HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) — Monday, Democratic lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House and Senate held a joint hearing to discuss OSHA protections for public sector workers in the commonwealth. Currently, protections under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act only apply to the private sector and federal government employees.
Over two-dozen states have public sector OSHA laws, but Pennsylvania is not one of them.
“Many public sector workers don’t even know that they’re not protected under this law,” said Rep. Ryan Bizzarro (D-Erie).
“If you’re a public sector worker, you should be demanding it, union or non-union, it affects everybody, it impacts everybody,” said Rep. Pat Harkins (D-Erie).
Rep. Harkins first sponsored legislation to provide public sector OSHA protections nearly a decade ago after a tragic accident close to home.
“They inadvertently gave him the wrong equipment to use. He did what he was supposed to do, he got under the vehicle and the bus crashed down on him,” said Harkins, referring to the workplace tragedy that took the life of Erie Metro Transit Authority Mechanic, Jake Schwab.
“Jake Schwab was the impetus for this,” said Harkins, who has since fought for workplace safety in the public sector. “PennDOT workers, police, fire, EMS, state store workers, nursing facility workers, public school employees, transit Authority workers,” Harkins added, listing the various professions not covered by OSHA.
The Jake Schwab Bill would extend OSHA protections to the public sector and provide protections for employees who file complaints or violations. It would also ensure important training and familiarity with equipment, just as the private sector does.
However, some county officials say it poses high unnecessary costs for local governments.
“We believe we have demonstrated that commitment to worker safety in current practice. We do not believe that regulatory requirements and fines will improve worker safety for local government employees,” said Keith Wentz, the Risk Management Director for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP).
Some lawmakers are skeptical public sector OSHA protections would create a cost burden.
“The fact of the matter is they don’t have that data,” said Rep. Bizzarro, adding that additional costs would only result from major safety violations or accidents. “If people are doing what they need to be doing, and they’re getting the proper training and they are offering those protections to those workers, there’s going to be no harm, no foul.”
In previous sessions, the legislation was stalled in committee. But with Democrats now in control of the House, Bizzarro and Harkins are optimistic this time around.
“We’re committed to getting bills like this- these no-brainer bills- out of committee and to the floor,” said Bizzarro.
“It’s a bipartisan issue, I’ve worked with many Republicans. The votes are there, I know they’re there,” said Harkins.
There is also companion legislation to Harkins’ bill in the Senate. Both bills will need committee approval before heading to their respective floors for a full vote.