Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Public Citizen’

As the Planet Warms, Can OSHA Protect Workers From Extreme Heat?

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

On July 17, more than 130 groups and individuals petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in an attempt to establish a nationwide workplace heat standard. The petition cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows that at least 783 U.S. workers died as a result of extreme heat between 1992 and 2016, while at least 69,374 were seriously injured. Organized by the consumer and health advocacy group Public Citizen, the petition demonstrates how the climate change crisis will inevitably lead to more injuries and deaths, as it increases the amount of days that workers have to endure extreme heat.

There is a general OSHA requirement meant to protect individuals from workplace hazards, but advocates for a heat standard argue that this rule doesn’t do enough to protect workers from this specific danger. Environmental groups like Earthjustice, labor organizations like the United Farm Workers, and former OSHA directors Eula Bingham and David Michaels, were among those who voiced their concerns.

“Although OSHA has authority to protect workers from heat stress by enforcing [the general requirement], there are a lot of benefits to having a specific rule,” David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s climate program, told In These Times. “First, OSHA simply doesn’t do much of that type of enforcement on heat stress.

“A specific rule on heat puts employers on notice of what exactly they should do,” Arkush continued. “That’s important because many will voluntarily follow the law. It’s much better to tell employers directly what they must do to keep workers safe than to police them after the fact under a vague safety standard.”

The petition calls for a whole new set of workplace regulations geared towards extreme heat. These include sufficient shade during rest breaks, adequate hydration, stricter monitoring for heat stress and training to help supervisors cut back on heat risks. The standard would also require employers to keep records of heat-related incidents and establish a whistleblower protection program to ensure that workers could report head standard violations without fear or repercussions.

The petition comes at the same time as a new report from Public Citizen, which details the impact that extreme heat can have on workers. The report warns that global warming will worsen workplace hazards, citing a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which estimates that almost half of the world’s population will experience more than 20 days of deadly heat every year by 2100.

The report also relies on weather forecasts compiled by the nonprofit group Climate Central, which looked at 133 U.S. cities to determine how many of their workers will experience deadly levels of heat in the coming years. Public Citizen matched Climate Central’s data against Census employment statistics to estimate how severely workers will be impacted by climate change. These cities experienced an average of 20 dangerous heat days in 2000 (the National Weather Service classifies anything above 104 degrees as dangerous). By 2050, that average will increase to 58 days.

Public Citizen generated a “worker-days metric” by multiplying the amount of workers in a given occupation by the amount of dangerous heat days that the respective cities are predicted to experience. For example, if a city has 1,000 construction workers and is predicted to experience three dangerous heat days, then that city would end up with 3,000 dangerous worker-days. In 2000, agriculture workers in these 133 cities experienced 3.4 million worker-days in dangerous heat. Using Public Citizen’s metric, that number would go up to 12.8 million by 2030 and 15.3 by 2050.

The numbers are even more extreme for construction workers. In 2000, construction workers in these cities experienced 35.3 million worker-days in extreme heat. That number is set to reach 76.4 in 2030 and 95.1 million in 2050. While these numbers might seem staggering, they’re actually only conservative estimates,as they are based on 2016 population numbers and the amount of workers in these cities will likely increase.

In addition to the petition, California Rep. Judy Chu (D) announced last week on a Public Citizen press call that she will introduce a piece of related legislation soon. California is just one of three states that already has local protective heat standards, which were established in 2005 after Chu pushed them as a state assemblywoman. That fight was initiated by the United Farm Workers after a woman named Asuncion Valdivia died from heat exposure during the summer of 2004. Valdivia died after picking grapes for 10 hours in weather that was over 100 degrees. “Workers, including farmworkers who endure difficult labor and long hours to put food on our tables, are vulnerable to dangerous working conditions,” saidChu during the press event.

A study published in Nature Climate Change last year finds that the frequency of deadly heat waves is likely to increase, warning: “An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable, but will be greatly aggravated if greenhouse gases are not considerably reduced.” Despite this danger, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement last year. “I consider climate change to be not one of our big problems,” he said on the campaign trail in 2015. The administration has also drastically cut back on OSHA workplace inspections, easing regulations and workplace deaths rise.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.

Workplace Safety: Expect Excellence From Your Employer

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

You should expect your employer to establish a strong safety culture that results in an injury-free, healthy, non-hostile workplace.

Unfortunately, OSHA can only do so much to establish what “safe and healthy” means, or to enforce those protocols. Many people, like those at Public Citizen, recognize that “government protection of workers is far from adequate.”

This means that more must be done than just meeting government standards.

High Standards for Health and Safety Should Be the Norm

Each workplace is unique, so those in charge of safety must identify and mitigate their specific health and safety issues. Hazards also change over time, so safety protocols must be adapted.

The aim, after all, should be to make sure you stay safe and healthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. That means no workplace injuries, and certainly no fatalities, nor any disrespectful behaviors: expect respect.

What Is a Safe and Healthy Workplace?

In order to make sure you are in a safe and healthy workplace, it’s important to understand what that means. Consider some of the most common causes of workplace injuries: stress, fatigue, falling objects, lifting, collisions, and trip and falls. Are your safety managers addressing these issues?

The environment you work in should be healthy. That means clean air, a clean workspace, good lighting, and reasonable noise levels.   

Management should regularly provide information and training about how to stay safe and healthy. They should encourage and facilitate physical fitness, fatigue prevention, mental and emotional well-being, and healthy eating.

Your health and wellness, and that of your co-workers, are the foundation of a satisfying and productive work environment. Consider that your well-being is also contingent on your co-workers’ well-being. A fatigued or distracted workmate is more likely to create unsafe circumstances for others.

The more rested, clear-headed, and healthy the staff, the safer the work environment will be for everyone.

Be Proactive

You play a part in safety, too. Take moments to stretch, rest, and move as needed. When stress is high, reset with some deep breaths. And keep your workspace clean and free of hazards.

Offer help to other employees who are doing something unsafe. Be respectful of others and expect respect from them. If you see hazards, report them to your safety manager. Make suggestions to improve health and safety. Is there a vending machine with soda, candy, and chips? Request that your employer swap some (all?) of that out for healthier options.

Initiate a walking group or encourage others to join you in training for a local 5 km. Ask your employer if they’ll sponsor you. Get creative in helping to make your workplace a thriving environment.

Know Your Rights, Use Your Voice

Of course, the ideal workplace isn’t always possible in the real world. Some employers simply won’t prioritize employee well-being to the degree they should. When you experience a violation of your health or safety at work, write it down and report it to your employer. A paper trail is your best friend if you need to take further action.

If your employer doesn’t remedy the problem, contact OSHA. You can do this anonymously. You have rights and you should be aware of what they are. In his article “The 6 Reasons OSHA Will Inspect Your Workplace,” Gabe L. Sierra, the managing director of Prometrix Safety Consulting, states, “In many industries, employee complaints are the single most common reason why OSHA will conduct an inspection at a workplace.”

Are you afraid of your employer retaliating? Retaliation is illegal. You can report that to OSHA, too. If you experience discrimination or harassment, you can file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For extreme cases of health and safety violations, you can consult a lawyer and file a lawsuit.

Just don’t stay quiet. Speaking up can be frightening, but change doesn’t happen if people remain silent. Consider the recent shift toward intolerance of sexual harassment and assault in the TV and film worlds, and beyond, because people spoke up. By saying something, you’re part of the solution, even if that solution takes time to arrive.  

Your Excellent Work Environment

Let’s hope that you have a safety manager who will be receptive to your suggestions and want to work toward an optimally safe environment.

Most of us spend an enormous amount of time at work. Why wouldn’t we expect and contribute to it being as safe and healthy as possible?

About the Author: TJ Scimone founded Slice, Inc. in 2008. His priority has been design, innovation, and safety. The result is a unique line of cutting tools, all of which are ergonomic and feature finger-friendly® blades. Safety is a key aspect of the Slice message and the website features a weekly Workplace Safety Blog.

The Most Injurious Job in America

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Mike ElkWhile hospitals are better known for treating injuries than causing them, statistics show that for workers, hospitals can be a dangerous place. A new report put out by Public Citizen found that in 2010, healthcare workers (including hospital staff) reported 653,900 workplace injuries and illnesses. That’s approximately 152,000 more (a 432 percent higher rate) than the industry with the second highest number of injuries—manufacturing—even though the healthcare sector is only 134 percent larger than the manufacturing sector.

Part of the reason that healthcare workers’ injuries may have flown under the radar is because of the type of injury involved. Unlike manufacturing and construction, where injuries are more likely to result in death, healthcare workers mainly suffer non-lethal musculoskeletal disorders. The rate of musculoskeletal disorders among workers in the healthcare industry is seven times higher than among other workers—a trend that Suzy Harrington, director of the American Nurses Association’s Department for Health, Safety and Wellness, calls “alarming.” Although these conditions aren’t fatal, if untreated, they can lead to permanent disability.

The most common cause of musculoskeletal injuries for healthcare workers is lifting patients by hand instead of using a mechanical device. Yet while ten states, including Washington, California and Maryland, have dramatically reduced injuries by passing safe patient handling laws, which mandate that hospitals “furnish mechanical lifting and transfer devices,” no nationwide standard exists to protect healthcare workers.

Another major danger for healthcare workers is workplace violence. Workers in the healthcare sector suffer 45 percent of all incidents of workplace violence, and nursing home employees are especially affected, with seven times the average rate of injury from workplace violence. Violence in medical settings may arise from interactions with belligerent patients, who may be drunk, drugged or emotionally disturbed. Yet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has never made a rule to require healthcare facilities to implement safeguards for their employees (such as metal detectors, security guards or even locked doors to isolate patients in guarded areas.) This is part of a larger problem: There are no federal OSHA rules requiring employers to ensure workplaces are safe from violence.

But workplace safety advocates say that OSHA’s particular lack of focus on the healthcare sector is symptomatic of the agency’s slow response to the shift to a service-based economy.

“OSHA has not been able to keep pace with the way the economy has shifted over the last 20 years,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for progressive watchdog group Public Citizen. “The economy has shifted away from one that is industrially-based to one that is service-based. They are hardly any rules that directly affect the healthcare industry. We counted them out and there are only nine rules, but if you look at construction and manufacturing, there are literally hundreds—and rightly so, those industries are highly dangerous.”

OSHA, for its part, insists that it is very concerned about safety in the healthcare industry.

“Employers have the legal responsibility to provide workplaces free of recognized hazards.  They must take ownership over this issue, and our role is to see that they do,” says Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels. “OSHA has a variety of tools at its disposal to hold employers accountable for safety and health, and we are committed to improving safety and health conditions for our nation’s healthcare workers. Under this administration, OSHA has done more than any previous administration to address the issues that persist in this industry.”

In response to questions from Public Citizen, OSHA elaborated on these efforts, explaining that it has instituted recent programs “to encourage employers in hospital and healthcare facilities to reduce hazards. For example, Assistant Secretary for OSHA David Michaels launched an OSHA initiative to work with hospitals and nursing homes to recognize the close link between patient safety and worker safety.”

However, when it came to passing concrete rules regulating the musculoskeletal injuries that plague the healthcare industry, OSHA ran up against a major stumbling block: Congress. In 2000, OSHA passed a rule aimed at reducing musculoskeletal injuries by making employers adopt measures shown to reduce ergonomic injuries. But in 2001, a Republican-led Congress repealed the rule. OSHA has since attempted to use the general duties clause under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cite employers whose ergonomic conditions present a clear danger to workers, but that poses a trickier legal case to make than if there was were a specific rule, and in the past two fiscal years OSHA has only done so seven times, according to the report put out by Public Citizen.

In response to questions from Public Citizen about whether or not the agency intended to issue a another ergonomic rule, OSHA said, “At this time, OSHA is not pursuing a rule on safe patient handling for healthcare workers. We continue to be concerned about this serious issue and promote sensible solutions through the  NEP [National Emphasis Program] guidance and outreach activities. However, OSHA does not have resources to move forward on all rulemaking necessary to address all the pressing workplace health and safety hazards.”

Rules, however, are only the first step. For instance, while OSHA has rules in place to prevent healthcare workers from being accidentally stabbed, they still suffer an alarming 400,000 stab wounds a year from surgical instruments and needles. Public Citizen’s Wrightston says that such injury rates are unnecessarily high because OSHA, with its limited budget of only $565 million, has few resources—and what resources it does have are not focused nearly enough on healthcare workers, he says.

“OSHA has devoted relatively little effort to addressing the safety risks in healthcare compared to other highly afflicted industries,”  says Wrightson. “For example, health care workers outnumber construction workers more than 2 to 1, but OSHA conducts only about one-twentieth as many inspections of health care facilities as construction sites.”

Indeed, statistics show that OSHA conducted 52,179 inspections of the construction industry in 2010, which employs 9.1 million workers and saw 74,950 injuries that caused workers to take at least one day off work. In comparison, last year OSHA conducted only 2,540 inspections of the healthcare industry, though it employs more than twice as many workers and saw 176,380 such injuries.

Some of the differential is due to the higher mortality rate for construction injuries, which cause five times as many deaths on the job. However, according to the Public Citizen report, “Even if fatalities were the only factor considered, healthcare inspections would need to be increased by about a factor of four to bring them into parity with construction sector inspections.”

Another gap in OSHA coverage, advocates say, was built into the agency’s NEP iniative, which was created in 2011 to focus on nursing home occupational safety—but not hospitals. “We want the National Emphasis Program to focus on hospitals. OSHA could do this right now with the swipe of pen,” says Wrightson. “The reason that they have not concentrated on hospitals is due to industry lobbyists.”

OSHA did not answer Working In These Times’ inquiries about why the National Emphasis Program (NEP) has not been expanded to target hospitals, but did point to its educational programs on workplace safety for hospitals.

Advocates insist, however, that Congress and OSHA must go beyond education to better enforcement and rulemaking in order to prevent injuries in the healthcare workplace. At the end of the day, advocates say, those that suffer the most from injuries to healthcare workers are patients.

“[Musco-skeletal injuries are] a primary reason healthcare workers leave direct patient care,” says Harrington. “We can’t afford to lose healthcare workers to injury and still meet rising demands for healthcare services.”

Article originally posted on Working In These Times on July 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog