Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘workplace safety’ Category

Soaring summer temperatures mean danger for farm workers

Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

Summer means high temperatures … and, for farmworkers, hard work in hot fields. We’re talking fields where, without proper precautions, workers die from the heat. The United Farm Workers is trying to keep that from happening, though in some states they have better options than others.

California, where so much of the nation’s produce is grown, has laws protecting workers—requiring that they get proper shade and access to “fresh, pure, and suitably cool” drinking water—but enforcement is a problem, and workers have kept dying despite the laws. The UFW is working to make sure that California workers know their rights and that the state finds out when employers don’t give their workers the shade and water they need to stay safe, as required by the law.

No matter what, it’s brutal work: The UFW Facebook page is filled with pictures of workers in 100 degree temperatures. We need a federal standard, and UFW is pushing for one, but the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Senate being what they are, more states need laws like California’s to protect farm workers—workers in southeastern states like North Carolina and Georgia, for instance, face heat risks. And in the states where those laws exist, everyone should be an ally to help ensure that farms follow the rules.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Governor Murphy Signs ‘Panic Button’ Bill to Protect Hotel Workers from Assaults, Harassment

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

Hundreds of hotel workers, union leaders and elected officials gathered at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City today to witness the signing of a bill requiring hotels to equip certain employees with “panic buttons” for their protection against inappropriate conduct by guests.

“We must protect the safety of workers in the hospitality industry,” Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said. “I am proud to sign panic button legislation that Bob [McDevitt] and the working men and women of UNITE HERE, Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, Charlie [Wowkanech] and Laurel [Brennan], Senator Loretta Weinberg and so many others have fought for to give hotel workers greater security and the ability to immediately call for help should they need it on the job.”

The portable safety device, known as a panic button, will allow hotel workers to alert security personnel if they feel they are in danger or a compromising position while performing housekeeping duties. Today’s signing makes New Jersey the first in the nation to have a statewide law requiring hotels to provide their employees with such devices.

Hotels that do not comply can be fined up to $5,000 for the first violation and $10,000 for each additional violation, according to the legislation.

“The safety of women in the hospitality industry has been overlooked,” said Bob McDevitt, president of UNITE HERE Local 54. “I’m proud that my state is the first to pass and sign into law real protections for housekeepers in the hotel industry.”

The harassment of hotel workers, especially housekeepers, has been a longstanding issue the hotel industry has struggled to address. Unite Here Local 54, a union representing nearly one-third of casino and hospitality workers in Atlantic City, was a driving force behind this legislation, which will provide an additional measure of security for thousands of hotel workers across the state.

“Whenever I go into a room, I wonder what is going to happen,” said Miriam Ramos, a housekeeper at Bally’s in Atlantic City. “Most guests are nice and respectful, but every housekeeper has either been sexually assaulted or harassed doing her job, or knows someone who has.”

“I’m glad that the legislature and the governor are making it safer for us,” Ramos said.

Assemblyman John Armato (D-2) introduced the “panic button” bill in the General Assembly in September. Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2) also sponsored the bill. Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Linda Greenstein (D-14) proposed it in the Senate.

“The New Jersey State AFL-CIO thanks the sponsors of the panic button bill for recognizing that hotel workers deserve to feel safe while on the job,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the state federation. “We are proud to have lobbied on behalf of this important legislation, which will no doubt help create a safer working environment for all of New Jersey’s hotel workers.”

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on June 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

Workplace safety enforcement plummets under Trump ... but fatality investigations rise

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not have enough workplace safety inspectors before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, and as with just about everything else, it’s gotten worse in Trump’s two-plus years in office. The number of inspectors has fallen to a record low in the history of the agency, and a new analysis by the National Employment Law Project shows how bad things have gotten: The number of complicated and high-penalty investigations OSHA does has fallen—but at the same time, fatality investigations have risen.

The Trump administration’s story is that total investigations have risen. But that’s not helpful if what’s happening is that inspectors are being pushed to take on quick and easy cases rather than digging into the complicated or difficult ones. That’s just what’s happening, NELP’s Debbie Berkowitz, herself a former OSHA official, writes. “For example, when inspectors go onto a construction site, they can inspect multiple subcontractors all at once, but count each one as a separate inspection. They can get through these sites in a few hours, and count four to five inspections.” At the same time, inspections of concerns like musculoskeletal hazards, worker exposure to dangerous chemicals, explosion risks, and heat exposure have all dropped dramatically.

OSHA is failing to conduct inspections of workplaces that have reported amputations—imagine that you lose a body part on the job and the government doesn’t even come to check out if your boss is running a safe shop. In at least two cases, poultry plants haven’t been inspected even after reporting two amputations or injuries requiring hospitalization in the course of just a few months.

But the big red flag is this: In 2017 there were 837 workplaces inspected because of a work-related death or a catastrophe of more than three workers hospitalized. In 2018, the number rose to 929. The Trump administration is letting workplace safety inspector jobs go empty, it’s focusing on hasty inspections while the number of complicated investigations of serious risks drops, it’s failing to investigate amputations … but the serious thing that is rising is fatality investigations. That is very scary news for America’s workers.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Reports of Klobuchar’s treatment of staff highlight poor workplace standards on Capitol Hill

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has come under intense scrutiny this month, as several media outlets have reported on her reputation as a bad boss, highlighting instances of alleged abuse against staffers. The media coverage points to a broader problem, however, as labor experts say workplace standards on Capitol Hill need to be reformed.  

Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential race, has reportedly thrown binders and telephones at staffers, engaged in office-wide shaming of employees, and called prospective employers to hurt staffers’ opportunities elsewhere. Sources told The New York Times thatworkers who took parental leave were then required to stay in the office three times as many weeks as they took leave or pay back the money they earned during their leave (though a spokesperson from Klobuchar’s office said that policy had never been enforced and would be officially changed in the staff handbook). Her office also has one of the highest rates of staff turnover in the Senate, according to the Huffington Post.

Klobuchar’s staff (present and former) have pushed back against some of the claims — notably on the office’s paid leave policies — and Klobuchar herself has said that she simply has high expectations for herself and her staff.

But a lot of Klobuchar’s behavior reportedly goes back a decade, and only received considerable media attention after she announced her presidential bid.

So the bigger question is this: Is the type of behavior that has recently been reported simply tolerated on Capitol Hill — and if so, why?

Experts on labor and staffing issues on Capitol Hill say that, on the Hill, the culture is centered on employer loyalty. There are few opportunities for accountability, regardless of whether the problem is centered on a member of Congress or a someone like a chief of staff, and workers are often left on their own in abusive work environments.

Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, a cross-political reform group, said that there is very little guidance on the human resources on Capitol Hill.

“Standards and operations on the pure human resources side vary tremendously, and things that in corporate America would either be considered inappropriate or just standard operating procedure don’t exist on Capitol Hill for the most part,” she said. “One of the things that has happened over several years is that some of those offices — the Library of Congress, the police, Architect of the Capitol, and those who aren’t in the representatives’ offices — have gone through a series of changes to address HR issues. The only people who were left out of that were the members and the staff and the committee offices themselves.”

Judith Conti, government affairs director at National Employment Law Project, said it’s particularly difficult to seek accountability when dealing with anyone in any kind of political office because a reference is required and elected officials are difficult to remove from their position.

“My first job out of law school was for a lifetime-tenure federal judge who was extremely abusive to staff in incredibly well-known ways, and people put up with it because there wasn’t anything you could say to anybody that was going to get him removed from the job,” she said. “It’s not like when you’re working for a private corporation and then your boss sexually harasses you and, if you complain to HR and it’s founded, that person will be fired.”

“An elected official or a lifetime-tenured judge, these aren’t people who are getting fired through conventional means and they are people who, when they give you a good recommendation it’s very prestigious.”

The complicated process of reporting violations

Brad Fitch, the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which provides training for congressional staff and conducts research, said it’s interesting that Congress does not have an HR department and instead has various structures to deal with things like workplace abuse and sexual harassment.

Congress recently overhauled its policies on sexual harassment, reforming the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to mandate climate surveys and annual public reports on data on awards and settlements. 

Still, the process right now is complicated. For certain violation claims, including bad behavior that is allegedly targeted by race, sex, or age, there’s a multi-step dispute resolution. This process will change on June 19 under the CAA Reform Act and more information on that process will be rolled out soon. Until then, the worker has to file a request for counseling with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) within 180 days of the violation. After the counseling — which involves informing workers about their rights — if the worker wants to continue with the claim, they must request mediation within 15 days. If the other party doesn’t agree to mediation or if mediation doesn’t resolve the claim, they can move forward with an administrative hearing or file a lawsuit in federal district court. The worker must do this within 90 days after the mediation.

“It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”

Under the new changes, mediation will be optional and and mandatory counseling will be eliminated. A worker can confidentially seek consultation and assistance from the office and a confidential adviser may help assist in drafting a claim.

Laura Cech, spokesperson for OCWR, said that depending on the situation, workers can seek resources with ethics committees, employee assistance programs, and legal assistance from the Office of Employee Advocacy. OCWR has provided a list of legal organizations and attorneys for employees and employers looking for legal representation.

Cech said that not all workplace disputes and situations allege a violation of the CAA and workers can try to resolve issues through an internal grievance process or talk with their employee assistance program. An example of something that would go through that process is bad behavior because of race, sex, or age.

And regardless, a broader culture change is just as key as the HR resources being in place.

“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure,” Fitch said. “… You have 535 small businesses on Capitol Hill and each one of these offices is a culture unto itself. It’s not House Republicans or Senate Republicans… It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”

A culture of high turnover

The high turnover that results in a bad boss reputation isn’t good for the public interest either, McGehee said. When staff with expertise leave, one result is that members of Congress don’t ask good questions. McGehee cites last year’s Facebook hearings, where members of Congress often embarrassed themselves when they asked questions that showed they didn’t understand the most basic facts about how social media operates.

“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure.”

“The members looked terrible in those hearings — and a member’s capacity to represent their constituents and really grasp and handle a policy on this wide range of issues, it is largely dependent on staff,” she said. “Two things happen when you don’t retain staff. First of all, you don’t have that expertise and gravitas, people who know what they’re doing. And the other part of that is when you have a lot of staff turnover, whether you’re in a personal office or in a committee, K Street-types can run circles around these folks.”

She added, “I’ve seen a number of occasions where, where you put this comma, how you describe this thing, can totally change the impact of the bill. And if you’re inexperienced, you don’t know that. You have no clue and it’s a real problem … if you don’t have deep knowledge of an issue it can be very difficult to understand the impact of what it is you’re trying to put together.”

McGehee said that since a chief of staff is usually hired not for their managerial skills, but for, say, their knowledge of the district, it is particularly important for them to have standards to follow. Fitch also agreed that there are huge barriers to getting staff to attend trainings on the proper management of offices.

“The challenge is both the structure and the culture does not lend itself to professional development on Capitol Hill,” he said. “An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”

In February, his organization hosted a training for about 50 managers on helping workers with managing expectations, being self-aware, and avoiding inappropriate behavior that offends people.

Part of the problem, Fitch said, is that staffers tend to ignore office processes until there is a huge problem that forces their attention to it.

“An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”

“These people didn’t come to Capitol Hill to be better managers. They came here to pass health care legislation or tax cuts and the end result drives everything,” he said. “I have to constantly remind my staff we are not the most important thing to Congress — until we are. Then you get that office that is running into problems because of sniping between the district office and D.C., or a chief of staff is killing morale, or a member is killing morale. It’s a challenge and usually when it gets to that kind of state is when we are pulled in.”

Fitch said he does believe that things on the Hill are improving. There have been recent changes following major harassment scandals in Congress, such as a mandated sexual harassment training. Fitch said House is also offering a new program that will help staffers learn about management and legislative research and communications.

What’s the solution?

For the sake of retention, as much as workers’ rights, Congress needs to create a healthy workplace environment beyond just the guarantee that bosses won’t shame you or throw things in the office, Fitch said. He added that retention could be improved by giving workers more incentives, such as tuition assistance or more frequent pay periods. (Currently, House staffers are only paid once a month.) A LegiStorm analysis found that the number of staffers in their 40s has declined from more than 14 percent of all staff in 2001, to just over 9 percent today.

Congressional staff are also not allowed to unionize, which would help introduce more protections for workers and possibly curb abusive behavior. McGehee said unionization in members’ offices is “considered kind of a radioactive topic” on the Hill on both sides of the aisle.

Unionization can make a difference, however. Conti said that, currently, in any sector, unless the workforce is unionized and tries to enforce certain standards of conduct, it’s tough to hold people accountable for workplace abuse that isn’t targeting someone by gender or race or another protected class. A reputation for being an abusive boss, even in severe circumstances, isn’t usually enough to push someone out of office or prevent them from consideration for government office.

Conti said, “There’s nothing illegal in most circumstances. If you’re working in a unionized workforce, that’s one thing. But there’s nothing illegal in being, as people in my field colloquially refer to as, an equal opportunity offender. You’re awful to everybody so it’s not like you’re discriminating against anybody. It’s inhumane. It’s immoral. It’s unethical. But it’s not illegal.”

“We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”

There are often gender differences in who is targeted, however. A 2017 survey of 1,008 adults found that almost 60 percent of U.S. workers are affected by workplace bullying. Seventy percent of those bullies were men and 60 percent of their targets were women. Additionally, the survey found that women bullied other women more often than men.

Conti said a worker could use a civil tort called intentional infliction of emotional distress. A worker could also pursue a workers compensation claim if there are severe mental health consequences. But these are often hard cases to make.

“That’s where if somebody treats an employee in such a way that it is just outside the bounds of reasonableness and the person suffers severe mental anguish as a result of it, then that is illegal, but it’s damn near impossible to prove,” Conti said.

She referred to a case in which someone knowingly falsely accused a worker of stealing things from their employer in order to get them fired — but the case still wasn’t severe enough to rise to the occasion of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“It really has to be above and beyond, like shrieking and humiliating people and being mercurial and changing the rules all the time, so you really have to think through, is there some sort of harassment?” she said. “We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”

McGehee said that without ensuring accountability, implementing better office practices and standards, and addressing what she calls the “blood oath” of loyalty on the Hill, staffers are left to deal with toxic workplaces on their own.

“You’re pretty much in the world saying, ‘I guess my career on the Hill is gone. My career on K Street is not good, since they will probably say no one wants to talk to me.’ So you may as well leave Washington …There’s nobody to go to.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering education and labor issues. Their work has also been published in The Establishment, Bustle, Glamour, The Guardian, and In These Times.

2018: The Workplace Safety and Health Year in Review

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

As we sit here mired in yet another pointless government shutdown stranding tens of thousand of workers without paychecks, we pause to reflect over the past year in workplace safety and health. The madness in Washington DC continues, and while we can’t make any guarantees for the White House or the Senate, things are at least looking up in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the indefatigable Confined Space team (of one) has posted almost 250 times over the past year, talking about the carnage in American workplaces, but also the victories of unions, activists and dedicated government officials. I can’t honestly say I did it ALL by myself. I was aided by the many of you who sent me articles and story ideas that I never would have noted, and those of you who give me the inspiration to go on when I’d really rather be binge-watching some some addictive Netflix series, reading a book or riding my bike. (Actually, I manage to do enough of that as well.)

The real story, of course, continues to be the more than five thousand workers who go to work and never come home, the tens of thousands who die each year from occupational diseases like black lung, silica-related disease and work-related cancers, and the millions of workers who are seriously injured every year in preventable incidents.  The struggle continues as we hope that the lessons of 2018 will help make 2019 a better one for this nation’s working people. 

  1. A New and Improved Congress (or at least the House): The long awaited Blue Wave hit the House of Representatives full force last November, bringing with it real oversight hearings, better budgets and legislation: Donald Trump — along with the Department of Labor and OSHA — don’t know what’s about to hit them come the new Democratically controlled congress and its ability to exercise its oversight function to ensure that Labor Department agencies actually work to fulfill the mandate that Congress has given them.  In a symbolic move, the House has already changed the committee name back to the Committee on Education and Labor, instead of the rather anodyne in impotent “workforce.” But real work is on deck. Workplace safety and health hearings are already being planned, as well as legislation to move improve worker protections. While it’s unlikely that any pro-worker legislation will pass the Senate or be signed by the President, we can expect new ideas and new energy: Rumor has it that a record number of new Democratic House members want to be on the Education and Labor Committee. Something to look forward to.
  2. A Headless Agency: By the end of January, OSHA will move into its third year without an Assistant Secretary — a new record in the 48-year history of the job-protection agency. The confirmation of Trump nominee Scott Mugno remains mired down in a fight between HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) and Republicans who don’t want to confirm Democratic nominees for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC.) The lack of an Assistant Secretary hits particularly hard as other OSHA veterans like Region 8 Administrator Greg Baxter and long-time Director of Enforcement Tom Galassi also retire.  Meanwhile, Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt continues to labor on, almost alone in the once hyper-active Assistant Secretary’s office — no doubt looking forward to testifying at OSHA oversight hearings this year.
  3. Inspectors down, enforcement units down, penalties down: The number of OSHA inspectors has hit an all-time low according to data compiled by Bloomberg Environment Reporter Bruce Rolfsen in November. “The agency ended fiscal 2018 with 753 inspectors, compared to 860 at end of fiscal 2014, the personnel data, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show.” And that means fewer serious injuries being investigated.  And last June, The National Employment Law Project (NELP) issued a report showing that worksite enforcement activity by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is declining under the Trump administration. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta likes to boast that OSHA conducted slightly more inspections in the last two fiscal years than they did in the last year of the Obama administration, but NELP points out that in FY 2017 OSHA changed the way it counts inspections. Instead of just counting the number of inspections conducted, OSHA moved to counting Enforcement Units. And those numbers under Acosta don’t look quite as good as they did under Obama. Things also don’t look too good for workers in at least one state plan state, Kentucky, which suggests that OSHA’s oversight over state plans (which run almost half the country’s OSHA programs) may be weakening as well.
  4. Return of Black Lung: After almost being eradicated in the late 1990s, black lung is back, with a vengeance. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say they’ve identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease ever reported, according to an NPR story by Howard Berkes last January. The cause is not just coal dust, but also silica exposure, caused by cutting through more quartz rock as the coal seams get smaller.  Berkes recently filled out the story alleging that the failure of regulatory agencies to understand what was happening and respond are largely to blame for the new epidemic. Meanwhile, making things worse, the state of Kentucky is killing the messenger by no longer allowing radiologists to diagnose black lung. Only pulmonologists will be allowed to review black lung cases, but there are only six pulmonologists in Kentucky that have the federal certification to read black lung X-rays and four of them routinely are hired by coal companies or their insurers.
  5. Brett Kavanaugh: Republicans confirmed a Supreme Court justice who, in addition to his questionable behavior around women, displayed shockingly little knowledge of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and even less understanding of workers’ struggle to survive in the workplace. After a Orca (aka “Killer Whale”) dismembered and drowned a SeaWorld trainer, Kavanaugh dissented in a court case challenging the resulting OSHA citation. Kavanaugh wrote that OSHA had paternalistically interfered in a worker’s right to risk his or her life in a hazardous workplace, that OSHA had violated its long-standing precedent not to get involved in sports or entertainment, that the agency had no authority to regulate in the sports or entertainment industries and that Congress — and only Congress — could give OSHA that authority. While none of this was true, Kavanaugh nevertheless doubled down on these assertions during his Senate confirmation hearing. Kavanaugh’s opinion related to other workers’ rights issues were not much better.  Nevertheless, today he sits on the Supreme Court.
  6. Regulatory Rollback: OSHA is struggling valiantly to roll back regulations that protect workers and slow down those under way, to fulfill the visions of Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress, and Corporate America. Happily, the curse of OSHA — how impossibly long it takes to issue any single health and safety standard — has become a blessing for workers because it takes almost as long to repeal a standard as it takes to issue a new one.  Nevertheless, OSHA is in the process of attempting to weaken beryllium protections for construction and maritime workers, and striving to roll back a major section of the “electronic recordkeeping” regulation.The good news is that the courts not only upheld OSHA’s silica standard, but also told the agency to add more worker protections or at least explain its decision not to.

    While the road to roll back regulations is long and difficult, the agency’s chance of stopping any significant new workers protections from being finalized is much better. Standards to protect workers from infectious diseases and chemical plant hazards languish on the agency’s “long-term agenda,” while other standards are unlikely to see the light of day anytime in the near future because of Trump’s “one-in, two-out” regulatory budget. 

    Other agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, also contribute to increase hazards for workers by allowing poultry processing facilities to increase line speeds. And EPA is close to repealing Obama era chemical plant safety protections, and the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division is in the process of allowing 16-year-olds to operate potentially hazardous patient lifts.  Bad news not only to workers, but to residents living near chemical plants — and granny in the nursing home.

  7. Methylene Chloride:  The Obama administration had proposed to ban the use of Methylene Chloride due to the deaths of numerous workers and citizens who weren’t aware of the highly hazardous properties of the solvent in enclosed spaces.

    Obama’s EPA, under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, agreed with chemical manufacturers, and decided that a ban wasn’t a very good job. Obviously, if consumers and workers couldn’t read between the lines of the ineffective warnings on the containers, they deserved to die.  After some hard questioning at Congressional hearing, and meeting with family members of the victims of methylene chloride, Pruitt reversed himself and sent the ban to the White House for review. Although the ban has not yet emerged from the dark, dank dungeons of the White House, family members and other organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund Green Chemistry and Commerce Councils, and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, aren’t waiting around. They have succeeded in pressuring retailers like Lowes, Home Depot, WalMart, Sherwin Williams, Home Hardware and True Value to stop selling the product. Organizing and citizen action works, even in Trump times.
  8. The Fate of the Labor Movement: A strong labor movement is good for workers and good for workplace safety. This year has seen ups and downs for the fate of American labor movement.  On the down side, in June, the Supreme Court handed down its Janus decision fulfilling the dreams of corporate America in its quest to weaken not just public employee unions, but the labor movement in general. But public employee unions are not going gentle into that good night. They are fighting back, convincing their members that union membership is the best bargain they’ll find.  And, as labor reporter Steve Greenhouse describes, 2018 saw “a startling surge of strikes in both the private and public sectors” — tens of thousands of teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina went on strike and hotel workers struck in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Honolulu, and San Francisco. And “15,000 patient-care workers, including radiology technicians, respiratory therapists, and pharmacy workers, held a three-day strike against the University of California’s medical centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Irvine, and Davis. An additional 24,000 union members, including truck drivers, gardeners, and cooks, struck in sympathy.” Even 20,000 Google workers walked out to protest how the company handled sexual harassment accusations against top managers.

    The other bad union news was the elimination of the health and safety offices in the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers, continuing the general reduction of health and safety staff still working in American labor unions — not a good thing for the health and safety of American workers, organized or unorganized. 
  9. Journalism: American workers continue to suffer and die in obscurity and the agencies tasked to protect them remain seriously underfunded and legally handicapped. The only hope for many of these workers lies with the excellent investigative pieces published by this country’s dwindling corps of investigative journalists, especially those who focus on labor and health & safety issues. Longtime labor Charleston Gazette-Mail labor reporter Ken Ward received a McArthur Genius Award for his reporting about labor and environmental issues in West Virginia. Ward is teaming up with ProPublica for more hard-hitting pieces in the future.  Retiring National Public Radio reporter Howard Berkes has produced two powerful investigative pieces on the return of black lung disease among the nation’s coal miners. (Here and here.) He will be missed. Veteran investigative reporter Jim Morris at the Center for Public Integrity continues his excellent work, most recently with a story on the deaths of oil field workers and problems at Kentucky OSHAJamie Satterfield at the Knoxville News Sentinel published a hard-hitting piece on the health problems suffered by workers who cleaned up the massive coal-ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant. 

    You can listen to an interview with Satterfield hereAntonia Juhasz of Pacific Standard about the workers working and dying on the Dakota Access Pipeline and how difficult it is for OSHA to enforce safe working conditions.   Will Evans of Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting has focused relentlessly on electric car maker Tesla and documented how the company put style and speed over safety, was hiding injuries and ignoring the concerns of its own safety professionals.  Eli Wolfe of Fair Warning wrote a devastating piece about worker deaths on small farms and how Congress prohibits OSHA from investigating incidents on farms that comprise about 93 percent of U.S. farms with outside employees, employing more than 1.2 million workers. ProPublica’s Kara Feldman penned an investigative piece into the death of Mouctar Diallo, age 21, a Guinean immigrant crushed to death in 2017 by a 40 ton garbage truck, and the plight of New York’s unorganized and mostly immigrant garbage collectors. Chemical and Engineering News reporter Jeff Johnson keeps us up-to-date on goings-on at the Chemical Safety Board here and here. And Kartikay Mehrotra, Peter Waldman and Jonathan Levin of Bloomberg News have written a long piece on how the growing threat of deportation is causing immigrant workers endure abuses in jobs Americans don’t want. 

    And I just want to give a shout-out to some of my favorite labor/OSH/environment reporters:  Labor reporter Steve Greenhouse who continues his eloquent defense of workers even (or especially) after his retirement from the New York Times.  And then there’s Juliette Eilperin and the team at the Washington Post, David Kay Johnston who follows worker issues at DC ReportSuzy Khimm at NBC, Mike Elk of Payday Report, Wooty Sixel at the Houston Chronicle, and . And honorable mention of those who labor for labor at various news bureaus: Rebecca Rainey who has graduated from Inside OSHA to heading up the team at Politico’s Morning Shift. Rebecca’s replacement at Inside OSHA, Ariana Figueroa, and, of course the Bloomberg labor/OSHA team: Josh Eidelson, Sam Pearson, Bruce Rolfson, Peter Waldman.And while they’re not exactly journalists, this is probably a good place to recognize those academics and public interest people (some of whom are former colleagues) who are continuing the battle for worker justice by providing the research and perspective that go into many of the above pieces. My old OSHA colleagues David Michaels, now at George Washington University and Debbie Berkowitz, now working at the National Employment Law Project, both of whom write prolifically in defense of workers’ right to a safe workplace. And, of course, Sharon Block, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School who writes frequently in OnLabor (along with many colleagues), Shanna Devine at Public CitizenKatie Tracy of the Center for Progressive Reform and former Labor Deputy Secretary, rising pundit and my favorite Twitter contributor Chris Lu.

    And finally, while it’s not exactly great journalism, my appearance on MSNBC last January marked the longest cable television coverage of OSHA issues all year.

  10. The Bottomless Swamp: This year happily saw the resignation of two of the Trump administration’s leading swamp monsters: Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke — as well as the resignation and firing of a record number of other high administration officials either because they could no longer look themselves in the mirror in the morning, or because Trump tired of whatever residual residue of integrity they had left. Are things better now. Not so’s you’d notice. 

    As New York Times reporter Eric Lipton tweeted, “As of Thursday, DOD will be run by a former senior Boeing executive. EPA is run by a former coal lobbyist. HHS is run by a former pharmaceutical lobbyist. And Interior will be run by a former oil-industry lobbyist. Welcome to 2019.”  Meanwhile, even the Mr. Clean of the Trump Administration, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta had a bit of a bumpy road in 2018 as the Miami Herald detailed how he gave Palm Beach multimillionaire sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein a legal break when Acosta was Miami’s top federal prosecutor. What will this mean for the comparatively moderate Acosta? Who knows? But even if he survives as Labor Secretary, his chance of ever seeing a coveted federal judicial appointment seems all but vanished.  Oh well, we could have worse Labor Secretaries.

This article was originally published at Confined Space on January 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

“Complacency Killed My Brother!”

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about how “freak accidents” are neither “freak,” nor “accidental.” As I explained then:

First, the phrase implies that this type of incident hardly ever happens and there is, therefore, not much you can do about it. In fact, the phrase “freak accident” is a double-whammy. Not only does the word “freak” imply “rare,” but the word “accident,” defined as “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury,” implies that the event was unexpected.

One of the examples of an fatality that was labeled a “freak accident” was the tragic death of Marty Dale Whitmire in Greenville, South Carolina, in April 2017.  Whitmire was working on a paving operation when his truck clipped a live power line, which fell on him — a tragic, far-too-common — and completely preventable — cause of worker death.

Yesterday, Marty Whitmire’s nephew, Melvin Whitmire, posted a comment on that post which I am reprinting below to give it more attention. I defy you to read it without boiling over, and crying at the same time:

Thank you so much for your article about the “freak” “”accident”” in Greenville SC involving the electrocution that occurred on a paving job site.

April 11, 2017 is a day my family and I will NEVER forget. Marty was my like a brother to me. He was actually my Uncle (my fathers baby brother) but because he was only 8 years older than me we were very close when I was a child and as I became an adult we grew to be best friends. He used to tell everyone that he and I were brothers.

Marty worked on my crew as a Pipefitter for 4+\- years and the company we were working for layed him off in November of 2016. That’s when he took the job at King Asphalt to keep busy until the layoff ended. He wasn’t experienced and he was a flag man for the first 4 months he worked there. Towards the end of March 2017 he was “promoted” to the job the position that he was working when he was tragically killed, not accidentally either. This happened in my opinion (I have 22 years in Industrial Pipefitting an OSHA 30, and experience as Site Specific Safety Officer on a Federal Jobsite) due to Marty’s absence of proper training on the machine and lack of training for the foreman in the job. The power lines were  lower than required  by national code, the pole was not up to national codes, the spotter was out that day and no one filled his position and SCDOT inspector  was sitting in his truck onsite because the road being paved was a State Road. The road has more overhead lines crossing the road than the average road in that particular area that the incident occurred, and no one notified the power company about safeguarding the power lines before work began. COMPLACENCY killed my “brother”!!!! This could have been avoided if either the paving or power company or SCDOT would  have fulfilled their obligations to provide a safe place to work.

Another piece of information not reported was…….
The foreman on the paving crew was Marty’s son. My cousin watched his Daddy as he was being electrocuted for 20+\- minutes until the power company arrived to shutdown the 7200 volt line that lay across Marty’s body. The power never tripped a fuse or transformer. It stayed live until the power company got onsite. NOT A ACCIDENT. A FAILURE TO PREVENT this from happening is what is so “FREAKY” and unbelievable.

Moral of the story: Most workplace “accidents” are not accidents; nor are they “freak.”  Most workplace fatalities are preventable. There is plenty of information out there if employers don’t understand how to make their workplaces safe. Melvin is right: it wasn’t an act of God or “just one of those things” that killed his brother; it was the employer’s complacency and violation of safety standards and the law.

Finally, every worker killed in the workplace is a tragedy and a loss that brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, friends, co-workers, spouses, children and parents can never fully recover from.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Sickened Kingston coal ash workers claim company hid health risks, tampered with air monitors

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

The trial in one of the nation’s worst workplace negligence cases began this week in federal court in Knoxville, Tennessee. The workers assigned to clean up the massive coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston coal-fired power plant are finally getting their day in court.

After the jury was seated, it didn’t take long for witnesses to cast management of the coal ash clean-up in a bad light. A worker for Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., the contractor put in charge of site cleanup, testified that the company was more worried about public perception than worker safety.

A company supervisor told the worker, Robert Muse Jr., to report any other workers who were wearing respiratory gear to clean up the coal ash and that the employees would be dealt with. Jacobs Engineering did not want to give the appearance that the coal ash was something the public should worry about.

Nearly 10 years have passed since 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled from a retention pond adjacent to the TVA Kingston coal-fired power plant in eastern Tennessee. The spill was the worst coal ash disaster in U.S. history; it occurred in the early morning hours of December 22, 2008, when a retaining wall failed at the huge coal ash retention pond.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selected the Superfund program in 2009 as the best regulatory vehicle to address the coal ash disaster “due to its comprehensive human health and ecological risk assessment process and its proven ability to actively engage and involve multiple stakeholders in large, complex environmental cleanup projects.”

Home and land owners have already been able to receive compensation for damages from the spill. The TVA finished its major cleanup work of the site at the end of 2014. The federal power agency reported spending more than $1 billion on the cleanup project. It sent 41,000 rail cars of ash to a landfill in Alabama.

The Kingston coal plant, with a generating capacity of almost 1,400 megawatts, is still in operation. The plant burns about 14,000 tons of coal a day, an amount that would fill 140 railroad cars.

But long after the cleanup has finished, impacts from the contamination are still being felt.

Many of the workers were forced to leave their jobs after they got sick during cleanup, not knowing at the time that breathing in the coal ash had made them sick. And nearly a decade after the devastating coal ash spill in Roane County, Tennessee, more than 30 clean-up workers are dead and more than 250 are sick or dying — all from illnesses and diseases reportedly linked in medical studies to the toxins from coal ash.

The workers now are suing Jacobs Engineering, the contractor put in charge of cleanup of the site, alleging the firm lied to them about the dangers of long-term exposure to coal ash, denied them protective gear, and tampered with testing that was designed to keep both the public and the laborers safe.

One of the employees for the company hired to clean up the spill told the court on Wednesday that if he and his fellow workers had known what was in the coal ash, they would have quit their jobs.

The case has consolidated the claims of 70 different workers involved in the cleanup project managed by Jacobs Engineering. The jury trial is taking place in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, about 35 miles northeast of Kingston.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages for “physical injury, pain and suffering, mental anguish, increased risk of disease, fear of disease, medical expenses, medical monitoring, and compensatory damages in any amount or amounts fair to be determined by a jury at trial.”

In its defense, Jacobs Engineering’s attorney is contending that the workers are lying about the steps the company took to cover up the contamination and — even if the workers are not lying — Jacobs Engineering had no duty to protect them.

The Knoxville News Sentinel brought greater public attention to the plight of the workers assigned to cleanup up the toxic waste from the site. The newspaper, which has won awards for its coverage, examined why so many cleanup workers at the site were getting sick and dying. In her coverage of the cleanup, reporter Jamie Satterfield learned that workers weren’t warned of the dangers of the coal ash and were, in fact, told the coal ash was perfectly safe.

The state of Tennessee began its investigation into the treatment of the cleanup workers in early 2017. Satterfiled’s newspaper in July 2017 published its first series of stories on the probe.

During cleanup, Jacobs Engineering placed monitors around the site to monitor the toxicity of the ash. The company said it closely monitored levels of toxic chemicals at the site. It said the levels were never high enough to cause injuries. The site had levels of chemicals below the EPA’s set level of permissible exposure, the company’s lawyers said.

But on Wednesday, Muse, one of the workers at the site, testified about how Jacobs Engineering tampered with the monitors.

The company would order workers to wash coal ash from the stationary monitors and keep the area around them wet, which would lower the toxicity of the test results. Workers also captured secret video of Jacobs Engineering staffers banging out ash from the cartridges of the monitors placed around the site to monitor the toxicity of the ash, the News Sentinel reported.

During the trial, the jury will be asked to decide whether the toxic chemicals at the site were capable of causing the workers to get seriously ill.

“The workers are claiming that they have been harmed,” Sidney Gilreath, a personal injury attorney who has worked on similar cases, told 10News. “And they are sick, there’s no question about that. The question is did the working in the fly ash cause that harm.”

Because many of the plaintiffs have different illnesses, he said it will be more difficult to show Jacobs Engineering is liable for the deaths and illnesses.

The trial is expected to last for several weeks.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress.

“Safety Is Our Top Priority”

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

I read a lot of articles about workers getting killed on the job in preventable incidents. They’re always upsetting.

But one of the things that infuriates me most is the all-too-common statement from a company spokesperson that “Safety is our top priority” after a preventable fatality.

Now, I’m not doubting that losing an employee is a devastating experience for any company owner. The remorse is sincere. But if safety was really the company’s “number one priority,” why is the worker dead?

Here for example we have the Oakland-based Shimmick Construction whose employee, Patrick Ricketts was killed earlier this month.

Family, friends mourning death of construction worker killed in Twin Peaks Tunnel

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KTVU) – Family and friends are mourning the death of a construction worker, killed after he was hit by a steel beam in the Twin Peaks Tunnel in San Francisco on Friday. Loved ones have identified him as 51-year-old Patrick Ricketts.  “Safety is always our number one priority,” said San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA) Deputy Spokeswoman Erica Kato.

And the spokesperson for Shimmick said in a statement, “Safety is core to everything we do….”

If safety was really the company’s “number one priority,” why is the worker dead?

I’m not sure how SFMTA, which didn’t look up Shimick’s record, defines “always,” or how Shimick defines “core,” but it seems that the company has a rather checkered history when it comes to workplace safety according to the San Francisco Examiner:

Public records reviewed Wednesday revealed another case where the contractor under scrutiny after a steel beam fell and killed a worker in a San Francisco Muni tunnel faced fines for serious and willful safety violations.

Yet as the San Francisco Examiner reported Tuesday, the Oakland-based Shimmick Construction told transit officials last November it had not been cited for a “serious and willful violation” in the past decade when it filled out an application to work on the seismic retrofit of the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

Shimmick Construction has been linked to nearly 50 workplace safety violations since 2008, including serious citations for an accident in 2016 in which a forklift driver was crushed in Southern California. The record raises questions as to whether the company followed safety regulations in the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

Of course, neither SFMTA nor Shimick are alone in suddenly discovering that safety is their top priority after a worker dies or gets hurt.

TPI Composites hires George W. Bush administration official to help fight OSHA citations

Newton, IA — In June, the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged an array of safety problems at TPI’s wind blade factory in Newton. T.J. Castle, TPI’s senior vice president of North American operations… referred to previous TPI statements that identified workplace safety as a top priority.

Amazon Prime Day created a surge in health and safety complaints from exhausted workers

Great Britain — Amazon Prime Day broke records last week – with more than 100 million products sold – but proved the most controversial deal day to date with strikes breaking out across Europe and health and safety complaints from Amazon UK workers soaring by 209 per cent, according to workplace digital campaigning platform Organise. “Ensuring the safety of associates is our number one priority,” Amazon’s spokesperson said.

Birds Eye workers hospitalized after ammonia leak

Darien, — Authorities haven’t disclosed the extent of injuries to 15 people who had “serious exposure” to an ammonia gas leak Sunday morning inside the Birds Eye food packaging plant, but the 15 were transported to five different area hospitals, a hazardous materials team official on the scene said. Janice Monahan, a representative from Pinnacle Foods and Birds Eye, the two companies affiliated with the Darien plant, said in a statement Sunday afternoon that “the safety of our employees is our top priority and focus right now.”

Construction worker injured at Las Vegas stadium site

Las Vegas, NV — A construction worker was rescued today after suffering an injury three stories off the ground at the Las Vegas stadium site, according to the Clark County Fire Department and the developer.  “The worker was evaluated by the project’s onsite medical personnel and taken to an area hospital for further evaluation,” project developer Mortenson-McCarthy said in a statement. “The worker was alert prior to transport. Safety is our top priority on this and every project.”

Chemical Safety Board Suspects Faulty Valve Led To Superior Refinery Explosion

Superior, WI — The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Thursday that a malfunctioning valve in an alkylation unit appeared to allow a flammable mixture to form and likely caused the explosion at Husky Energy’s refinery in Superior on April 26.. Husky spokesman Mel Duvall said in an email Thursday that the company will continue to work with the CSB to understand the cause of the explosion. “The safety of our employees and the community remains our top priority and we will continue to work collaboratively with the CSB and other investigating agencies,” wrote Duvall.

Accidents at Amazon: workers left to suffer after warehouse injuries

Guardian investigation reveals numerous cases of Amazon workers being treated in ways that leave them homeless, unable to work or bereft of income after workplace accidents. “Amazon has created over 130,000 jobs in the last year alone and now employs over 560,000 people around the world. Ensuring the safety of these associates is our number one priority,” said Amazon spokesperson Melanie Etches in an email.

OSHA opens probe into man’s death

NEW BREMEN, OH  – The Occupation Safety and Health Administration is investigating a worker’s death after an accident at Crown Equipment Corp. on Monday.

The accident is still under investigation, but preliminary information provided by Crown Equipment indicates that employee Travis Temple, 49, Celina, was struck by a lift truck.

“As with any death, the incident is being investigated by the New Bremen police,” according to department news release. “Employee safety is of the utmost importance to Crown,” a company news release states

What’s the Problem?

So what’s the problem with claiming that safety is your top priority?

Well, first, it generally isn’t true. Survival of the company, production, profit, image, etc. are often higher priorities. And in our economic system, that makes sense. A company needs to make a profit to survive.  But tempering that profit motive is why we have laws and regulations — and enforcement of those laws — to ensure that the quest for higher profits doesn’t result in injury, death, pollution or theft.

Now most business owners don’t actually come out and say that profit is more important than safety. Former Massey Coal owner Don Blankenship was an exception, sending memos to his managers urging them to “run more coal” and not waste their time on safety-related work. Partially based on the evidence contained in those memos, Blankenship, who is attempting to run against Joe Manchin for West Virginia Senator, spent a year in jail related to the deaths of 29 miners who died in an April 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

If you ask the CEOs of companies who take this seriously, my bet is you won’t hear the same old tired line that “safety is a priority.”  — Dr. David Michaels

And then there’s the implication that if safety is really management’s top priority, the fatality or injury must have been because the worker didn’t make safety a priority. Or maybe it was just a “freak accident.”

But the main reason not to claim safety as a top “priority,” is that priorities change depending on what’s happening at the time. True, safety may be a top priority today, but tomorrow there may be other “top” priorities. Just ask Elon Musk.

The fact is that safety shouldn’t just be a priority, it should be integral in the way a company does business.

As former OSHA head David Michaels explained in the Harvard Business Review:

Today and every day in the future, corporate leaders need to reassess what safety means and how their company can achieve it. They need to recognize that safety is a value proposition, that safety management and operational excellence are inextricably linked. If you ask the CEOs of companies who take this seriously, my bet is you won’t hear the same old tired line that “safety is a priority.” They understand that safety is not a priority — it is an essential precondition of their work. It is a fundamental component of their operating culture. Safety, ultimately, is at the core of what they do.

So call me cynical, call me a downer. But I reflexively shudder whenever I hear the words “Safety is our top priority.” Better to just express your sorrow and regret, and recommit yourself to learning the lessons and taking whatever measures are necessary to make sure that your safety system actually ensures that all of your other employees will come home alive and healthy at the end of the shift.

***

Coming next in the series of Things that Drive Me Crazy: Employers who call their employees “team members.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on August 28, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and I spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

OSHA Speaks to Employers, Ignores Workers, About Deaths in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

Too many workers are dying in the states of Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, according to OSHA Region VII, and employers need to do something about it. An OSHA alert has gone out from the region, “seeking to stem a recent increase in workplace fatalities in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.” The press release cites “an increase in fatalities associated with fallsstruck-by objects and vehiclesmachine hazardsgrain bin engulfment, and burns” and notes that “OSHA has  investigated 34 fatalities in these three states since Oct. 1, 2017.”

Some of the more recent fatalities in these states gleaned from the Confined Space Weekly Tollinclude 39-year-old Rafael Ayala Orozco, of Grand Island, Nebraska, who fell about 80 feet to his death at a fertilizer plant construction site near Hastings and an un-named worker who died at a Michael Foods in Wakefield, Nebraska, last September.

In Missouri, two workers, Joey Hale, 44, and Ben Ricks, 58, died after falling down an elevator shaft at a St. Louis construction site last month. Stephen Lemay was killed when a TV tower in Webster County collapsed near Springfield, and  Stephen Tepatt was electrocuted near Fenton, Missouri last December when the boom on his vehicle hit a high power line and was electrocuted by 12,000 volts.

And in Kansas recently, two Westar Energy employees, operations supervisors Craig Burchett and Jesse Henson died after suffering severe burns at the utility’s electrical largest plant. Jubal D. Hubbard was killed when a high-pressure valve ruptured near Olathe, Kansas last December.

Now calling out employers in these states because they are killing too many workers is a good thing, and rather rare for OSHA. I applaud it.

What bothers me, however, is the wording and tone of the press release. OSHA uses it to advertise its compliance assistance activities, highlighting its free On-site Consultation Program for small- and medium-sized businesses, as well as OSHA’s Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs“which offers practical advice on how an organization can create and integrate safety and health programs.”

So far, so good. OSHA’s consultation program and health and safety program practices — including its upcoming “Safe and Sound Week” campaign — are good things, especially for employers who want to do the right thing, but just need a little help.

But then OSHA tells employers that “By implementing and sustaining workplace safety and health programs we can help employees avoid preventable injuries and fatalities.”

To my ears, this sounds a bit blame-the-workerish. Employers are required to provide safe workplaces. Period.  Telling employers they should implement health and safety programs to “help employees” avoid injury or death is kind of like saying we should teach men about women’s rights so that we can “help women” avoid rape.

Injuries and fatalities are not preventable because employees “avoid” them. Certainly, training is important. But the bottom line is that injuries and fatalities are preventable because employers eliminate or minimize the hazards that cause them.

I’m also concerned with what’s missing from the press release.  There is no encouragement of workers to exercise their legal rights under the law. Workers have the right to get information about many of the hazards they’re exposed to, get training and file complaints with OSHA if their employer fails to provide a safe workplace. Strongly encouraging workers to use these rights to prevent injuries, illnesses and fatalities is important in those companies where workers are getting killed, not because their employers haven’t taken advantage of OSHA’s valuable compliance assistance opportunities, but because they are illegally cutting corners on safety.

If OSHA really wants to put pressure on employers in these states, the agency needs to emphasize compliance with the law, enforcement of that law — and workers’ legal role in that process — as well as compliance assistance. The agency needs to not only motivate employers to take advantage of compliance assistance opportunities, but also encourage workers to use their rights to file complaints against employers who are just trying to save a buck on the backs — and lives  — of their employees.

I will undoubtedly be criticized for nit-picking the wording of a press release and not being adequately appreciative of this initiative. But words and message are important.  OSHA doesn’t work if workers don’t know their rights and aren’t encouraged to exercise them. And workplace safety doesn’t work if employers are encouraged to paternalistically “help” their workers, rather than being reminded of their legal responsibility to make their workplaces safe.

This article was originally published at Confined Space on July 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Workplace Safety: Expect Excellence From Your Employer

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

You should expect your employer to establish a strong safety culture that results in an injury-free, healthy, non-hostile workplace.

Unfortunately, OSHA can only do so much to establish what “safe and healthy” means, or to enforce those protocols. Many people, like those at Public Citizen, recognize that “government protection of workers is far from adequate.”

This means that more must be done than just meeting government standards.

High Standards for Health and Safety Should Be the Norm

Each workplace is unique, so those in charge of safety must identify and mitigate their specific health and safety issues. Hazards also change over time, so safety protocols must be adapted.

The aim, after all, should be to make sure you stay safe and healthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. That means no workplace injuries, and certainly no fatalities, nor any disrespectful behaviors: expect respect.

What Is a Safe and Healthy Workplace?

In order to make sure you are in a safe and healthy workplace, it’s important to understand what that means. Consider some of the most common causes of workplace injuries: stress, fatigue, falling objects, lifting, collisions, and trip and falls. Are your safety managers addressing these issues?

The environment you work in should be healthy. That means clean air, a clean workspace, good lighting, and reasonable noise levels.   

Management should regularly provide information and training about how to stay safe and healthy. They should encourage and facilitate physical fitness, fatigue prevention, mental and emotional well-being, and healthy eating.

Your health and wellness, and that of your co-workers, are the foundation of a satisfying and productive work environment. Consider that your well-being is also contingent on your co-workers’ well-being. A fatigued or distracted workmate is more likely to create unsafe circumstances for others.

The more rested, clear-headed, and healthy the staff, the safer the work environment will be for everyone.

Be Proactive

You play a part in safety, too. Take moments to stretch, rest, and move as needed. When stress is high, reset with some deep breaths. And keep your workspace clean and free of hazards.

Offer help to other employees who are doing something unsafe. Be respectful of others and expect respect from them. If you see hazards, report them to your safety manager. Make suggestions to improve health and safety. Is there a vending machine with soda, candy, and chips? Request that your employer swap some (all?) of that out for healthier options.

Initiate a walking group or encourage others to join you in training for a local 5 km. Ask your employer if they’ll sponsor you. Get creative in helping to make your workplace a thriving environment.

Know Your Rights, Use Your Voice

Of course, the ideal workplace isn’t always possible in the real world. Some employers simply won’t prioritize employee well-being to the degree they should. When you experience a violation of your health or safety at work, write it down and report it to your employer. A paper trail is your best friend if you need to take further action.

If your employer doesn’t remedy the problem, contact OSHA. You can do this anonymously. You have rights and you should be aware of what they are. In his article “The 6 Reasons OSHA Will Inspect Your Workplace,” Gabe L. Sierra, the managing director of Prometrix Safety Consulting, states, “In many industries, employee complaints are the single most common reason why OSHA will conduct an inspection at a workplace.”

Are you afraid of your employer retaliating? Retaliation is illegal. You can report that to OSHA, too. If you experience discrimination or harassment, you can file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For extreme cases of health and safety violations, you can consult a lawyer and file a lawsuit.

Just don’t stay quiet. Speaking up can be frightening, but change doesn’t happen if people remain silent. Consider the recent shift toward intolerance of sexual harassment and assault in the TV and film worlds, and beyond, because people spoke up. By saying something, you’re part of the solution, even if that solution takes time to arrive.  

Your Excellent Work Environment

Let’s hope that you have a safety manager who will be receptive to your suggestions and want to work toward an optimally safe environment.

Most of us spend an enormous amount of time at work. Why wouldn’t we expect and contribute to it being as safe and healthy as possible?

About the Author: TJ Scimone founded Slice, Inc. in 2008. His priority has been design, innovation, and safety. The result is a unique line of cutting tools, all of which are ergonomic and feature finger-friendly® blades. Safety is a key aspect of the Slice message and the website features a weekly Workplace Safety Blog.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog