April 28, 2021, marked the 50th Anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which revolutionized workplace safety thanks to the determined efforts of the labor movement. For the first time, workers had the right to a safe workplace. Through these first 50 years, workplace fatalities, injuries, and illness have been significantly reduced.
However, this progress has slowed. Nationally, workplace fatality rates have plateaued. The workplace is still too dangerous. Workplace injuries and deaths disproportionately impact workers of color who are more likely to work in dangerous occupations.
Each year on this anniversary we honor those who have been hurt or killed on the job on Workers Memorial Day, April 28, and we reflect on the toll of unsafe work.
Over this past year, through the COVID-19 pandemic, the high cost to California’s essential laborers has reminded us of the work still to be done for worker safety. A study by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center looked at the pandemic’s effect on California workers in high-risk industries. Workers in ten industries experienced an over 30% increase in deaths in 2020.
Warehouse workers, food-chain workers, agricultural workers and food processing workers had the highest increases in pandemic related deaths.
The industries with the highest increases in deaths tend to have a higher rate of immigrant or noncitizen workers. Often these workers live in larger, multi-family households. They earn lower wages and experience much higher rates of poverty.
Despite these grim statistics, dozens of organizations have been working tirelessly through the pandemic to provide resources and support to the most vulnerable populations.
The Street Level Health Project, based in Oakland, provides services to immigrant communities to ensure equitable health access to the uninsured and underinsured. During the pandemic, their team has taken to the streets to provide food, PPE, and vaccination updates including one on one help to day laborers and their families.
The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative is a grassroots organization that works on social issues faced by its mostly female, low income, Vietnamese immigrant workforce. The Collaborative has provided extensive information in English and Vietnamese to salon workers. They meet with and train workers and have supported and educated them through significant language and technological barriers throughout the pandemic.
The full list of the incredible work these organizations are doing can be found here.
Over the last 50 years, OSHA and the work of many organizations have improved the safety and working conditions for countless workers. But as we remember those who lost their lives or were injured at work, we must recognize the inequities that put the poorest and most marginalized workers in the most dangerous jobs and we must continue to fight for safer working conditions.
Article contributed by Modesto applicants' attorney Megan Ruble, Esq., CAAA Executive Committee Secretary