An advocate of worker safety pushes employer liability

Barbara Rahke, head of PhilaPOSH, says employers can prevent worker deaths. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )

It's criminal what happens to workers who are injured, or worse, killed on the job, but, according to worker safety advocate Barbara Rahke, what happens to their employers is not criminal enough.

Worker deaths "are not freak accidents," said Rahke, 67, director of PhilaPOSH, a worker safety group primarily funded by labor unions and foundations.

"They were predictable and preventable based on conditions," she said, "and a lot of time [they occur] just because of neglect or even violating the law in terms of not providing training, not providing safety protocols."

Instead of going to jail for acts of commission and willful omission that lead to worker deaths, employers are merely fined in civil proceedings, Rahke said.

That's why PhilaPOSH, the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, is meeting with federal officials and district attorneys to push them to prosecute more cases.

Critics say fines levied by OSHA, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are too low. What do you think? 

The worst scenario - a misdemeanor with six months in prison - rarely happens. David Michaels [assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health] has actually testified that there need to be stronger deterrents.

What about the fines? 

They're very small and, in fact, in order to entice employers to make more abatements or to make changes to other facilities they might own beyond the one where the fatality occurred, [OSHA] often lowers fines. So the maximum fine is $70,000. Many times in fatalities, you see cases where there may be $7,000, $8,000 in fines and that's it.

That's it? 

It leaves the families really bitter and angry and really, I don't think, deters many employers - the bad guys, the ones who aren't remorseful, who probably knew exactly what they're doing and see this as just a cost of doing business.

Any workers who are particularly vulnerable? 

Increasingly, temporary workers, the new form of employment that more employers are going to rather than have their own workforces, are getting killed on the job, sometimes their first day on the job.

Monday is Labor Day. You used to be an organizer for the United Auto Workers. 

In that job, I interacted primarily with workers who were nonunion and who were looking for a chance to change conditions at work. I became increasingly aware of how often they had serious health and safety issues that were not being addressed.

What do you think most people think are workers' reasons for joining unions? 

I think they think they're after wages and benefits. And that's not true. Employer polls have shown that health and safety is the number one issue among workers. Interestingly, I found it particularly true among women workers, because there are so many single moms working and staying safe and healthy was very much on their minds.

How would you assess the state of organized labor?

I believe in the labor movement and I believe in unions. They're the only organizations that are set up only and very specifically to represent worker interest in this country; the only ones.

Why has membership in unions fallen? 

Obviously, unions are in a downward spiral right now, largely due to a shifting of jobs out of our country and out of bases where unions had strong density. There's also been an attack, a very concerted attack, on unions.

Any advice for what workers should do if they find themselves in an unsafe situation? 

Don't tolerate it. Don't get used to it. Don't just accept this as a condition of employment. Do research. If there's something you're being exposed to, you have the right to get a copy of the material data sheet that your employer has to keep. If you're afraid to do that, you can go online with the chemical name and look it up. If it's a safety hazard and you're not sure what to do about it, you can call PhilaPOSH (215-386-7000), or you can call OSHA anonymously.


Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769@JaneVonBergen