Panel discusses work place safety in Texas

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

The April 17 explosion at the fertilizer plant in West was the catalyst for a summer forum on workplace safety and workers’ rights by the newly-formed Catholic Charities of Central Texas Junior Board.
The evening event was a fundraiser for the Catholic Charities Disaster Relief Fund to help the people of West. Guest speakers were Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch; Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of the Workers Defense Project; and Jeff Patterson, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference.
The CCCTX Junior Board was created earlier this year as a medium for young adults ages 21 to 39 who are committed to promoting the works of Catholic Charities and becoming leaders in the church through effective community action, said Christina Vehar, marketing associate for CCCTX.
“After the West explosion the Junior Board started to dialogue about why this happened,” Vehar said. “What’s happening in other places? What’s in place to protect workers?”
While the CCCTX is used to responding to disasters, they are usually natural disasters, she said.
Andrea Martin, 26, said young adults want to be involved in social justice issues but don’t always know how to express it.
“It’s important to keep your faith strong,” she said. “Volunteering expresses our faith and social justice. The habits we build now will carry us through to when we have families and to another generation.”
Kristina Pekkala, 23, said workplace safety is a pro-life issue.
“A workplace that puts people in danger goes against Catholic social teaching,” she said. “It violates human dignity.”
Martin agreed, “People are being exploited and their rights and dignity are being violated.” 
The three speakers discussed workplace safety in Texas.
Tzintzún noted that Texas is the only state that does not require private employers to carry Workers Compensation Insurance, which is a state-regulated insurance system that pays the medical bills and some lost wages of employees injured on the job.
This is a serious problem among construction workers, she noted, since Texas –– in which 50 percent of the workforce is undocumented –– leads the nation in the number of workplace injuries and deaths. There were 83 deaths in 2011, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.
“Many workers injured on the job are dropped off at hospitals and emergency rooms,” she said. Because they have no insurance and can’t afford to pay the hospital bills, “the bills are not paid and we the taxpayers pay for it. It’s short-sighted.”
That also leaves families without a wage earner due to injury or death. 
As for having OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) inspect worksites for safety violations, Tzintzún pointed out that it would take 137 years for OSHA to inspect every worksite in Texas because OSHA has so few inspectors.
Winslow said West is an example of how workplace safety –– or lack of it –– affects an entire community.
“If you don’t have a safe workplace, you don’t have a safe community,” he said, noting that schools and homes were damaged and the whole community was affected.
Patterson said many undocumented immigrants work in unsafe conditions because they often have no other recourse if they are injured.
“That’s why we need to understand the importance of immigration reform,” he said. “Everyone deserves a chance to live a productive life and earn fair wages.” 
Tzintzún and Patterson agreed that working together makes a difference. They noted that the collective efforts of labor unions gave rise to the middle class. As union membership has declined, income inequality has grown.
“With the decline of the labor movement, we’ve also seen a decline in work safety,” Winslow said.
Tzintzún noted the correlation as well, “We’re seeing working conditions get worse and worse, student debt is rising and inequality is the worst it’s been in 100 years. It’s estimated that 40 percent of the jobs will be low-wage jobs by 2020. We’re at a critical juncture.”
Patterson said the bottom line is that people are being exploited and their human dignity is not being respected.
“There are many out there who don’t have a voice,” he said. “We need you to be their voice.”
For information on the Junior Board and a list of panel speakers, go to www.ccctx.org/juniorboard.

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