Is Obama the Safe Choice for President?

Regarding worker safety and health, there's not a lot of voting history to speak of with Sen. Barack Obama, which is understandable since he is still in his first term as a U.S senator. Thus far, his chief connection to workplace safety and health has to do with his support for and from labor unions, which have a long history of effective advocacy for workers' safety and well-being on the job.

Transportation Safety
In 2001, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Transportation's Cross Border Truck Safety Inspection Program. It listed 22 safety requirements that had to be in place before other steps were implemented to allow Mexican trucks to travel into the United States within a 20-25 mile commercial zone along the Southwest border. In February 2007, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced plans to expand the program to allow a select group of Mexican trucking companies to make deliveries beyond this commercial zone.

This caused an uproar from some safety professionals and labor unions, especially the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which argued Peters' action would endanger Americans' safety because Mexican commercial trucks had failed to meet safety standards outlined in the program. The union also questioned DOT's ability to enforce safety compliance in this program. Congress in mid-September approved a bill (H.R. 3074) limiting Mexican trucks to commercial zones near the U.S./Mexican border, and Obama was a co-sponsor of the bill. Although the bill became law on Dec. 26, 2007, Peters continues to defy that law and was pleading her case before Congress as recently as March 2008.

Obama has since promised the Teamsters that, if elected, he would readdress safety concerns involving the North American Free Trade Agreement. In a signed document, Obama pledges as president to "support and advocate for a well funded and rigorous federal program of inspections and aggressive enforcement of all U.S. highway safety laws and regulations that ensure that these vehicles and drivers meet all U.S. safety and security standards before allowing Mexico-domiciled motor carriers and buses on U.S. highways."

Obama has received the endorsement of the AFL-CIO largely because of his co-sponsorship and support of its key legislation this year, the card check bill (the Employee Free Choice Act, H.R. 800, S. 1041), which passed the House of Representatives in March but was stopped by a Senate vote June 26 when Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was the sole Republican voting to allow it to proceed to an up-or-down vote. Strongly opposed by employer groups, this bill would require the NLRB to certify a union as bargaining unit representative if the agency finds a majority of the workers have signed valid cards -- not requiring a secret ballot election if at least 30 percent have signed, as happens now. The AFL-CIO has said the pro-union bill "would level the playing field for workers and employers and help rebuild America's middle class." Obama pledged to the Teamsters that as president, he will "make enacting the 'Employee Free Choice Act' into law a top priority for my Administration. I will work with Congress to ensure its passage and will sign it into law."

Health Care
Obama's stated opposition to Sen. John McCain's plans to impose a tax on health care benefits and to privatize Social Security are big issues that have drawn the support of many in the mining community. The United Mine Workers of America has endorsed Obama, and UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts issued a news release summarizing why a tax on health care benefits would be so detrimental to miners: "UMWA members are at risk of receiving serious injuries or contracting occupational diseases every day. Many of our retirees suffer from debilitating injuries or black lung. They have paid for those health care benefits with their blood. To impose a tax on them because they receive those benefits is not only unjust, it's immoral. We also have many thousands of retirees and widows of retirees who depend on Social Security. Sen. McCain wants to privatize Social Security and put those retirees' benefits at risk in the stock market. We cannot stand by and allow that to happen."

Hoping for a Democrat or a Republican?
The law that created OSHA and NIOSH was signed during a Republican administration, but Democratic presidents have tended to do more in terms of enacting new safety and health regulations. (It's fair to say many safety professionals seem to agree that old regulations should be updated without undue delay but don't desire new regs.) The current Bush administration slowed the pace of regulation to a crawl -- the latest OMB report to Congress on benefits and costs of federal regulations says OSHA issued only five major rules from Oct. 1, 1996, to Sept. 30, 2006 -- and is noteworthy for having repealed an OSHA standard, the ergonomics standard that was eliminated in early 2001. In Obama, labor unions and some safety professionals are placing their hopes that the Democratic Party will bring a chance for change. In UMWA's endorsement letter for Obama, Roberts summed up their -- and Obama's -- position this way: "It doesn't matter whether it's our members' jobs, their safety, their health care, their pensions, their children's education, their union, their standard of living, or their very rights as American citizens--John McCain will do harm to all of them by continuing the failed Bush administration policies."

An AFL-CIO questionnaire asked these safety questions of Obama: "What would you do to improve job safety and health protections for workers? What is your view on the appropriate balance between mandatory standards/enforcement vs. voluntary approaches? How would you address the issue of ergonomic hazards, which are responsible for one-third of all workplace injuries?"

Obama's response:

All the labor rights in the world don't matter if workers can't count on coming home to their families at the end of the day in one piece. But the Bush administration's OSHA has turned its back on America's working families. By cutting staff, dramatically reducing funds for training, promoting weak voluntary programs at the expense of proven enforcement mechanisms, and reversing key protective standards, the Bush administration has put the lives of workers at risk. The next President must make sure OSHA lives up to its calling to protect our workers and give it the resources it needs to succeed.

As President, I would increase OSHA's funding so it can conduct more investigations and provide more health and safety training programs for small business employers as well as workers in high-risk trades like construction. I would also expand OSHA to cover all public employees; people who commit their lives to public service should not be left to fend for themselves. I would increase protections for whistleblowers and require that employers pay for the safety equipment that their workers need. And I would make sure that we no longer witness the mining tragedies of the last few years by renewing our commitment to enforcing MSHA.

At the same time, we must recognize that even with greater resources and a strong, targeted enforcement program, OSHA will never be able to inspect every hazardous workplace. For that reason we must utilize all available tools to get employers and workers in such workplaces to find and fix hazards before someone is hurt. First, we need a straightforward safety and health programs standard so that all employers with hazardous workplaces take a systematic approach to injury and illness prevention, with the help of their employees. The evidence is strong that such programs save lives, and in many cases they save money and increase productivity as well. In addition, we must provide compliance assistance to help small businesses protect their workers, and work collaboratively with employers and workers to find innovative approaches to worker protection. Ultimately, we must convince employers that they cannot afford to lose $1 billion to workplace injuries every week if they want to compete in the global marketplace. That's money that can be used to grow our economy if we do what's right and protect our workers.

Today's workers are particularly susceptible to debilitating musculoskeletal injuries. These injuries cost American businesses $15-20 billion each year in workers' compensation costs. Although OSHA issued a standard based on successful business practices in reducing these costly injuries, Bush and a Republican Congress negated this progress by repealing the standard. As President, I would reinstate OSHA's ergonomics rule and make sure that we create a policy that supports workers.

To view the questionnaire in its entirety, Click Here.

Bills Yet to Pass

Little may get done in Congress as the November elections approach. A few important safety bills await U.S. Senate votes at this writing, and those could be litmus tests to help the safety profession decide whether Obama or McCain is the right man to lead the nation.

Be on the lookout for:

Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act of 2008, H.R. 5522 -- Passed by the House of Representatives, it would require the Secretary of Labor to issue interim and final occupational safety and health standards controlling workers' exposure to combustible dust. Currently, it has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which is chaired by an ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy; Obama is a member of the committee.

Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act, H.R. 2693 -- This House bill would direct OSHA to issue a standard regulating workers' exposure to the popcorn flavoring diacetyl. Currently, it has been placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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