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April 27, 2018
The Honorable R. Alexander AcostaSecretary of LaborUnited States Department of Labor200 Constitution Ave, NWWashington, DC 20210
Loren SweattDeputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary of LaborOccupational Safety and Health AdministrationUnited States Department of Labor200 Constitution Ave, NWWashington, DC 20210 Re: Worker Memorial Week Letter to Honor the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sanitation Workers Robert Walker and Echol Cole
Dear Secretary Acosta and Acting Assistant Secretary Sweatt,
This Workers Memorial Week, we the undersigned organizations call on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to honor the 50th anniversary of the deaths of sanitation workers Robert Walker and Echol Cole, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – who ultimately gave his life advocating for every worker’s right to a safe job – by strengthening workplace health and safety standards. This would be a much-needed departure from OSHA’s current trend of undoing vital occupational protections and support systems.
On February 1, 1968 Mr. Walker and Mr. Cole entered the back of their garbage truck to escape a storm. They had repeatedly warned management about the truck’s defective equipment to no avail. As they sought shelter, the truck’s compactor malfunctioned and crushed both men to death. That preventable tragedy was the catalyst for the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, where worker advocates and Dr. King marched in solidarity for workers’ rights.
Three years later, OSHA was established, giving birth to a new era of workplace protections aimed at preventing such occupational hazards. OSHA’s mission is just as urgent today, as we face 150 worker deaths from hazardous working conditions each day. It can reverse the recent wave of attacks on worker protections and return to its mission. Needed actions include, but are not limited to:
Rescind OSHA’s proposals to roll back commonsense rules, including protections against beryllium (a toxic element that can cause lung cancer) and electronic reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses; Establish federal standards against common workplace hazards, including musculoskeletal disorders and heat stress, as we are witnessing by a growing number of state OSHA programs; Prioritize enforcement of OSHA’s neglected Whistleblower Protection Program, so that workers can safely report injuries and other violations free from retaliation; Support OSHA’s Advisory Committees and Susan Harwood Training Grants, which foster collaboration between labor, employers and nonprofits; Continue with the full implementation of newly established protections to prevent exposure to respirable crystalline silica, which can cause life-threatening diseases such as lung cancer; and Promptly fill the high number of workplace safety inspector vacancies and increase the number of inspector positions, so that so that OSHA can perform its mandate to enforce these vital worker protections.
In his final speech, Dr. King declared “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’” OSHA is uniquely positioned to help workers across industries, preventing countless future workplace tragedies.
OSHA acknowledges that Workers Memorial Day is a time to “honor those workers who have died on the job, to acknowledge the grievous suffering experienced by families and communities, and to recommit ourselves to the fight for safe and healthful workplaces for all workers”. As we renew the fight for safe jobs and honor the legacy of Mr. Walker, Mr. Cole, Dr. King, and all workers who have died as a result of hazardous working conditions, we call on OSHA to take bold actions on behalf of all workers without delay.