Everyone’s patting either themselves or Jon Stewart on the back for the passage of a 9-11 health care and victim’s compensation fund late in the lame duck session. And looking at the particulars, the bill is worth supporting. Despite a few scattered claims about the distributive justice aspects of the bill, it basically says that anyone sickened by the environmental hazards of exposure to Ground Zero can get some recompense for their pain and suffering. Nobody who signed up for rescue work or reconstruction expected or asked to be sickened as a result, and they were all assured by the EPA at the time that the work environment was completely safe.

But if we owe it to those workers that they be compensated for being exposed to a hazardous work environment, I’m curious why that doesn’t extend to every other workplace in the country. Toxic chemical exposure is sadly typical of many workplaces around the country. I wrote quite a bit in the past year about how hazardous workplaces cause 16 deaths per day across the country, mainly because of gross negligence. Add in illnesses from toxic exposure, and you’re talking about 50,000 workers a year. As just one example, nail salon workers are exposed to unlimited toxic chemicals from beauty salon products. There’s no provision currently in the law to limit this exposure.

I know the nail salon is not as iconic a workplace as Ground Zero, but these workers – and there are millions of them across the country – need protection from health and safety hazards as much as anyone else. Democrats wrote a bill – the Protecting America’s Workers Act – which would have increased inspections, oversight, whistleblower protections and penalties around workplace safety. Much like similar strengthening of the FDA in the food safety bill, it would have overhauled OSHA for the first time in decades.

Democrats tried repeatedly to pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act. They even had a high-profile opportunity with recent industrial accidents that ended up killing multiple workers. The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed eleven workers and caused untold damage to the Gulf of Mexico. And the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia killed 29 and stayed in the headlines for weeks.

But America’s workers didn’t have a cable TV champion in the final days of the legislative session. A bill readied for the lame duck would have attached PAWA to a mine safety bill in an effort to leverage public attention. When it seemed clear that would fail, Democrats dropped more controversial OSHA language and just tried to pass a straight mine safety bill, named after the late Robert Byrd, through the House. But it came up under suspension rules on December 8, and it only garnered 214 votes, far less than the 2/3 needed for passage. As George Miller noted, this failure had real consequences.

I am deeply disappointed that Republicans turned their backs on those who work in mines every day, 600 of whom who have died in the last decade. As other mine tragedies have show us in the past, inaction today is paid for with the lives of hard-working miners tomorrow.

No public outcry accompanied the death of the bills protecting every worker in America. The 9-11 rescue workers have a right to be protected, but I don’t see a whole lot of difference between their workplace – hallowed ground though it may be – and other workplaces across the country. If the employer exposes a worker to harm, they should be held accountable, whether the responsibility for that workplace lies with the government or a private company.

These bills aren’t going to pass in the next couple years. I think we should celebrate treatment for the 9-11 first responders. What about everyone else exposed to toxicity where they work?

David Dayen

David Dayen

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