AFT member, workplace victims call for job safety enforcement

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Victims of work-related injuries and sickness, and family members of workers killed on the job, spent April 19 in Washington, D.C., meeting with members of Congress and Obama administration officials to press for regulatory action and stronger enforcement of job safety laws.

For the past 30 years, it has taken the Occupational Safety and Health Administration more than seven years on average to develop and issue safety and health standards, with some standards taking as long as 19 years, according to a Government Accountability Office report, “Workplace Safety and Health: Multiple Challenges Lengthen OSHA’s Standard Setting,” released the same day.

workplace safety hearingAFT member Judy Rychcik participates in a Capitol Hill hearing on worker safety.

The AFT’s Judy Rychcik, a member of the New York State Public Employees Federation, was among the dozen-plus group gathered by the AFL-CIO to put a human face on the consequences of inadequate regulation and enforcement. Rychcik, a registered nurse, suffered a career-ending injury in March 2011 when she was assaulted by a patient at New York state’s Capital District Psychiatric Center in Albany.

The day’s activities started with a Capitol Hill press event with Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. The news conference was followed by a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, and a meeting with officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Labor.

 “We’re here for a political reason, but I can’t sit here and not feel everyone’s grief,” Rychcik said to her fellow health and safety advocates from across the country—some victims, like her, and others, including wives, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, nieces and co-workers of people killed on the job. “We are all here together.”

Rychcik’s story is one every public employee should hear—and it’s one she shared with lawmakers and administration officials.

On March 13, 2011, while responding to an emergency code, Rychcik was knocked unconscious by patient Terry James in the waiting room of the center. She hit her head on a wooden chair, which caused a 6-inch gash on her forehead and exposed her skull. 

“Ironically, he was transferred from a community residence run by my employer because he had been assaultive,” Rychcik said in a written statement. “However, the staff in the receiving unit were never informed about his assaultiveness.”

The attack resulted in a traumatic brain injury, requiring ongoing rehabilitation and vision therapy. She’s also being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“For a year after the incident, I had a lot of anger about the dangerous work environment I had been exposed to,” said Rychcik. “There was no security when this patient came in to be evaluated. Staff were not alerted to the dangers he posed. The culture at the hospital has been to risk staff safety in the name of patient care.”

“There is no reason that a person should go to work and not come home whole,” said Rychcik. “The government needs to draw the line on safety and health, and step up to protect our workforce. The system failed me and my family, and I will be paying for it for the rest of my life.”

She urged OSHA action on critical standards like the Injury and Illness Prevention Rule to protect workers from job injuries and illnesses that destroy their lives—and other workplace health and safety regulations that have been derailed in recent years by opposition from business groups and Republicans in Congress.

“The truth is OSHA doesn’t kill jobs,” said health committee chair Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “It keeps jobs from killing people.”

Workers’ Memorial Day, on which the labor community remembers the millions of working people throughout the country who have been hurt or killed on the job, is April 28. This year’s theme is “Safe Jobs Save Lives. Keep the Promise Alive.” [Kathy Nicholson/photo by Michael Campbell]

April 20, 2012