Editorial: Local government employers should fall under safety rules
A West Virginia law, now 27 years old, says it is the state’s policy “to ensure that all public employees be provided with safe and healthful work environments free from recognized and avoidable hazards.”
But more than a quarter century later, this law ensures tens of thousands of public employees of nothing when it comes to workplace health and safety.
The first shortcoming was that until two years ago, the state budget never included sufficient funds for the West Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Administration to hire a full-time inspector. That meant public employer workplaces at the state and local level had practically no oversight, according to a report by The Charleston Gazette.
And once an inspector was hired? The agency found out that the law does not require local government agencies, which employ a combined 80,000 or more public employees, to be covered by the law.
WVOSHA had issued 46 citations since a full-time inspector was hired, but last week it notified various local agencies it was rescinding 24 of those. One local government, the city of Charleston, had objected to the citation it received, questioning whether WVOSHA had the authority to issue it, according to the Gazette.
After further study, state officials determined that it indeed does lack the authority. The reason is that although the law passed in 1987 says “ensure,” it also calls upon public employers to “join in a cooperative effort” to enforce health and safety standards. At the very end of the law’s text, it says county and municipal governments may “explicitly elect” to be covered by the law, clearly suggesting that they aren’t required to take part otherwise.
The result is that not a single local government is, according to the state’s Division of Labor. That includes municipalities, counties, school boards and other special districts or authorities. And many of those local government entities employ a lot of people. In many counties, school boards are the largest employers and are among the top five employers in all of the state’s 55 counties. Other local governments, such as county governments, are often among the top 10 employers within their counties.
Yet in terms of workplace health and safety, they receive no oversight, not from the state OSHA nor its federal counterpart, which focuses on private employers. However, many public employers have workers who are performing potentially dangerous work. One of the rescinded citations involved a county school bus garage where blocked electrical panels and fire extinguishers meant they weren’t being inspected regularly. Other withdrawn citations involved problems at several municipal sewer plants.
While most state agencies fall under the law’s provision, the lack of requirements for local government employees is a glaring gap that affects 10 percent or more of the people working in the state of West Virginia. Let’s hope that the next legislature will be more protective of all of West Virginia’s public employees and amend this law to include all public employers. Local government employees warrant the same consideration as those at the state level and those employed by the private sector.
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