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Posts Tagged ‘OSHA’

Hotel Housekeepers: Tipping as Hazard Pay?

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

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The New York Times has an article about failure of most hotel guests to give low-paid, hard-working housekeepers a much appreciated tip. Aside from the hard work they do,  the Times also notes the hazards of the job.

Angela Lemus, a housekeeper at the Wyndham Boston Beacon Hill who makes $19.91 per hour, said through a translator that in addition to scrubbing tubs and taking out trash, she sometimes has to clean blood or other medical waste from rooms….Desk clerk jobs don’t require the flipping of heavy mattresses or exposure to cleaning chemicals that can lead to respiratory and other health problems. Ms. Lemus, for example, developed an allergy to the latex gloves she was required to wear while cleaning. “It went on for years, and it got so bad my hands started to bleed,” she said. “I couldn’t let people see my hands.”

And let’s not forget musculoskeletal disorders from lifting bed mattresses and the threat of workplace violence from guests.

But are these really the same issue?  Are tips the solution to dangerous working conditions, or is elimination of hazards the solution to safe working conditions?  The Occupational Safety and Health Act says that all workers have a right to a safe workplace, whether they receive tips or not.

Implying the tips make it OK to work in hazardous conditions makes them sound like “hazard pay” and hearkens back to the good old pre-OSHA days where workers allegedly agreed to “assume” the risks of a job in return for a paycheck.

We’ve supposedly come a long way since then. Workers — even hotel housekeepers — deserve a living wage (including tips) for their work, AND workers have right to a safe workplace.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 31, 2017. 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 VPP Companies Kill

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Over the past month, two workers have been killed at companies participating in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs: Nucor Steel in Decatur, Alabama where Melvin Gant Jr. fell into a vat of the waste products of finished rolled steel, and a contractor at Valero Oil Refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, Ezequiel Guzman Orozco, who died after allegedly falling from a scaffold.

I say “allegedly,” because Valero claims that the worker, an employee of Brand Energy Solutions, actually died from a heart attack, although “the medical examiner’s office said preliminary notes from Guzman Orozco’s autopsy showed there was blunt-force trauma to his body.”  The Valero case appears to be a VPP double-whammy as the contractor, Brand Energy Solutions at Valero, is also a VPP participant.

Participants in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program are supposed to be the best of the best.  The purpose of the program, according to OSHA is to “recognize employers and workers in the private industry and federal agencies who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries.” But, of course, the VPP program is more than just a recognition program, it also exempts VPP participants from programmed inspections — those inspections that stem from National or Regional Emphasis Programs, or any other OSHA targeting program.

Despite the goals of the program, sometimes things don’t go as expected, as we have seen recently at Valero and Nucor.

It will be interesting to see how OSHA deals with these fatalities. At the beginning of the Obama administration, VPP had come under significant criticism for allowing unqualified companies — even companies that where workers had died and had received willful citations — to remain in VPP.  In fact, a 2009 fatality at a Valero facility was highlighted by The Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby in an article on hazardous conditions at VPP facilities that are allowed to remain in VPP despite evidence of major safety and health problems. In response to these problems, and in an effort to ensure that no company could simultaneously be a member of VPP and OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program at the same time,  OSHA issued a new policy in 2013 setting up a process for terminating VPP sites that had experienced fatalities or received a willful violation, but providing an opportunity to appeal the termination to the Assistant Secretary. Deaths among the contractors of VPP participants were considered to be the same as the death of an employee of the participant itself. Nucor has a history of fighting fatality-related terminations, even going to Congress to block OSHA’s actions. Valero, as we have seen, is claiming that the death was not work-related.

Meanwhile, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants Association (VPPPA) continues to lobby for a bill that would make VPP permanent by writing it into the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The bill has been introduced every year for the past fifteen years, and is currently cosponsored by Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN), Gene Green (D-TX) and Martha Roby (R-AL). Labor and most Democrats have generally opposed the bill as unnecessary, and also because the current version prohibits participant fees to support the program, fails to require union agreement with their employer’s participation and weakens criteria for admission to the program.

But the main problem with VPP — at least according to the VPPPA — remains unresolved: the failure of the program to grow over the past several years. The reason for the program’s failure to grow is lack of funding.  Under the Bush administration, the program tripled in size, growing to the point where OSHA no longer had the resources to maintain the integrity of the program. There was an enormous backlog of VPP reapproval applications, which meant that hundreds of sites were not being reviewed to ensure that they were still qualified to be part of VPP.  Under the Obama administration, OSHA chose to focus its resources on the program’s integrity (e.g. ensuring scheduled reapprovals) rather than growing its size. The fact that OSHA has not had a budget increase since 2010 has meant that the number of participant have slowly declined as some participants have dropped out or been terminated, while few resources are available to bring in new members.  Neither Trump’s proposed budget nor the budget proposals of the House or the Senate will change this equation much. And, as we reported yesterday, OSHA’s main hiring focus at this point seems to be on inspectors, not compliance assistance staff — which is as it should be.

OSHA has held two stakeholder meetings to “recalibrate” VPP “so that it continues to represent safety and health excellence, leverages partner resources, further recognizes the successes of long-term participants, and supports smart program growth.”  Additional comments were accepted through today.  We shall see what comes out of these discussion. Given the budgetary impedements to growth, the need for OSHA to focus on its core tool — enforcement — and VPPPA’s refusal to consider viable solutions like a fee-based program or graduating long-term participants out of VPP, it’s unlikely that any ideas will surface that will significantly change the program.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 20, 2017. 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)

Poultry lobbyists hope Trump will okay dangerous chicken processing speed-up Obama rejected

Monday, October 16th, 2017

The poultry industry really, really wants to process the chickens you eat at rates of more than 140 per minute. Under former President Obama, the USDA considered and then backed off of an increase to 175 chickens per minute going down the line being eviscerated and inspected. Under Donald Trump, the National Chicken Council hopes that the sky’s the limit, asking for plants to be allowed to operate “at any line speed” if they adopt a new inspection system.

The Obama-era cap is an “arbitrary” limit that is holding back the industry’s ability to compete in the global marketplace, the National Chicken Council stated in its petition.

Granting waivers would help the Trump administration achieve its goals of “reducing regulatory burdens on the industry,” the council said, adding that it would help poultry plants cut costs and expand production to meet rising demand.

Because what you really want to hear about the meat you’re eating is that cutting costs was the producer’s primary goal, and that the government went right along with that.

Do chicken eaters trust the safety of that new inspection system? The jury is out on that and under Trump we can be sure of never getting trustworthy data. But one thing is for damn sure: if line speeds increase, the workers who process chickens will lose limbs.

Poultry workers are almost twice as likely to suffer from serious injuries as workers in private industry, and more than six times as likely to have a work-related illness. Two poultry and meat processing plants, Tyson Foods and JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride, are among the 10 companies with the highest number of work-related amputations and hospitalizations, out of more than 14,000 companies reporting to the federal government, Berkowitz, a former Obama Labor Department official, discovered.

But what are the hands and arms of a heavily immigrant workforce when a bunch of big companies could profit? Nothing, in Trumpworld.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on October 16, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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

Construction job sites: the silent killer of immigrant workers

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

The New York City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve a safety bill that establishes safety protocols as a way to prevent construction worker deaths, following eight months of intensive review by lawmakers, day laborers, unions, real estate developers, and contractors.

The vote came nearly one week after two construction workers fell to their deaths hours apart in separate accidents.

That bill, Intro 1447-C, would establish safety training requirements for workers at construction sites. The legislation would require construction workers to receive at least 40 hours of safety training as specified by the Department of Buildings; allow employees to continue working while they complete the training; and develop a program that grants equal access to training for all workers, including day laborers and workers employed by certain small business contractors.

The bill also includes a required 40-hour class with the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (or OSHA). A fine of $25,000 could be charged to construction sites that don’t adhere to the safety regulations for not having trained workers.

“Too many fatalities have occurred on construction sites in this city.”

“Too many fatalities have occurred on construction sites in this city,” NYC Council Speaker of the House Melissa Mark Viverito (D) said during the council meeting Wednesday. “It has clearly become well past time to take action on ensuring the safety of our residents.”

“We are protecting every single worker,” Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D) said at the same meeting. “The road was tough, but everyone was dedicated to that one mission … to make sure that not one more death come before us in construction sites in the richest city in the country, potentially the world, that we set an example for others. We want to change that culture today.”

The legislation, which is the third version of a bill that has been debated for eight months, couldn’t have come at a more important time. One week ago, two construction workers fell to their deaths in separate incidents across the city. One, a 43-year-old father of five originally from Ecuador, was wearing a harness, but was not clipped in, before falling from the 29th floor of a building in the Financial District. The other, a 45-year-old man, was wearing a safety harness, but wasn’t secured to the bucket lift before falling as the boom was descending. Another worker died at the same site in June.

There have been seven construction workers deaths in New York City so far this year, according to the NYC Buildings Department. In both 2016 and 2015, there were 12 deaths each year.

In a city where 26,739 new apartments are on track to becoming available this year and construction permits surged substantially in 2016 from the previous year, construction site accidents have long been a silent killer for immigrant workers. That has especially held true for Latinx and undocumented workers who may be too afraid to speak out against unsafe conditions for fear of deportation.

As the trend in worker fatality data indicates, Latinx and immigrant workers have morbidly expendable lives. As a whole, these two types of workers outpaced all other major groups for fatal work injuries across all industries. Just within the construction industry, a 2015 New York Times report found that safety measures at construction job sites were often “woefully inadequate” as determined by safety inspectors, government officials and prosecutors. Beyond that, a 2014 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey found that fatal work injuries were the highest among Latinx workers than any other major racial/ethnic groups. Most recently, an AFL-CIO report from April, which surveyed 2015 BLS data across all industries, found that the “Latino fatality rate was 4.0 per 100,000 workers, 18 percent higher than the national average.” Among those Latinos who died, a full 67 percent were immigrant workers.

“Construction deaths and injuries has been an issue in our communities for a very long time and, frankly, it was not being addressed.”

Advocates for immigrant construction workers are glad for Intro-1447’s passage in large part because it puts a big spotlight on immigrant construction workers in the discussion on worker safety.

“Construction deaths and injuries has been an issue in our communities for a very long time and, frankly, it was not being addressed, so we’re thankful for the passage of Intro-1447,” Manuel Castro, the executive director at the workers advocacy group New York New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NY NICE), told ThinkProgress. “We want bad employers to be held accountable. Whenever there’s a construction death, whenever there’s an injury, that justice must come to those workers.”

Castro said that there weren’t many protections in place for immigrant construction workers before Intro-1447. Workers were given a 10-hour safety training. “The reality, however, is that a lot of workers start working on the sites without the training and it isn’t until weeks, maybe months after working that they look for a training and often they don’t find a training,” Castro said.

“They’re not given the appropriate training because the trainings aren’t vetted by anyone in the state,” Castro said. “The trainers are certified, but there isn’t much regulation over this. Other industries have a lot more extensive trainings.”

Castro and other NY NICE members were among those who held a “candlelight vigil” as city council members took a vote Wednesday with electronic candles to represent construction workers who had died on the job.

“When we talk about these issues, the people most impacted tend to be immigrant workers because some of the day laborers are without status,” Murad Awawdeh, vice president of advocacy at the advocacy group New York Immigration Coalition, told ThinkProgress.

“[I]t comes down to the responsibility of the entire industry to have and implement safety practices within the workplace,” Awawdeh said. “As long as everyone is doing it, everyone will be safe. Contractors, big or small, do deviate and try to cut corners and continue to put people’s lives at risk. How can we ensure that everyone — unions to nonunions, documented and undocumented — are protected? So this is just the first step.”

Awawdeh recounted waiting outside his office for a meeting earlier this week and seeing an immigrant construction worker fall about 50 feet. He explained, “We are seeing this happen on a daily basis at this point — the guy survived, but was not attached to anything.”

The bill has provided hope for both Castro and Awawdeh that the city is taking a big step to ensure the safety of its immigrant construction workers.

“It marks the beginning of something really important in New York City,” Castro said. “The city is taking an active role in protecting immigrant workers. As a worker center that works with immigrant workers and day laborers, this is a very important step. We want to ensure more is done, but this is a critical step.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Esther Yu Hsi Lee is a reporter at ThinkProgress focusing on domestic and international migration policies. She has appeared on various television and radio shows to discuss immigration issues. Among other accolades, she was a White House Champion of Change. You can reach her at eylee@thinkprogress.org.

OSHA's Claims About Hiding Information on Worker Deaths Fall Flat

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Since January, government agencies under the Donald Trump administration have taken steps to hide information from the public–information that was previously posted and information that the public has a right to know.

But a recent move is especially personal. Two weeks ago, the agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety and health—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—removed the names of fallen workers from its home page and has stopped posting information about their deaths on its data page. In an attempt to justify this, the agency made two major claims discussed below. Like many efforts to decrease transparency by this administration, these claims are unfounded, and the agency whose mission is to protect workers from health and safety hazards is clearly in denial that it has a job to do. Here’s how:

OSHA claim #1: Not all worker deaths listed on the agency website were work-related because OSHA hasn’t issued or yet issued a citation for their deaths.

Fact: It is public knowledge that 1) OSHA doesn’t have the jurisdiction to investigate about two-thirds of work-related deaths but does issue guidance on a wide variety of hazards to workers that extend beyond their enforcement reach, and 2) OSHA citations are not always issued for work-related deaths because of a variety of reasons, including limitations of existing OSHA standards and a settlement process that allows employers to remedy certain hazards in lieu of citation. (The laborious process for OSHA to develop standards deserves a completely separate post.) But neither of those points mean the agency cannot recognize where and when workers are dying on the job, and remember and honor those who sought a paycheck but, instead, did not return home to their families.

In fact, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, also housed in the Department of Labor, counts and reports the number of work-related deaths each year. The agency reported that in 2015, 4,836 working people died of work-related traumatic injury—”the highest annual figure since 2008.” So, another agency already has taken care of that for OSHA (whew!). But this is just a statistic. Luckily for OSHA, employers are required to report every fatality on the job to OSHA within eight hours, so the agency has more specific information that can be used for prevention, including the names of the workers and companies involved, similar to the information the public has about deaths that occur in any other setting (outside of work).

OSHA claim #2: Deceased workers’ families do not want the names and circumstances surrounding their loved ones’ death shared.

Fact: Removing the names of fallen workers on the job is an incredible insult to working families. The shock of hearing that your family member won’t be coming home from work that day is devastating enough, but then to hear that their death was preventable, and often the hazards were simply ignored by their employer, is pure torture. The organization made up of family members who had a loved one die on the job has stated repeatedly that it wants the names of their loved ones and information surrounding their deaths shared. It does not want other families to suffer because of something that could have been prevented. The organization has made it very clear that it opposes OSHA’s new “out of sight, out of mind” approach.

So why shield this information from the public? We know the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have long opposed publication of this information. The Trump administration seems to live by very old—and very bad—advice from powerful, big business groups whose agenda it’s pushing: If we don’t count the impact of the problem or admit there is a problem, it must not exist.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on September 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Reindel is a senior health and safety specialist at the AFL-CIO.

Lost wages, serious illness and poor labor standards: The dangers of rebuilding Texas and Florida

Monday, September 11th, 2017

As Texas prepares to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey devastated much of the state, and Florida starts picking up the pieces from the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Irma, emergency workers may face exploitation for the sake of greater profits and speedier project completion.

Past abuses after similar natural disasters have left laborers without all of their wages and with serious illnesses that could have been prevented with proper supervision and training, labor experts say. A large portion of these workers are undocumented and likely afraid to alert authorities when their rights are violated. On top of that, the Trump administration’s approach to labor protections doesn’t inspire confidence, according to workers’ safety experts who spoke to ThinkProgress.

Forty percent of Houston construction workers do not have health insurance, retirement, life insurance, sick leave, and paid time off, according to a 2017 report from the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, an organization that advocates for better health, safety, and labor standards. The report was the result of interviews with over 1,400 construction workers. On average, a construction worker dies once every three days in Texas because of unsafe working conditions.

Texas is also the only state in the country that doesn’t require any form of workers compensation coverage, said Bo Delp, Director of the Better Builder Program at Workers Defense Project.

“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on — rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well. Texas is a uniquely bad state for construction workers in terms of conditions,” Delp said. “That is compounded with a disaster like Harvey, when we know, in other contexts, that this has led to exploitation on an unprecedented scale.”

“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on — rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well.”

Studies after Hurricane Katrina found that wage theft and unhealthy working conditions were rampant and that undocumented workers were particularly vulnerable. A 2006 study from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice found that 61 percent of surveyed workers had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations. A similar 2009 study by the University of California, Berkeley found that there were concerning differences in conditions for undocumented versus documented workers. Thirty-seven percent of undocumented workers said they were told they might be exposed to mold and asbestos, while 67 percent of documented workers reported they had been informed. Only 20 percent of undocumented workers said they were paid time and a half when they worked overtime.

Delp said that there are “good honest contractors” in the state, but he is concerned about “fly-by-night” contractors who will eschew safety measures to get things done cheaply and quickly.

Sasha Legette of the Houston Business Liaison works alongside community partners and policymakers, including the mayor’s office, to ensure better wage and safety conditions for workers. So far, she said that she has been impressed with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s response to the disaster. But she hopes the state doesn’t rush it in a way that could harm workers.

“We know that the water and flooding has created a very toxic environment and what we don’t want to see happen is that workers or that the city is so eager to rebuild that the safety of those who are going to do that work is not taken under consideration,” Legette said.

“They can identify hazards and prevent the need for OSHA to have to enforce after the fact,” Goldstein-Gelb said.

Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program and former principal deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, said she is concerned about the administration’s potential response to the recent disasters.

Often, OSHA will begin with “compliance assistance mode,” which means they will help employers comply with rules, and then will eventually move to enforcement mode. But the Bush administration never moved into enforcement mode after Katrina, and she worries that the Trump administration could do the same.

Block is also worried about whether there are enough resources at the agency. In addition to the proposed cuts and business-friendly approach of the administration, there is no OSHA chief.

“They don’t have real leadership in the agency,” Block said. “So having watched Sandy and the Gulf oil spill, these sort of unexpected disaster responses, even for an agency like OSHA, it’s really complicated and it’s really resource intensive.”

“Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”

“There is a lot at risk,” Block added. “Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”

There are some potential downsides to not having an OSHA chief at a time like this, such as getting assistance from FEMA to do work on the ground to address workers’ health and safety needs, said Barab.

“A lot of the activity around these national disasters involves agencies working together,” Barab said. “It requires agencies having frank and candid conversations, [such as] getting FEMA to be more accommodating to the health needs of workers. It always helps to have a higher level person doing that.”

In order to get OSHA staff to hurricane-affected areas in Texas or Florida, OSHA would have to transfer some compliance and enforcement staff there temporarily. But this is expensive and the agency has been chronically underfunded. To reimburse the expenses of doing this, FEMA can provide supplemental assistance, Barab explained, but the state must request this and, on top of that, the state has to contribute 25 percent of the funding.

“To pony up about 25 percent of cost — we haven’t seen a lot of states willing do that. I am not optimistic about Texas and I don’t see them wanting to spend money to get more OSHA enforcement there,” Barab said. “FEMA has the ability to waive that requirement, but they generally don’t, and didn’t, in fact, after [Hurricane] Sandy.”

 One of the other challenges facing OSHA will be outreach to undocumented workers who may be concerned about reporting safety and wage violations. Barab said the government needs to send a message that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency will not be involved if workers want to report violations. But because many workers will feel uncomfortable going to a government official in any situation, OSHA needs to maintain relationships with local nonprofits.

“We already had pre-existing relationships with nonprofits that were continuing to train immigrants and day workers during [Hurricane] Sandy,” Barab said. “In terms of being able to reach out to OSHA, the nonprofits had a relationship with these workers and other groups had relationship with OSHA.”

Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director of Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, an organization that helps low-wage workers learn about their rights and organizes workers, said the group has been through post-disaster health and safety trainings and has a healthy relationship with the local OSHA office. The center is educating workers on what kind of respirators to use if they’re working in a structure that has mold, for example, while also keeping an eye on any worker safety and wage violations. The center has also benefited as subgrantee from the Susan Harwood program for the last five years.

“Undocumented workers specifically fear retaliation in terms of losing a job or an employer calling ICE on them, and that happens a lot. It is definitely a barrier for people to come forward,” Acuña Arreaza said. “Even other immigrants who have other statuses — some of the fears are similar because they are still worried about losing their job or having their employer retaliate.”

“We try to repeat that and and say, ‘No, you have rights.’ And people start getting it after we repeat it enough.”

By having a staff of mostly immigrants, she said the organization has created an environment where undocumented workers would feel comfortable, never asking workers about immigration status, and working with other nonprofits and local churches to encourage people to come in.

“We try to repeat that and and say, ‘No, you have rights.’ And people start getting it after we repeat it enough,” Acuña Arreaza said. “But there is a huge disconnect that comes from documentation but also comes from not being able to speak English or fully speak English, other cultural barriers, and racism. Lacking papers does not help, but there is this layered separation from justice in the system of worker rights.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 11, 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.

Donald Trump's policies will mean more workers dead on the job

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Donald Trump’s rollbacks of worker protections could cost lives. Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and David Michaels, a public health professor and former assistant secretary of labor, leave no room for doubt on that front. People die from workplace injuries and work-related diseases every day:

People like 25-year-old Donovan Weber who suffocated in a trench collapse in Minnesota. Or Michael McCort, Christopher Irvin, Antonio Navarrete and Frank Lee Jones who were killed at a power plant in Florida when molten slag reaching 1,000 degrees poured down on them as they tried to unplug a tank. Or Wanda Holbrook, whose head was crushed by a malfunctioning robot as she adjusted machinery in Michigan.

Each day in the United States, 13 people are killed as a direct result of hazardous working conditions. And, more than 10 times that number die of work-related diseases that are less sudden but no less devastating.

And Trump’s policies are going to make that worse:

Since January, we’ve seen delays and rollbacks in workplace protections. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed weakening protections for workers exposed to cancer-causing beryllium and delayed enforcement of its silica rule, increasing the likely incidence of lung disease. It has delayed the electronic submission of injury and illness data and stopped releasing public information about enforcement actions, inhibiting public and researchers’ access to data that can inform prevention.

And Congress has permanently terminated OSHA’s ability to fine employers with a long-standing pattern of injury and illness record-keeping violations, a previously important signal to others in the industry.

Equally worrisome are proposed budget cuts for research, education and training designed to improve the health and safety of our nation’s workplaces — research that enhances knowledge on existing and future hazards; that underpins government policies and workplace practices; and that spurs innovations in workplace safety.

But Trump claims those rollbacks are going to be good for corporate profits, and that’s what he cares about. Certainly not workers’ lives.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos Labor on August 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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

Trump’s Immigration Gag Order

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Like many employment lawyers in California, I’ve represented a number of undocumented immigrant workers in lawsuits against their employers. Some of my undocumented clients had been sexually harassed, some discriminated against because of their ethnicity, and some had been denied minimum wages for performing menial work.

Of course, these clients and millions of others are working here in violation of our immigration laws. But once they enter the workplace, they are entitled to all of the legal protections guaranteed their American coworkers. The 14th Amendment protects everyone in the United States, regardless of how or why they are here. So any law whose purpose or effect is to deny workers access to the full protection of our employment laws violates the Constitution.

Although I worry about the slow pace of our journey toward workplace equality, I have more immediate concerns these days. The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration executive order are creating barriers to the justice system for entire communities. If you believe there is a reasonable chance that you or a family member will be deported if you file a civil complaint, or even if you call the police to report a crime, you will be less inclined to complain.

Silencing Crime Victims

Look at what is happening in the criminal justice arena. We are barely 100 days into the Trump administration and already we are measuring its detrimental impact on crime reporting. According to the Los Angeles Police, Latino immigrants in L.A. have suddenly become less willing to report serious crimes. Chief Beck reported that complaints by immigrant Latinos dropped 25 percent in 2017 when compared to the same period last year. Reports of domestic violence fell 10 percent. Beck asked us to “imagine a young woman, imagine your daughter, your sister, your mother,” he said, “not reporting a sexual assault, because they are afraid that their family will be torn apart.” While undocumented families have always lived with the fear of deportation, the current political climate is amplifying those fears.

Reports are coming in from around the country showing a strong correlation between the Trump administration’s immigration policies and a drop in crime reporting in immigrant communities. We know reports of rape and domestic violence against women are chronically underreported for many reasons, including the very real fear that the criminal justice system will fail the victim. Now, under the Trump administration, the very act of reporting any crime to law enforcement has become unbearably more dangerous for millions of immigrant families in America.

Just last month California’s Chief Justice said, “When we hear of immigration arrests and the fear of immigration arrests in our state courthouses, I am concerned that that kind of information trickles down into the community, the schools, the churches. The families and people will no longer come to court to protect themselves or cooperate or bear witness,” she said. “I am afraid that will be the end of justice and communities will be less safe and victimization will continue.” As an employment attorney in California, I share these concerns.

Immigration policies that discourage individuals from reporting crime is bad for America. They cannot be justified on the grounds they are part of broader campaign to find and deport “bad hombres.” More crime victims, including legal residents and American citizens, will remain silent and unprotected, and more perpetrators of crime will go unpunished, because of these policies. Whether Trump’s promised border wall is ever built, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and ICE directives have already constructed formidable barriers within America.

Silencing Employees

When those same immigration policies discourage individuals from reporting violations of employment laws, our workplaces become more dangerous too. Imagine the conversations immigrant families across America will be having about their workplace rights in the coming years. Workers will be forced to decide whether the risks of deportation of themselves or a family member makes it worth challenging wage theft, discrimination, harassment or workplace safety violations. If an undocumented worker complains about the absence of a safety guard on a factory machine or the lack of personal safety devices by filing an OSHA claim or civil lawsuit, she might be arrested and torn away from her American-born children. So, she doesn’t complain, and the workplace protections we have fought for are placed in jeopardy for all.

In the past I have assured undocumented workers that prosecuting employment claims in court likely will not subject them to heightened ICE scrutiny. I continue to believe this to be true today. Although lawsuits are open to the public, they are in practice private affairs that concern only the litigants. Employees are almost never required to step foot near the actual courthouse where their cases are pending. Most cases settle out of court and are subject to confidentiality. The immigration status of the employee is deemed by law to be entirely irrelevant and non-discoverable in almost every employment case.

Trump’s deportation directives will not change the way employment lawsuits are resolved, whether they involve citizens, legal residents or undocumented immigrants. But his threats of deportation, coupled with stories of immigrant arrests in halls of justice across America, will make it far less likely that an undocumented immigrant will complain to anyone about working conditions.

Fewer immigrant workers will file employment-related claims during the Trump years, and not just those who are undocumented. In sanctuary cities like San Francisco where I practice law, the impact is not likely to be as great as elsewhere. In communities that support the Trump immigration agenda and accept his immigrant narrative, however, the fear of deportation is likely to keep a lot more workers quiet. And we know from long experience that any governmental policy designed to silence complaints about working conditions is not in our national interest.

About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is a labor rights attorney with offices in San Francisco and Alameda, California. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a 1992 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

The Price for Killing Workers Must be Prison for CEOs

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empaneled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 27, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

This week in the war on workers: Trump's top attacks on workers ... so far

Monday, April 24th, 2017

 

The Economic Policy Institute’s Perkins Project “tracks actions by the administration, Congress, and the courts that affect people’s wages and their rights at work,” and as we get to the end of Donald Trump’s first 100 days, they’ve provided a list of the top 10 things he and congressional Republicans have done to working people. Here’s a sample:

 

  1. Protecting Wall Street profits that siphon billions of dollars from retirement savers. At President Trump’s behest, the Department of Labor has delayed a rule requiring that financial professionals recommend retirement investment products that serve their clients’ best interests. The “fiduciary rule” aims to stop the losses savers incur when steered into products that earn advisers commissions and fees. The rule was supposed to go into effect April 10. For every seven days that the rule is delayed, retirement savers lose $431 million over the next 30 years. The 60-day delay will cost workers saving for retirement $3.7 billion over 30 years.
  2. Letting employers hide fatal injuries that happen on their watch. The Senate approved a resolution making it harder to hold employers accountable when they subject workers to dangerous conditions. The March 22 resolution blocks a rule requiring that employers keep accurate logs of workplace injuries and illnesses for five years. This time frame captures not just individual injuries but track records of unsafe conditions. President Trump said he would sign the resolution. If he does, employers can fail to maintain—or falsify—their injury and illness logs, making them less likely to suffer the consequences when workers are injured or killed. Blocking this rule also means that employers, OSHA, and workers cannot use what they learn from past mistakes to prevent future tragedies. If the rule is overturned, more workers will be injured, and responsible employers will be penalized.
  3. Allowing potentially billions of taxpayer dollars to go to private contractors who violate health and safety protections or fail to pay workers. The federal government pays contractors hundreds of billions of dollars every year to do everything from manufacturing military aircraft to serving food in our national parks. The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule required that companies vying for these lucrative contracts disclose previous workplace violations, and that those violations be considered when awarding federal contracts. The rule was needed, as major federal contractors were found to be regularly engaging in illegal practices that harm workers financially and endanger their health and safety. On March 27, President Trump killed this rule by signing a congressional resolution blocking it. This will hurt workers and contractors who play by the rules, while benefitting only those contractors with records of cutting corners.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on April 22, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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

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