Could Pa. finally extend OSHA protections to public school teachers and trash collectors?

For years, Pa. lawmakers have tried and failed to extend the safety protections to state and city workers. A state-backed study could chart a path.

Municipal sanitation workers collect trash in Philadelphia

Municipal sanitation workers collect trash in Philadelphia, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

For decades, Pennsylvania lawmakers have tried and failed to extend federal health and safety protections to teachers, sanitation workers and other public sector employees in the state. But this year, the effort could hit a turning point — with a state-backed study that may chart a path.

“It could make a very, very big difference,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and proponent of the legislation.

Workplace health and safety protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Act do not automatically cover public sector employees in state and municipal government. States have to choose to extend these protections — and just 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.

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In the region, public sector workers enjoy OSHA protections in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. Those in Delaware and Pennsylvania do not.

“If you don’t have OSHA protections, that means you basically have no legal right to a safe workplace,” said Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary at OSHA. “All of the standards that OSHA has that apply to private sector workers do not apply to public sector workers.”

For at least two decades, Democratic lawmakers in Pennsylvania have introduced bills to extend OSHA protections to public sector workers, but none have made it through the legislature. Versions sponsored by Sen. Christine Tartaglione and Rep. Patrick Harkins are currently pending in the House and Senate Labor and Industry committees — both stalled since last year.

But a recent development could change things. Last week Governor Wolf’s office announced a partnership with Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) to study the feasibility of extending OSHA protections to state employees, after an October executive order directed state agencies to look at the issue. The IUP study is expected to be completed this fall.

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“The safeguards of OSHA standards have protected private-sector workers in Pennsylvania for 50 years,” said Pa. Department of Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier, in a statement. “This feasibility study will give us a roadmap to making these workplace protections universal to all Pennsylvania workers.”

‘Night and day’ for private and public workers

Depending on the state they live in, public employees from firefighters to social workers may or may not be covered by federal OSHA standards.

“It’s different as night and day,” said Adam Finkel, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and a former regional administrator at OSHA.

Take the example of private versus public school teachers, working in buildings with hazards like asbestos.

“If you’re a private school employee, you have a private employer and you can file a complaint, you can call OSHA and have an inspection done,” Finkel said. “If they’re over the asbestos limit, you can get relief from that. If you’re a public school teacher in a state without a state plan, you are not covered by the federal government, so you have very limited recourse.”

Barab, the former OSHA official, also gives the example of private construction workers, who can’t work in trenches more than 5 feet deep without protections against cave-ins. He said public sector laborers can work in deeper trenches without these protections.

“It’s perfectly legal, and a lot of them die,” he said.

While data is spotty in Pennsylvania, national statistics do show a disparity in injury and illness rates between public and private sector workers. According to an AFL-CIO analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, state and local public sector employers reported an injury rate of 4.6 per 100 workers in 2019, compared to a rate of just 2.8 per 100 workers in the private sector.

“We’ve seen a lot of injury rates among workers in local and state governments to be higher than those working in the private sectors,” said Tran Huynh, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health in Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health.

When states choose to enforce OSHA standards through their own state plans, they can set standards that go beyond OSHA’s. In California, for example, the state adopted not only minimum federal standards, but added protections of its own — including around toxic chemical handling, agricultural work, heat and noise exposure and repetitive motion injuries.

“States … have looked at the federal program and said, we not only want more control, but we think that there are ways that the program is not strict enough,” Finkel said. “That’s a big motivation.”

Advocates and unions support extending OSHA protections

Supporters say it’s only fair that public sector workers have the same protections as private sector workers.

“During the midst of the pandemic, you had public sector workers that are garbage collectors — even our teachers — they were all considered essential workers,” said Nicole Fuller, executive director of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH). “But they didn’t really have any protections other than, you know, what was provided for them by their unions. They didn’t have any federally mandated OSHA protections.”

Top workplace health and safety concerns for the Philly teachers’ union include exposure to lead paint and asbestos in old buildings. The union’s president supports the effort to extend OSHA protections.

“We would have protections that don’t currently exist,” Jordan said.

Philly firefighters’ union president Michael Bresnan was not aware of the effort, but said OSHA protections could help Philly firefighters. He’s particularly concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals and making sure his members have enough sets of gear so that they don’t have to work in contaminated clothing.

“Anything that’s going to make it safer or better for our members, I mean, we’d be all for,” he said.

The City of Philadelphia, which employs more than 25,000 people, is not against the idea of Pa. extending OSHA protections to its workers. In fact, a spokesperson for the Office of Worker Protections in the city’s Department of Labor says the city is “open to” it.

“Every day, thousands of public workers provide crucial services in many neighborhoods and communities throughout the city … that could potentially put them in harm’s way,” said Femi Matti, director of outreach and communications for the city’s Office of Worker Protections. “So we welcome this opportunity for this legislation to provide the same level of protection afforded to private sector employees.”

So what’s the hold-up?

Although the bills pending in the state legislature have at least one GOP sponsor in each chamber, they have failed to move out of committee — looking like they might meet a similar fate as in prior years.

“It’s been a long fight that we’re still in the midst of,” Fuller, of the labor advocacy organization PhilaPOSH, said. “I think the biggest thing that’s holding us up is politicians at the state level — and I’ll say more so on the Republican side than the Democratic side.”

But Eric Kratz, executive director of the PA Senate Labor and Industry Committee for Republican chair Senator Camera Bartolotta, said groups representing local and county governments, as well as school boards, have consistently raised concerns about the costs of meeting OSHA standards.

The state would likely need to hire new employees to carry out workplace inspections, former OSHA official Finkel said. If Pa. implemented an OSHA-approved state plan, the federal government would pay up to half the cost. However, money’s not the only concern.

“They’ve also questioned, just what’s the rationale for this?” Kratz said. “What’s the data that would show that public sector workplaces aren’t safe with the current requirement that they operate under?”

Kratz said members of Bartolotta’s committee have reservations as well.

“Conceptually, obviously, she supports worker safety, and so by all means that’s important to her,” Kratz said. “But at the same time, … we want to work with stakeholders, and when there’s significant concerns, we try to address them.”

Sen. Bartolotta’s team hoped to direct an analysis of the potential impact of the legislation, but is now looking to the state’s feasibility study for a verdict on what to do.

“We’ll see what it shows and if there’s a path forward or not,” Kratz said. “I think that’s a good step.”

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