By Ashley Johnson, associate editor
When Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) retires in January, workers will lose a longtime advocate for workplace safety.
First elected to the House in 1992, Woolsey currently serves as ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee; she chaired the committee when the Democrats controlled the House.
In recent years, Woolsey pushed for the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which supporters say would strengthen worker protections and make needed updates to the Occupational Safety and Health Act. She also proposed mine safety reforms after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010.
With her 10th and final term drawing to a close, Woolsey spoke to Safety+Health about her career, OSHA’s direction and life after Congress.
Safety+Health: How has your personal history informed your approach to workplace safety?
Rep. Woolsey: I was a human resources manager for over 20 years and, believe me, knowing how important it is to build trust with employees of a company organization fits right in with the difference it makes if there’s a safe workforce. Because people [who] believe management is looking out for their well-being [are] a much more loyal and productive workforce, and safe workforces save in overhead expenses as well – because it saves on workers’ comp, absences. And it works both for the employees and for the employer.
S+H: What is your view of the current direction of OSHA? Is the agency moving in the right direction?
Woolsey: Well, they would like to. OSHA has such an important mission, but it’s absolutely been starved of resources and statutory authority to be a fully functioning agency.
S+H: Are there any areas where you think OSHA needs to improve?
Woolsey: I believe under the Republicans, where their effort is to curtail agency oversight and enforcement through cutting back on any funding and any support for smart laws and to improve safety and save lives, it has been very difficult for OSHA. And they’ve got leadership in the House now that is just oblivious that smart laws and funding can improve safety and save lives, and I don’t know how OSHA gets through that at the moment. Is OSHA perfect? No. But since we can’t move important initiatives forward to bring OSHA into the 21st century, I just don’t think that we can put our disappointment on OSHA. We need to put it on the Republicans who are mishandling OSHA.
S+H: You’ve introduced the Protecting America’s Workers Act multiple times. Why is this legislation so important to you?
Woolsey: It’s important because we need to bring OSHA into the 21st century, period. I mean, OSHA 40 years ago promised workers that they would make their workplaces safer, and we need to live up to that promise, and PAWA … would undo the glaring deficiencies in our safety laws. We don’t have enough workplace inspections. We don’t have civil criminal penalties that are adequate for employers to even care that they might be fined, so they just willfully ignore the law without even fixing the safety issues, and it just ends up in endless litigation. So, I believe that if we could pass PAWA, we would add and strengthen safety and health. We’d be able to consider PAWA in terms of ensuring that if an employer breaks the law, ignores the law, then the penalty is great enough for them to care.
S+H: When I spoke with you earlier this year, you mentioned possibly having to break PAWA up into pieces to get it passed in the divided Congress. Obviously that hasn’t happened, but what would you say are the three most critical changes that the legislation would make to the OSH Act?
Woolsey: First of all, I would like us to make sure that we do something about the whistleblower [protections] because we need to ensure that there’s enough funds and there’s enough staff, because that protects workers. That would be protection and prevention. And then I’m very determined before my term ends that we are able to pass other parts of the bill. One would be that penalties become meaningful so that they’re a deterrent to bad behavior. Right now they’re not and, as I said, employers find it less expensive to pay fines rather than follow the law. So that – the penalties and the whistleblower backlog – is what I would go after right now.
S+H: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment for workers while in Congress?
Woolsey: I think I brought a voice to Congress that was a surprise. First of all, I’m a female; second of all, I was a human resources executive. But I always thought as a human resources executive that my job was to make sure that the employees had a fair shake. I never, ever thought that it was my job to protect the employer – the business owners – from their employees. And I’ve carried that right through to my position as the senior Democrat on the Workforce Protections Subcommittee because I want to bring OSHA into the 21st century. I want to find ways that we can actually prevent future and further accidents and illnesses that are caused by issues that we know we could stop if we just would put the effort into it. And I do not want employees who are working in the best interests of their companies to be punished because they bring forward as whistleblowers problems that could save lives, could in the end make the company a more healthy place to work.
S+H: What are your future plans? Are you looking forward to anything in particular after two decades in Congress?
Woolsey: Well, speaking of health and safety, I’m going to stop traveling from coast to coast every single week. I think I should learn something from what I’m talking about. There are some things that just are too hard on you after a while, and I’m ready to be home. But of course I’m not going to be sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch, and I will be watching to see what’s going on with OSHA and with safety for our employees.