The December 2010 issue of Scientific American, page 12,  features my letter to them about the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), HR 2067 and S 1580.  I appreciate the way that the editors enlarged this quote on their letters page:  “When whistleblowers speak truth to power, they could finally hold employers accountable.”

Since I wrote my letter, I learned that the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, has released the number of workplace fatalities for 2009. In that year, only 4,340 Americans died on the job. This is a 17% drop from the prior year, showing the effects of the recession. The recession was particularly hard on the construction industry which which has historically contributed more than its share of fatalities.

Also, although there has been no advancement of the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), HR 2067 and S 1580, Rep. George Miller was successful in getting the Robert C. Byrd Miners Safety and Health Act passed by the House Judiciary Committee. It is H.R. 5663. Section 701 of this bill is equivalent to PAWA’s modernization of Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It would, if passed, finally give workplace health and safety whistleblowers a meaningful protection from retaliation. The companion bill in the Senate, S. 3671, is still in committee. I imagine that during the lame duck session, Rep. Miller will be looking for a must-pass bill to which he can attach the Robert D. Byrd Miners Safety and Health Act. If the Senate would concur, then our workplaces would become safer through the protection of safety whistleblowers.

Here is the text of my letter, with the bill numbers for PAWA:

   In “Danger in School Labs,” [News Scan] Beryl Lieff Benderly lists four fatalities from lab accidents. She notes that the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), HR 2067 and S 1580, would expand the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to include state employees. Whistleblower protections would also improve. Sadly, 5,000 Americans die each year from workplace hazards. Sadder still, although dead bodies usually get Congress to pass better protections, opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has mired the bill in committees.
Under the 1970 act, whistleblowers can file a complaint with OSHA, but if OSHA decides not to take further action in the case, the whistleblower has no further rights to any hearing or appeal. This dependence on OSHA has been devastating for the vast majority of workers who face retaliation after raising safety concerns.
In certain facilities, such as nuclear power plants, strong whistleblower protections already give workers in environmentally sensitive jobs meaningful legal remedies when they face retaliation for raising safety and compliance concerns.
The new act would establish similar protections for all employees OSHA covers in both the public and private sectors. When whistleblowers speak truth to power, they could finally hold employers accountable when they choose to retaliate. Our legislators need to know that lives are more important than Chamber of Commerce opposition.

You can read our prior blog entries about PAWA, including Meryl Grenadier’s report on the House Committee hearing,and an entry about support for the Robert C. Byrd Miners Safety and Health Act.