21 Jul 2022
Thursday, July 21, 2022
Melissa Moriarty, firstname.lastname@example.org, 603.505.7135
Tom Wooten’s Legislative Legacy
Gives NH Public Employees and their Families Greater Hope
Legislators, public employees, and National COSH’s network gathered in front of the DOT Public Works Memorial to honor Northfield public highway worker, Tom Wooten whose untimely death in 2016 inspired a series of bipartisan victories for all public employees
Concord, NH – The New Hampshire Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (NH COSH) and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) commemorated the sixth anniversary of the death of Tom Wooten and celebrated HB 536, the latest legislation spearheaded by his surviving family. “We have fought for so long for something like this bill. This is a breakthrough for public employees and their families,” said Brian Mitchell, Executive Director of NH COSH. “Tom’s death was a preventable tragedy, which is why we at COSH have felt honored to help his family lobby for this bill for the past few years.”
HB 536 provides greater benefits for dependents of workers who die on the job – which were not available to the Wooten family in 2016 – and recognizes public works employees as first responders.
Samantha Wooten, daughter of Tom Wooten, a highway department worker in Northfield who died on the job, has spent the past five years channeling her grief into action. “My father’s passing changed the course of my life. The more I learned about occupational health and safety the more I realized that safety often gets pushed to the sideline,” Ms. Wooten explained. “That’s what gave me the resolve to make sure that our laws protect workers’ safety and their families should they lose a loved one. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I did.”
As the bill made its way through the legislative process, Rep. Dianne Schuett (D-Merrimack 20) galvanized public support across party lines. “HB 536 inspired boots on the ground action in the community. A group of state employees made calls to their senators to persuade them that this bill is in everyone’s best interest and that moved the needle with some of my colleagues.” she told the crowd.
“While HB 536 contains a benefit that no family hopes to receive, its passage is a win for New Hampshire families of public works employees because it provides a cash benefit to their survivors. For all public employees, it also eliminates the provisions in place that put survivors in the position to make life altering financial decisions while they’re grieving,” said Rep. Kris Schultz (D-Merrimack 18), prime sponsor of the bill. “I’m personally proud of the work we’ve accomplished with HB 536 because it was a bipartisan effort, along with backing of grassroots organizations like New Hampshire COSH and National COSH.”
Following her father's death Ms. Wooten became familiar with the complexities of getting a bill passed and signed into law. Thanks to the Wooten family’s activism, Governor Chris Sununu signed into law a bill in 2019 that would require the state labor department to investigate fatalities of public employees who die on the job and it also gave the labor commissioner the option to open an investigation with worker related injuries.
Last year, the Wootens were successful in establishing a study committee for the Legislature to compare federal Occupational Safety and Health Act standards with those in New Hampshire for public sector employees. The findings of the committee will be pivotal in pushing further safety standards in the state. The year’s bill strikes at the heart of what Samantha and her family went through after they received the devastating news of Tom’s passing.
The NH Department of Transportation (DOT), one of the staunch advocates for HB 536, also spoke at the event. Their employees have long fought for highway maintenance workers to be grouped as first responders given the high risk nature of their job. Dave Rodrigue, DOT’s director of operation earned a strong round of applause from event-goers’ with his closing remarks: “There is no doubt the jobs we ask them to do are among the most dangerous, and often under the most adverse conditions,” he said. That’s why this bill is so important – it supports shocked, grieving families in their time of need.”
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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit NationalCOSH.org. Follow us at @NationalCOSH on Facebook, @NationalCOSH on Twitter, LinkedIn and @NationalCOSH on Instagram.