In the Covid-19 pandemic, worker health is public health – but worker safety and health is in crisis, a top US safety law expert has said. Debbie Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) said the US federal government “is failing to ensure the safety and health of workers – including those most at risk, health care workers. The government has also abandoned its role in keeping all other essential workers safe – those in supermarkets, delivery, warehouses, factories, public transportation and sanitation.”
But she added: “As the federal government walks away from its responsibility to protect workers in this crisis, unions and worker activism are helping to fill the vacuum.” Berkowitz noted that dangerous shortages of protective gear were being compounded by a lack of official oversight of working conditions. She criticised the lack of action by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “the government agency responsible for protecting worker’s health and safety on the job. In a sharp departure from previous pandemics and crises, OSHA is not conducting any Covid-19 enforcement—even for health care workers at risk.
This kind of ‘dereliction’ is unprecedented, she wrote, adding: “It’s the unions and an amazing exercise of worker power and activism that have come to the rescue.” The safety law expert concluded: “It is stunning for most of us to realise the weakness of the legal protections for worker safety and health. It is amazing to see the incredible efforts of the unions and rank and file workers – both unorganised and organised – to stand up and demand protections from employers.”