With Trump’s workplace safety rollbacks, more Mainers could be hurt on the job

With Trump’s workplace safety rollbacks, more Mainers could be hurt on the job

This year in Maine, 22 workers died while on the job.

They were lobstermen, teachers, construction laborers, even bankers; people from all walks who paid with their lives in their efforts to provide for themselves and their families. I know this because May 1 was International Workers’ Day— an observance that both celebrates the long history of the labor movement and that pays tribute to those workers who lost their lives on the job in the previous year, and on that day I joined hundreds of workers from around central Maine to remember those who passed and to rededicate ourselves to the struggle for workers’ rights.

It’s fitting that that celebration fell on the anniversary of the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which was formed on April 28, 1971 (during the Nixon administration!) and marked a watershed moment in the United States for the fight for workers’ rights and safe workplaces. Since 1971, workplace deaths in the US have fallen by over two thirds from 38 deaths per day to roughly 13 today. Still, in 2015, the most recent year in which federal data is available, 4,836 people died on the job, which doesn’t include the tens of thousands who die every year from occupation-related illnesses.

It’s sometimes easy to forget in debates about the right to organize how many lives have been saved by the blood, sweat, and tears of workers who came before by challenging things like child labor, never-ending work weeks, or fundamental workplace safety standards. It’s also easy to forget how easy it is to backslide toward feudal conditions when workers lose their voices in the halls of power.

With Trump in the White House, congressional Republicans have been probing the defenses of the workplace safety bureaucracy, working to find areas for rollback and repeal. Efforts include repealing a key rule that required federal contractors to disclose their workplace safety violations, and limiting OSHA from issuing citations for certain violations after six months from the date of an infraction.

It’s important to remember that to these lawmakers, workplace safety regulations are a problem, not a solution. If given enough uncontested power, politicians backed by groups like the national Chamber of Commerce would work to completely eliminate agencies like OSHA because in their view, safety regulations are a danger to the free market (or at least to the large corporations that fund groups like the national Chamber). Because the simple truth is that for some, workplace deaths are simply an accepted cost of doing business. In the face of such callousness, it is the continued and sustained defense of workplace safety norms and regulations by workers,their unions, and their allies that have allowed them to remain in existence.

Something as simple as the right not to get killed by a negligent or greedy employer is so fundamental that it is easy to take for granted by workers who have lived for half a century with relatively robust safety protections. Remembrances like those held earlier this month are an important reminder that the fight for workplace safety is both incomplete and not preordained to be victorious. Just like our forebears fought, we need to fight to make sure that the right to work with safety and dignity doesn’t slip away from us.

Photo via Flickr/David Barnas.

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 43 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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