More than 50 years ago on April 28, Workers Memorial Day, the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect, promising every worker the right to a safe job—a fundamental right. The law was won because of the tireless efforts of the labor movement, which organized for safer working conditions and demanded action from the government. Since then, unions and our allies have fought hard to make that promise a reality—winning protections that have made jobs safer and saved lives. But our work is not done. Each year, thousands of workers are killed and millions more suffer injury and illness because of dangerous working conditions that are preventable.
The COVID-19 pandemic devastated working families and highlighted the fundamental right to and importance of a safe job for every worker. Immediately and throughout this crisis, unions and our allies have stepped into action to demand and win protections on the job from this highly contagious virus. We organized for safe jobs and the right to speak out against unsafe working conditions. We won emergency safety protections for health care workers against COVID-19, and are continuing the fight for all. Without federal action to require prevention measures in all workplaces, unions demanded access to the ventilation, personal protective equipment and other measures that protect workers from inhaling the virus at work. The central involvement of organized labor and our allies was the key factor that improved working conditions to save lives.
But our work organizing for safe jobs has not ended. The pandemic exposed our weak laws that have prevented workers from organizing in their workplaces to demand safer working conditions. It also exposed weak job safety laws and a lack of resources that would ensure the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) can protect workers. Many employers and workers never see OSHA in their workplace. Penalties are still too low to be a deterrent. Workers are not adequately protected to speak out against unsafe working conditions and to freely join a union without retaliation. As we look to the next 50 years of worker protections under OSHA and MSHA, we must demand Congress strengthen the agencies’ authorities and provide them the resources necessary to ensure working people have safe jobs now. There must be action on critical safety and health protections against preventable hazards: infectious diseases, heat illness, workplace violence and silica in mining, and exposure to toxic chemicals that kills tens of thousands of workers each year.
Together, we are raising our collective voices to win stronger safety and health protections in our workplaces and stronger job safety and health laws. We are standing strong to hold workplace safety agencies accountable to create and enforce laws that protect workers, and to hold employers accountable to keep workers safe. We are organizing to raise the baseline level of safety protections for everyone, including those disproportionately impacted by dangerous working conditions.
On April 28, the unions of the AFL-CIO will observe Workers Memorial Day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job, and to organize the fight for safe jobs. We will come together this year to call for action on hazards that cause unnecessary injury, illness and death. We will stand united to strengthen workers’ rights and protections, and demand resources and actions needed for job safety enforcement. We will fight for the fundamental right of every worker to a safe job until that promise is fulfilled.