News & Events

Governor Patrick commemorates Workers’ Memorial Day with executive order extending OSHA protections to state employees

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
June 2009 Edition

At an April ceremony commemorating Massachusetts workers who were killed and injured on the job in 2008, Governor Patrick announced a new executive order that could help prevent state employees from meeting a similar fate. The executive order calls for the establishment of safety committees in all state agencies to document workplace hazards and safety measures needed. Safety experts and unions have been calling for the state to establish safety protections for public employees for years, but—prior to the Patrick administration—these requests had been rebuffed.

“This executive order demonstrates the governor’s commitment to protecting the health and safety of state employees in a truly meaningful way,” announced Suzanne M. Bump, the commonwealth’s secretary of labor and workforce development “We look forward to working closely with our employees’ representatives to improve the safety of our state workforce.”

Unlike their counterparts in the private sector, public employees in the commonwealth are not covered by safety requirements under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). When OSHA was enacted in the 1970s, it gave states the option to extend safety protections to public employees. Though twenty-seven states already apply these regulations to public employees, Massachusetts does not.

“State employees do jobs that are just as, if not more, dangerous than those in the private sector,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, “We applaud the governor for taking this essential step toward instituting safety measures that will most certainly prevent more needless workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths.”

State employees include highway workers exposed daily to lead dust, maintenance workers who work with heavy machinery, and electrical workers exposed to electrical hazards. In fact, the call from unions and safety activists for health and safety protections for public employees escalated after the death of a Logan Airport electrician, Roger LeBlanc, in 2004 whose electrocution may have been prevented had OSHA safety measures been implemented.

“It’s long past time that our commonwealth’s government begins to hold itself to the same workplace safety standards as the private sector and begin the work of providing safer workplaces for our public employees,” said Robert Haynes, President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “Our public employees are under enough fire in these difficult times. The very least we can do is get this Executive Order signed and give workers these protections. The Patrick Administration deserves a great deal of credit for taking this important step.”

Each year, commonwealth residents spend more than $50 million in workers’ compensation costs for injuries and illnesses incurred by state employees alone. According to data provided by New Hampshire’s Department of Labor, after implementing OSHA protections to state employees in 1998, the state of New Hampshire reduced its workers’ compensation claims by an average of 51 percent. And between the years 2001 and 2004 they saved $3.3 million.

A report released in April by MassCOSH and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO highlighted a state electrical worker who suffered an injury in 2008. An investigation by the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety found that the accident might have been prevented had the state instituted a number of basic safety measures which would have been required under OSHA.

Chris Pontus, associate director in the MNA Division of Health and Safety, has represented MNA at these meetings since the coalition’s inception.