Since 1970, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set standards to protect workers in the private sector. If there is an accident at a construction site, or if someone is injured at a manufacturing facility, OSHA will investigate the incident, order the employer to make any necessary changes, and even levy fines in, particularly egregious cases.
In Massachusetts, there is a notable legal loophole that means that some workers may find themselves in an unsafe workplace. Although OSHA standards cover private employers and Massachusetts law mandates safety standards for municipal employees, neither law applies to state workers – including those who work on the state’s highways. A new bill, recently introduced in the state legislature, would give state workers the same workplace protections that are given to municipal and private sector employees.
Specifically, the bill would not only provide OSHA protections to state employees but would also allow the Massachusetts Department of Labor to set safety regulations and standards. The author of the bill, State Senator Marc R. Pacheco, says that its purpose is to prevent workplace accidents.
Although the bill may seem common sense, Pacheco is unable to determine whether the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development is likely to act on it. In fact, Pacheco says has introduced similar legislation before the legislature unsuccessfully for at least the past five years.
Proponents of the measure, including the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, say that it would not only make state workplaces safer but would also save the state money. Each year, Massachusetts spends approximately $48 million on injury claims. If setting safety standards and ensuring compliance with OSHA regulations prevents just 10 percent of accidents in Massachusetts, the measure could save the state approximately $5 million annually. This is in addition to the substantial liability the state faces due to unsafe construction sites and other workplaces.
Nevertheless, the bill does have opponents. Most of those opposed to the bill argue that the change would substantially increase costs and would create yet another state bureaucracy. Neither of these objections, however, addresses the need to prevent accidents or create safer workplaces for state workers.
Time will tell whether Pacheco’s bill becomes law, but it may well be a step in the right direction for Massachusetts. After all, those workers who put their health and safety on the line to perform jobs for the state deserve all the protection they can get.