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WA workers have the ‘right to a safe environment’ when state reopens

As businesses start to reopen, many workers on the job today are concerned they do not have enough protection against the coronavirus. Millions more going back to work in the coming weeks and months could be joining them with even less protection. But we do have rights as workers, one of which is to be provided a safe, healthy work environment.

Rick Gleason is a senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, and the lead instructor at the Pacific Northwest Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Training Center. He joined KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show to discuss workers rights in Washington state.

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To start, Gleason thinks businesses should be able to reopen.

“If they can come up with the necessary safeguards for their workers and and their customers, then absolutely,” he said. “There’s always hazardous conditions out there on the job site, particularly in construction and other industries, but they can be mitigated.”

He said employers need to step up to provide necessary safety measures, but the state also has to approve the reopening and allow it to move forward.

When returning to work, Gleason thinks the 30-point plan developed for the construction industry released last week by Gov. Inslee provides a good model.

“They came up with 30 points that had to be addressed by the construction companies, and then the company had to provide the right personal protective equipment, masks or respirators,” he said.

For the construction industry, a lot of the safety measures were already in place. Other businesses, including salons, retail stores, and restaurants, will still need additional, specific guidance.

“You can come up with the guidelines, and I’m glad to see that for construction,” Gleason said. “And they worked a lot with associated general contractors, and the associated builders and contractors, and the local unions, and I thought did a good job. It’s a pretty thorough device.”

Some businesses, like dental offices, are already familiar with wearing protective gear and keeping workers and patients safe.

“If you can give them a chance to show that they’re ready, I think this would be great,” he said.

However, once people do start returning to work, who is responsible for their safety: The workers or the employer?

Gleason said in Washington state, OSHA is governed by the Department of Labor and Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or L&I DOSH.

“And it’s very, very clear that the employer is absolutely responsible for the safety and health of all their employees,” he said.

If you’re hurt or injured on the job, even if it’s your fault, you can get workers compensation in Washington state, but you give up your right to sue your employer if the accident was their fault, Gleason said.

Workers comp, however, is separate from a safe working environment. Each state has their own workers compensation, so rules vary, but Washington’s is pretty strict, Gleason said, and it’s difficult to sue your employer here.

“But you are afforded from them a safe and healthy working environment,” he said. “And generally they have to provide the personal protective equipment, at no cost to you, and train you how to use it and wear it, and make sure that there’s adequate cleaning facilities, there’s places to wash your hands,
places to go to the restroom.”

These aren’t new codes, but now employers also have to provide space to be 6 feet apart when you’re eating lunch, as an example, in addition to having a place to wash up before eating.

If you return to work and don’t feel safe, if you don’t think your employer has taken all the necessary precautions against coronavirus, what happens then?

“It seems like every time I answer a safety question, it’s always, ‘well, it depends.’ And so it does depend,” he said. “But here’s the deal. You have a right to a safe working environment.”

Gleason suggests starting to take notes, rather than quitting your job. Ask your leaders, the safety and health manager, the superintendent, why there are no gloves, masks, or whatever the case may be. Take note of the people you’ve talked to, and make every effort to find out if working conditions are safe.

“Maybe there just needs to be some additional training and PPE that’s provided,” he said. “But let’s say you are required to quit, … you can still get unemployment if you quit. It’s just harder.”

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Currently, it’s even more challenging to get unemployment because of how many people are lining up to apply right now. In Washington state, you can apply for unemployment if you quit as long as you told your employer about the safety issue and tried your best to get the right safety equipment, Gleason said.

“Say you kept actually talking and asking, and they ended up firing you,” he said. “Well, then Labor and Industries clips in because you can’t be fired for making a safety and health complaint, and so they would be able to help out in that case.”

“So whether it’s unemployment or Labor and Industries, you do have rights,” he added. “But it’s best to work with your company, and your co-workers, and your safety people to make sure that you give them a chance to [say what they’re] doing to protect all the workers on the site.”

Find more information about the coronavirus response from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries online here.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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