CONCORD — Samantha Wooten and her mother Allison were beaming from the balcony of the state Senate chamber on Thursday, as all 24 senators turned in their direction and applauded Samantha’s three-year effort to improve protections for public-sector employees in New Hampshire.
The applause came after unanimous passage of a bill that expands the authority of the state Department of Labor to investigate workplace accidents that kill or seriously injure state, county or municipal employees, who don’t enjoy the OSHA protections that exist in the private sector.
The legislation also empowers the commissioner to require certain precautions or changes in procedures to avoid future accidents.
Wooten tried unsuccessfully with the help of former Manchester Rep. Mark MacKenzie to have similar legislation passed in 2017, after a 2016 industrial accident killed her father, Tom Wooten, while he was working for the Northfield Highway Department.
The outcome was different this time around, as the bill (HB 406) passed the House on a voice vote in March. It was near the top of the Senate agenda for Thursday, but some senators were busy testifying at House hearings, so it was delayed until all 24 could be present and recorded as voting “yes” in a roll-call.
“This legislation is vital and we should all support it,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.
The next step for Wooten and her supporters in the legislature and the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health is to push for a state partnership with OSHA now in place in 28 states. The federal government would split the cost of OSHA-level oversight, investigations and enforcement for public employee safety with the state.
That bill, because of the costs involved, would be a heavier lift, but state Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, said he’s on board.
“I’d be honored to sponsor something like that,” said Cavanaugh, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in New Hampshire, as he met with Samantha and her mother after the vote.
“We always talk about worker safety, but this is personal. Safety is who you are going home to tonight, and that’s what we all want. It’s something every worker in the state deserves,” he said.
For now, the Wootens are relishing the moment, even though it’s bittersweet. Allison said she was shocked to discover there was no provision for an investigation into her husband’s death.
“I’m so proud of her, beyond proud,” she said as she hugged her daughter in the State House hallway, fighting back tears.
Samantha is ready to push for a New Hampshire OSHA plan, but not right away.
“That would be the long-term goal,” she said. “I don’t know yet. But for now, I’m going on vacation.”
She hopes to be back in time to see Gov. Chris Sununu sign the bill into law.