In 1911, 146 workers were killed in a massive fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York because of hazardous working conditions.
One hundred years later, unsafe working conditions persist that must be addressed, said E. Richard Brown, a public health professor and the director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Brown spoke to an audience of roughly 40 students, faculty and staff at a panel in the UCLA Alumni Center Thursday.
He highlighted the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion last year and the recent incident at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant as high-profile examples of recent failures in worker safety. Brown blamed Republicans in Congress for seeking to weaken job safety standards on behalf of corporate interests by referring to efforts to improve working conditions as “unnecessary regulations that are job-killers.”
The panel, titled “Worker Health & Public Policy: Still a Burning Issue?,” was hosted by the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health program and corresponded with Workers’ Memorial Day.
Portraits of 23 California workers killed on the job in the last year were placed around the UCLA Alumni Center conference room as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for workers’ rights and safe work environments.
UCLA-LOSH Director Linda Delp introduced the panel with a brief video about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, an event that helped galvanize the early labor movement, she said. The locked doors and windows that caused the deaths of so many workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire were similar to present-day conditions, she said, specifically mentioning the imprisonment of Thai garment workers in El Monte, which was discovered in 1995.
Delp spoke about Sheharbano Sangji, a 23-year-old staff research assistant at UCLA who died in 2009 from injuries sustained in a lab chemical fire.
According to Daily Bruin archives, UCLA was fined $23,900 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the incident for numerous violations, including failure to “implement procedures to correct unsafe working conditions.”
Also present at the panel were representatives for local workers’ rights groups including the Don’t Waste LA Campaign, the CLEAN Carwash Campaign and CHIRLA/Domestic Workers Alliance California Bill of Rights.
Ellen Widess, the new chief of Cal-OSHA, served as the panel’s keynote speaker.
After praising the various groups on the panel for their work, Widess said her charge was to help Cal-OSHA move past the “glacial pace of standard setting” for workplace safety. She said she hopes to “revitalize the agency and restore credibility” that Cal-OSHA has lost in recent years under the Schwarzenegger administration.
Widess said there are fewer Cal-OSHA inspectors working today than in 1994, yet the workforce in California has grown by 3.8 million workers.
Citing the lack of staff and resources at Cal-OSHA in a California budget climate she characterized as “starving,” Widess encouraged student involvement and university collaboration in the ongoing process of improving labor rights and workplace safety.