also blame OSHA’s increasingly cozy relationship with businesses -- a relationship marked by employer-focused training programs and increased efforts to help companies comply with the law.

O’Brien, of New York COSH, said the new direction OSHA appears to be heading cannot achieve the same results groups like hers do, namely because grassroots training casts a wide net, offers situation-specific programming, and teaches employees to be proactive and work with all elements of the communities they work in.

Labor Divisions Exacerbate Problems

Compounding the government’s seeming disinterest in workplace safety issues are the recent shake-ups at the nation’s largest labor federation. The AFL-CIO, which has historically worked closely with the COSH groups, recently announced it was dissolving its national Health and Safety Department and laying off some of the staff that has worked on those issues. Though unions don’t provide much direct funding to the groups, they helped form the first COSH groups and every COSH has a union representative on its board of directors, O’Connor said.

In light of speculation that several unions may leave the Federation, coupled with the recently revealed restructuring and layoffs, national leadership on workplace protection measures at the AFL-CIO appears to be in danger.

"I’m actually scared to death about the direction workplace safety and health are heading," Juravich said. "Workplaces are becoming more dangerous. My real concern is that there hasn’t been enough thought given to the effect the Federation’s decision will have on the national level. They’ve played a strong coordinating role with employers, OSHA, and the COSHes. I don’t really know what the other options are now. "

Unions have long organized around the issues of workplace health and safety, and a study of workers’ attitudes towards their jobs conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO in 2001 found that health and safety issues ranked highest among their priorities, with 98 percent of respondents citing a "safe and healthy workplace" as an essential or very important right at work.

Statistics like these give pause to labor educators observing the changes in organized labor. Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University’s New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations questioned the wisdom of focusing on organizing at the expense of core services unions have traditionally supplied.

"If you defund education, and health and safety and other critical functions at the center, you hurt organizing and political action because these are the departments that are at the core of motivating and educating people around the critical issues which you are trying to mobilize them around," Bronfenbrenner explained.

Larry Casey, director of the Building Trades Program with the Labor Education Service of the University of Minnesota, agreed. He questioned where the service part of belonging to a union is heading, but pointed out that many unions still have strong health and safety programs, especially larger, long-established unions in building trades, the auto and steel industries and mining. Still, Casey said, the oft-noted shrinking member base places a strain on labor’s ability to serve its members.

Johnson, the Labor Notes co-editor, takes this critique one step farther in assessing the future of organized labor and workplace health and safety, especially the grassroots sort of efforts that the COSH groups undertake. "Why are we in a situation where the most reliable workplace health and safety advocates are government -- and not union -- sponsored," he asked. "Why would workers want to join unions that have stopped devoting resources to protecting them on the job?"

In light of the tensions within organized labor, and mindful of the potential that a large vacuum in national leadership may soon develop, the COSH network may just be coming to life. According to O’Connor, the national coordinator, the 22 smaller groups that make up the network formally joined together as a national body and obtained tax-exempt status last year for two reasons: to ease the process of attaining grant money and to develop "a stronger national presence as an advocate for workers health and safety."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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