Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Health’

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).

When Temp Workers Die While Being Taken to the Job, Who’s Responsible?

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

in these timesOn September 24, just after 3 PM, a 36-year-old Haitian immigrant named Marianie Sanon was sitting on a particleboard bench in the back of a van overcrowded with 22 other Haitian temp workers on their way to the night shift at a factory in Evansville, Indiana. She noticed that the van driver seemed to be driving dangerously fast down Interstate 69. Sanon had recently moved from Miami to Washington, Indiana, on the hope of landing a good job at the local branch of a temp agency called ServiceXpress. This would have been her fourth day temping at a plant operated by AmeriQual, an Evansville, Indiana-based manufacturer of prepackaged military food for the Department of Defense.

The last thing Sanon remembers of the van ride was watching the driver—a 30-year-old man named James Allen who helped his father run a van service that he called “Haitian Transportation”—attempt a high-speed, slalom-like maneuver to get around a truck.

Three days later, Sanon emerged from a coma in a hospital in Evansville, Indiana. She had suffered severe head trauma, had several fractured vertebrae, a bone in her left arm had been shattered and she still had shards of glass still imbedded in her body.

The accident had left two of her fellow passengers dead. As it tumbled across the interstate, the van disintegrated, ejecting Sanon onto the pavement and sending more than a dozen other survivors to the hospital. As she lay in her hospital bed and gathered information about her co-workers, Sanon says she began to wonder why she had heard nothing from the temp agency—ServiceXpress, a subsidiary of Delaware-based Service General—that deployed her, or from AmerQual itself. Not only had there been no offer of help, but not a single person from either firm had checked in, called, visited or sent a letter, Sanon says.

Sanon called ServiceXpress and spoke with a manager. “She said she was sorry for what happened to me,” Sanon told me, “but that she cannot do anything for me.”

Sanon soon received a letter from ServiceXpress.

Dear Employee,

We thank you for your time that you have been with ServiceXpress; we want to help in some way from the traumatic experience that you have been through. We hope this gift card and food basket can help you get back on your feet. We want to wish you the best regards in everything you do.

Thank you,

ServiceXpress Staff

Aside from the $50 Walmart credit, Sanon says that she soon received a paycheck from ServiceXpress that came to $71.00. (She says she never received the food basket referenced in the letter and has heard nothing from AmeriQual.) Meanwhile, Sanon, who was airlifted from the crash site, began receiving the first of her medical bills (many more are on their way), which quickly amounted, she says, to roughly $105,000.

Out of work and unable to pay rent on her apartment, Sanon soon became homeless. She currently sleeps in a women’s shelter in downtown Evansville.

The subcontractor maze

Steven Chancellor is the Chairman of AmeriQual, according to Bloomberg. He has an ardent passion for big-game hunting on African safari trips and has even used his wealth and influence to lobby the Botswanan government to lift its ban on lion hunting. Chancellor has also proven an energetic Republican activist, hosting a high-profile fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012. Before that, he reportedly held a Republican fundraiser in 2004 election of President George W. Bush who, from the White House, assisted Chancellor’s crusade against Botswana’s lion hunting ban.

Immediately after the I-69 van crash, AmeriQual expressed sympathy for the victims but also made clear that it had enlisted the workers through ServiceXpress, which sent the temps to the factory for $11 per hour. Yet ServiceXpress, in turn, emphasized that the van’s driver worked for a different business. James Allen, the van’s driver, was recently arrested for his role in the van crash and Neil Chapman, Sanon’s attorney, says Allen likely has little in assets for the crash victims to draw from. (AmeriQual declined to provide comment for this story.)

Since the Great Recession, the temporary staffing industry has boomed, and temp employment has accounted for significant portions of rebounding job growth. Temps—who are employed by agencies and whose labor is simply rented out by third-party businesses—have become seen as some of America’s most vulnerable workers. Labor advocates say that, in treating workers as replaceable units of labor, the temp industry can overlook workers’ most basic human needs.  Through the layering of contractors and subcontractors, many corporations who rely on temps have effectively shielded themselves from numerous forms of liability for temps they retain through third-party agencies.

Labor advocates across the country have identified the safety of vans that transport temp workers to job sites as a key issue. In 2013, ProPublica published a diagram, drawn by a temp worker, of an overcrowded van said to be a typical feature of the New Jersey temp economy. Workers in New Jersey I spoke with this week say that they are still being transported in woefully overcrowded conditions.

“The problems with the vans from the agencies is that they pack them in over capacity,” a Spanish-speaking temp worker in northern New Jersey told me through a translator and labor organizer named Louis Kimmel, the executive director of New Labor. “Logically when it’s over capacity and no one has seatbelts on, for example—and sometimes drivers might be driving when they’re still drunk—we’re putting ourselves at risk just by getting into a full van like that.”

Sanon herself expressed surprise at the lack of responsibility assumed by AmeriQual and ServiceXpress after the crash. “I was like, how am in the hospital and why am I not hearing from anyone?” Sanon said. “I’m very strong, but really, I need help. I cannot do this by myself.”

“A heroic effort”

Bamdad Bahar, the president of ServiceXpress, said that his office in Indiana did more than just send Walmart cards and food baskets. “[O]ur team there provided round the clock support for the employees, including taking family members to and from the various hospitals,” Bahar said in an email. “It was truly a heroic effort.” Bahar said that he had taken out life insurance plans that would provide the families of each deceased worker with a $5,000 payment.

Bahar also reiterated that his company has nothing to do with the accident. “I mentioned we provided maximum support feasible. This was NOT a workmans comp case, and was NOT an industrial accident. The driver and van company are NOT part of our company, and we are NOT responsible for the accident, the blown tire etc.” He added that he is looking into filing a libel suit against the local newspaper in Indiana, the Evansville Courier & Press, for its coverage of the accident. “There is really NO need to refer to us in relation to the accident,” Bahar said in a subsequent email. “I shut my operation in Indiana because of all this negative press.”

After the accident, Jacques Estime, who is involved in Washington, Indiana’s Haitian community, launched a fundraiser for the victims of the I-69 rollover crash. After securing enough money to pay for the funerals of the deceased, Estime said he split the leftover money 17 ways among the injured victims, who will each receive a check from Estime for $196.95.

In late September, shortly after the van crash, AmeriQual announced in a Facebook post that it would launch a donation drive among its full-time employees to compensate the injured temps. Yet Sanon has heard nothing about AmerQual’s fundraiser. It is unclear if the company gathered a single donation. Estime said the ServiceXpress had donated one thousand dollars to a funeral fund.

Estime told me that the victims are coping with an array of physical and psychological injuries. “Some of them are badly hurt, some of them need therapy,” Jacques told me. “Some haven’t been sleeping well. They’ve been having horrible nightmares. All they see are people dying.”

In late October, a Gibson County prosecutor reportedly filed 19 criminal charges against the van’s driver, James Allen, who had tested positive for marijuana during a blood test taken just after the crash. The charges against Allen range from “causing death while operating a vehicle under the influence of a controlled substance” to “causing serious bodily injury while operating under the influence,” according to the Evansville Courier & Press.

Last week, Sanon’s attorney, Neil Chapman, filed a suit against not only James Allen and his father, Robert, who owns the van, but also against Ameriqual and ServiceXpress. The civil complaint seeks to dispute any notion that the Allens’ transit business operated with autonomy from Xpress and AmeriQual, and asserts that the three businesses were operating as a joint venture. “A principle motivating factor for Ameriqual to choose ServiceXpress was because it offered a competitive advantage of other temporary agencies: transportation of the Haitian employees free-of charge as a part of its advertised, integrated incentive package to its factory clients.”

Sanon told me that, before the accident, she still owed $50 to a man she had paid $200 to bring her from Miami to Washington, Indiana. Although the AmeriQual wage was modest, it was the best she could find, she said, and she had hoped to use the earnings to become debt-free. With medical bills that she estimates total over $100,000, that goal now seems impossible.

“I’m struggling for my life right now,” Sanon said. “I cannot do this by myself.”

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on November 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the AuthorSpencer Woodman is a journalist based in New York. He has written on labor for The Nation and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @spencerwoodman and reach him via email at Contactspencerwoodman@gmail.com.

The Hellish Conditions Facing Workers At Chicken Processing Plants

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Bryce CovertPedro started getting worried when his hands were so swollen he needed a larger size of plastic gloves.

Pedro (which is not his real name) would arrive at the chicken processing plant for Tyson in North Carolina at 5 p.m. to clock in for the second shift. For the next three hours, he says he wouldn’t get a single break from breaking down slaughtered and defeathered chickens, cutting the shoulders and pulling out the tenders, until he was allowed to take a half-hour lunch at 8 p.m. Then it was back to the line until all of the chickens were processed, sometimes at 5 or 6 in the morning.

He says the line moved so quickly that he was processing 45-50 chickens every minute, or nearly one each second. The fast, repetitive motions soon started affecting his hands, which swelled up painfully. They got so large he had to wear 3XL sized plastic gloves. But when he was sent to the plant’s infirmary, he says the nurse simply told him to take ibuprofen and soak his hands in epsom salts and hot water. “The infirmary nurse told me it was nothing to worry about, just your body getting used to it, like when you lift weights and your muscles swell up,” he said on a call with media.

But he didn’t adjust and his hands kept getting worse. He eventually sought out medical treatment from a doctor, who told him he’d never seen injuries as bad as Pedro’s and gave him work restrictions. Yet Pedro says his supervisor ignored the doctor’s orders and put him back to work on the line. “They do not care about the safety of the person, they just care about putting the chickens out,” he said.

He’s worked lots of jobs, many of which — such as construction — were physically demanding. But nothing was quite like the job processing chickens. “Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life, working at the processing plant was the worst job ever,” he said.

In a report released on Tuesday, Oxfam America is launching a new campaign to address what it says are rampant health and safety issues, as well as low pay and few benefits, that face the people who process chicken in the country’s plants. Consumer demand has been growing such that the average American who consumed about 20 pounds of chicken a year in 1950 eats 89 pounds today, and today the industry sells 8.5 billion chickens a year, earning $50 billion.

That demand has come with increased pressure on processing line speeds, which are twice as fast today as they were in 1979, with an upper level of 140 birds per minute today versus 91 back then. But the report claims that speeds can go even higher than that, given that each line is run by a supervisor with the capacity to slow it down or speed it up at any time. In interviews it conducted with current and former workers in Arkansas, Mississippi, and North Carolina, they reported averaged between 35 and 45 birds per minute, or processing more than 2,000 chickens an hour and 14,000 a day.

Workers have to hang, cut, trim, bread, freeze, and package chickens, actions that require multiple motions on each bird. That means that the average worker has to repeat the same motion — cutting, pulling, hacking, twisting, and hanging — 20,000 times a day with force, although some reach as many as 100,000 of the same motion each shift.

This speed, coupled with repeated motions, is a recipe for injury. Workers report pain in their hands, fingers, arms, shoulders, and backs, plus swelling, numbness, tingling, twitching, stiffness, and loss of grip. Some workers say the pain is so intense that it wakes them up at night. Sharp knives and even chicken bones lead to cuts, which can also expose workers to pathogens. The conditions can be long-lasting if not permanent.

They end up with high rates of injuries, although Oxfam warns that even the official numbers can be an undercount. They have ten times the rate of repetitive strain from microtasks than the rest of the workforce, seven times the rate of carpal tunnel syndrome, and five times the rate of musculoskeletal disorders generally. Human Rights Watch has found that poultry workers are 14 times more likely to have injuries such as “claw hand,” where their fingers get locked in a curled position, or ganglionic cysts where fluid is deposited under the skin. In a 2013 survey from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 86 percent of workers reported hand and wrist pain, swelling, or numbness or the inability to close their hands.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 4.32.50 PM

Credit: OXFAM

They also report being exposed to harsh chemicals, often used to clean up the blood, offal, and grease that flows from the birds. One survey found that every single worker reported being exposed to chemicals on the job, with half exposed to chlorine and 21 percent to ammonia.

“Despite industry claims that conditions are improving and injury rates are dropping, we don’t believe that they’re true,” Oliver Gottfried, senior advocacy and collaborations advisor at Oxfam, said on the media call.

In a statement, Tyson said, “we believe in fair compensation, a safe and healthy work environment and in providing workers with a voice.” It said it has the highest entry-level pay in many poultry communities, provides health and dental benefits, provides health and safety trainings, requires workers to report injuries and illnesses, allows them to leave the line to use the bathroom, and employs 500 health and safety professionals. Perdue said in a statement that it provides “competitive wages” above minimum wage, comprehensive benefits, and paid time off. It also pointed to its lost-time rate as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 0.17 per 100 workers compared to .8 for all industries, and its incident rate as recorded by OSHA of 2.23 compared to 4.5 for the industry. Pilgrim’s and Sanderson representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The industry also says the injury rate has steadily fallen over the last 20 years. But that data is often based on self-reported rates. Meanwhile, sending a worker to the company infirmary and instructing him to take Advil rather than to a regular doctor, as Pedro says he experienced, means a company doesn’t have to official record an injury in its log.

“Employers have been going to great lengths to avoid taking responsibility for these injuries,” said Celeste Monforton, professional lecturer at George Washington University and a former legislative analyst for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Then there’s the problem of breaks. The bathroom is particularly challenging, as workers say they have to get a supervisor to find another employee to fill their spots to keep the line running while they relieve themselves. Workers report that they have to wait an hour or more to get a break. Some say that to cope, they severely cut back on drinking liquids or even wear diapers. Pedro has seen people urinate on themselves while working on the line out of fear of losing their jobs if they leave to use the bathroom.

Tyson specifically refutes this issue in its plants, saying in a statement, “we make it very clear to our production supervisors that they are to allow Team Members to leave the production line if they need to use the restroom. Not permitting them to do so is simply not tolerated.”

All of this is undertaken for low wages. Oxfam reports that they average about $11 an hour, or between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. For every dollar spent on a chicken product, a worker sees just two cents. That kind of pay qualifies a poultry worker with two children for food stamps and free school lunches.

And they still might not see all of their promised pay. Workers report often working more than 40 hours a week — they’re required to stay at most plants until all chickens are processed — but rarely get overtime pay. There have also been investigations and lawsuits finding that plants fail to pay workers for time spent putting on and taking off all of their safety gear or for their lunch breaks. SPLC found that nearly 60 percent have to pay for some or all of their protective equipment, eating into their wages.

On top of all of that, Oxfam did not find a single worker who got paid time off for illness, vacation, or personal leave.

Yet the industry is profitable. The top four companies — Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson — control about 60 percent of the market. Tyson made $856 million in profit last year, Pilgrim’s made $711 million, and Sanderson made $249 million.

Oxfam is hoping that by drawing attention to the issue of safety, consumers will be inspired to push back. Its reforms include lower line speeds and higher staffing numbers, stronger training, more frequent breaks, and dealing with and reporting workers’ injuries. “They need to have respect for workers,” Minor Sinclair, Oxfam America’s regional director, said. It’s targeting the four largest because, he said, “They’re the ones that have the lion’s share of employees and the lion’s share of the market. They influence the market for other poultry companies.”

Pedro will miss out on any improvements, as he was fired, he says because he had been raising awareness about rights among his coworkers at the Tyson plant. He noted people used to ask him why he would put up with those conditions at work, but there are few other jobs on offer in his area.

“I’m trying to pay my bills, pay my rent, feed my family,” he said. “I have to do what I have to do to survive.”

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on October 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

Half of Food Workers Go to Work Sick Because Lack of Paid Sick Leave Forces Them To

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

LauraClawsonPaid sick leave isn’t just the right thing to do for people who currently face the choice of going to work sick, or going without pay. It’s a public health issue.

Fifty-one percent of food workers — who do everything from grow and process food to cook and serve it — said they “always” or “frequently” go to work when they’re sick, according to the results of a survey released Monday. An additional 38 percent said they go to work sick “sometimes.” […]But it’s not as if these sick food workers are careless. Nine out of 10 workers polled in the new survey said they feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their customers. Yet about 45 percent said they go to work sick because they “can’t afford to lose pay.” And about 46 percent said they do it because they “don’t want to let co-workers down.”

That means that customers are exposed to those sick workers’ illnesses. And that, in turn, can be a serious issue:

“One of the most egregious examples that I describe in the book is a worker at a Fayetteville, N.C., Olive Garden [who] was forced to work with hepatitis A because [Olive Garden] doesn’t have an earned sick leave policy,” [Saru] Jayaraman says. As a result, Jayaraman says, 3,000 people had to be tested for hepatitis A at the Cumberland County, N.C., health department.

Most cases aren’t that dramatic, of course, but norovirus is often spread by food workers, and you really don’t want norovirus. Yet somehow Republican morality says that these workers in one of the lowest-paying industries should stay home to protect the rest of us while being denied basic protections themselves, and risking their ability to pay the bills and put food on the table for every day they stay home sick.

Paid sick leave is gaining momentum in the United States, with four states—Connecticut, Oregon, California, and Massachusetts—now having laws requiring it for most workers. But it will never be federal law as long as Republicans have the ability to block it.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on October 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

How the Poultry Industry is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Michelle ChenWalk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

“I shouldn’t say it’s work-related. If I say my pain comes from something I did at work, then I will be laid off without pay and three days later get fired. So, when I go to the nurse I tell her that I hurt my hands at home.”

In towns that lack decent job opportunities outside of the poultry industry, these workers face an oppressive workplace culture that undermines not only their health but their dignity. Workers reported “being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”

Conditions may soon worsen, the SPLC notes, because the Department of Agriculture is seeking to alter regulations to allow even faster line speeds. That means the already frenzied pace of production–whipping bird carcasses into hermetically sealed flesh pellets in a matter of seconds–might speed up even more under a controversial set of proposed changes to plant inspection protocols.

The planned reforms have been criticized as counterproductive because they transfer control of inspections from federal inspectors to company employees. The revamped inspection process would, according to critics, both give corporations more power to regulate their own henhouse while accelerating the already frighteningly hectic pace of production. Some USDA inspectors have criticized the proposal, warning that with the combination of sped-up lines and company-controlled oversight, these industry-backed efforts to “modernize” the production chain may create more safety risks. So safety standards for both consumers and workers might be further weakened. (Industry representatives dispute the SPLC’s research, insisting that the proposal would not harm safety standards.)

Underlying labor injustices have exacerbated the immediate workplace hazards. The mostly black and Latino workforce, which includes many documented and undocumented immigrants, generally have little recourse against abusive employers. Many saw their pay arbitrarily cut by deductions for housing expenses and other fees. Meanwhile, for female workers, sexual harassment was a commonly reported issue. Harsh immigration enforcement laws, which were recently tightened by state legislation that seeks to further criminalize undocumented Latino workers, has made them even more economically insecure and socially marginalized.

One structural problem making poultry workers especially vulnerable, the researchers argue, is that despite some general occupational safety guidelines for poultry plants, OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers,” which constrains workers’ ability to take legal action against unsafe working conditions or unfair treatment.

The report’s author, SPLC advocate Tom Fritzsche, says that while OSHA can enforce general workplace protections, regulatory gaps nonetheless enable the industry to structure its labor system around loophole-ridden standards for food production, which are not focused on worker safety. “This specific [line speed] rule from USDA is not really intended originally as a worker protection standard… The speed that they currently run at is based more on whether the inspectors can see the chickens, rather than how the workers can do the work safely,” he says. As a result of these regulatory lapses, “We’ve kind of ended up in a world where this is the only limit on speeds.”

Until state and federal regulators start prioritizing workers’ labor rights and health needs, the unsafe work environment, Fritzsche adds, “ultimately comes from the fact that the whole industry is just operating in this kind of race to produce as many chickens as they can in as little amount of time as they can. And so it affects every aspect of the worker’s job.”

But all those bitter hardships are stowed far away from the millions of super-clean, ultra-cheap drumsticks that will end up on American dinner tables tonight. Countless consumers will enjoy their meals without any conception of how perfectly the poultry industry masks the true price of its brutal efficiency.

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 21, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.

PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:

Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.

The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.

A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel standards for the general public. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes public health-based safety protections, for example, but environmental advocates point out that farmworker families’ health vulnerabilities are neglected and essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the social costs of industrial pesticide use.

Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”

Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”

The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.

Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.

Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.

Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com.

"Sitting Ducks" and "Walking Targets": Risking Life on the Job

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Image: Adam KaderWe all know the phrase “going postal,” right?  It’s when someone becomes extremely angry to the point of become violent, usually in the context of work.  It came about in response to a number of horrific incidents of violence committed by postal workers in the 1980s and ’90s.*

But this past week the Chicago Tribune ran a revealing story about the risks of violence posed to postal workers just doing their jobs.  In a place like Chicago, the workplace for mail carriers–the outdoors–presents natural health and safety risks, such as heat illness.  Being in Chicago, extreme weather conditions can be expected and prepared for.  But when routes run through high-crime areas, carriers’ work can become life-endangering from human factors of violence.

In the Tribune story, mail carrier Khalalisa Norris tells her story of being nearly gunned-down in a drive-by shooting (watch a video here).  Rodney Nelson, another mail carrier, describes being taken into an alley and held at gunpoint to hand over his mail bag.  And Berenda Walker was assaulted while organizing mail in her truck.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that an average of 1.7 million people were victims of violent crime while working or on duty in the United States each year from 1993 through 1999 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that “Violence in the workplace is a serious safety and health issue. Its most extreme form, homicide, is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 521 workplace homicides in the preliminary count of 2009 in the United States, out of a total of 4,349 fatal work injuries.”  (For more information, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries summary).

More than simply a neighborhood safety story, the Tribune article shows that this is a workers’ rights issue.  Mail carriers have had to battle management to be transferred to other routes after being the victim of a crime.  And there is currently no policy that requires supervisors to inform carriers when co-workers are robbed or assaulted.   According to the Tribune, the carrier’s union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, (NALC) “is pushing for a better system of reporting incidents, more flexibility for carriers who have experienced violence, and a system that would notify all carriers after an assault, robbery or shooting.”

The story shows how local residents are not the only victims of neighborhood violence.  Norris reports that now some of the residents on her route will stay on their porches until she finishes delivery on that block, to ensure her safety.  This suggests the need for a coordinated effort between local community groups and worker organizations like the NALC.

* Despite this spate of tragedies, research has shown the phrase “going postal” to be unwarranted: “Researchers have found that the homicide rates per 100,000 workers at postal facilities were lower than at other workplaces. In major industries, the highest rate of 2.1 homicides per 100,000 workers was in retail. The next highest rate of 1.66 was in public administration, which includes police officers. The homicide rate for postal workers was 0.26 per 100,000.”

This blog originally appeared in Dignity at Work on August 21, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Adam Kader is the Worker Center Director at Arise Chicago.

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