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Posts Tagged ‘Occupational Safety and Health Administration’

Workers’ rights are being abused as they rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

Day laborers, many of them undocumented, are reportedly being exploited as they rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, and their health and economic well-being are are stake.

According to a report from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and University of Illinois Chicago that surveyed 360 workers, 26 percent of workers have experienced wage theft in their post-Harvey work and 85 percent did not receive health and safety training. Sixty-one percent of workers did not have the necessary respiratory equipment to protect them from mold and chemicals, 40 percent did not have protective eyewear, and 87 percent were not informed about the risks of working in these unsafe buildings.

Workers have been exposed to mold and contamination on a regular basis, and regardless of whether workers are undocumented, they often aren’t aware of their legal protections, according to the report. To make matters worse, Texas is the only state that lets employers opt out of workers’ compensation for work injuries.

Advocates for different labor groups focusing on undocumented laborers have been speaking out on the issue of exploitation and visiting work sites to survey workers and pass out flyers with information on labor rights. There is tension between these advocates in Houston and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) on how the federal funds for hurricane recovery should be distributed. According to the Guardian, worker groups would prefer the money be distributed through the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), since the mayor is seen as a progressive ally. They’re afraid that if the money is instead distributed through the general land office run by George P. Bush, as Abbott wants, immigrant and worker groups won’t receive the aid they need.

The Associated Press interviewed workers hired by individual homeowners, subcontractors working on residential and commercial buildings, and work crews from outside of Texas about the working conditions. Martin Mares, a native of Mexico who came to Houston in 1995, told the AP that the demand for labor attracted people who don’t usually do this kind of work and don’t know how to do it safely. He gave the example of a pregnant woman working without gloves in an apartment building that had flooded.

Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project wrote in the Guardian, “One woman contacted us when she and her crew, after spending more than 90 hours clearing out a Holiday Inn, were turned away without pay.”

Advocates for undocumented workers in Houston are also concerned about Senate Bill 4 (SB4), a Texas law that lets local law enforcement ask people they detain or arrest about their immigration status and hits local government officials with jail time and large financial penalties if they refuse to comply with federal detainer requests. The law is currently being held up in the courts, but that hasn’t completely erased fears among immigrant communities in Texas.

In addition to being exposed to mold and chemicals as well as experiencing wage theft, undocumented workers have already suffered from the devastation of the storm in unique ways due to poverty, lack of insurance, and their undocumented status. There are some 600,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. After the hurricane, many undocumented people were afraid to use local shelters because of their immigration status or didn’t want to leave homes because they were concerned about protecting property. Although local and federal officials have tried to persuade undocumented people that they are not there to enforce immigration laws, undocumented people are still worried about the risk of seeking help.

Before the rebuilding efforts began, labor rights advocates and former officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) told ThinkProgress they were concerned about exploitation of workers in Texas and undocumented workers in particular, because laborers are routinely exploited and suffer major injuries. The Trump administration has already sent signals that it is not committed to labor rights. Workers groups have been critical of OSHA’s reportedly lax approach to coordinating health and safety training and the Labor Department’s ties to nonunion construction companies.

After Hurricane Katrina, workers were similarly exploited. A 2006 New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice study found that 61 percent of workers they surveyed had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations. A 2009 University of California, Berkeley study found that there were significant differences in conditions for undocumented versus documented workers.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Labor Department goes silent on workplace safety enforcement under Trump

Monday, March 6th, 2017

In November, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced fines against businesses with workers who were killed when they were pulled into a wood chipper, burned in a refinery fire and crushed in collapsing grain bins and construction trenches. In all, OSHA issued 33 enforcement news releases that month, and over 50 more from Dec. 1 until just before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.

But since then, OSHA hasn’t issued a single news release about penalties or other enforcement actions by federal authorities. The same goes for a second Department of Labor division, Wage and Hour, which in previous weeks had announced the recovery of back wages for peanut processors in Georgia, hotel staffers in New York City, commercial painters in Texas and cafeteria workers at the U.S. Senate building.

This doesn’t mean that enforcement has stopped, but publicizing when bad bosses get fined is a way the Labor Department has gotten the word out—and potentially scared other employers away from similar abuses:

As a result, according to Barab’s ex-boss and former OSHA chief David Michaels, “Failure to publicize OSHA’s activities means many employers will not think to abate their hazards and more workers will be hurt.”

Maybe once Donald Trump gets a labor secretary in place and fills other key roles, the Labor Department will again tell the world about the fines companies face for endangering their workers. But we sure can’t take it for granted.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on March 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

After 8 Years of Bush Neglect, Job Safety Gets New Boost from Obama, Solis

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Image: Mike HallA little more than a year after taking office, the Obama administration and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have taken significant steps to repair the damage to workplace safety and health left behind after eight years of the Bush administration.

With Workers Memorial Day (April 28) approaching, this is a good time to look at the progress made since the “the new sheriff” hit town. (Click here for fact sheets, fliers, posters, stickers and other Workers Memorial Day materials.)

As Esther Kaplan writes in the Nation:

During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse.

For eight years under the Bush Administration, corporate officials and management representatives headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Bush’s first MSHA head, David Lauriski, was chief safety officer at Emery Mining’s Wilberg, Utah, mine in 1984 when an explosion killed 27 coal miners. The blast,  says Kaplan, “was later attributed to numerous violations at the mine.”

The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record…Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under [the] Clinton [administration], advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with industry.

Today, MSHA is headed up by Joe Main who began work in the mines when he was 19, became a local union safety committeeman, a safety inspector in the Mine Workers (UMWA) Safety and Health Department and eventually is director.

At OSHA, Bush’s last administrator, Edwin Foulke, was former partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis. He so strongly opposed workplace safety and health laws The New York Times labeled him “an antiregulatory ideologue.”

Contrast Foulke with David Michaels, Obama’s choice as OSHA administrator. Michaels is an occupational safety and health expert, co-founder of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and epidemiologist at George Washington University.

Under Bush, OSHA and MSHA emphasized voluntary compliance programs over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health regulations. When they issued penalties, the employers often negotiated down the fines, which were negligible to begin with.

Now, both OSHA and MSHA have stepped up enforcement, assessing large penalties against employers with serious, repeated and willful violations. In October, OSHA levied the largest fine in its history-$87 million against BP Products for failing to correct the safety problems that caused a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people at a Texas City oil refinery.

OSHA also is strengthening its enforcement program to focus more on repeated violators and to develop corporate-wide approaches to enforcement.  It’s launched a national investigation in the under reporting of injuries and employer practices that discourage workers from reporting job injuries.

During the eight-year run of the Bush administration, not only did OSHA and MSHA put the brakes on new safety and health rules laws in the pipeline when they took office, neither agency issued any new standard unless forced by the courts or Congress. OSHA is now moving forward with rules on silica, cranes and derricks, hazard communication, combustible dust and other workplace hazards.

The Bush administration presided over the repeal of the nation’s first ergonomics standard and made it so that OSHA’s hands tied to set a new ergonomics rule. But the agency now has proposed changes in the injury recordkeeping rule to reinstate a requirement, repealed by the Bush administration, for employers to identify musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the workplace injury log.

At MSHA, new rules to limit exposure to coal dust and silica and to address increases in lung disease among miners are top priorities. Main also told Kaplan that MSHA will identify the top risk factors  that lead to mining deaths and injuries and help educate mining companies on how to eliminate them, but not as a substitute for enforcement.

We’ll provide assistance to the mine operators who do need it, .but never as a replacement to the enforcement tools. There was some confusion about that in recent years. I’m not confused about that.

Both safety agencies suffered drastic cuts in budget and personnel (especially in inspection and personnel) under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has restored those cuts and its FY 2011 budget includes some modest increases.

Employers’ rights appeared paramount in the Bush OSHA and MSHA. Today both agencies have established programs focusing on workers’ rights, including whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections and better worker access to fatality and injury.

The Obama administration also is backing congressional efforts to improve workplace safety and health laws, including the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which toughens penalties, expands OSHA coverage to public-sector workers, strengthens anti-discrimination protections and expands workers’ rights.

It’s likely the same corporate and Republican forces that blocked improvements in workplace safety and health will fight this legislation and each and every new safety initiative.

So this Workers Memorial Day, along with honoring workers killed and injured on the job and demanding good, safe jobs with decent wages, health and retirement security and a voice on the job, workers will continue the fight for strong new safety and health protections.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on March 18, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

We Need to Combat Workplace Violence

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Image: Dick MeisterOrganized labor and its allies are rightly alarmed over the high incidence of on-the-job accidents that have killed or maimed many thousands of workers. But they haven’t forgotten – nor should we forget – the on-the-job violence that also afflicts many thousands.

Consider this: Every year, almost two million American men and women are the victims of violent crime at their workplaces. That often forces the victims to stay off work for a week or more and costs their employers more than $60 billion a year in lost productivity.

These crimes are the tenth leading cause of all workplace injuries. They range from murder to verbal or written abuse and threatening behavior and harassment, including bullying by employers and supervisors.

Women have been particularly victimized. At least 30,000 a year are raped or otherwise sexually assaulted while on the job. The actual total is undoubtedly much higher, since it’s estimated that only about one-fourth of such crimes are reported to the police.

Estimates are that more than 900,000 of all on-the-job crimes go unreported yearly, including a large percentage of what’s thought to be some 13,000 cases annually that involve boyfriends or husbands attacking women at their workplaces.

The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents many of the victimized workers, cites that as an example of the job violence problem that is often distorted by media coverage that “would lead us to believe that most workplace violence involves worker against worker situations.”

The union says that has focused many employers “on identifying troubled employees or disgruntled workers who might turn into violent predators at a moment’s notice. But in fact, 62 percent of all violence at worksites is caused by outsiders.”

As you might expect, those most vulnerable to the violence are workers who exchange money with the public, deliver passengers, goods or services, work alone or in small groups during late night or early morning hours in high-crime areas or wherever they have extensive contact with the public.

That includes police, security guards, water meter readers and other utility workers, telephone and cable TV installers, letter carriers, taxi drivers, flight attendants, probation officers and teachers. Convenience store clerks and other retail workers account for fully one-fifth of the victims.

The American Federation of Teachers is so concerned that it has provided each of its 1.4 million members a $100,000 life insurance policy payable if the teacher dies as the result of workplace violence.

The major violence victims also include health care and social service workers such as visiting nurses, and employees of nursing homes, psychiatric facilities and prisons. They suffer two-thirds of all physical assaults. Many of the victims regularly deal with volatile, abusive and dangerous clients, often alone because of the understaffing that’s become all too common.

It could get even worse, at least for some workers. The RWDSU warns that today’s troubled economic times create additional threats. The danger is especially great for retail workers whose stores are likely to face increased incidents of theft, some involving gun-wielding robbers.

The RWDSU and other unions have been pushing for recognition of workplace violence as an occupational as well as criminal justice issue. That would put it under the purview of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state job safety agencies.

The federal and state agencies could then issue enforceable regulations designed to lessen the on-the-job dangers of violence, as they do for other hazardous working conditions. A few states do that already, but only for a very limited number of industries.

OSHA has issued guidelines for workers in late-night retail jobs, cab drivers and some health care workers, but the guidelines are strictly voluntary. Although the unions’ top priority is for legally binding regulations, they also are pressing employers to meanwhile voluntarily implement violence-prevention programs.

Currently, only about one-fourth of them have such programs or any guidelines at all. The RWDSU’s Health and Safety Department is offering to help the other employers develop programs.

We have federal and state standards, laws and regulations designed to protect working Americans from many of the serious on-the-job hazards they face daily. Yet we have generally failed to lay down firm guidelines for protecting workers from the workplace violence that’s one of the most dangerous hazards of all.

*This post originally appeared in Truth Out on February 11, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Dick Meister is a former labor correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle and has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a newspaper, radio, television and online reporter, editor and commentator.

New Report From CPR Examines Dysfunction at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Image: Matt ShudtzThe American workplace has changed dramatically over the last two decades, and so have the inherent hazards for workers. New, bigger, more powerful equipment has come online. New chemicals and other toxic substances have come into routine use. New production and construction methods have been introduced.

Created in 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, is charged with protecting workers in the workplace, empowered to adopt regulations on a range of worker-safety topics, and to enforce those regulations to the point of pursuing criminal violations of the law. In its early years, OSHA aggressively attacked the myriad safety problems in American workplaces, to great effect – fewer injuries and fewer deaths. But the war on regulation launched during the Reagan years began a steady decline in OSHA’s ambition and effectiveness, and progress preventing workplace injuries has stopped.

Today, OSHA casts an exceedingly small shadow on the American workplace. It has been starved of the resources it needs to keep up with regulatory challenges and burdened with analytical requirements by adverse court decisions and congressional action. The result is that new safety standards can take a decade or more to implement, and enforcement of existing standards is sporadic at best.

This week, the Center for Progressive Reform released “Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA,” by CPR Member Scholars Thomas McGarity, Rena Steinzor, and Sidney Shapiro, along with me. The white paper explores the reasons for OSHA’s systemic failures, and offers a series of recommendations for regulatory reform of OSHA – administrative actions the agency could implement in the absence of congressional action. They include:

• End the practice of regularly discounting penalties before they’re even proposed.
• Publish all negotiated settlement proposals for public comment.
• Conduct a rigorous analysis of what resources would be required to make the OSHA inspection program a credible threat for employers chronically out of compliance, restoring the efficacy of deterrence-based enforcement throughout the agency.
• Improve training to promote criminal referrals and work with state and local prosecutors to prompt criminal indictments in certain cases.
• Use the “general duty clause” to protect workers exposed to chemicals that lack OSHA-derived Permissible Exposure Levels. The “general duty clause” requires that employers have a general duty to protect workers from known hazards likely to cause death or serious harm.
• Seek additional resources to increase rulemaking staff.
• Reexamine the heavy risk analysis requirements OSHA imposes on itself in the wake of a Supreme Court decision several years ago.
• Avoid negotiated rulemaking, a process where stakeholders in a prospective rule meet to negotiate a standard with guidance from OSHA. The objective is to avoid litigation, but the approach simply hasn’t worked.
• Improve transparency with respect to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s interaction with the agency.

These kinds of actions would be a good start toward helping set OSHA on the path toward protecting American workers from harm on the job.

*This post originally appeared in CPR Blog on February 9, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is a Policy Analyst working with CPR’s Clean Science and Corporate Accountability issue groups. He joined CPR in 2006 after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law. As a staff attorney in the Environmental Law Clinic, he worked on litigation with the Environmental Integrity Project that led to a consent decree in which the Mirant Corporation agreed to comply with newer, more stringent opacity and particulate matter standards for its Chalk Point generating station, one of the largest power plants in Maryland. Mr. Shudtz’s prior experience in the public interest field also includes work for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he was a legal intern. While at NRDC, he provided research and drafting support in FIFRA and CAA litigation, and CWA regulatory affairs. He also worked as a legal/legislative intern at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation during the 2005 Session of the Maryland General Assembly. He received his J.D. from the University of Maryland and a B.S. from Columbia University.

Your Boss Swears Your Job is Perfectly Safe

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

We’re accustomed to reading statistics from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration about workplace injuries. Every year, for instance, there are 4 million work-related injuries.

But ever wonder where OSHA gets those numbers?

According to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Labor and OSHA may not be doing enough to make sure these numbers reflect reality. For one thing, inspectors don’t always talk to the workers they’re supposed to be protecting.

OSHA gets its information about workplace accidents and injuries from employers. Employers have incentives to downplay injuries on their job sites. A high injury rate makes a company look bad. Reporting too many injuries could open the door to a lawsuit or an investigation. (See below for a new video from Brave New Foundation on the fatal effects of lax enforcement of OSHA regulations.)

Most people are honest, but realistically, there will always be a certain number of bad actors who game the system and slackers who only make a half-assed effort. The bias is toward underreporting: cheaters could be artificially driving down injury statistics or the whole country.

To help keep employers honest, OSHA audits about 250 of the 130,000 high-hazard worksites that it monitors. The auditors check to make sure that the auditee’s reports to the government square with the companies’ internal records. But those audits won’t catch employers who don’t record injuries in the first place. Maybe workers aren’t telling their bosses about incidents because they’re afraid of being penalized. Or maybe they are telling management and management isn’t writing it down.

GAO found that OSHA doesn’t routinely interview workers. This is partly because there is a two-year lag between the audit period and the time the inspectors show up. By that point, workers may not remember, or they may no longer be working at the same job.

The report recommends that OSHA routinely interview workers about safety and minimize the lag between the time an incident is reported and the time OSHA inspectors show up.

The recommendations section doesn’t specifically address what OSHA should do to make random audits more effective. All the advice is geared toward investigating incidents that have been reported. You’d think that they’d be at least as worried about employers that haven’t reported injuries.

And here’s “16 Deaths Per Day,” the new five-minute video from Brave New Foundation about the weak laws protecting U.S. workers from on-the-job injuries—and death:

*This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on November 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

**For more information on workplace health and safety issues visit our Workplace Fairness resource page.

About the Author: Lindsay Beyerstein, a former InTheseTimes.com political reporter, is a freelance investigative journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Slate.com, AlterNet.org, The New York Press, The Washington Independent, RH Reality Check and other news outlets. Beyerstein writes a daily foreign affairs bulletin for the UN Foundation’s UN Dispatch website and covers healthcare for the Media Consortium. She is the winner of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Majikthise.

Now Labeled a Pandemic, Swine Flu Poses Threat to Health Care Workers

Friday, June 19th, 2009

The H1N1 (swine flu) virus is now the first global flu pandemic in 41 years. The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday declared the virus a Phase-6 pandemic, its highest level of warning.

The declaration means the virus has circled the globe and poses a threat to spread more rapidly among populations. So far, there have been 27,737 cases of swine flu and 141 deaths in 74 countries. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there have been 13,000 cases of the flu and at least 27 deaths.

WHO classifies the reported cases as mild to moderate. But two other factors are causes for concern. About half of those who have died from the H1N1 virus were young and healthy people not normally susceptible to flu. Second, the virus continues to spread in the warm summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when flu viruses normally disappear.

When the virus was found to have spread to the United States earlier this year, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommended that employers follow recently issued guidelines for protecting workers from pandemic flu, and CDC issued new interim guidelines to protect health care workers from the H1N1 infection

But studies showed that numerous states and health care facilities were not following the guidelines. Last month, the AFL-CIO and several unions urged OSHA to protect health care workers and other front-line employees by issuing a hazard alert and/or compliance directive that makes clear that exposure to the H1N1 virus poses a recognized hazard to workers and requires protective measures.  OSHA is currently evaluating the unions’ request.

In April, a report by the AFL-CIO and several unions revealed that health care workers are at risk because many of the nation’s health care facilities are not prepared to deal with a pandemic.

Don’t forget to check out the AFL-CIO’s pandemic flu site, which includes vital resources for health care workers, firefighters, educators and more. Recently added to the site are five updated fact sheets:

  • Basic Facts About Pandemic Flu and the H1N1 (Swine) Flu
  • Protecting Workers During Pandemic Flu
  • Protecting Health Care Workers During Pandemic Flu
  • Respirators: One Way to Protect Workers Against Pandemic Flu
  • What the Union Can Do: Preparing the Workplace for Pandemic Flu

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. He carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He’s also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold blood plasma, and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

This article originally appeared in the AFL-CIO Now Blog on June 12, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

 

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