Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Worker’s Memorial Day’

My Workers Memorial Day: Fight for Your Union, Fight for Your Lives

Monday, April 30th, 2018

I hope you’re all doing something to commemorate Workers Memorial Day — even if your own personal moment of silence and commitment to do more this coming year to ensure that workers come home safe and healthy at the end of the workday.

Last night I was interviewed on Houston’s  KPFT “Voices at Work” radio show about Workers Memorial Day and the daily  assault on working people. You can listen to it here (the April 27 show), if you have a half hour to burn.  I come on at about minute 30:00

Fight For Your Union

Today I’m in Lake Placid, New York, to give the keynote speech to one-thousand very enthusiastic health and safety reps from CSEA/AFSCME representing state and local workers in New York.  I won’t bore you with the entire speech here, except for one core message that no one should forget:

It comes as no surprise to anyone that the public sector has come under attack recently, and with it, everything that once made America great — great education, roads, infrastructure, health care — all seem to be things of the past.

As tax-cut mania sweeps the country, budgets are slashed, and with them the number of public employees who do America’s most important and most dangerous work.  Those public employees who are left are finding their wages stagnant, their benefits slashed and their working conditions deteriorating.  The only thing saving them — and the America we believe in  — is public employee unions.

You at CSEA have always stood up to those attacks and fought for better working conditions, pay and benefits for the important — and dangerous — work that you do. And now we’re seeing teachers in the reddest of red states stand up, walk out and strike for more education funding.  Is that great or what?

But now, the Supreme Court — at the behest of corporate America and right-wing ideologues — may be poised, with the Janus case, to severely undermine the power of public employee unions and with it, the entire labor movement. If that happens, I can guarantee you that not only will the quality of life in the United States suffer, but more workers — especially public employees — will get hurt and die in the workplace.

Sure, you have a right to a safe workplace. But ultimately your health and safety is safeguarded by your union.

So stand by your union! Fight for your union! And fight for your right to come home safe and healthy at the end of every day!

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on April 28, 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)

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.

We Remember the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living!

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Image: Richard Negri

Workers around the world commemorate April 28th as a day of remembrance honoring those who’ve died or been seriously injured on the job. The date for Workers Memorial Day coincides with Congress passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act forty-one years ago. Though the Act remains a promise that every worker deserves the right to a safe job, we all know that we have a lot of work ahead us.

The SEIU Nurse Alliance has taken the lead in focusing on workplace violence prevention with the union, as there have been a number of our healthcare members who were killed or severely injured due to violence from patients.

Donna Gross, Cynthia Palomata, Elenita Congco, and Stephanie Moulton, all healthcare providers, were killed on the job in the last twelve months. Countless others have been physically assaulted or verbally abused and bullied at work.

Unsafe and harmful working conditions are obviously not limited to healthcare providers. The insidiousness of unsafe and violent conditions crosses over into every trade and every sector. Thus, “an injury to one is an injury to all!”

A recent study estimates that the loss of workers’ lives and livelihoods costs the U.S. economy at least $250 billion a year. But how do you put a price tag on a worker’s life, their arm, leg, finger? How do you put a price on coming home from work with an infectious disease you didn’t wake up with?

While the official statistics on workplace safety shows some improvement, one unjust death of one worker in any trade or sector is simply too much. In addition, we only know the “how” about unsafe workplace environments from what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tells us. The problem there is that it is widely known that the BLS wildly underestimates the problem. In fact, the true toll of job injuries is known to be two to three times greater — about 8 million to 12 million job injuries and illnesses each year. That’s just too much.

How is it possible that the BLS reporting is so far off the mark? The BLS arrives at the specifics around workers’ injuries and deaths by way of logs OSHA receives from EMPLOYERS.

The reporting process is never accurate because so many workers, especially nurses, fail to file reports with their facilities. Many healthcare workers accept that injury and untimely death on the job comes with the territory — many healthcare providers would rather lift the weight of an American-made sedan each shift than file reports — or is that really the case?

It is a difficult question because our employers frequently persuade us to think that our injuries are not as bad as we think, or, in many cases, just not worth reporting. The culture of each facility may vary from house to house, but at the end of the day, if accurate reporting isn’t being done, accurate changes won’t come.

Still, there’s more we need to wrap our heads around. Some employers discourage reporting through the use of incentive programs, like Safety Bingo, that reward workers for not reporting injuries or threaten to fire workers for reporting injuries or illnesses. That’s not good. What do we do about that?

For one, we should make it our business to learn what our rights are in the workplace — which a great many of us already do. Second, we need to consider taking the time and effort to report injuries and illnesses whenever there is one. Let’s not forget that our employers are usually just fine handing in near-blank OSHA reports.

Can we pledge to do our best to eliminate all violence and other hazards on the job so that every SEIU member and all workers can go home safely to their families at the end of the day?

President Mary Kay Henry said it very succinctly, “The right to a safe, secure workplace should be as fundamental as the right to have a voice on the job. When nurses, home care workers, and other working people go to work every day, we should never have to worry about getting hurt or losing our lives. On this Workers Memorial Day, we honor all workers, including SEIU members, who were injured or killed while trying to support their families by simply doing their job. It is our duty to these workers and their families to fight to ensure that no one will have to endure that pain again.”

To ensure that our families will not have to endure the pain of losing us on the job, and to ensure that we continue to work safe and exercise our rights, we will need to remember the dead and fight like hell for the living.

About the author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog