Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘workplace safety’ Category

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.

Workplace Deaths Are Rising. Trump-Era Budget Cuts Could Make It Worse.

Monday, June 18th, 2018

In an alarming development in the world of workplace safety, the latest statistics reveal that the number of accidental deaths on the job in America is on the rise, reversing the longer-term trend toward fewer fatal incidents.

The number of deaths hit a total of 5,190 in 2016, up from 4,836 in 2015, according to an April 2018 report by the AFL-CIO. That’s about 14 deaths each day from preventable worker accidents. It’s also the third year in a row that the number has inched up, and the highest death rate since 2010, the labor federation reported.

Workplace safety systems are “definitely in the failure mode,” says Peter Dooley, a consultant with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health who was worked closely with labor unions over the years. “In the last two years it is getting dramatically worse. It’s just outrageous.” 

The precise reasons for the rise are not simply stated, adds Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s long-time director of occupational safety and health. Overall patterns such as very high rates of injury in the logging and construction industries are consistent over time, she says, and there is no single employment trend that accounts for the recent rise. “The numbers are actually down in construction, but they are up almost everywhere else,” she says.

Inadequate enforcement of existing safety rules is the most commonly cited explanation for the rise, Seminario tells In These Times. A Jan. 8 report from NBC News estimates that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employs only about 1,000 inspectors to cover all workplaces in America—and that the number of inspectors has declined four percent since President Donald Trump took office. The number of inspectors is far too low to be effective, Seminario suggests, and OSHA has been “under resourced” for years, including during the Obama administration years.

“Construction is a good example. OSHA has a big focus on construction and construction deaths are down. The areas where OSHA has less interest are up,” she says

The figures cited by Seminario and Dooley are taken from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The way the figures are compiled is a problem in itself, Dooley says, because it zealously protects the anonymity of employers. That diverts attention from specific workplace behavior that needs close examination and corrective action to reduce accidental deaths over time, he says. 

The National Council’s answer to this problem is to publish its own “Dirty Dozen” list of employers notable for health and safety problems among their workforces. The Council uses a standard of measurement that includes non-fatal injuries and other factors, but the list stands out in that it names some very well-known companies. For example, the online retailer Amazon is on the list because it has seen seven of its warehouse workers killed since 2013. Lowe’s Home Improvement operations have seen a total of 56 deaths associated with paint stripping chemicals. And the largest garbage disposal company in the United States, Waste Management, has had an excessive number of OSHA citations and fines. Other companies on the list are Tesla Motors and Dine Brands Global (owner of IHOP and Applebee’s restaurants).

“There is injustice in the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a totally anonymous database. There is no public record of who is dying and who the employers are,” Dooley says. The information actually does exist deep in the Labor Department files, he adds, but government policy is to keep this information out of public hands, or for use by safety experts. “This needs to be changed,” he says.

Seminario and Dooley agree that the worker safety signals coming from the Trump administration are troubling, even if the statistics are not up-to-date enough to make a direct link to increased workplace deaths. Trump’s budget proposal last year called for a 21 percent cut in Department of Labor spending, and the initial proposal for this year call for a 9 percent cut. Congress pared back last year’s proposed cut, and is expected to do so again this year, but it is clear that current Labor Department officials have no plans to take the initiative against the rise in workplace deaths, Dooley charges.

In issuing its report, the AFL-CIO noted: “The Trump administration has moved to weaken recently issued rules on beryllium and mine examinations and has delayed or abandoned the development of new protections, including regulations on workplace violence, infectious diseases, silica in mining and combustible dust.”

“At the same time, Congress is pushing forward with numerous ‘regulatory reform’ bills that would require review and culling of existing rules, make costs the primary consideration in adopting regulations, and making it virtually impossible to issue new protections.”

The reference to workplace violence represents one of the most troubling statistics buried in the government reports. According to a press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Workplace homicides increased by 83 cases to 500 in 2016, and workplace suicides increased by 62 to 291. This is the highest homicide figure since 2010 and the most suicides since the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries began reporting data in 1992.”

“It’s a very complicated problem,” observes Seminario. “You can devise safety regulations to avoid common and predictable accidents. But how do you do that with a homicide?”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Tesla Swears It’s a Fair Employer—Yet It’s Trying to Dodge a Law That Protects Workers

Friday, June 15th, 2018

Since 2013, Tesla has fought unfair-labor-practice complaints from the NLRB, insisting it’s not a union buster and that it maintains a safe factory. However, just a week before the company went in front of a judge to face some of these accusations, Tesla petitioned the state of California to get around a new labor regulation that would require the company to be certified as a “fair and responsible workplace.”

On June 11, Michael Sanchez, a Tesla employee who is currently out on medical leave, testified before an NLRB administrative law judge, claiming that he was asked to leave the company’s Fremont factory by a supervisor and security guards in February 2017 after he attempted to hand out pro-union literature. The hearing is part of a wider complaint that was originally filed against Tesla by the NLRB last August.

Tesla has denied these allegations, insisting that the company is being unfairly targeted by labor groups looking to sow division among workers.

However, just one week before Sanchez’s testimony, the company sent a letter to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency asking to be exempt from a new state rule that would require the company to be certified as a “fair and responsible workplace” in order for Tesla customers to receive state rebates for buying electric cars. Those rebates are viewed as key enticements in Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to put 5-million zero emission cars on California’s roads by 2030.

Governor Brown stuck the rule into his cap-and-trade legislation from last year, in a move that was perceived as a win for organized labor. However, Tesla believes that the provision effectively means that the state has picked a side in the company’s labor battles and is unfairly singling them out.

“To be sure, Tesla is not perfect–no company is,” reads the letter, dated June 4. “But any objective analysis of our workplace, as opposed to the selective use of unrepresentative anecdotes in a company of almost 40,000 employees globally, demonstrates we are a leader in the workplace. There should be absolutely no question that we care deeply about the well-being of our employees and that we try our hardest to do the right thing.”

On May 23, the state put out a concept paper for public comment, which detailed how the new rule would potentially be enforced. As part of their application process for the customer rebates, companies would have to submit information about their workplace practices to the state. This would include information about the company’s illness and injury prevention program, the recordable worker injury rates, nondiscrimination measures, and policies for investigating workplace complaints, wage violations and safety concerns. Manufacturers would also have to submit a list of citations and charges brought against them by government agencies and any criminal charges that have been brought against them for workplace issues within the last five years.

The concept paper will be revised with the accepted comments, and then the unions will push for the final document to become law. The government agencies have suggested that full certification commence in two years, but the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which has been pushing to unionize the company’s factory, wants it to take effect by July 2019.

In addition to the aforementioned NLRB complaint, which encompasses a number of different accusations, Tesla is also facing several discrimination lawsuits from former employees. Last November, a former African-American worker named Marcus Vaughn sued the company claiming that coworkers and supervisors consistently referred to him by the n-word. Vaughn alleges that when he complained about the treatment, he was fired for not having a positive attitude.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly defended the company’s safety record publicly. In May, he went on a lengthy Twitter rant attacking the media for covering Tesla negatively, focusing specifically on a Reveal report that detailed how the company left workplace injuries off their books. Musk also criticized the UAW and declared that his employees didn’t actually want a union. “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union,” Musk tweeted. “Could do so [tomorrow] if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare.”

When asked to explain what he meant by the stock option comment, Musk shifted to an observation about the Revolutionary War: “US fought War of Independence to get rid of a 2 class system!” Musk wrote, “Managers & workers [should] be equal [with] easy movement either way. Managing sucks [by the way]. Hate doing it so much.” Musk’s net worth is estimated to be about $18.2 billion currently.

The new rule and the NLRB hearing comes amid additional bad news for Tesla and its employees. After misjudging the speed at which they could produce their Model 3 vehicles, the company laid off more than 3,000 people—about 9 percent of their workforce. “We made these decisions by evaluating the criticality of each position, whether certain jobs could be done more efficiently and productively, and by assessing the specific skills and abilities of each individual in the company,” Musk wrote to the company in an email. “As you know, we are continuing to flatten our management structure to help us communicate better, eliminate bureaucracy and move faster.”

The rule could be codified as early as July.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Tesla expands worker injury list 1 week after Elon Musk criticizes media for reporting on it

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

Tesla has expanded its list of worker injuries following a report published in Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which flagged under-counting and safety problems at the company’s Fremont, California facility last month.

The move also comes one week after CEO and founder Elon Musk blasted the media for reporting on the discrepancies and threatened to start a Yelp-like site to rate journalists.

“Tesla disputed our reporting showing that it left worker injuries off the books,” Reveal tweeted Tuesday. “Now, it’s begun adding some of the injuries that had been missing.

The original Reveal report, published on April 16, claimed that Tesla officials were under-reporting work-related injuries sustained by employees in order to make the company’s safety numbers appear more favorable to industry critics. The company instead wrote many complaints off as “personal medical issues or minor incidents requiring only first aid,” according to internal company records. In May, pressure on the company doubled after an unfavorable review by Consumer Reports found troubling flaws in the Tesla Model 3’s braking system, the second critical report from the austere publication.

Responding to the criticism last week, Musk went on a Twitter rant, claiming that the negative press was part of “a calculated disinformation campaign.”

“The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,” he tweeted.

A short while later, after several followers accused him of emulating President Trump’s media bullying tactics, he added, “Thought you’d say that. Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks ‘You’re just like Trump!’ Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no ones believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago.”

Musk then claimed he would “create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication.”

“Thinking of calling it Pravda,” he tweeted, the name borrowed from the state-run newspaper of Soviet Russia. When asked if the site would work like Yelp, where users can rate local businesses and leave reviews, Musk added, “Exactly.”

(As science and tech reporter Mark Harris noted, Musk may be planning to follow through on his tweets: in October 2017, one of Musk’s associates, Jared Birchall, incorporated a “Pravda Corp” in the state of California. After Harris tweeted the incorporation documents, Musk simply replied with a smiling emoji.)

Reveal’s criticisms appear to have some merit, however. As the outlet noted on Tuesday, following Musk’s Twitter rant and the earlier media reports, Tesla officials allegedly quietly revised the company’s books to add more names to the company’s list of worker injuries, including at least “13 injuries from 2017 that had been missing when Tesla certified its legally mandated injury report earlier this year.”

“Alaa Alkhafagi, for example, smashed his face and arm in the paint department last fall. He said he had been asked to perform a task for which he had no training,” reporter Will Evans wrote. “At the time of the injury, Tesla didn’t put Alkhafagi on official injury logs, even though the accident caused him to miss work. …By late April, Tesla had added him to the 2017 logs, dating his injury Oct. 1 and noting that he missed three days of work because of it.”

Evans flagged that the company “has yet to record all of the 2017 injuries it should have by law…[and] might not face a penalty for it.”

Tesla has claimed it was simply complying with state laws in adding the new cases to its list. “[W]e’ve added only a small fraction…to our 2017 logs, amounting to less than 2 percent of our 2017 injuries,” the company said in a statement to Reveal. “This is a normal part of ensuring our records are accurate. In fact, this is precisely what OSHA regulations require that companies do.”

Musk has not yet personally responded to the latest Reveal report on Twitter.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 29, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Melanie Schmitz is an editor at ThinkProgress. She formerly worked at Bustle and Romper.

Chemical Safety Board Dodges Trump’s Bullet Again

Friday, May 18th, 2018

But is the agency selling its soul?

The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Committee has not only (again) defied President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board, but the committee actually plans to add a million dollars to the agency’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget.  The Committee’s bill, released Monday, funds the CSB at $12 million, $1 million above the fiscal year 2018 level.  This is the second year in a row that Trump has proposed eliminating the CSB and the House has defied him.

That’s the good news. But in other news-of-the-weird, the CSB and the Chlorine Institute (CI) have issued a joint statement that, while providing some good advice (e.g. don’t scrimp on preventive maintenance), reads like an advertisement for the Institute:

CI regularly updates its written guidance for chlorine producers and users by working with its member companies to determine best practices and contracting external scientific expertise. Additionally, members share best practices during in-person meetings throughout the year. Typically, industry colleagues review highly detailed, technical, and specific safety best practices and together improve their own safety performance and that of the entire chlor-alkali industry. Similarly, there are numerous other industry conferences, classes, and organizations focused on particular issues such as corrosion, non-destructive testing or rupture disc replacement frequency among other topics.

Now, we all love these Kumbaya moments and everything, but remember, the mission of the CSB is to “drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect poeple (sic) and the environment.” This is not to say that the CSB shouldn’t praise an organization for its consensus standards or corporate practices — and the CSB often does — but usually based on evidence resulting from an investigation about an incident that is addressed by that standard or practice.

Will this joint statement make future CSB investigations appear to be less independent and less objective in the wake of an incident that involves the use of Chlorine Institute standards?  The impact of Board investigations rests largely on the perceived objectivity of its recommendations and anything that detracts from that objectivity — or even the appearance of objectivity — will undermine the CSB’s effectiveness.

To my knowledge, this is the first time the CSB has issued this type of joint statement and it’s unclear whether the full Board even voted on it.

Agencies charged with conducting objective investigations need to maintain objectivity and the appearance of objectivity at all times.  Joint statements like this endorsing an organization’s practices that may in the future be subject to an investigation, do not generate confidence in the process.

Meanwhile, in other news, CSB staff voted last month to organize a union with the American Federation of Government Employees. The vote was 10 to 5 out of a total of 19 eligible. The CSB has been plagued by internal issues over its entire lifetime and many employees are reportedly concerned about deskilling of their jobs, dumbing down of reports with a focus on the technical causes of an incident, rather than the root causes and recommendations related to the flawed regulatory and public policy environment that can more effectively address the ongoing serious industry incidents.  Close to one-third of CSB investigators left the agency in the last year mostly due to management issues, and no investigators have been hired to replace those that have left.  Perhaps the House budget bill will encourage the CSB to begin hiring again.

Bloomberg’s Occupational Safety and Health Reporter wrote about the CSB’s organizing issues last year.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 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).

Toiling Over a “Puddle of Blood”: Why These Warehouse Workers Are Standing Up to Abuses

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lent his support to the historic Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. Today, the safe working conditions that strikers fought for in 1968 remain elusive for low-wage workers in one Memphis warehouse.

Workers at the XPO Logistics warehouse in Memphis announced in early April that they had filed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging rampant abuse, including sexual harassment. On April 3, workers held a rally with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) to coincide with the filing of the EEOC complaint.

The complaint was triggered by an XPO worker’s death that co-workers attribute to company policies which restrict workers from leaving the job. In October 2017, Linda Neal, 58, died at work after passing out on the job. Workers allege that a supervisor denied Neal being given CPR by a co-worker. Medical reports confirmed that Neal died of a heart attack caused by cardiovascular disease.

XPO Logistics, based in Connecticut, has warehouses across the country and a market value of nearly $9 billion. The company provides transportation, delivery and logistics for Verizon, Ikea, Home Depot and other retailers. The Memphis warehouse has more than 300 permanent employees and more than 400 temporary workers.

Lakeisha Nelson, who has worked for XPO since 2014 and was close to Neal, tells In These Times, “[Neal] was a mother figure to a lot of us, and we had to become family in that building. We had to work over the puddle of blood that was left behind the next morning, and that hurt me to my core.”

Nelson believes company policy played a role in Neal’s death, recalling that an XPO supervisor would not allow Neal to leave work when she expressed she was feeling ill.

“She told them she wasn’t feeling well and this was just XPO’s policy,” says Nelson. “I don’t blame the supervisor, he was just doing his job. This is what he has to do in order to keep his job—don’t let anyone go home.”

“The only thing that’s important to XPO is them making money, and if it takes our lives to get their money, then our lives are expendable,” says Nelson. “And they tell us all, if you don’t like the way we do things, find another job. It’s very, very easy to get fired there.”

Staff workers have filed multiple complaints regarding safety hazards and dangerous working conditions, but little has been done by management to address them, according to Nelson.

Nelson says the building and ceiling are caving in while workers face harsh temperatures inside that fluctuate with the weather, and that sweaters are only allowed if they are purchased through the company.

The forgotten women of #MeToo

Sexual harassment at the company is another issue that has gone unsolved, despite attempts to get Human Resources involved, according to Nelson.

The warehouse has a history of sexual harassment. In 2015, New Breed Logistics, which was acquired by XPO in 2014, lost a $1.5 million dollar suit after a male supervisor sexually harassed three female temporary workers who were then terminated for refusing his advances.

Elizabeth Gedmark is a senior staff attorney for A Better Balance, an organization that promotes paid leave and other family-friendly policies, and which is supporting the Memphis warehouse workers. She says that low-wage workers are particularly at risk of harassment. 

“The notion that you can just quit and leave your job when you’re faced with sexual harassment or discrimination does not apply to a low-wage worker needing to get by living paycheck to paycheck,” Gedmark tells In These Times. “If she does file a complaint, she faces a very real likelihood of retaliation.

“They’re very much a part of the global #MeToo movement that’s not just about movie stars or wealthy women, it’s really about these women being put front and center, the hard-working, average women who too often go unnoticed.”

Next steps

Restrictive scheduling and time-off policies are also affecting XPO workers’ personal lives. Nelson claims that workers often do not know when their shift will end and have little to no notice of overtime.

Elizabeth Howley, 38, is the operational administrator for the Memphis warehouse and has been at the company for six years. Howley has also expressed concerns over poor working conditions, claiming workers have been forced to deal with bugs, snakes and other creatures infesting the workplace. But, she says, the strict hours are what have most driven emotional stress in her personal life.

Howley says that most of the women working at the warehouse are single mothers, and being separated from their families and children for long periods have taken a toll on them. When Howley’s oldest son dropped out of high school, she says, she was unable to get out of work to help get him back into school. 

“I’ve lost so much time with my children in the past five or six years being with this company and it hurts because my kids are in need of me and I can’t be there for them,” Howley tells In These Times. “I had to apologize, saying ‘I’m sorry, son, I don’t have PTO time to get you back into school.’”

The Memphis XPO warehouse workers are currently working with IBT to address these issues and improve the safety conditions and end the harassment that continues in their workplace. They are in the early stages of organizing, and IBT General President James P. Hoffa has pledged to back them in their union drive. They have also earned the support of civil and women’s rights groups such as the NAACP and National Women’s Law Center.

“Maybe by exposing XPO and the conditions that they make these workers work under will bring about a change,” Felicia Walker, an international organizer for IBT, tells In These Times. “These are human beings, not animals. There are laws to protect animals from that treatment, what about humans?”

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

About the Author: Mica Soellner is a journalist currently based in Washington D.C. She has written for a variety of global outlets and is interested in pursuing stories about issues in the workplace.

Production Over Safety at Tesla: “People are getting hurt every day”

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX and Tesla is a seriously strange and driven guy. That can be a good thing in some circumstances and even amusing if it’s your next door neighbor or crazy uncle. But when you own a major car company, it can mean workers getting hurt or killed. Last May we wrote about a report chronicling Tesla’s poor safety record. And things apparently aren’t getting any better.

After interviewing more than three dozen current and former employees and managers — including five former members of its environment, health and safety team —  and reviewing hundreds of pages of documents, a major investigative piece by Will Evans and Alyssa Jeong Perry at Reveal and the Center for Investigative reporting found that Tesla is ignoring major health and safety issues in their Fremont, California plant and is making the company’s injury numbers look better than they actually are by repeatedly failing to report some of its serious injuries on legally mandated OSHA reports.

Why? Production over safety:  “Everything took a back seat to production,” according to Justine White, a former safety lead, “It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets killed.”

Almost every day there is an article describing Tesla’s failure to meet its self imposed deadline for delivery of its moderately priced Model 3. And Musk seems to be taking out on his employees.

Elon Doesn’t Want Signs

And second, as I mentioned above, Elon Musk is a seriously weird guy who doesn’t like yellow lines on the floor (that set pedestrian safety lanes to avoid fork lifts) or clutter caused by safety signs, or noise caused by back-up beepers. So unpleasant!

In her March 2017 resignation letter, White recounted the time she told her boss, Seth Woody, “that the plant layout was extremely dangerous to pedestrians.” Woody, head of the safety team, told her “that Elon didn’t want signs, anything yellow (like caution tape) or to wear safety shoes in the plant” and acknowledged it “was a mess,” she wrote.

So what are we talking about? Exposure to un-monitored toxic chemicals, heavy manual lifting because mechanical lifts are too slow, lack of training, musculoskeletal injuries and on and on. 

Elon didn’t want signs, anything yellow (like caution tape) or to wear safety shoes in the plant

There’s this:

Last April, Tarik Logan suffered debilitating headaches from the fumes of a toxic glue he had to use at the plant. He texted his mom: “I’m n hella pain foreal something ain’t right.” The searing pain became so unbearable he couldn’t work, and it plagued him for weeks.

But Logan’s inhalation injury, as it was diagnosed, never made it onto the official injury logs that state and federal law requires companies to keep. Neither did reports from other factory workers of sprains, strains and repetitive stress injuries from piecing together Tesla’s sleek cars. Instead, company officials labeled the injuries personal medical issues or minor incidents requiring only first aid, according to internal company records obtained by Reveal.

And this:

When building Tesla’s other cars, former workers said they had to sacrifice their bodies to save time. Some workers, for example, lifted heavy car seats over their shoulders because the mechanical assists designed to ease the load were too slow, said Joel Barraza, a former production associate.

“People would carry a seat because they’d be like, ‘Oh, I gotta get this done.’ I personally carried a seat,” Barraza said. “They’re supposed to move. Move it on, move it on, keep the line going.”

White, the former safety lead, also said workers sometimes lifted seats manually, but Tesla, in a statement, said it doesn’t happen.

A former Tesla safety professional … said the company systematically undercounted injuries by mislabeling them

And this:

A former Tesla safety professional … said the company systematically undercounted injuries by mislabeling them. “I saw injuries on there like broken bones and lacerations that they were saying were not recordable” as injuries, said the safety professional, who asked to remain anonymous. “I saw a lot of stuff that was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ ”

Even where supervisors labeled an injury job-related, it often didn’t get recorded on OSHA logs:

For a dozen examples provided to the company by Reveal, Tesla stood by its decision to not count them. It said workers may have thought they were injured because of their jobs, and supervisors may have assumed the same. But later, Tesla said, a medical professional – sometimes contracted or affiliated with the company – determined there was no connection to work.

 “It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets killed.”  – Justine White, former Tesla safety lead

And then there are injuries suffered by temporary workers. Companies must count those injuries if they supervise the temps:

At one point, though, White said she asked her supervisor why the injury rate seemed off, and he told her they weren’t counting temp worker injuries.

“They knew they were reporting incorrect numbers,” White said. “Those workers were being injured on the floor and that wasn’t being captured, and they knew that.”

Tesla began to fix that problem in 2017, former employees said, but it’s unclear how consistently.

After workers requested the company’s injury logs last year, Tesla amended its original 2016 report to add 135 injuries that hadn’t been counted previously. The company said it changed the numbers after it discovered injuries that hadn’t been shared with Tesla by its temp agencies.

Average Isn’t Good Enough…Until It Is

Now, we wrote about the health and safety problems at Tesla last year after Worksafe, a California-based organization that works to prevent injury, illness, and death, issued a report finding that the rate of serious worker injuries at Tesla’s Fremont, California plant was approximately double the auto industry rate for 2015. Tesla rebutted that in 2017, Tesla’s overall injury rate was dramatically better in the first quarter of the year. And Musk later stated that even being “average” wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted to be better than average:

Last year, Musk claimed in a staffwide email and at a shareholder meeting that the company’s injury rate was much better than the industry average. A company blog post said that to be average would be “to go backwards.”

Then Tesla apparently did hit reverse.

“Our 2017 data showed that we are at industry average, so we’re happy about that,” Shelby said, explaining the earlier claims as a “snapshot in time.”

A Calculated Disinformation Campaign Driven by Extremists

So how did Tesla respond to the Reveal investigation? Maybe something like “thanks for pointing out these serious problems. We will do whatever is necessary, no matter the cost, to fix them?”

Not exactly. More like a statement accusing Reveal of being a tool in an ongoing unionization drive and portraying “a completely false picture of Tesla and what it is actually like to work here.”

“In our view, what they portray as investigative journalism is in fact an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla.”

Well at least they didn’t call the Reveal journalists “slime bags.”

The UAW has been trying to organize the plant for some time. The authors of the article noted that “Some of the workers who spoke to Reveal have supported the unionization effort, while many others – including safety professionals – had no involvement.”

Volks Redux

And one more thing that wasn’t mentioned in the article. You all may remember last March when Congress repealed OSHA’s Volks regulation that would have allowed OSHA to continue enforcing a requirement that employers maintain accurate injury and illness records for a period of five years.  What that means is that in this case, let’s say OSHA launches an inspection of Tesla on May 1 and finds dozens or hundreds of cases of chronically and deliberately inaccurate recording of injuries and illnesses over the past five years. And let’s say it then takes OSHA four months to issue a citation. Due to the repeal of the Volks rule, OSHA would only be able to cite inaccurate recordkeeping for the months of March and April 2018, and most like issue a tiny penalty.

As we’ve described before, OSHA has in the past used large recordkeeping citations to drive major health and safety improvements in large companies and throughout entire industries. But no more. Thanks Trump (and Ryan and McConnell)

Now, of course, Tesla is in California and is under CalOSHA’s authority, not federal OSHA’s authority.  It’s unclear to me whether the Volks case, which limited OSHA recordkeeping citations to six months, applies in California. (Those who know the answer, feel free to use the comment link below.)

I Can’t Sleep Here at Tesla

Former safety lead Justine White’s story says everything there is to say about Tesla’s approach to workplace safety:

A few months into her job, White became so alarmed that she wrote to a human resources manager that “the risk of injury is too high. People are getting hurt every day and near-hit incidents where people are getting almost crushed or hit by cars is unacceptable.”

The next day, she emailed Sam Teller, Musk’s chief of staff, that safety team leaders were failing to address the hazards.

“I know what can keep a person up at night regarding safety,” she wrote. “I must tell you that I can’t sleep here at Tesla.”

She said she never heard back from Musk’s office. She transferred departments and quit a couple months later, disillusioned.

Meanwhile, we hear that CalOSHA has opened a new inspection at Tesla.

Stay tuned.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on April 18, 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 Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Are Still Relevant 107 Years Later

Monday, March 26th, 2018

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the impacted area. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. Thirty minutes later, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon at the time. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for those lost at Triangle.

Three months later, responding to pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely revamping New York State’s labor protections and creating a state Department of Labor to enforce them. During the Roosevelt administration, Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

The shirtwaist makers’ story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. And while there have been successes along the way, the problems that led to the Triangle fire are still present today. It was just five years ago, for instance, that the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As worker health and safety continues to be a significant issue both in the United States and abroad, the AFL-CIO took a strong stand at our 2017 Convention, passing a resolution on worker safety:

The right to a safe job is a fundamental worker right and a core union value. Every worker should be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

Throughout our entire history, through organizing, bargaining, education, legislation and mobilization, working people and their unions have fought for safe and healthful working conditions to protect workers from injury, illnesses and death. We have made real progress, winning strong laws and protections that have made jobs safer and saved workers’ lives.

Over the years, our fight has gotten harder as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. We haven’t backed down. Most recently, after decades-long struggles, joining with allies we won groundbreaking standards to protect workers from silica, beryllium and coal dust, and stronger protections for workers to report injuries and exercise other safety and health rights.

Now all these hard-won gains are threatened. President Trump and many Republicans in Congress have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections.

The worker protections under assault include:

  • Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts funding for the Department of Labor by 21%, including a 40% cut in job training for low-income adults, youth, and dislocated workers and the elimination of the Labor Department’s employment program for older workers.
  • The budget also proposes to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, eliminate OSHA’s worker training program and cut funding for coal mine enforcement, while proposing a 22% increase for the Office of Labor-Management Standards’ oversight of unions.
  • The budget also proposes to slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s job safety research budget by 40%, to move NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to remove the World Trade Center Health Program from NIOSH’s direction.
  • OSHA delayed the effective date of the final beryllium standard originally issued in January 2017. Then it delayed enforcement of the standard until May 11, 2018. In June 2017, OSHA proposed to weaken the beryllium rule as it applies to the construction and maritime industries.
  • OSHA delayed enforcement of the silica standard in construction, which in December was fully upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • OSHA delayed the requirement for employers to electronically report summary injury and illness information to the agency set to go into effect on July 1, 2017, until December 31, 2017. OSHA has announced it intends to issue a proposal to revise or revoke some provisions of the rule.
  • OSHA withdrew its policy that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA enforcement inspections on their behalf.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration delayed the mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines from May 23, 2017, until Oct. 2, 2017, and then again until March 2, 2018. MSHA also proposed weakening changes to the rule, including delaying mine inspections until after work has begun, instead of before work commences.
  • In November 2017, MSHA announced it would revisit the 2014 Coal Dust standard to examine its effectiveness and whether it should be modified to be less burdensome on industry. This comes at the same time NIOSH reported 400 cases of advanced black lung found by three clinics in Kentucky.
  • OSHA withdrew over a dozen rules from the regulatory agenda, including standards on combustible dust, styrene, 1-bromopropane, noise in construction and an update of permissible exposure limits.
  • The agency also suspended work on critical OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases, process safety management and emergency preparedness.
  • MSHA withdrew rules on civil penalties and refuge alternatives in coal mines from the regulatory agenda and suspended work on new standards on silica and proximity detection systems for mobile mining equipment.

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy took place 107 years ago today. We have a long way to go to make sure that we prevent the next such tragedy and keep working people safe and healthy.

Supreme Court to Decide Fate of Public Employee Unions: Worker Safety Is At Risk

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

One of the most significant cases for workers in recent history is coming before the Supreme Court next week. Janus vs. AFSCME will determine whether “workers who are not members of unions representing teachers, police, firefighters and certain other government employees must pay to help cover the costs of collective bargaining with state and local governments.”  Currently workers are able to refuse to pay that portion of dues that go to political activities.  If Janus wins, workers would not even have to pay that portion of dues that goes to bargaining expenses and defending workers rights. Non-members would still enjoy the benefits of union contracts and representation, however.

Janus and his supporters are hiding behind “freedom of speech” arguments, but their real agenda is weakening public sector unions by taking away their ability to collect dues.  Destroying the labor movement in this country has long been a goal of most Republicans and  the right wing  — mainly in order to weaken one of the Democrats’ most powerful backers.  The right-leaning court is expected to rule in favor of Janus. A similar case came before the court two years ago, but resulted in a 4-4 tie after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans’ refusal to allow Obama to appoint a new justice enabled Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch and a probable majority against public employee unions –a decision that will weaken the entire labor movement.

A ruling against public unions is unlikely to have a direct impact on unionized employees of private businesses, because the First Amendment restricts government action and not private conduct. But unions now represent only 6.5 percent of private sector employees, down from the upper teens in the early 1980s, and most of the labor movement’s strength these days is in the public sector.

Public employees do the hard work that makes this country worth living in, but they’re treated as second class citizens.

Public employees — health care workers, teachers, wastewater treatment plant workers, highway workers, firefighters, police, etc — do the hard work that makes this country worth living in, but they’re treated as second class citizens. There is no national right to collective bargaining for public employees, so states decide whether government workers get to have a union or not. That right can be given, and, as we saw recently in Wisconsin, that right can be taken away.

Public employees were also not covered by OSHA. State plan states are required to cover public employees and other states can choose to establish a public employee OSHA program with half the funding coming from the feds, but only five states have chosen to do so. That leaves 23 states and 8 million public employees who have no right to a safe workplace in this country, even thought they do work that is as dangerous as private sector workers, and suffer injuries and illnesses at a higher rate.

An AFL-CIO report notes, for example, that

Workplace violence events disproportionately occur among public employees. The incidence rate of injuries caused by workplace violence was more than 675% higher for state government workers (31.2 per 10,000 workers) than the rate for private industry workers (4.0). The incidence rate of violence for local government workers (23.0 per 10,000 workers) was 475% higher than for private industry workers.

Lack of OSHA coverage makes union representation even more important for public employees, a feature noted in a New York Times article today that discussed the Janus case. Illinois AFSCME local union President Randy Clover, who voted for Trump, opposes Janus.

Mr. Clover said his union had done invaluable work, notably in ensuring workers’ safety. He gave an example from his workplace, a maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill people caught up in the criminal justice system.

“The only thing we have is our hands to protect ourselves,” he said, “and we have handcuffs we can put on an individual if they are so out of control you cannot control them without somebody facing injury.”

When the state tried to ban the use of handcuffs to transport patients, Mr. Clover said, “the union went to battle for us.” The handcuffs stayed.

But, the Times notes, Janus’s lawyers argue that even safety should be considered “lobbying on questions of public policy and that unwilling workers should not be made to subsidize it.”

But make no mistake. Behind the façade of freedom of speech is a raw power play to weaken the labor movement and workers’ rights in this country — including the right to come home alive and healthy at the end of the work day.

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

Trump puts public, workers at risk as he tries again to eliminate nation’s chemical safety agency

Monday, February 5th, 2018

As part of his administration’s rollback of key safety and environmental protections, President Donald Trump wants to eliminate the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency with a strong record of improving public safety. The proposed gutting of the agency comes as the Trump administration seeks to give a boost to the nation’s petrochemical industry as part of its “energy dominance” agenda.

As with his FY 2018 budget, Trump’s new budget proposal will call for wiping out the Chemical Safety Board’s entire $12 million budget, Bloomberg News reportedThursday. The agency is charged with investigating major chemical fires, explosions, leaks, and other accidents.

The Chemical Safety Board, with its relatively small budget, plays an oversized role among federal agencies. In 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the agency was on the frontlines, looking into a fire and explosions at a chemical facility, owned by French company Arkema Inc., northeast of Houston. Fifteen sheriff’s deputies were sent to the hospital on the morning of August 31, 2017, after responding to the chemical fire and falling ill in the middle of the road.

The board was created as part of the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 and began operations in 1998. The agency’s recommendations are often adopted by industry and government agencies. For example, the agency, with only 40 staff, investigated the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and has performed more than 130 investigations since it began operations in 1998. The agency is modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates plane crashes and other major accidents. Like the NTSB, the Chemical Safety Board is an independent agency.

Most recently, Chemical Safety Board staff traveled to Oklahoma to investigate a natural gas well explosion that killed five workers. The agency is currently reviewing information about the drill site and plans to interview eyewitnesses and others who were present beginning next week, it said Wednesday in a statement.

The United States averages more than 1,000 industrial chemical accidents each year, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group that investigates reports of environmental crimes from government employees. Throughout its history, the agency has responded primarily to incidents with high consequences, including fatalities, injuries, more than $500,000 in facility damage, or significant environmental or community impact.

Starting in 2010, the agency prioritized eliminating an investigation backlog. The backlog peaked at about 22 open cases in June 2010 following the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig explosion and fire. In January 2016, a year before President Barack Obama left office, the number of open investigations has been reduced to seven.

Last year, after the agency learned of its proposed elimination under Trump’s FY 2018 budget, Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland issued a statement expressing extreme disappointment with the president’s proposal.

“For over 20 years, the CSB has conducted hundreds of investigations of high consequence chemical incidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon and West Fertilizer disasters,” Sutherland said. “Our investigations and recommendations have had an enormous effect on improving public safety.”

The agency’s recommendations resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across Mississippi. “The American public is safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB,” she said.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog