Two state legislative bills would require municipalities to adopt workplace health and safety standards for public employees just like the private sector does through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Senate Bill 93 and House Bill 299 would also provide “powers and duties of the Secretary of Labor and Industry; establish the Pennsylvania Occupational Safety and Health Review Board; provide for workplace inspections; and impose penalties” for municipal governments violating the standards.
The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS) and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) oppose the bills, while the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and various labor organizations support them. SB 93 is sponsored by Senator Christine M. Tartaglione (D-2) and HB 299 by Rep. Patrick J. Harkins (D-1).
Joseph Gerdes, government affairs director for PSATS, said a reason his organization opposes the legislation is because it is an unfunded mandate. Lebanon County’s 25 municipal governments are members of PSATS through the local association, whose leadership cited this legislation as a legislative priority at their recent 108th convention.
“What OSHA would do is set up another state bureaucracy without putting down the funding that would have to set up, at a very minimum, to reach the standards that the federal government has established through OSHA,” said Gerdes. “By sending this mandate down without sending funding with it will be an incredible cost to taxpayers at the local level. I don’t think there is an over-crying need that there are unsafe townships out there and there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.”
William Gelgot, Senator Tartaglione’s director of communications, wrote in an email to LebTown that a window is provided for municipalities to comply with the standards if the bills become law. Gelgot informed LebTown that the quotes in his email could be attributed to Tartaglione.
“If HB 299 or SB 93 become law, a three-year window is granted to establish the necessary components for OSHA approval of the state plan resulting from this legislation,” wrote Gelgot. “Local governments would have three years to prepare for costs associated with workplace safety standards, mandated for decades in the private sector. However, if local or state governments are already ensuring a safe workplace, the costs of OSHA compliance shouldn’t change significantly.”
Gerdes noted a difference between townships and the private sector since municipal and county governments are not driven by profitability like business and industry.
“Worker safety is paramount. It’s not like there’s a lack of safeguards in place,” he said. ”It is the duty of township supervisors to provide a safe workplace for their employees and it is something they take very seriously. Yes, accidents do happen and nobody’s perfect, but setting up a bureaucracy that basically hands the reigns to a federal unelected bureaucracy that the state would have to abide by seems counterproductive.”
Gelgot shared links to six studies and noted the National Safety Council estimated that work-related deaths and injuries cost the nation, employers, and individuals $171 billion in 2019. What is unclear, however, is how much of that price tag is for public- vs. private-sector employees.
“Even removing our moral duty to prevent injury and death, which we should never lose sight of, saving even one serious injury or death results in a myriad of benefits to public employers,” wrote Gelgot. “Study after study makes this case for workplace safety from a ‘business perspective’ and I want to ensure that we do not approach this from a shortsighted view that fails to acknowledge the savings to our state programs, public employers, and public employees that investment in workplace safety would garner.”
Gelgot also stated that 12 percent of the state’s workforce is made up of public-sector employees who currently have no protection afforded to private-sector workers, and that the law would afford protection to 600,000 state and municipal workers across Pennsylvania.
“Some of the most dangerous jobs in Pennsylvania according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, measured by injury and death, include roadworkers, laborers, and other construction workers make up large contingents of the currently unprotected public sector workforce,” wrote Gelgot.
While Gerdes agreed that highway work is one of the most dangerous professions in local government, he was critical of state lawmakers for bypassing legislation that would authorize the use of radar and other safety devices for local municipal police departments. A law authorizing the use of that equipment his association believes would make Pennsylvania’s 70,000 miles of municipal roadways much safer for those employees.
“A primary responsibility of municipal government is making sure that our roads and bridges are safe,” he said. “A great glaring discrepancy here is that for years our association and other local government associations have asked for tools like radar or automated speed enforcement to help protect our road workers.”
Gerdes added that the state has a pilot program that it plans to extend for work zone automated speed enforcement while noting that Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that prohibits the use of radar for traffic enforcement by municipal police departments.
“The turnpike has it and the state has it, why can’t municipal governments have it?” he asked. “Our workers are the same as a PennDOT worker, a turnpike worker, they should be afforded those tools as well. There is some low-hanging fruit the state could do to help with the safety of township workers. Let’s work on some of those things before we put a huge unfunded mandate into place. We’ve asked for years for safety tools to help us keep our workers safe in construction zones, and it defies logic that they want to tie us to a national standard when they can’t even do the simple stuff.”
Since municipal governments vary in size, it’s unclear what the cost would be to local governments to implement the OSHA standards if the bills were to become law.
“The total costs to the Commonwealth and local governments in order to comply with new standards cannot be estimated as what the exact standards will be will not be known until the completion of the adoption process and costs will vary depending on the current levels of workplace safety across our local governments and state agencies,” wrote Gelgot. “The good news is that if you are already investing in workplace safety and adequately protecting your workers, your costs won’t change all too much.”
The annual cost to the commonwealth to provide oversight of the OSHA standards has been calculated by state financial analysts.
The annual administrative operating costs to the Department of Labor are estimated to be $4.7 million once implemented. States with approved OSHA state plans can be eligible for up to 50 percent federal funding to offset the cost of administration and enforcement which, assuming the commonwealth received the full 50%, would bring the estimated costs down to $2.4 million, according to information provided by Gelgot.
“A fiscal note composed by the House Appropriations Committee estimates that it is not likely for the state to incur costs in FY 22/23 or 23/24 as the approval of state plans by OSHA can take several years to complete and implement,” Gelgot also wrote in his email.
Gerdes said his association provides training safety materials to municipal governments and that workers are provided CDL classes and other safety education as mandated by law for its municipal employees.
“It is easier to say we’re not going to raise your state taxes but here you go, we’re going to pass this down to you and you have to deal with it (financial implications),” said Gerdes. “The baseline is our association opposes any unfunded mandate that is pushed down to townships, and our only recourse with an unfunded mandate is to go to the taxpayers in those townships to pay for that.”
PSEA spokesperson Chris Lilienthal said the teacher’s union is looking at the legislation through “several lenses.”
“This would extend those OSHA protections to include public school employees and will help ensure our students and our school teachers and staff members are teaching and learning in healthy environments,” said Lilienthal. “But we are also looking at it through the perspective of the staff shortages that we see in our schools right now. Extending these OSHA standards to public school employees is about Improving working conditions in public schools and that is going to be key to attracting those caring and qualified adults to work in education.”
Mackenzie Christiana, senior manager of communications for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said in an email to LebTown that, while her organization does not have a policy for these bills, it has been partnering with other associations, like CCAP, to address their concerns.
“While PSBA has significant concerns about the implications of public sector OSHA, we are actively working with our local government partners to make meaningful changes to this legislation should the Senate decide to move the bill,” wrote Christiana. “We remain committed to working with the public sector unions and prime sponsors to keep our schools and work environments as safe as possible.”
Lisa Schaefer, executive director of CCAP, provided testimony her organization gave this fall that states the law would impact “any nonprofit organization or institution and any charitable, religious, scientific, literary, recreational, health, educational or welfare institution receiving grants or appropriations from federal, state or local governments” unless the employer is already subject to OSHA requirements.
“Many local governments issue payments to these types of entities for the provision of services, with this practice particularly prevalent in the provision of human services at the county level. It is difficult to quantify the number of organizations that will be drawn under the umbrella of this legislation by this definition, but it is important for policymakers to consider the impact this will have on many community service organizations. These organizations, no matter how large or small, will now have to comply with the requirements for recordkeeping, and will be subject to random inspections.”
House Bill 299 was passed along party lines, with Lebanon County’s three state representatives opposing it. The bill currently resides in the Senate’s Intergovernmental Operations Committee, chaired by minority whip Tartaglione. The bill is in this committee instead of Labor and Industry since intergovernmental operations exist to address bills that impact different levels of government. In this particular instance, these bills intersect between the state and federal governments.
Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102) said he voted against HB 299 given the workplace disparity between the public and private sectors.
“That’s because these smaller municipalities are not big corporations with lots of resources to make everything perfectly OSHA compliant,” said Diamond. “They have a lot of older facilities that haven’t been updated for years. Certainly, they are concerned about worker safety, but they just don’t have the resources to comply with those picky union rules that OSHA has for manufacturing and that sort of thing.”
Sen. Chris Gebhard (R-48) said he favors legislation that would promote safer workplaces for Pennsylvanians.
“I do think any measure that would promote safer work environments for Pennsylvanians is a worthwhile cause,” wrote Gebhard in an email to LebTown. “This current proposal to extend OSHA safety standards to public sector employees in the Commonwealth could be a great step in that direction. Should either of these bills reach the full Senate calendar, I look forward to engaging in the process to produce an outcome where all employees, both private or public, have exceptional safety guidelines in their workplaces.”
There are three legislative days on the calendar that are scheduled for mid-December. If the bill does not move this year, it will stay in committee when the legislative session resumes in 2024 since the current legislative session runs through Dec. 31, 2024. After that date, all bills that have not passed the House and Senate will have to begin the legislative process again in 2025.
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