Pushing for Public Progress

June 09, 2016

One year after a groundbreaking executive branch worker safety law went into effect in Massachusetts, MassCOSH and its advocates are hailing the law’s role in averting injury and death for the 36,000 Massachusetts executive branch workers. A similar law, which would impact all other public employees, passed the Senate at the end of March and is now poised to move through the House, further stemming the human and financial toll of workplace injuries.

To mark the anniversary, MassCOSH released a report titled One Year Progress Report, highlighting the law’s achievements and areas for improvement (click here to view the report).

“It’s often not apparent to the public how hazardous many state employees’ jobs are,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, MassCOSH’s Executive Director. “Highway workers are exposed daily to lead dust, health care providers lift 10,000 pounds each day as they care for patients, and maintenance workers work with heavy machinery. The executive branch health and safety law was a critical step forward in ensuring that safety measures and systems are in place to prevent injury and death.”

Each year, an average of 3,500 executive branch employees suffer workplace injuries serious enough to require time off. The suffering also comes with a financial cost: Massachusetts spends over $31 million in direct workers’ compensation medical and wage costs.

One of the law’s first impacts took place at Worcester State Hospital where the Department of Labor Standards was called in to address serious incidents of workplace violence.

“The investigation revealed a serious lack of a comprehensive safety plan, and an inadequate response to workplace violence,” said Michael D'Intinosanto, Sr., a nursing supervisor and president of the Massachusetts Nursing Association unit that represents state employees. “As a result of this investigation, major changes are in the process of being implemented to protect workers and patients at that facility. Without these protections, it would be difficult for workers to speak out about unsafe working conditions.”

One Year Progress Report highlights an increased compliance with national occupational safety and health standards, with the Department of Labor Standards (DLS) conducting 93 investigations, issuing reports, and providing assistance to agencies throughout the Commonwealth to facilitate their compliance with national safety standards. A total of 32 trainings have taken place for over 1,000 executive branch employees to develop their health and safety knowledge and capabilities.

In addition, the report notes that 13 state agencies were able to benefit from a special capital grant program specifically made available for safety improvements. One state agency serving people with developmental disabilities who need help getting around, used the grant to purchase lift equipment to move residents with reduced risk of painful back and shoulder injuries. The Department of Agricultural Services was able to purchase special LED lights for staff who work on roadways in poorly lit areas to reduce the risk of being hit by traffic. Furthermore, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation instituted a pilot program using noise-canceling headsets to allow first responders to better hear each other when trying to communicate urgent calls, while reducing the risk of hearing loss.

Despite this progress, many state agencies have not benefited from a DLS site visit to assess and ensure their compliance with federal safety standards. A budget created by a previous DLS Director had called for $500,000 more than the current DLS budget to ensure sufficient staffing to implement the program.
Advocates note that if the new measure passes, extending safety and health protections to other public employees, the state would be eligible for federal OSHA matching funds – boosting the capacity of DLS dramatically.
“As a result of our agency working in consultation with DLS to conduct inspections, we are already seeing a downward trend in incidents in the workplace,” said Darryl Forgione, chair of the health and safety committee for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and member of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists. “At the same time, there is a lot more that needs to be done. For example, the DLS training topics are valuable, but not all staff have the opportunity to participate, and management should be strongly encouraged to participate. While the general training provided by DLS is excellent, funding is needed for training on specific hazards.”