House, Senate Dems discuss bills to extend workplace protections to public employees

Joint Policy Committee hearing addresses need for OSHA protections for public workers

HARRISBURG, March 20 – State Senator Katie Muth (D-Chester/Montgomery/Berks), Chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, and House Democratic Policy Committee Chair Ryan Bizzarro (D-Erie) joined join Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Patrick Harkins (D-Erie) to co-host a joint public hearing on legislation that would extend Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections to public employees in Pennsylvania.

The hearing, held earlier today at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, featured two panels of testimony on both sides of the issue of extending OSHA protections to public employees in Pennsylvania.

“All Pennsylvanians deserve a safe workplace – and we need to make sure that we extend the critical workplace safety protections under OSHA to public employees across the Commonwealth,” Muth said. “There are so many public employees that put their lives on the line each and every day to protect our communities, to improve our roads, and to respond to emergencies – these individuals deserve better and they deserve workplace safety protections.”

OSHA was created in 1970 by the United States Congress to assure safe conditions for working men and women. OSHA covers most private sector employers and workers in all 50 states either directly through Federal OSHA or through an OSHA-approved state plan. Workplace health and safety protections under OSHA do not automatically cover public sector employees in state and municipal government.

“As we heard today, a workers right to know they are safe and protected at their jobs shouldn’t depend on who they work for,” said Senator Tartaglione. “We need to pass Senate Bill 93 to ensure Pennsylvanians all have OSHA protections regardless of their employer.”

States have to choose to extend these protections — and over half have already done so through OSHA-approved “state plans” that allow states to operate their own workplace health and safety programs covering public and/or private sector workers – Pennsylvania is not one of those states. Senator Tartaglione’s Senate Bill 93 would establish the Pennsylvania Occupational Safety and Health Review Board within the Department of Labor and Industry and extend OSHA safety rules to public employers.

“We have heard the outcry that municipalities can’t afford this, and my response has always been, what price are we placing on human life?” Rep. Pat Harkins said. “It’s truly a shame if we can’t afford to protect our workers. Where is the justice and where is the opportunity for justice? That’s why I’m pushing House Bill 299.”

Rep. Harkins has introduced House Bill 299 – the Jake Schwab Worker Safety Bill – which would also extend OSHA protections to public sector employees in Pennsylvania. Rep. Harkins’ bill was named in memory of Erie resident Jake Schwab who was fatally injured at work in 2014 working as a mechanic with the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority, a public sector employer exempt from OSHA regulations.

“Today’s hearing shined a light on the need to ensure safety conditions for almost 600,000 public sector workers in Pennsylvania,” House Majority Policy Committee chairman Ryan Bizzarro said. “Public sector workers cannot and should not continue to be treated as second-class employees. The time has come to extend OSHA protections for all public sector workers.”

Participants in the hearing included Keith Wentz, Risk Management Director, County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania; Angela Ferritto, President, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; Arthur Steinberg, President, Pennsylvania American Federation of Teachers; and J. David Henderson, Executive Director, AFSCME Council 13.

“Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania’s public sector workers don’t have the same safety protections that their private sector counterparts do for one simple reason: Federal OSHA standards don’t apply to the public sector. But in addition to not having the protection of OSHA safety standards and regular inspections, these workers don’t have the whistleblower protections that they need to protect them from retaliation if they report unsafe working conditions,” Senator Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) added. “That means an employee can be fired, have their hours reduced, or suffer other adverse consequences simply for using the only resource they have to stay safe on the job—their voice. We must do more to protect Pennsylvania’s public sector workers. That means extending OSHA standards to public sector workers and strengthening whistleblower protections for ALL employees, public and private sector.”