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Houston Congressmen demand safety rights

By Paul Hill

HOUSTON - Texas progressives are proposing to extend workplace safety protection to "contract" workers. Prompted by the tragic loss of life (15 killed and over 100 injuries) caused by the explosion at the British Petroleum (BP) refinery in Texas City which occurred on March 23, Congressman Al Green joined Congressman Gene Green, as well as members of the Harris County AFL-CIO, United Steel Workers and family members of victims to announce the reintroduction of the Equal Protection for All Workers Act. The bill was originally introduced by Congressman Al Green and has the support of AFL-CIO.

Prior to the Texas City disaster, BP had been repeatedly fined in conjunction with multiple fatalities and a separate explosion in September, 2004. The U.S. Attorney's office has been unable to take legal action on behalf of the families, even though OSHA's rules may have been "willfully" violated, because the victims were employees of contract firms, not employees of BP, and the law does not explicitly cover contract employees.

"Under current OSHA law, any employer who willfully violates OSHA law and whose violation causes death to any employee, shall, upon conviction, be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or by imprisonment for not more than six months, or by both. This penalty is increased in the case of multiple offenses. While this law provides a crucial measure of safety for employees, it does not explicitly cover employees of contract firms," stated Congressman Al Green. "Despite the strides we have made to protect our workers, an American worker is killed on the job every 96 minutes - between 5,000 and 6,000 are killed every year. Contract workers make up ½ of the refinery workforce. This means that under the current law significant numbers of America's workers could be considered unprotected."

Congressman Green also noted, "Tomorrow, I will be supported by my colleagues from the Congressional Caucus for Labor and Working Families to reintroduce my Equal Protection for All Workers Act. This common sense legislation would specifically include employees of a contract firm in the current statute so that any employer that willfully violates OSHA standards unequivocally may be held criminally accountable if the violation leads to the death of any employee under contract." He added, "Our hope is that we can pass this piece of legislation to make certain that the government has the legal authority to take whatever action it deems necessary to provide justice and protection for all American workers and their families. By taking this step to protect all of America's workers equally, we honor the lives of those 15 victims by assuring that employers should not be allowed to ignore the real issue of improving overall safety."

Congressman Gene Green of Houston introduced legislation, HR 141, in January of this year which would require employers to report to OSHA contract workers' injuries the same way they report their own employees' injuries. Congressman Al Green is an original co-sponsor of this bill.

Congressman Al Green has been a champion of progressive legislation. He is the past president of the Houston Branch of the NAACP. He recently voted for HR 1592, which passed and bans hate crimes. He is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has consistently supported progressive legislation in the face of overwhelming opposition from the Bush Administration. The Administration's reactionary opposition to working people's needs has had less effect since the November elections.

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