CommunityWork In Progress

With Focus on BP Workers, Will Country Finally Pay Attention to 130 Million Others?

I want to take a moment here to reflect on the focus of literally hundreds of thousands of people in the country on the health and safety of BP’s recovery workers. Firedoglake has been on this since early June, as was NRDC. We joined with American Rights at Work, and 28,000 of our activists took action that forced OSHA to act on respirators. PCCC and a host of other organizations and officials came to the party a month later, along with 81,000 of their activists. All of this is excellent, and the attention the issue received has lead to truly unprecedented action and attention paid to the health and safety of BP’s recovery workers. Of course, much more should be done, and we’ll keep on it no matter what.

It’s easy to explain why BP’s recovery workers are getting all the attention: it’s a disaster of epic proportions, and workers who hit the beaches after the Exxon Valdez suffered from lifelong, debilitating illnesses due to negligence by Exxon and the government. It’s easy to organize around BP’s workers, and to demand the government do everything possible with everyone watching this disaster unfold.

But there’s only about 30,000 people working to clean up BP’s oil disaster. Meanwhile, OSHA is responsible for protecting the health and safety of about 130,000,000 other workers, each and every day. It’s a monumental task, and one that can’t be ignored by people working on this issue.

For comparison, the Fish and Wildlife  Service has more inspectors than OSHA. Don’t get me wrong, fish and wildlife need protection too. But you’d think there’d be an even stronger emphasis on protecting humans at work than monitoring fish and wildlife. Maybe it has something to do with public perception – do more people actively care about protecting fish and wildlife than those who care about worker safety? Is it a matter of the squeaky wheel getting the grease? Maybe not, I don’t know. It seems out of whack to me.

Tens of thousands of people show up to work every day with conditions as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than those workers responding to BP’s oil disaster. I guarantee you, they get not a fraction of the attention and protections afforded to BP’s recovery workers. They continue to work in dangerous conditions, possibly fearing for their lives, before going home and repeating the next day. They go virtually ignored by the public, and with barely enough protections from our government.

This is to say: workplace safety will always be a problem. When it’s magnified by a disaster like BP’s, a select group of workers gets the attention they deserve. Meanwhile, 130,000,000 others continue to work out of sight, out of mind for most.

Legislation like the Byrd Act, while primarily targeted at mine workers who work in the most dangerous of work places, also includes much needed protections for every workplace in the country. It’s a good vehicle for some of the provisions of Protecting America’s Workers Act, and deserves to pass. (Of course, it’s a matter of how much Republicans and their corporations will gear up to gut the bill.)

So while we fight for BP’s recovery workers, remember that they’re not alone. Much, much more needs to be done to protect all of America’s workers.

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Michael Whitney

Michael Whitney

My name is Michael Whitney. I'm a progressive online organizer working with FDL Action. Rush Limbaugh called me "clueless" once. He went into rehab two days later.