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For Incarcerated Workers, Summer Heat Can Be a Death Sentence

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

Image result for Ella FasslerTemperatures reached 97 degrees on June 21 at the French Robinson Unit prison the day Seth Donnelly collapsedThe Texas Observer reported Seth passed out during his prison job of training attack dogs—running around in a 75-pound “fight suit” while the dogs tried to bite him. Seth’s internal body temperature was 106 when he reached the hospital, where doctors eventually took him off life support. He died on June 23, and his preliminary autopsy lists multiorgan failure following severe hyperthermia.

These conditions aren’t new. Danielle, who asked for In These Times to withhold her last name to protect her family-run business from social stigma, says she woke up in her cell in Texas at Gatesville Prison one typical early morning in July 2015, drenched in sweat. Without time (or permission) to shower or brush her teeth, she reports she was corralled to the fields in a heavy uniform.

“It didn’t feel safe,” says Danielle, who explains she picked tomatoes and jalapeño peppers without pay. Gatesville’s average high temperature that month was 98 degrees. “Texas in July, it’s like sitting on hell’s doorstep,” she says.

A guard who Danielle says she was “deathly terrified of” patrolled the “state property” (the term guards used for incarcerated people) on a horse. Danielle says she was not provided gloves, which often left her hands exposed to thorns and caustic jalapeño juices. One day, Danielle says, after several hours, another woman without gloves asked the guard if they could wash out their wounds. According to Danielle, the guard stopped, pulled her gun and yelled like a drill sergeant: “What are the rules of the field?” Danielle testifies that another group yelled back, “No breaks until work is done.”

Although there is little data or reporting on heat conditions for incarcerated workers, they may be especially vulnerable to being pushed to their limits because there are few labor protections and little to no oversight.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to protect workers from serious hazards (including heat-related risks). Though the Act does not cover incarcerated laborers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has said federal prisons must still uphold its standards—which include, when the heat index hits 91?103 degrees, reminding workers to drink 4 cups of water an hour, scheduling frequent breaks in cool areas, and developing work/rest schedules for workers in heavy clothing.

But OSHA rules do not apply to state prisons. Twenty-two states have adopted OSHA “state plans,” which cover state prisons with standards intended to be at least as effective as federal standards. Eight of the 10 states with the highest incarceration rates have declined to adopt these plans.

“The guards could literally do whatever they wanted to us,” says Danielle, who was incarcerated in Texas from August 2014 to September 2015..

Danielle’s stated working conditions appear antithetical to OSHA’s guidelines. “There was a vehicle that would come by and bring some water, but if the vehicle broke down you were out of luck for water that day,” she says. “That happened numerous times. Even when we get water it was gone within a few minutes and they won’t refill it for you. There are 50-plus women and the women in the back don’t get any.”

Danielle also says adequate work/rest schedules were not implemented. “We would go on for four hours or more before we sat in the shade,” she says. “I remember thinking—I know there were women there who were much older than me doing the exact same thing—‘What would my mother do?’ She would die. She would just fall over on the field and die. How is this possibly allowed?”

Danielle was not alone: Nearly half of people imprisoned in the U.S. work while incarcerated, a population disproportionately likely to be Black. Penal labor became a more significant part of the American economy following the Civil War; police would conduct sweeps and make arrests of Black men when plantations needed additional labor for planting, cutting and harvesting crops. Today, a majority of incarcerated workers perform “institutional maintenance,” which includes tasks like mowing the compound lawn and mopping floors. A relatively small number of others work in “correctional industries,” manufacturing things like license plates, sewing American flags and—as in Danielle’s case—harvesting vegetables that are later sold for a profit. All seven states that don’t pay for non-industry labor are in the South, which can reach dangerously hot summer temperatures.

Even indoor prison work can be dangerous, as 13 states—most of them in the South—do not equip prisons with air conditioning. As Time noted in 2016, more than 120,000 beds in Texas’ criminal justice system do not have air conditioning, while “less than 1% of free Texans live in a home without air conditioning.” OSHA recommends indoor temperatures between 68?76 degrees, and Texas county jails must be between 65?85 degrees—but not Texas state prisons.

While there have not been any assessments of the occupational health of incarcerated workers, it is well documented that heat-related illnesses are a general problem for people in prisons, even when they are not working.

Anecdotal evidence of heat-related problems inside prisons provides additional insight. In a first-person account for The Marshall ProjectTimothy Bazrowx described being beaten with a pipe and how a field captain shot at his feet during his first day of work in the fields. In 2017, The Daily Haze published a video of incarcerated workers screaming for help inside of a St. Louis workhouse as temperatures broke 100 degrees. The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, a group of grassroots advocates, said it is “common for prisoners within [the Florida Department of Corrections] to be routinely denied adequate food and safe drinking water, especially those who go outside the gate on work crews. They are never given enough to eat and are forced to work in all conditions despite injury, sickness, brutal temperatures.”

Andrew, a 31-year-old who has been incarcerated in Florida since he was 17, says confined laborers are routinely dehydrated on the job. Andrew says his first mandatory prison job, in 2006 at age 18 in Hamilton Correctional Institution (HCI), consisted of mowing the swampy compound lawn using a dull-bladed non-electric push mower in cloth shoes with poor soles from 8 a.m. until the end of the day and/or job completion alongside a group of other men. The closest large city to HCI, Valdosta, Georgia, had an average high of about 92 degrees during Andrew’s first summer on the job. The confined laborers were generally given water in the mornings, according to Andrew, but the igloo cooler was empty within an hour and a half. During his time on the job, he frequently witnessed people collapsing from fatigue, he told In These Times. And sometimes, he says, the simple act of taking a break resulted in violent discipline: “The officers will come and they’ll put you in handcuffs … and a lot of times the handcuffs turn into you getting slammed on the floor,” Andrew says.

Limited strides to cool prisons in Texas have been made through civil litigation. After four years of litigation, in May 2018, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) agreed to install air conditioning in the housing sections of Wallace Pack Unit, which houses many elderly and vulnerable prisoners. As recently as August 9, however, Federal Judge Keith Ellison accused TDCJ of not fully complying with the settlement.

The suffering endured in the heat, which will worsen with climate change, is stoked by cruelty. “Despite the heat and terrible conditions we lived in—basically, sleeping in a sauna—it was so much more than that,” says Danielle. “It was like [the guards] got a thrill out of making us feel we were lesser than people.”

This blog was originally published at In These Times on August 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ella Fassler is an independent writer, researcher and prison abolitionist.

Protecting Yourself When the Heat’s On in the Workplace

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Image result for TJ ScimoneThe dangers of working in excessive heat and humidity often get overlooked. Yet OSHA reported 24 heat-related injuries or fatalities between May and October in 2018.

Employer Responsibilities

OSHA requires employers to provide safe work environments, although there are no specific OSHA standards that apply to heat and humidity in warehouses. Some individual states have created heat illness prevention standards that are more stringent.

Worker Responsibilities

Workplace safety is a team effort, and employees have a role to play, too. Report unsafe conditions to the appropriate person immediately. If the condition persists after you report it, you have the legal right to file an OSHA complaint and/or request an OSHA inspection.

Dangers of Working in Extreme Heat

Working in extreme heat and humidity is not just uncomfortable, but actually dangerous. Your body requires a stable internal temperature, which is regulated by blood circulation and the process of evaporation that cools you when you sweat.

High workplace temperatures keep you from releasing body heat through blood circulation, and if it’s humid, your sweat can’t evaporate because the air is already fairly full of water. This increases your core temperature.

Recognizing and Responding to Heat Illnesses

How do you recognize and respond to the various types of heat illness? There are four main types:

  • Heat Rash: Result of sweat that can’t evaporate. Clusters of tiny, itchy bumps cover affected areas, such as in folds of skin, on the chest, or on the neck. To treat: Keep the rash dry. Use baby or talcum powder to soothe the itching and irritation.

  • Heat Cramps: Painful muscle spasms from strenuous work in excessive heat, without replenishing fluids and body salts. To treat:  Place person in cool environment/shade. Have them sip a sports drink or add one teaspoon of salt to a quart of water and sip. If alert and not disoriented, wet them down and place them in front of fan to induce evaporative cooling. Apply cold compresses to the back of the neck, groin and armpits. Gently, but firmly, massage cramped muscles.

  • Heat Exhaustion: Identified by profuse sweating with cool, moist, and red or pale skin. Dilated pupils, headache, fast but weak pulse, rapid breathing, dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, irritability, irrational actions, thirst, and weakness may occur. Caused by prolonged exposure to excessive heat without consuming sufficient fluids and salts. To treat: Place the person in a cool environment/shade, with legs slightly elevated. Remove or loosen their clothes. Follow the treatments for heat cramps, except muscle massage.

  • Heat Stroke: Medical emergency – call 911 immediately! Core temperature is above 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweating stops entirely. Skin may be red, hot, and dry. Pulse is rapid but strong, pupils are small, and dizziness occurs. Breathing is rapid and shallow, together with nausea, weakness, mental confusion, and extreme irritability. There may be seizures, and loss of consciousness, progressing to shock, brain damage, and death. To treat: Follow the treatment procedures for heat exhaustion while you wait for medical transport or a medical care team to arrive. Do not give the person any drink that contains caffeine or alcohol.

Prevention of Heat Illness

Prevent heat illnesses by following some common sense heat tips to keep yourself cool. Wear light-colored, lightweight, loose-fitting cotton clothing that allows sweat to evaporate. Stay in cooler environments as much as possible.

Drink small amounts frequently, even if you aren’t thirsty. Avoid sweet or alcoholic drinks, which cause your body to lose fluid.

Regularly replenish your salts and minerals. Consult with your doctor about managing the heat if you are on any type of salt restriction or have certain chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

Heat illnesses can progress extremely rapidly from one stage to another. While you can monitor yourself for signs and symptoms, many stages of heat illness can cause mental confusion. A buddy system is the best way to ensure that you and your fellow workers aren’t headed for potential life-threatening circumstances. Periodically check in with each other and look for symptoms and take immediate action if you notice one or more symptoms.

About the Author: TJ Scimone founded Slice, Inc. in 2008. His priority has been design, innovation, and safety in cutting tools such as utility knives. The result is a unique line of tools featuring finger-friendly® blades. Safety is a key aspect of the Slice message and the website features a Workplace Safety Blog.

 

Angry About Low Pay and Sweltering Heat, These Amazon Warehouse Workers Are Organizing

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Thousands of Amazon workers struck on “Prime Day” this week in what was perhaps the largest multinational action to date against the online behemoth. European Amazon employees have been waging coordinated strikes against the company since 2013, but this time they were joined by U.S. counterparts at a Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center, where workers staged a first-of-its-kind six-hour work stoppage. To date, Amazon has successfully fended off all attempts at unionization in the United States since the company’s founding in 1994.

Meanwhile, at another U.S. Amazon facility in Chicago, a new organizing effort is underway. Early Tuesday morning, a group of 30 workers at the company’s DCH1 delivery station on the city’s South Side staged a “walk-in” to the facility’s management during a 2:30 a.m. break on the overnight shift.

The group delivered a list of demands to site management that included a pay bump, health insurance and functioning air conditioning in the facility, where workers say they are laboring in sweltering heat.

The DCH1 delivery station is the last place that Amazon parcels arrive before reaching the doorsteps of Chicago-area customers. Workers scan and sort at a grueling pace inside a building with a metal roof and walls, and towers of packages often block ventilation from overhead fans. The workforce includes seniors and people with medical conditions such as diabetes, and dehydration and heat stroke are frequent problems, according to four employees at the facility who spoke to In These Times on condition of anonymity.

Last month, when a small fire broke out in the facility, managers told workers not to leave their stations, according to one of the employees. No one was injured, but the incident stoked anger.

DCH1 Amazonians United, which has launched a public Facebook page, says workers decided to take action on Prime Day in part after hearing about Minnesota workers’ plans to strike. At present, the workers are not affiliated with any union or community organization.

They’re also building off a successful action this spring, when about 140 employees—roughly a quarter of the workforce—signed a petition demanding adequate access to drinking water at the facility. Managers had stopped providing workers with water bottles, and five-gallon water jugs weren’t being replaced throughout the day, says Terry Miller (a pseudonym), who has worked at the facility for four and a half months.

During his second week on the job, he remembers, a coworker passed out from dehydration.

But as soon as workers delivered the petition in May, a manager went out and bought water bottles, says Miller. Shortly after that, water stations were installed.

“Ever since then, people saw that if we move, if we demand our rights, we can win,” says Fred Brown (a pseudonym), another Amazon employee who began working at the facility in 2017.

After circulating a survey to determine which issues fellow employees cared most about, workers decided to stage another action for Amazon’s highly publicized July Prime day. Apparently short-handed during this peak week, the facility has been offering employees a pay bump to come in an hour before their regular shift is scheduled to start—they receive $18, rather than the usual $15, but only for the extra hour.

DCH1 Amazonians United is demanding “prime pay for Prime days,” or $18 an hour throughout “blackout periods” when workers aren’t permitted to schedule time off and are handling a high volume of packages as a result of the company’s promotions.

Employees received a pay bump as part of a much-touted decision by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to raise the starting wage to $15 an hour. The announcement came after years of criticism from labor, as well the “Stop Bezos Act” introduced by Bernie Sanders that would have penalized large employers that pay low wages.

But employees at the DCH1 facility typically have their hours capped at 28 a week, and many still struggle to pay their bills, says J.R. (a pseudonym). After working a homecare job during the week, on the weekends he pulls three overnight shifts at the Amazon facility and then reports for a childcare job with just a few hours of sleep in between.

“Jeff Bezos’ net worth is about $160 billion,” he says. “Thank you for the $15, but you can’t expect us to stay there forever. The way I see it, $15 is the new minimum wage.”

In a statement e-mailed to In These Times, an Amazon spokesperson said that the company is “proud to offer great employment opportunities with excellent pay, benefits, and a safe workplace for our people.”

The spokesperson did not respond to In These Times’ questions about the facility.

Employees who spoke with In These Times say that in addition to low pay, workers are dissatisfied with the lack of health benefits. According to the workers, they receive some vision and dental benefits, but in lieu of health insurance they are encouraged to call a health hotline number.

In the past year, Amazon has more than doubled the rate at which workers are expected to scan packages at the facility, say the employees, who also complain of seemingly arbitrary write-ups and firings. One of the workers says he was written up after a manager accused him of scanning a package incorrectly two months after the fact.

An investigation by the Verge this spring revealed that Amazon automatically tracks its employees’ productivity and may fire as much as 10 percent of its workforce annually for failing to meet internal targets.

After presenting their list of demands on Tuesday, the DCH1 workers say they were promised a meeting with the site manager that has yet to occur. They are circulating a public petition to demand the meeting.

In the meantime, Brown says that news of Tuesday’s action is reaching more coworkers. “You can feel the shift in power,” he says.

Amazon opened the DCH1 facility in Chicago in 2015. “I always say, they came to the wrong city,” says J.R. “Chicago is known for unions, so you can only get away with it for so long.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

As temperatures rise, the poor suffer most

Monday, July 22nd, 2019
As a heat wave bakes large pockets of the United States this weekend, it is society’s most vulnerable who suffer most.

Take the unnamed 32-year-old Ace Air Conditioning of Louisiana worker who died while installing duct work on July 20, 2017. The man began to show signs of heat exhaustion while working in the attic of a modest home in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Less than an hour later, he collapsed and died.

The company was fined a few thousand dollars because it did not “furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards.”

Or take the watermelon picker in Five Points, California, who collapsed on the way to his vehicle after a six-hour shift in temperatures above 100 Fahrenheit. No one on the team got a break that day, according to a colleague, despite state labor laws. When the man was pronounced dead at he hospital, his body temperature was 109 Fahrenheit. The company was fined $25,750.

These are just two examples of what outdoor workers face when temperatures rise.

The heat wave gripping much of the country has already been blamed for six deaths. As global temperatures continue to rise and heat waves become more common and extreme, it is the poor, the elderly, laborers, and people with medical conditions who will be at the greatest risk.

People over 65 are among those with the greatest risk of heat-related deaths, followed by men who work in outdoor occupations, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Any person can suffer from heat stress, regardless of age, sex, or health status,” the agency wrote in a 2016 report on heat-related illness. “Older adults and children, however, have a higher-than-average risk of becoming ill due to exposure to extreme heat. People working outdoors, the socially isolated and economically disadvantaged, those with chronic illnesses, and some communities of color are also especially vulnerable to heat.”

When a massive heat wave struck Chicago in July 1995, the city was ill prepared to deal with the crisis. That lack of preparation had deadly consequences: 739 people died, including Valerie Brown’s grandmother, Alberta.

“They put my grandma’s body in a refrigerated truck,” Brown told NBC News. “There is no death certificate. They just took her body away and put her in a mass grave.”

It wasn’t just the elderly who were hit hardest by the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, according to Judith Helfand, who directed a new documentary about the heat wave, Cooked: Survival by Zip Code.

“The people who died in 1995 were poor, and disproportionately black,” Helfand told NBC News.

“Racism kills people,” she added.

Research has shown that climate change and the resulting heat waves will hit large urban areas particularly hard, in part because the concrete, brick, steel, and glass these cities are built from creates “heat islands” that trap heat during the day then slowly release it overnight, preventing the city from cooling down once the sun sets.

That creates a dangerous situation for people like construction workers, the elderly, the poor, minorities, and the homeless, who tend to be concentrated in cities and may not have the resources to stay in air-conditioned buildings when temperatures soar.

Just three states have regulations in place to protect outdoor workers in extreme heat. The advocacy group Public Citizen launched a campaign last year to get the Occupational Safety and  Health Administration to put tighter rules in place to protect workers during heat waves.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has nominated Eugene Scalia — son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a lifelong opponent of labor regulations — to head the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA.

This article was originally published at Think Progress on July 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Joshua Eaton is an investigative reporter. His work has also appeared at The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, PRI’s The World, and Teen Vogue. Before joining ThinkProgress, Joshua was a digital producer at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (now The Eye) and WGBH News.

Contact Joshua at jeaton@thinkprogress.org or via Signal at 202-684-1030.

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).

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