The Continued Fight for Workplace Safety

By Mario Cilento | April 28, 2022

On April 28, 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect, promising safe working conditions for all Americans. The OSH Act has improved workplace health and safety nationwide, preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths since it was enacted.

The union movement fought hard for this. We recognize its anniversary each year as Workers Memorial Day, a day to pay tribute to those who have died, been injured, or made sick on the job.

Over 50 years later, the fight continues. Workplace hazards kill and disable more than 100,000 Americans annually. In the last five years, 50 gig workers were killed on the job. In 2020 alone, 223 New Yorkers were killed at work. The infectious disease outbreaks caused by COVID-19 are more widespread than anything we’ve seen since the OSH Act took effect, exposing serious gaps in our workplace health and safety protections.

Workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths are preventable when working people have access to proper training, adequate safety equipment, and when employers are held accountable for the working conditions they foster. Workers must have a voice on the job to achieve these things.

A recent Gallup poll found that 68% of Americans approve of labor unions, which is the highest approval rating recorded since 1965. Organizing campaigns are taking off all over New York State and nationwide. Working people understand that they have to come together to obtain the workplace protections they deserve.

It is critical that we remove the barriers to forming a union so that workers who want to organize, can. Penalties must be increased for employers who violate workers’ rights so that working people can organize without retaliation, and effectively bargain for a fair contract. Passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in Washington would bring these necessary changes.

It is also important that we strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and provide them with the resources they need to enforce safe working environments. Due to understaffing, many employers and workers never see OSHA in their workplace, and the penalties for violations are too low to deter bad actors.

OSHA protection should be expanded to the millions of workers without it, penalties should be strengthened, and stronger anti-retaliation provisions should be put in place.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that we must have a system to protect workers from airborne infectious disease outbreaks. In New York we passed the HERO Act, which established a variety of industry-specific plans to protect workers from future airborne disease outbreaks that present a serious risk of harm to the public.

Working people are the backbone of New York State. They have made, and continue to make, unimaginable sacrifices to carry us through the pandemic. It is our responsibility to prevent workplace deaths, illnesses and injuries, because workers deserve a safe workplace and a voice without fear or retaliation.

Mario Cilento is President of the New York State AFL-CIO. The New York State AFL-CIO is a federation of 3,000 unions, representing 2.5 million members, retirees and their families with one goal; to raise the standard of living and quality of life of all working people. We keep New York State Union Strong by fighting for better wages, better benefits and better working conditions. For more information on the Union Movement in New York, visit