November 17, 2021 — Health and safety in the workplace is on all of our minds as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our lives.
Which is why holding an employer accountable for health and safety at the worksite is so vital.
“It is your employer’s responsibility to provide a healthy and safe workplace,” said PEF Health and Safety Specialist Veronica Foley during a workshop at PEF’s 2021 Convention on October 26.
The foundation of a healthy and safe workplace includes reporting and recordkeeping of injuries and illnesses; union participation in hazard identification and risk assessment; research of rules, laws, best practices and guidance; union participation in implementing mitigation strategies; and enforcement.Health
“When this foundation is laid, you, the members, can ensure a safe and healthy workplace together with management,” Foley said. “There is never a cure all. You must become aware of and comfortable with working within a paradigm of multiple stakeholders, rules, regulations and best practices.”
OSHA and PESH
Federal law requires employers to furnish places of employment “which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970.
OSHA covers the private sector, so in 1980 a state plan was created — the Public Employee Safety and Health Act (PESH) — to enforce OSHA standards for the public sector and by law it must be at least as effective as OSHA protections.
But enforcement under PESH is unfortunately limited and there isn’t a standard for every workplace hazard.
“What we do have may not perfectly cover our concerns, but it could be a start,” Foley said. “New laws in New York could create enforcement opportunities for PESH that go above and beyond what exists in OSHA standards.”
Either way, it’s important for PEF to connect with PESH, Foley said.
“Union contacts are crucial for PESH inspections,” she said. “They always ask for the union representation on site and you can join inspections and be a part of interviews. Show management that you are watching and that you understand how to harness what you have a right to.”
Some standards governed by PESH include hazard communication, blood-borne pathogens, sanitation, respiratory protection and recordkeeping.
“These are useful because they are widely applicable and there is information you can request,” Foley said.
The Importance of Records
Documentation of all injuries and illnesses in the workplace is crucial to effecting change.
“If you’re hurt, have it recorded,” Foley said. “You don’t need to fully understand the hazard that resulted in the injury or illness right away, but you do need to make sure it’s recorded because these records are incredibly useful to the union, as well as PESH inspectors. They show trends and support efforts to advocate for safer and healthier workplaces.”
Recordable incidents include those that result in death; days away from work; restricted work or transfer to another job; and medical treatment beyond first aid. Loss of consciousness or significant injury or illness diagnosed by a physician or licensed health care professional must be recorded, per PESH.
Health and safety committees can request this information for use in mitigating concerns.
Members should be aware of what their agency must provide, including sanitation provisions like potable water, soap and hand towels, housekeeping, pest control, running water and the number of bathrooms.
They also have a right to be informed of chemical hazards in the workplace and what those hazards could mean for their health. A written Hazard Communication Program under PESH should include how chemical hazards are determined; a chemical inventory; a labeling procedure; safety data sheets; employee training; and personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols, among others.
A respiratory standard in a workplace covers procedures to select respirator use; medical evaluations of those required to wear respirators; fit testing procedures; maintenance; and proper use provisions.
When applicable, a blood-borne pathogen exposure control plan should also be in place, including universal precautions, training, a Hepatitis B vaccination offer, PPE and post-exposure follow-up.
Another tool for holding employers accountable is Article 18 of the PS&T Contract, which states: “The state remains committed to providing and maintaining healthy and safe working conditions, and to initiating and maintaining operating practices that will safeguard employee health and safety in an effort to eliminate the potential of on-the-job injury/illness and resulting workers’ compensation claims.”
The process under Article 18 begins with local-level health and safety committees and can be escalated to agency-level and then statewide committees.
“When members identify hazards, they are brought to the attention of the committees,” Foley said. “The committees are ground zero, where all our tools can be identified, researched and utilized.”
The committees develop and implement programs to identify and correct concerns; develop and implement grants programs to support committee work; and identify concerns around toxic exposures, among other things.
What If They Don’t Cooperate?
In the event an agency fails to comply with requests for information, there are steps to take, such as working with the labor side of the health and safety committee to strategize; reaching out to PEF, with the support of your council leader; or considering a PESH complaint.
For questions or concerns, contact PEF health and safety at email@example.com or 1-800-342-4306, ext. 254.