Thursday, January 21, 2021

Guest Opinion: COVID-19: To Rebuild the Economy and the Community, We Must Have Safe Workplaces

Posted By on Thu, Jan 21, 2021 at 10:36 AM

As Arizona health officials scramble to speed up rollout of the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine, the deadly virus is still spreading rapidly. Over 12,500 Arizonans have died, and we are seeing more than 9,000 new infections daily. The outbreak in Arizona is the worst in the nation, with one in every 147 residents being infected as of 1/21/2021. The clock is ticking and the time for action is now.

Even under the best circumstances, it will take a year or more for a vaccine to be fully effective. In the meantime, we can save lives with aggressive public health measures. No arena is more important than Arizona workplaces, a dangerous source of COVID hotspots which then spread to our neighborhoods and communities.

We need enforceable emergency workplace standards and worker safety committees to monitor and implement worksite COVID protection plans. Workplaces can play a significant role in turning the economy around to create a safe environment for everyone. Unfortunately, many workplaces remain unsafe, endangering frontline workers and the public they serve.

Our government offices have been impacted by this disease: A top county health official, unemployment staffers and county employees have contracted COVID-19 in their workplaces. Healthcare workers and their support staff are stretched thin and exhausted, grocery, retail and postal workers are exposed to risk of infection on a daily basis. All of us rely on these workers, who don’t have the option to stay at home, and we all need to be involved in demanding that employers and the government do more to keep them safe.

If we want to flatten the curve of new virus cases, employers must take every step possible to implement safety controls to reduce contact with the public and co-workers. Companies like Amazon, with a deplorable record of putting workers in unsafe environments, must involve workers in safety plans, instead of fighting worker efforts to have a voice in the workplace. Every job can be protected, if management develops a plan with input from workers, who know their own jobs and can come up with solutions to reduce exposure.

Innovative approaches to reducing contact between workers and the public include remote working whenever possible, barriers for cashiers, staggering service hours, and reducing the number of shoppers to allow for social distancing. In-person work requires detailed planning and implementation of COVID protection programs. These controls have been adopted in some workplaces, frequently only because workers took the initiative to protest unsafe conditions.

Gov. Ducey recently chose to protect himself from the risk of infection by delivering his state of the state address from inside his own office, instead of in front of the legislature. But instead of protecting frontline workers who can’t work in isolation, his backwards response has focused on protecting business at the expense of workers and community health. This will not preserve jobs and actually makes it more difficult to rebound to a healthy business climate.

Fourteen states and local communities around the country have enacted new protections to assist both workers and employers in implementing COVID protection programs. The Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health [ADOSH] has the legal authority to enforce compliance if there is a new standard. We can’t wait any longer to take positive steps to make workplaces safe for everyone. Workers have been the engine driving our efforts to control the virus and deserve to be protected. Protecting them helps protect our communities.

Mr. Valencia is chair of Tucson Jobs with Justice. Mr. Dooley, a certified industrial hygienist (CIH), is safety and health senior project coordinator for the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). Shannon Foley is with IATSE Local Union 415

Arizona COSH is a new worker safety advocacy organization to promote safe jobs for all workers in Arizona. Visit nationalcosh.org for more information or contact peter@nationalcosh.org

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