Roslyn Robertson: ‘Every fatality crosses my desk, and my stomach just cringes’

Commissioner Roslyn Robertson (mn.gov photo)

Each year on April 28, the labor movement observes Workers Memorial Day, when union members pause to remember workers killed or injured on the job – and to recommit to the fight for safe workplaces.

It’s a mission shared by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI), led by Commissioner Roslyn Robertson since January 2021. Robertson, who has more than 30 years of experience working in the agency, discussed the state’s efforts to promote safe workplaces and more in this Union Advocate interview, edited for length.

UA: What message do you want working people to hear this Workers Memorial Day?

RR: A renewed commitment to supporting workers. COVID changed the world of work to the point that right now it is a worker’s market; there are significantly more job openings than the number of skilled workers who can fill those positions. So I think one of the messages workers should hear this Workers Memorial Day is a debt of gratitude. I’m personally faced with many, many challenges, even at the state level, to find the right fit for the available openings, and I hear that in every arena that I find myself in. But as a regulator, I think the message workers need to hear is they are appreciated, they are supported, they are needed and they are valued in the workplace.

UA: Workers have faced new and unfamiliar risks during the pandemic. What lessons have we learned?

RR: Safety and health in the workplace are as important today as ever. COVID showed us that work is not in any way immune – as a matter of fact, the mere work environment can pose life-threatening hazards to the worker. So prioritizing safety and health is paramount.

We also know that safety pays, that a safe workplace is a profitable workplace. If employers are not doing all they can to control the known hazards, then the disruptions in the workplace could very easily affect their bottom line. Injuries negatively impact more than just that single worker. It can negatively impact the psyche of the workers around that individual, the confidence those workers have in their employer. When you couple that with the significant number of job openings, this should be the motivation for today’s employer to keep workers as safe as possible.

UA: As we look at means of protecting workers from injuries, what’s the importance of a union contract?

RR: Again, COVID has shown just how fragile some of our systems are, and having representation is even more important today than it could have been years ago. This should be an opportune time for unions to expand their reach. Many employees have learned through COVID just how vulnerable they are. Unions promote good safety, health and benefits to workers, whereas those employees who are not represented are really at the mercy of an employer. This is really the time for unions to toot their horns.

UA: What’s behind your passion for promoting and expanding registered apprenticeship?

RR: I started my career in the apprenticeship unit, so I learned how registered apprenticeship creates highly skilled workers that are capable of earning a very decent wage. But my passion for apprenticeship goes even further because my son went through a registered apprenticeship program. Over the years, I always sort of took him along to events. I remember taking him to an apprenticeship graduation ceremony when he was in 10th grade, and I said, that guy there will be earning whatever the journey-level wage rate was for an electrician at the time. My son was just floored.

UA: And how does apprenticeship factor into keeping worksites, particularly in the construction industry, safer?

RR: The first thing an apprentice learns is safety. When you start off prioritizing safety and incorporate that into every single process you do, all of a sudden, they don’t know how not to do it. That really yields some good results, and the commitment to safety training continues throughout their career. Every serious injury crosses my desk, every fatality crosses my desk, and my stomach just cringes. We can never take safety for granted, and we do that by making it a standard part of every training curriculum. That is what you find with union registered apprenticeship.

UA: A recent report brought to light some alarmingly high rates of injury at Amazon warehouses in Minnesota. Is that on the department’s radar?

RR: Amazon warehouses are definitely on our radar. The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires state regulators … to investigate any complaints, and there have been a small number of complaints, which is a bit shocking. But Labor and Industry have received complaints against an Amazon warehouse in Shakopee.

Here’s what really bears a bit more explanation. We have conducted a number of investigations at Amazon’s warehouse, however we can only assess the situation for what it appears when we’re there. Many of the injuries that have been subsequently reported through the workers-compensation system are injuries sustained over a period of time. So when you go out and you do an inspection, you can’t see the body changing. Musculoskeletal injuries, injuries based on repetitive motion, they are a bit harder to observe. It’s not like an electrical hazard or a noise hazard or a physical hazard. It looks very different, and it continues to challenge us on appropriate ways we can address it.

UA: Will that require targeted legislation?

RR: Maybe it will. I don’t have language in mind, but I do know this is an issue being debated across the nation. How do you handle the types of injuries that are occurring either because of the line speed or repetitive motion? It’s a serious situation. We’re going to have to bring some well-informed folks to the table in order to figure out a workable solution, one that will improve the safety for workers but also give the employer some space at the table to talk about the uniqueness of their business. It’s a big deal.

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  1. […] their age or their citizenship status, has the right to be safe and healthy on the job,” Minnesota Labor and Industry Commissioner Roslyn Robertson said in remarks during the ceremony, held in the Workers Memorial […]

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