NEWARK, N.J. — The deaths of two Linden laundry workers, overcome by chemical fumes last month while cleaning a tank, yesterday brought a congressional subcommittee to that city to hear calls for empowering workers to help police workplace safety — and imposing tougher sanctions on employers who endanger the lives of their workers.
"Victor Diaz and Carlos Diaz should be alive today," said Rep. Donald Payne (D-10th Dist.), referring to the two unrelated men who died at the North East Linen commercial laundry in Linden. "The hazards of confined spaces where these workers were killed are well-known."
Yesterday's hearing at Linden City Hall was convened by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California democrat who in April introduced a bill to overhaul the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the federal workplace safety agency. Payne is on Woolsey's subcommittee on workplace protection, and after the Dec. 1 laundry accident, he requested the bill's next hearing be held in Linden.
Testifying yesterday was Rick Engler, director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, who proposed OSHA legislation be amended to require employers to create joint labor/management committees that would have "the right to survey the workplace on a regular basis and to investigate accidents, near-accidents and exposures."
Payne said he's leaning toward that idea. "We should think of making these committees mandatory — OSHA can't get around to every place," he said. Right now, OSHA depends largely on voluntary compliance with worker safety laws, "but unless you make it mandatory that they safeguard their workers, some employers are not going to do it."
Rep. Robert Andrews (D-1st Dist.) said, "OSHA is asleep at the switch and I want to see them start enforcing the law, and Congress has to give real penalties. Most fines are only a few thousand dollars and almost never are there criminal penalties."
New Jersey Labor Commissioner David Socolow said, "At this point in history, OSHA penalties have ceased to be a meaningful threat that could change employer behavior; it's just a cost of doing business. We need to get every employer to feel that they really ought to create a real, true, worker-management safety and health committee. But they are not going to feel that pressure until there is a stick, and that stick is OSHA."
The union UNITE HERE is in the midst of an organizing drive at North East Linen, and yesterday Eric Frumin, director of safety and health for the union, said employers who are cited for multiple OSHA violations at different plants should be considered repeat offenders and subject to stiffer penalties. UNITE HERE is the principal American and Canadian labor union in the garment, textile, laundry and hospitality industries.
"It should have been crystal clear to the owners and managers that the OSHA standard on confined spaces was important," Frumin said. At North East Linen's New Haven, Conn., plant, "OSHA required the company to do the kind of survey which, had they done that here in Linden, would have saved the lives of Victor and Carlos Diaz."
© 2008 The Star Ledger. Used by American Laundry News with permission.