Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘OSHA’

Do Fewer OSHA Inspectors Matter?

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

One sign that anti-OSHA conservatives are getting nervous about articles (and television appearances) highlighting the declining number of OSHA inspectors are articles questioning whether government plays a useful role in protecting workers. In this case, the Reason Foundation, which “advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law,” has concluded that reducing the number of OSHA inspectors has no effect on workplace safety.

When I see an article entitled Will Deregulation Kill Workers? by Reason Magazine assistant editor Christian Britschgi, normally I wouldn’t bother to give them any undeserved attention, but some of the arguments he uses are, unfortunately, still commonly used by conservatives in the media and Republicans in Congress, and from time to time we need to expose them.

Based on writings by Bentley University economist John Leeth, Britschgi is basically saying that OSHA isn’t needed because “Employers have much stronger incentives than OSHA to provide a safe workplace.” What are these “stronger incentives” that make OSHA enforcement superfluous?

Workers Compensation: Workers comp, they note, grows more expensive with new injuries and accidents.  And it’s much more significant than OSHA penalties because “workers comp policies cost employers $91.8 billion in 2014…. Total OSHA penalties in that same year totaled only $143.5 million.”

OK, well first, if those numbers are relevant, then that sounds like a great argument to increase OSHA penalties significantly. But the fact is, because State legislatures and courts have undermined workers compensation benefits for injured workers, workers comp covers less and less of the real cost of workplace injuries and illnesses, according numerous studies cited in a 2015 OSHA report, Adding Inequality to Injury:

workers’ compensation payments cover only a small fraction (about 21 percent) of lost wages and medical costs of work injuries and illnesses; workers, their families and their private health insurance pay for nearly 63 percent of these costs, with taxpayers shouldering the remaining 16 percent.

Moreover, most workers injured or made ill on the job don’t even receive workers compensation and vulnerable and low-wage workers fare even worse.  Finally, compensating workers for occupational disease is almost non-existent. One study estimates that as many as 97 percent of workers with occupational illness are uncompensated.

Labor markets: Workers would rather work where it’s safe, so they will naturally take jobs working in safer companies rather than unsafe companies. Unsafer companies will therefore be forced to pay workers more to attract them to their unsafe workplaces.  This will provide a natural incentive for employers to make their workplaces safer because if their workplaces are safer, they won’t have to pay workers as much.

Now I’m not a credentialed economist, but even I can find major holes in this theory.  First, such a theory relies on workers having perfect information about which companies are safer than others. Now, this is interesting, because that’s exactly the theory the Obama administration used when issuing its electronic recordkeeping standard. Companies would be required to send their injury and illness information to OSHA and OSHA would post that information, allowing workers to choose safer companies. What’s interesting is that corporate America and Trump’s OSHA has done everything it can to ensure that employer safety records are not made public, from discouraging press releases to opposing the OSHA recordkeepign regulation, claiming that such information unjustly “shames” employers.

The “labor market” theory also assumes that workers would be able to simply and easily move from one (unsafe) employer to another without any loss of income –even assuming there is a safer employer down the street. Obviously that’s often not possible and in any case, that’s easier for high wage workers to lose a little income by changing jobs than lower wage employees who may be living paycheck to paycheck.  And if there are enough desperate workers who need a job, any job, that higher paying, unsafe job isn’t going to pay more for very long.  You’ll have the more common race-to-the-bottom, rather than a race to the top.

Finally, this equation puts workers in a position of choosing between safe jobs or better pay. If you happen to be in a post-Obamacare world with no health insurance and have a sick kid, you might be inclined to take the unsafe, higher paying job.  This is not a choice that we want workers to be forced to make — either from the viewpoint of morality, or the general public welfare. The whole point of the Occupational Safety and Health Act was to eliminate the need for workers to ever have to choose between their jobs and their lives, or better pay and their live.

The ability to sue over workplace injuries and health hazards: Huh? Employees don’t have the ability to sue over workplace injuries. The deal when workers compensation laws were first created is that this would be a “no-fault” system; workers give up the right to sue their employer, in return for relatively certain access to benefits following their injury. (Or at least that was the theory.) Britschgi would have known that (and taken safety and health more seriously) if he had read this article and listened to the accompanying video.

That fact that Britschgi, an assistant editor of Reason Magazine (and presumably his superiors) don’t know that workers can’t sue their employers should have sent this article directly to my Trash folder, so why am I bothering to even address it? I mean, for all I know, he’s 18 years old and this is his first job. Give the kid a break.

Because, as I said above, clearly he is not alone in his ignorance. There are undoubtedly lots of other people out there who think that workers can sue their employers. And easily move to safer jobs. And just rely on workers comp if they get hurt.

The bottom line is that more cops on the beat will make drivers drive more safely, just as more OSHA inspectors will make employers provide safer workplaces. It’s as American as law and order.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on January 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

Workers' lives take a back seat under Donald Trump

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

America’s bad bosses can’t help but get the message from the Trump administration: your workers’ safety is not a priority.

In the months after President Donald Trump took office, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration lost 40 inspectors through attrition and made no new hires to fill the vacancies as of Oct. 2, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The departing inspectors made up 4 percent of the OSHA’s total federal inspection force, which fell below 1,000 by early October.

In 2015, OSHA only had enough inspectors to inspect workplaces once every 845 years, according to the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report, which meant that most workplaces would only see an inspector after something terrible happens. At this rate, even that won’t be a sure thing in a few years.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on January 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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

OSHA Is Bleeding: Shrinking Government and Killing Workers

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Washington Post reporters Lisa Rein and Andrew Ba Trim published an excellent front page article today chronicling Donald Trump’s largely successful effort to shrink the federal government: “By the end of September, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January — with most shedding many hundreds of employees.”

Trump hasn’t succeeded yet in passing a budget with significant cuts, so most of the reductions have come from hiring freezes, failure to hire political appointees, and increased retirements (accelerated by buy-outs) of disillusioned and frustrated career employees.

While some people who reflexively think that government is bad are cheering, the fact is that these reductions mean less protections for workers, the environment, consumers, communities, children, the poor and just about everything that makes life in this country “great.”

The Impact on OSHA and on Workers

But you’re not reading this to understand the national cataclysm; you want to know about the effects on workers and workplace safety and health.

Anti-government activist Grover Norquist was famously quoted as saying “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

But tragically, what we’re looking at is not just government being drowned in a bathtub, but more workers actually dying in a bathtub.

Because when it comes to workplace safety, cutting the bureaucracy means undermining enforcement, protection for whistleblowers, support for vulnerable workers and help for small businesses.  Some of OSHA’s regional staff state that because of the hiring freeze, OSHA’s enforcement and whistleblower programs are “falling apart at the seems.” The agency is “just bleeding.”

OSHA’s enforcement and whistleblower programs are “falling apart at the seems.” The agency is “just bleeding.”

When President Trump came into office almost a year ago, he implemented a government-wide hiring freeze. That freeze stayed in place at OSHA until recently, when Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, apparently alarmed that OSHA inspection number had dropped precipitously in 2017, partially lifted the hiring freeze at OSHA, announcing in his opening remarks at a Senate hearing last month that “In August 2017, I provided OSHA with blanket approval to hire OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs), streamlining the hiring process to bring new OSHA staff on board in an expedited manner to ensure that OSHA has the necessary personnel to carry out its important work.”

But while it is true that Acosta lifted the hiring freeze for OSHA inspectors, the process is anything but streamlined from what I hear from OSHA staff. Approvals for CSHO hiring are trickling out at a snail’s pace, barely keeping up with retirements.

Second, the agency doesn’t live by CSHOs alone.

I discussed these problems with Lisa Rein, part of which she related in today’s article:

In some agencies, the number of people leaving has been crippling, according to former officials. At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a wave of recent retirements has depleted the managerial staff at the enforcement agency’s 70 field offices, said Jordan Barab, who was a top OSHA official in the Obama administration. In all, the agency shed 119 permanent workers by the end of September, a 6 percent drop, personnel data shows.

“It’s starting to create major problems,” Barab said. Enforcement actions must be reviewed by supervisors in multiple offices, he said, and if too many months pass, they can be thrown out. “You can’t run an enforcement agency with no managers.”

As usual, with interviews, that was only a small part of how I described the impact on OSHA.

OSHA is, first and foremost an enforcement agency. That means that in order to ensure safe workplaces, the agency must have sufficient staff to inspect workplaces to ensure that employers are in compliance with OSHA standards and other safe workplace procedures. And, ideally, the agency should have sufficient, up-to-date standards to provide a floor for workplace safety. The agency also has a robust compliance assistance program which formerly had a Compliance Assistance Specialist (CAS) in every one of OSHA’s 100 regional and area offices. Because of budget cuts over the past several years, however, many OSHA offices no longer have CASs.  OSHA also needs enough whistleblower investigators to ensure that workers are allowed to exercise their health and safety rights without fear of retaliation.

OSHA has never had enough staff to perform all of those functions adequately. The AFL-CIO reports that if OSHA were to inspect every workplace in the nation just once, it would take 159 years. And the situation has gotten significantly worse. Since 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected, the number of workers in the economy has increased by 50% and the number of OSHA inspectors has shrunk by more than 45%. OSHA had 5.3 compliance officers per million workers in 2016, compared with 14.8 in 1980.

So where are we today and what is the impact of Trump’s efforts to shrink government?

Just hiring inspectors only addresses part of the problem. The hiring freeze continues for OSHA managers, administrative staff, whistleblower investigators and others. And this presents a major problem for workers.

As I said above, OSHA has only 6 months to complete an inspection. One day more, and the gets thrown out. Now, I’m not too worried about OSHA cases being thrown out for running over the deadline. I’m more concerned about the quality, speed and scope of the investigations. Too much work and too little staff will mean a number of things, none of them good:

  • In a quest to keep the inspection numbers up, OSHA inspectors may focus on the “easy” cases. A construction site, for example, will yield more and faster inspections and citations than a workplace violence case, a major chemical release or a case involving musculoskeletal injuries.
  • Just hiring CSHO’s and not filling managerial, administrative or legal staff just moves the bottleneck from the inspection itself, up the ladder.The larger and more complicated a case is, the more levels of OSHA (and Solicitor) review it must go through, and the greater likelihood that it will be challenged in court. If OSHA doesn’t have all of its ducks in a row, the case will be lost and if cases are lost in court because there isn’t enough managerial or legal staff to conduct a thorough review, it’s not just a legal problem, it’s a safety problem. The hazards will not  be eliminated and more workers will get injured, ill or killed.
  • And the failure to hire administrative staff means that instead of inspecting workplaces and managing cases, CSHO’s and supervisors spend their shrinking time inputting data, filing reports and doing all of the other administrative work that would better be done by administrative staff. Not exactly a good use of taxpayer dollars.
  • And even if cases aren’t dropped for failure to meet the 6-month deadline, they will take longer to issue. And being as employers don’t have to fix the problems in their workplaces until the citations are issued, workers will be exposed to dangerous conditions for longer.
  • A shortage of inspectors means that many offices only have time to react to worker fatalities and hospitalizations after they happen, rather than putting resources into pro-active planned (or programmed) inspections of high-hazard workplaces.
  • Retirements don’t happen evenly across the agency. Some area and regional offices are hit much harder than others. But a hiring freeze reduces OSHA’s ability to staff up  in those offices that are having the most shortages.   Either the workers covered by those offices are under-served, or staff has to be temporarily assigned to the problem offices, further increasing the agency’s budget problems.

The Post also notes that the Department of Labor “declined to comment on the current number of OSHA managers but said that new inspectors have been hired in recent months, helping increase the number of safety and health inspections in 2017 — the first such boost in five years.”

This is patently false. OSHA hasn’t had a budget increase since 2010,  and I can’t find anyone inside or outside of OSHA who can tell me what they’re talking about.

Whither The Whistleblower Program?

The hiring freeze also remains for whistleblower investigators. About 60% of OSHA whistleblower cases address retaliation against a worker for exercising their health and safety rights, the other 40% fall under 21 additional whistleblower laws that Congress has given OSHA to enforce — everything from environmental laws, rail safety, nuclear power plants, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and many others.

Until the Obama administration, the whistleblower program had been neglected stepchild at OSHA — underfunded and ignored. Enormous progress was made over the 8 years of the Obama administration, creating a separate directorate, a separate budget item, making it easier to file complaints on-line, increasing staff, modernizing procedures, re-organizing management and reducing the backlog of open cases. Nevertheless, even with significant progress, the program remains troubled and underfunded, and the continuing hiring freeze threatens much of the progress made during the Obama administration with the backlog of open cases rising back to unacceptable levels.

Agencies on Death Row

The Post also discusses the impact of Trump’s — as yet unsuccessful — plan to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board. The reports of the death of the CSB is most likely premature as both the House nor the Senate budget bills fully fund the agency for FY 18, but the threat nevertheless has an effect. Aside from the obvious hit on the staff’s morale, Board Chair Vanessa Sutherland describes how the CSB’s tiny staff has to spend time planning for its own demise, even while conducting its normal business of investigating chemical plant incidents.  And although it’s not raised in the article, it will inevitably make it harder to attract (or retain) talented staff while the Sword of Damocles weighs over its head.

Conclusion

So, you might ask, how does any of this make sense?

Fourteen workers a day were killed in the workplace last year, and the number of workers killed annually has gone up for the last three years.  Workplace deaths and injuries are estimated to cost between $250 billion and $360 billion a year, and OSHA’s current annual budget is a measly $552 million.

The bottom line is that shrinking government is not just about reducing employees and “bureaucrats,” and saving taxpayer dollars; it means limbs severed and lives lost.

Post journalist Juliet Eilperin in a short article in today’s “2018: The Year in Preview” section predicts that “Trump’s war on the bureaucracy will hit some limits — it’s hard to shrink government and also keep it operating.”

But that doesn’t make me feel better.

Because maybe they don’t want to keep it operating.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on December 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). He has also worked for the House Education and Labor Committee, the Chemical Safety Board, the AFL-CIO and an earlier stint at OSHA during the Clinton administration.

OSHA Rejects GAO Poultry Recommendations: Sees No Problem With Workers’ Restroom Access

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

In a surprising and disappointing apparent rollback of OSHA’s enforcement policy related to poultry inspections, Acting Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt has rejected recommendations from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) designed to address findings that poultry workers are intimidated about reporting health and safety problems to OSHA, particularly about their inability to get bathroom breaks. The GAO recommended in a report released last week that OSHA “consider off-site interviews or exploring other options to obtain information anonymously,” and that OSHA inspectors make a greater effort to ask poultry workers about the extent to which bathroom access is a problem.

The GAO report is a follow-up to its May 2016 study that found meat and poultry workers have the highest injury rates of any industry, and that even those numbers are underreported.  The current report notes that the meat and poultry industry had the 8th highest number of recent severe injury reports of all industries, although the industry’s self-reported injury and illness statistics declined from 2004 through 2015. Severe injury reports result from a recent OSHA requirement that employers report to OSHA all hospitalizations, amputations and loss of an eye (in addition to fatalities.)

GAO also observed that while OSHA had increased its annual inspections of the meat and poultry industry from 177 in 2005 to 244 in 2016, it’s still a tiny proportion of the 5,282 meat and poultry plants in the United States that employ an estimated 481,000 workers.

The report was conducted at the request of Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Robert Casey (D-PA), and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA).  In addition interviewing OSHA and USDA staff, the GAO conducted group and individual interviews with meat and poultry workers in six locations in five states: Arkansas, Delaware, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Virginia.

The report comes in the midst of a highly controversial industry effort to increase the line speed in poultry processing plants, a change that would increase musculoskeletal injuries suffered by poultry workers.

Intimidation

The GAO found that although the number of OSHA inspections had increased over the past ten years, OSHA “faces challenges identifying and addressing worker safety concerns because workers may be reluctant to contact OSHA for fear of employer retaliation.” Because OSHA interviews workers in the workplace, and those interviews are conducted in private, the supervisor still knows the identities of interviewed workers. Making the problem worse, according to GAO, “some meat and poultry workers may be less likely to report or seek treatment for injuries and illnesses because of their vulnerable status as undocumented or foreign-born workers and because of their economic vulnerability.”

Interviews with workers revealed widespread complaints about supervisors discouraging workers from using the restroom

Aside from workers being reluctant to report serious safety and health conditions, the problem most overlooked may be their lack of bathroom access. Interviews with workers revealed widespread complaints about supervisors discouraging workers from using the restroom. OSHA guidance issued in 1998 states that denial or delay of bathroom access can result in various serious health effects, such as urinary tract infections, constipation, abdominal pain, and hemorrhoids, and workers interviewed by the GAO also reported that they had suffered health effects like kidney problems from delayed or denied bathroom breaks. Under OSHA’ sanitation standard (CFR 1910.141), employers are required to make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when they need to do so.

According to GAO:

Workers we interviewed in all five states said their requests to use the bathroom are often delayed or denied, and workers in two states said they fear punishment if they ask to use the bathroom too frequently or complain about lack of bathroom access to their supervisors or to OSHA. One industry representative told us they believe some supervisors in meat and poultry plants deny bathroom access in order to maximize production output.

The problem with enforcing the right of a worker to go to the bathroom, according to the GAO,  is that if workers fear dismissal or other punishment for talking to OSHA about bathroom breaks, OSHA inspectors may not become aware of the problem. Furthermore, OSHA inspectors do not always ask specifically about bathroom access, and workers who experience bathroom access problems may not volunteer this information either because they’re afraid or because they may not realize that such information would be of interest to OSHA.

Common Sense Recommendations:  Rejected

In order to address the intimidation issue, learn more details about hazards, injuries, and illnesses and gather more information about bathroom break problems, the GAO made two recommendations to OSHA: First, that OSHA should “take additional steps to encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns during OSHA inspections of meat and poultry plants; for example, by considering additional off-site interviews or exploring other options to obtain information anonymously.”

Second, in order to determine whether, and to what extent bathroom access is a problem, OSHA should simply ask workers during meat and poultry plant inspections about whether bathroom access is a problem.

But despite the GAO’s findings, OSHA leadership doesn’t think there is a problem that has to be dealt with, and anyway, it would be too much trouble. A letter from Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt accompanying the report states that:

GAO’s recommendation to conduct additional offsite interviews, however, is challenging in terms of witness cooperation, resources and CSHO safety. Moreover each inspection requires a flexible approach to address unique workplace hazards.  OSHA cannot commit to asking about bathroom access during each inspection at a meat or poultry processing facility.

Nothing in these GAO recommendations is particularly new or novel. OSHA’s Field Operations Manual, which sets forth the procedures under which OSHA conducts inspections and enforcement, emphasizes the importance of “a free and open exchange of information between OSHA inspectors and employees” and allows inspectors to conduct interviews off site when they feel that off-site interviews would be more effective.  The problem is that if the workplace doesn’t have a union, or worker advocates that are helping the workers, it can be difficult to find an acceptable time and venue.

Furthermore, an OSHA poultry directive, issued in 2015 and currently under legal challenge, authorizes inspectors to expand inspections beyond other hazards that may be the subject of the inspection — including musculoskeletal injuries and bathroom access —  and some regional OSHA poultry emphasis programs require inspectors to inquire about bathroom access.

In rejecting these GAO recommendations, OSHA may be signalling a reversal in long-standing OSHA enforcement policy. 

Thus, in rejecting these GAO recommendations, OSHA may be signalling a reversal in long-standing OSHA enforcement policy. Deborah Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project and a former OSHA official in the Obama administration, was quoted in Inside OSHA saying  “We are stunned that OSHA’s response to the glaring findings in this report is to announce a rollback of longstanding enforcement policies, thereby ensuring that the poultry industry will have an easier time hiding serious hazards. The inevitable result will be even more injuries to this already vulnerable worker population. That is simply unacceptable.”

See No Evil, Hear No Evil…

According to GAO, “OSHA officials said they did not believe lack of bathroom access was a widespread problem in the meat and poultry industry” and offered a number of creative explanations:

  • OSHA has not compared bathroom access practices in the meat and poultry industry with other industries involving moving production lines because they vary by establishment even within a single industry. (This, even though OSHA has cited poultry establishments for lack of bathroom access a number of times.)
  • requiring inspectors to investigate bathroom access would divert inspectors’ limited resources from higher-priority hazards and could result in companies’ claiming that the line of questioning is unsubstantiated.
  • there were a small number of citations issued related to bathroom access. (Of course, this is somewhat circular reasoning: The GAO argued that the reason for few citations may be that workers don’t raise the issue unless OSHA inspectors ask about the problem. See no evil, hear no evil…)

And in an understatement one rarely hears from government bureaucrats, GAO stated that “There is a mismatch between concerns we heard from workers and the problems reported by OSHA, particularly in the area of bathroom access” and kindly suggested that “given that workers whom we asked about bathroom access during off-site interviews in all five states said that bathroom access is a problem, and worker advocates we interviewed stated it was as well, it is

possible that OSHA is missing instances of this hazard, resulting in incomplete data to guide its inspections.” True, it is possible.

In an understatement one rarely hears from government bureaucrats, GAO stated that “There is a mismatch between concerns we heard from workers and the problems reported by OSHA, particularly in the area of bathroom access.”

But I am less charitable than GAO. I suspect that the real reason for OSHA’s blindness may not just be innocent naïveté, but rather a bit of over-attentiveness to their industry friends who don’t seem overly concerned about the problem. The GAO reported that “Meat and poultry industry representatives we interviewed said that bathroom access is not a problem because companies provide bathroom access when needed.”  And after the report was issued, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association said that the poultry industry “is constantly looking at ways to continue to improve” worker safety, and Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute explained that “In a tight labor market like the one we have now, there is an even stronger incentive to protect our employees and ensure that they are healthy and able to perform their jobs.”

And just to make sure that OSHA never sees bathroom access as a problem, poultry employers have sharply increased the number of denials of entry to OSHA inspectors — forcing them to get a warrant — as OSHA increased inspections of poultry plants during the Obama administration and began expanding inspections beyond the initial complaint incident to look at things like musculoskeletal injuries and bathroom breaks.  From 2005-2015, there were only 16 denials of entry in the meat and poultry industry, but in just 2016 alone, there were 15 denials, all in Region IV, specifically in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.

Other Issues

Medical Mismanagement: The GAO also confirmed problems that OSHA had previously identified with medical mismanagement of workers suffering from musculoskeletal disorders, including inappropriate medical treatment, lack of worker access to health care, underqualified practitioners, and challenges to reporting. In one case, OSHA reported that a number of workers were fired after suffering MSDs — sometimes on the same day of the MSD occurrence — and in another case a worker made over 90 visits to the nursing station before referral to a physician. GAO talked to workers and worker advocates who reported similar problems. GAO recommended that OSHA revise its medical management guidance and OSHA agreed.

Cooperation With FSIS: A 1994 Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and OSHA calls for FSIS inspectors — who are present in most poultry plants —  to make referrals to OSHA when they identify unsafe conditions. FSIA is responsible for ensuring the food safety of meat and poultry products. Despite efforts in recent years and some cross-training of FSIS inspectors, such referrals are rare, partly because FSIS inspectors fear that referrals to OSHA may trigger an OSHA inspection of FSIS due to a number of hazards FSIS inspectors are exposed to. GAO made three recommendations related to these issues to encourage OSHA and FSIS to work more closely together and to address hazards faced by FSIS inspectors from chemicals used to disinfect chickens. FSIA was noncommittal.

Research: Finally, GAO made a recommendation to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to study safety and health hazards of FSIS inspectors’ exposure to peracetic acid. NIOSH agreed.

What Others Are Saying

I’m not the only one upset about this report and OSHA’s response.

Industry watchdog Nebraska Appleseed, applauded the report quoting a former meatpacking worker in Nebraska: “Meatpacking plants are not only slaughterhouses for pigs, they are also slaughterhouses for humans,” said Lupe Vega-Brown.”They exploit you and after you get injured, they will fire you. Within a few years of working at a plant, it will end your dreams.”

A NELP statement added:

Echoing the finding of its 2016 report, the GAO was particularly critical of how in-plant health units treat injured workers—highlighting new concerns of inappropriate response to worker injuries and illnesses and persons working outside their legal scope of practice. (The 2016 report confirmed that meat and poultry workers continued to face the same hazardous conditions previously cited by the GAO in 2005—including traumatic injuries from machines and tools, exposure to chemicals and pathogens, and fast-paced repetitive tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders.)

According to an Oxfam statement:

“The health and safety problems that workers face in poultry processing plants have been exacerbated in the past year due to a growing climate of fear and oppression in an industry where workers are mostly immigrants, refugees, and people of color,” said Alex Galimberti, Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor for Oxfam America. “Every day, workers experience problems, such as denial of treatment for repetitive motion injuries, lack of access to bathroom breaks, and sexual harassment. Most of the time, they feel unsafe reporting these issues to federal agencies or to top level management.”

Oxfam issued a report in 2016 about the bathroom break problem in the poultry industry.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union praised the report and tied it into the industry’s recent push to increase line speeds:

“The hard-working people who work in poultry plants have some of the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs in America. This report sadly confirms that many of these skilled professionals who keep our food safe are struggling to keep themselves safe at work. They have earned and deserve better.

“The dangers endured by poultry workers that are highlighted in this report also underscore why a recent request by the National Chicken Council to increase line speeds defies common sense and is being clearly driven by greed. We urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take this report seriously and reject that request so that poultry workers and the food we all consume can be kept safe.”

Congressman Bobby Scott and Senator Patty Murray made the following statements:

“When workers face intimidation, retribution, or fear losing their jobs for reporting hazards, seeking medical treatment, or simply using the restroom, it is incumbent on federal agencies to increase their responsiveness to those concerns,” said Congressman Scott (VA-03). “In addition, GAO reported that during 2016, 15 meat and poultry plants –all in the southeast—have refused OSHA access to expand complaint inspections to cover additional recognized hazards; this development has impaired OSHA’s ability to protect workers, and should compel the Department of Labor to vigorously defend its statutory authority to enter plants ‘without delay’.”

“Every worker should be able to make a living without risking their health or safety, so it’s deeply concerning to hear workers in meat and poultry factories are knowingly being put in harm’s way,” said Senator Murray (D-WA). “Given this report’s findings and the Trump Administration’s continued efforts to undermine worker protections, it’s clear our nation’s top health and safety agency needs a leader who has a record of fighting for workers lives and livelihoods—and I will continue to press OSHA nominee Scott Mugno on his commitment to put workers ahead of corporations’ bottom lines.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on December 12, 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).

The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

On November 13, Marcus Vaughn filed a class-action lawsuit against his former employer. Vaughn, who’d worked in the Fremont, California factory for electric automaker Tesla, alleged that the manufacturing plant had become a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Employees and supervisors, he asserted, had routinely lobbed racial epithets at him and his fellow Black colleagues. 

Vaughn said he complained in writing to the company’s human resources department and CEO Elon Musk, but Tesla neglected to investigate his claims. In true tech executive fashion, Musk deflected Vaughn’s misgivings, shifting the blame to the assailed worker. “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology,” he wrote in a May email. In late October, according to Vaughn’s suit, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”

The news of rancorous working conditions for Tesla employees is merely the latest in a series. Vaughn’s case signals the broader social and physical perils of couching traditional factory models within the frenzied, breakneck tech-startup framework of high demand, long hours and antipathy toward regulation.

Tesla’s Fremont facility has bred a number of allegations of abuse, from discrimination to physical harm. Vaughn’s is at least the third discrimination suit filed this year by Black Tesla workers alleging racism. A former third-party contracted factory worker, Jorge Ferro, has taken legal action to combat alleged homophobic harassment. The cruelty wasn’t strictly verbal: Not long before, in an ostensibly unrelated but similarly alarming turn of events, reports surfaced that production-floor employees sustained such work-related maladies as loss of muscle strength, fainting and herniated discs.

In response to Ferro’s allegations, Tesla told In These Times that it “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” But the company denied responsibility on the grounds that Ferro was contractor, not an employee.

Tesla’s factory conditions evoke those reported at another Silicon Valley darling: Blue Apron. In the fall of 2016, BuzzFeed detailed the consequences of the lax hiring practices and safety standards governing the food-delivery company’s Richmond, Calif. warehouse. Employees reported pain and numbness from the frigid indoor temperatures and injuries from warehouse equipment. Many filed police reports stating co-workers had punched, choked, bitten or groped them, amid threats of violence with knives, guns and bombs.

At the time of these complaints, both companies had fully ingratiated themselves to investors. Tesla’s reported worth is so astronomical even the most technocratic corporate mediaand Musk himselfquestion it. Blue Apron, which went public this year, snagged a $2 billion valuation in 2015. (Blue Apron has since seen a marked decline, a development that maybe have been spurred by BuzzFeed’s report.) As a result, both companies have habitually placed escalating pressure upon their employees to generate product, their executives eyeing the potential profits.

Predictably, these companies’ legal compliance appears to have fallen to the wayside in the name of expediency. Tesla and Blue Apron factory employees have found themselves working 12hour shifts, in some cases more than five days a week. Tesla employee Jose Moran wrote of “excessive mandatory overtime” and “a constant push to work faster to meet production goals.”

In 2015, Blue Apron appeared to violate a litany of OSHA regulations, ranging from wiring to chemical storage. It also hired local temporary workers via third-party staffing agencies—likely to circumvent the costs of such benefits as health insurance. As BuzzFeed noted, these staffing agencies independently screened candidates in lieu of internal background checks. Compounding the problem, the company expected temps to operate machinery they were unqualified to handle. (Blue Apron has since euphemized its OSHA violations and claimed to have axed these staffing agencies. The company has not responded to requests for comment.)

Aggravating an already fraught atmosphere, the companies appear to have used punitive tactics to coerce laborers into greater productivity. While some Tesla workers are placed in lower-paying “light duty” programs after reporting their injuries, others are chided for them. One production employee, Alan Ochoa, relayed to the Guardian a quote from his manager in response to his pain complaint: “We all hurt. You can’t man up?”

Equally culpable is e-commerce goliath Amazon. Bloomberg reported that the company mounts flat-screen televisions in its fulfillment centers to display anti-theft propaganda relating the stories of warehouse workers terminated for stealing on the job. (This offers a blue-collar complement to the 2016 New York Times exposé on its draconian treatment of office employees.) According to a former employee, managers upbraid workers who fail to pack 120 items per hour, heightening their quotas and, in some cases, requiring them to work an extra day. Those who don’t accept overtime shifts, meanwhile, lose vacation time.

Amazon told In These Times, “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Blue Apron and Amazon warehouses generate high turnover. In fact, this is likely by design. By creating working conditions that not only extract vast amounts of labor at low costs, but also drive workers away, tech companies can skirt the obligation to reward employees with raises and promotions. A companion to the profit-mongering schemes of Uber, Lyft and now Amazon (through its Amazon Flex delivery vertical) to classify workers as contractors, this form of labor arbitrage ensures that owners of capital avoid the risk of losing wealth to hourly workers—a class they deem thoroughly disposable.

Tesla has caused similar workforce tumult, firing employees for the foggy offense of underperformance. Of the hundreds of terminated employees from both its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters and its Fremont facility, many were union sympathizers who’d been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The move has thus aroused suspicions that the company sought to purge dissidents—a reflection of the anti-union posture that has characterized Silicon Valley for decades.

If the near-ubiquity of factory and warehouse worker exploitation in the news cycle is any indication, tech capitalists—through their regulatory negligence and toothless “solutions”—have fostered a culture of barbarism. Low-wage laborers have little to no recourse: They’re either left to endure imminent social and physical harm, or, should they seek protections against the anguish they’ve borne, are stripped of their livelihood.

The blue-collar hellscape Tesla, Blue Apron and Amazon have wrought is what laissez-faire, startup-styled late capitalism looks like. At a time of such disregard for the fundamental health, safety and humanity of low-tier workers, the tech-executive class has proven nothing is sacred—except, of course, the urge to scale.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

 About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

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.

One Last Time: OSHA Extends Recordkeeping Reporting Deadline

Friday, November 24th, 2017

After multiple delays, OSHA has finally announced that employers who are required to keep OSHA injury and illness records must send summary information in to the agency by December 15, fifteen days after the deadline announced last June, when the agency proposed to delay the reporting deadline from July 1 to December 1.

The rollout has been plagued by numerous delays. First OSHA delayed until August 1 in putting up the website which was supposed to be up by the end of February.  Then there came false accusations of a data breach, and finally a delay in issuing the final change in the required submission deadline.

When the regulation was issued last year, OSHA stated that the data would be published on the web. “Public disclosure of work injury data will encourage employers to increase their efforts to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses,” OSHA announced when the regulation was issued in May 2016.  The Trump administration has not disclosed its intentions about publicizing the data, although there is legal precedent for requiring the agency to publish the data on OSHA’s website.

Other parts of the “electronic” recordkeeping regulation are being challenged in court and are under reconsideration by OSHA. The agency also announced today that OSHA is currently reviewing the other provisions of its final rule to Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses, and intends to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking to reconsider, revise, or remove portions of that rule in 2018.”

Some in the business community don’t like requirements that more detailed information on injuries and illnesses be sent to OSHA starting next year, or that OSHA has prohibited employers from retaliating against workers for reporting injuries.  At last week’s Congressional hearing, Secretary of Labor Acosta falsely stated that the regulation “was asking for some information that was very detailed and that identifies individuals.”

OSHA also noted that seven state plans, California, Maryland, Minnesota, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, have not yet adopted the regulations. States are supposed to adopt all new OSHA standards and regulations within 6 months of federal OSHA’s issuance.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on November 22, 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).

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.

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