Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘health and safety’

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.

Dairy workers call on Ben and Jerry’s to give them better hours and fair wages

Friday, April 7th, 2017

This week, dairy workers are using an annual ice cream giveaway day by Ben and Jerry’s to bring awareness to the long, hard hours and low wages that many in the industry face.

In the state of Vermont and across the country, dairy workers and supporters of migrant farmworkers rallied outside the ice cream company’s storefronts on Tuesday to call attention to what they say are human rights abuses in the dairy supply chain.

Migrant workers called on Ben and Jerry’s—a company known for its progressive values—to implement the “Milk with Dignity” program as part of an agreement the company signed in 2015 to ensure that the cooperatives supplying the milk would improve the quality of life for migrant workers, such as providing a weekly day off, improving health and safety conditions, and alleviating overcrowded housing issues, among other labor conditions.

Two years out, Ben and Jerry’s has yet to implement the initiative despite sourcing its milk from cooperatives that may not care about the abuses of dairy workers. The ice cream company also placed partial blame on the advocacy group Migrant Justice for being slow to finalize the draft agreement.

“We’ve been working diligently with them since then on the details of how to successfully operationalize the program, which still needs finalizing,” a recent Ben and Jerry’s statement read. “We strongly support the goals of Milk with Dignity and believe that a worker led program is the best way to protect the rights and dignity of the workers on Vermont’s dairy farms. We remain committed to the agreement we signed and are continuing to work towards a successful conclusion with Migrant Justice.”

Thelma Gomez, a Migrant Justice member, is one of many Vermont dairy workers who want to see better conditions for people in their industry. Her husband, who works on a dairy farm that sells to the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, which Ben and Jerry’s buys from, has worked seven days a week for the past two years because he doesn’t have any days off from work. As a result, he has missed out on crucial life milestones of their twin three-year-old daughters.

Gomez’s husband is far from alone. According to a 2014 survey of 172 dairy farmworkers across the state of Vermont, 40 percent of workers said they didn’t get weekly days off. Another 40 percent said they weren’t paid the Vermont state minimum wage; farmworkers aren’t covered by federal and most states’ wage laws. And 30 percent of workers reported overcrowded housing.

The dairy industry has come to rely on undocumented immigrant labor partly because Americans don’t want to do the work, but also because agricultural visas only cover seasonal work, which excludes the year-round dairy work process. As a result, some of the 1,500 immigrant dairy workforce in Vermont are exploited by employers to conduct harsh labor.

“These are undocumented workers who are filling this labor need because farms in Vermont have had to grow and consolidate in order to deal with the fluctuating prices in the industry,” Will Lambeck, a staff member with the Migrant Justice, told ThinkProgress. “[Farms] are growing but they’re still relying on cheap labor to get the job done, relying on workers who will work 60, 70, 80 hours a week without breaks, without days off, for what’s often pay below minimum wage.”

“Those are, by and large, undocumented workers,” Lambeck added.

Advocate Enrique “Kike” Balcazar (pronounced “Kee-kay”), a 24-year-old Mexican immigrant, helped establish the “Milk with Dignity” program at Migrant Justice because he wanted to change the 60-to-80 hour work weeks that he regularly faced. Most recently, he made national news after the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency detained him as he was leaving the Migrant Justice office. Balcazar has since been released on bail and is now awaiting a hearing before an immigration judge.

Though Lambeck would not comment on Balcazar’s immigration status, he believes ICE agents may have targeted Balcazar because he is a prominent organizer and frequently shows up for immigrant rights events.

The Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies have broadened enforcement priorities and empowered ICE agents to cast a wider net. Lambeck said he believes that the recent detention of Balcazar along with two other Vermont dairy workers was an intentional tactic to force immigrants to continue feeling “persecuted” and “precarious.”

“What ICE and the federal government wants, isn’t to deport every single immigrant in the country because they know that this country needs the labor of immigrant workers,” Lambeck said. “What the motivation of these sorts of attacks is and the federal policy behind them, is to create a class of that are so persecuted and so precarious in their status in this country that they accept conditions that they otherwise would not.”

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on April 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Esther Yu-Hsi Lee is the Immigration Reporter for ThinkProgress. She received her B.A. in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a M.A. in Psychology from New York University. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary, Esther is passionate about immigration issues from all sides of the debate. She is also a White House Champion of Change recipient. Esther is originally from Los Angeles, CA. Contact her at EYLEE@thinkprogress.org.

Tyson Foods Fined $263,000 Over Unsafe Working Conditions In Poultry Plant

Friday, August 26th, 2016
Bryce Covert
The government just cracked down on the country’s largest meat and poultry processor for endangering its employees.
It all began with a report to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of a finger amputation at a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Texas. OSHA investigators determined the worker’s finger got stuck in an unguarded conveyer belt when he was trying to remove chicken parts that had gotten jammed in it.

But once inspectors got there, they realized the problems at the Tyson plant went far beyond one injured hand. They discovered more than a dozen serious violations, including failing to provide protective equipment, a lack of safety guards on moving machines that left employees exposed to a risk of amputation, letting carbon dioxide levels surpass the permissible limit, and no training for workers about the hazards of peracetic acid, a highly hazardous chemical that’s used as a disinfectant, which can cause burns and respiratory diseases. Workers are also at risk of slipping and falling due to a lack of adequate drainage and exposed to fire hazards from improperly stored compressed gas cylinders.

OSHA announced on Tuesday that it was fining the company $263,498 for two repeated and 15 serious violations, including improper drainage, holes in the floor left without guards, a lack of guards on dangerous machinery, obstructed fire exits, and storing chemicals in a hazardous manner.

CREDIT: Earl Dotter/Oxfam America

In response, Tyson said in a statement, “We never want to see anyone hurt on the job, which is why we’re committed to continual improvement in our workplace safety efforts. We fully cooperated with OSHA’s inspection of our Center plant and intend to meet with OSHA officials in an effort to resolve these claims.”

OSHA’s enforcement actions come as part of the agency’s recent focus on the poultry industry. And it also comes after a number of reports have exposed the gruesome conditions that workers must endure inside these plants.

In a report released in October, Oxfam America found that line processing speeds have increased drastically, with an official upper level of 140 birds per minute but with the possibility of going even higher if supervisors who run the lines decide to speed it up. Workers told Oxfam they process 35 to 45 birds per minute. Meanwhile, they must perform multiple motions on each bird, such as cutting, hacking, hanging, pulling, and twisting, repeatedly and forcefully 20,000 times a day.

The speed and repetitive motions combine to create a number of physical problems, such as pain in fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, and backs, as well as swelling, numbness, tingling, twitching, stiffness, and a loss of grip.

Workers also told Oxfam that they were frequently exposed to harsh chemicals, such as chlorine and ammonia, used to clean up the blood and other drippings from the birds.

The conditions lead to widespread injuries and illnesses. Poultry plant workers experience repetitive strain at 10 times the rate of the overall workforce, carpal tunnel at seven times the overall rate, and musculoskeletal disorders at five times the rate.

CREDIT: Oxfam America

“While the findings from this plant in Texas are disturbing, they’re not surprising,” said Oliver Gottfried, Oxfam’s senior campaign strategist, in a statement. “The repeated and serious violations exposed during this investigation corroborate conditions Oxfam has heard from workers at a half-dozen Tyson plants across the country.”

Oxfam’s findings were backed up in May, when the Government Accountability Office released its own report. It found that poultry and meat workers are at twice the risk of being injured on the job compared to other American workers, and they experience higher illness rates than other manufacturing employees. Many poultry workers report respiratory issues thanks to breathing in chlorine. There is also a high rate of deaths, with 151 poultry workers dying on the job between 2004 and 2013.

Workers must put up with other torturous conditions. A big problem is the lack of breaks to go to the bathroom and eat meals. Because they have to get a supervisor’s permission to leave the line and another employee to cover their spots, workers report often waiting an hour or more to get a break to relieve themselves. To cope, some say they have severely cut back on drinking liquids or even started wearing diapers.

For putting up with these hellish conditions, workers are rewarded very poorly. Average hourly pay is $11 an hour, which comes to between $20,000 and $25,000 a year, qualifying workers with children for food stamps and other government assistance programs. For every consumer dollar spent on a chicken product, a worker will see just two cents.

Tyson now has 15 days to either address the violations and pay the fines or contest them. But OSHA doesn’t have a great track record in getting the full amount it originally fines companies, as they are often able to contest and reduce them to sums that amount to a slap on the wrist. It’s rare to even get an OSHA inspection, as the agency is so under-budgeted and understaffed that a given workplace only sees a federal inspector once every 139 years.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on August 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

Research Raises More Toxic Health Concerns for Popcorn Workers

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Michelle ChenThe aroma of hot buttered popcorn evokes all sorts of childhood nostalgia, but for many workers, those savory vapors pose a modern industrial health hazard.

Evidence has been building over the years of a respiratory illness primarily afflicting factory workers exposed to the microwave-popcorn butter flavorant, diacetyl (DA). Now, researchers have discovered another potential hazard related to DA: long-term risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Drug Design studied the effect of the “ubiquitous butter-?avoring agent” and detected an association with “long-term neurological toxicity,” particularly among industrial workers who are smothered in the stuff every day.

The federal government has in recent years urged the industry to limit potentially toxic workplace exposures to DA, but it has not defined an explicit regulatory exposure limit. Federal authorities have published advisories for employers to control DA exposure, but like many chemicals wafting across the country’s assembly lines and pervading our processed foods, DA (and similar chemical substitutes) are still amply used, with little restriction on behalf of public health.

Dr. Swati More, one of the study’s authors, says the findings should raise concerns that, in addition to posing respiratory risks, DA exposure “may lead to brain deterioration. The question that needs to be answered is, how much of diacetyl does one need to consume and for how long.”

Though the University of Minnesota study focuses on long-term effects related to beta-amyloid protein clumping in the brain, and was conducted at only the cellular level (not on humans), it adds to a growing body of research on the toxic impacts linked to DA exposure. Academic, media and government investigations have revealed both anecdotal and epidemiological evidence of “popcorn lung.”

The main occupational health issue surrounding popcorn lung, which has been acknowledged by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is bronchiolitis obliterans. (There is also some evidence of respiratory risk for extreme popcorn eaters.)

An extensive 2006 investigation by the Baltimore Sun’s Andrew Schneider revealed the potential health harms linked to DA exposure at workplaces. On top of the buttery scourge, which could impact many thousands nationwide, was the barrier of intimidation that workers felt under the pressure of their bosses:

The difficulty of assessing workplace illness is further complicated by employees who fear reprisal for complaining about hazards to anyone and by physicians who lack the training to recognize bronchiolitis obliterans and other occupational threats. ….

Their wellbeing falls to physicians, scientists and industrial hygienists trained in occupational medicine, which is the study of workplace hazards — chemical and otherwise. They are the ones who have linked lung disease to exposure to flavorings.

The report notes that efforts to protect workers were constrained by the industry’s tight grip over the regulatory regime. DA was among the many chemicals that the FDA labeled as “Generally Regarded as Safe,” but according to the Sun, “[The FDA] took the word of a panel of scientists hired by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturing Association. Diacetyl was declared safe decades ago because the industry said it was safe, according to a spokesman for the FDA.”

This kind of bureaucratic opacity trickles down to the workers on the factory floor in a devastating way. A 2007 Washington Post story described a worker from a California flavoring factory, Irma Ortiz, who was crippled by the mysterious illness:

Ortiz kept working until one day in December 2005 when she felt, she said, “I put all my strength into the job and I can’t do no more.”…

“Before, I used to do a lot of exercise. I ran from place to place,” she said, her sentences broken into panting phrases as if she were hiking a steep hill. Now, she does not like to be in public because long, body-shaking coughing fits could overcome her at any time. …

The loss of her $17-an-hour job makes keeping up with house payments difficult, said Ortiz’s husband, Victor Mancia.

They are waiting for a lung transplant. “I was perfectly fine when I started,” Ortiz said. “I want to be the same. But my doctor says I’m not going to be the same.”

While the regulatory process on the federal level has stagnated, California has moved ahead by issuing a rule on occupational flavoring exposures.

Dr. Celeste Monforton, a professor at the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health at George Washington University, says the latest research on the popcorn-Alzheimer’s connection is not likely to spur further federal action on popcorn flavoring, as regulators are already focused (though still largely inactive) on the larger epidemiological studies on respiratory effects due to workplace exposures. But Monforton, who has worked with scientific colleagues to press for stronger regulation of DA, sees the results as further proof of how industrial chemicals shape people’s health in ways that researchers have only begun to explore.

“We have this regulatory system, or market system, that basically says, ‘We can expose people to whatever the hell we want, and then, if we find out something’s bad about it, some smart researchers out there will figure out what it’s going to do to you,’” Monforton says.

The diacetyl dilemma, she adds, “is probably one of the worst-best examples of how screwed up our worker protection system is.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 9, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Working Women’s Bodies Besieged by Environmental Injustice

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Michelle ChenFrom birth control pills to equal pay, women are a favorite target in the country’s most heated political wars. But a much quieter struggle is being waged over women’s bodies in their neighborhoods and workplaces, where a minefield of pollutants threaten working mothers and their children.

According to new research from the the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, working pregnant women who are exposed on the job to toxins known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are more likely to have children with gastroschisis, a rare birth defect in which the intestines stick out from the baby’s body, generally requiring surgical repair.

The study, summarized by Environmental Health News, reveals a distinct link between women’s occupational exposure and the prevalence of the defect: “mothers who were exposed to PAHs had 1.5 times the risk of having a baby with gastroschisis compared to women who were not exposed to PAHs at work.”

While this is a rare defect, the troubling context of these findings is the prevalence of PAH pollution in women’s workplaces. The researchers noted, “assessing workplace exposure to PAHs is important because ‘more than 95 percent of employed women in the United States remain employed during pregnancy’ and ‘an increasing number of women are being exposed in their jobs to chemicals that can harm the fetus.’” The researchers especially noted exposures among women working as “cashiers in fast food restaurants.”

PAH’s are an ubiquitous byproduct of everyday combustible materials like oil and coal. Studies have linked the contamination they cause when burned and churned into the atmosphere with health problems that can shape a kid’s entire upbringing, ranging from developmental disabilities to childhood obesity.

A separate study on women in New York City linked prenatal PAH exposure to behavioral issues that could pose a lifelong burden. Researchers with the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found a connection between a pregnant woman’s exposure to PAH-laden air and the chances that her child will by age 6 or 7 show mental health symptoms such as anxiety or attention problems. These long-term behavioral patterns, the researchers wrote, “suggest an adverse impact of prenatal PAH exposure… that could impact cognitive development and ability to learn.”

The ramifications of toxic childhood environments are a global issue. A 2010 study on women in Krakow, Poland, revealed similar impacts of PAH exposure in the womb, with a significant effect on intelligence tests at age 5.

To environmental justice activists, the synergy between pollution and social hardship intersects with barriers surrounding urban communities. Environmental hazards compound the burdens that already shadow children growing up in disadvantaged communities: poverty, gaps in healthcare and education, racial segregation.

The recent Columbia study, which focused on New York City women of black and Dominican descent, noted that “Urban, minority populations in the U.S. often have disproportionate exposure to air pollution.” According to ABC News, the investigators also accounted for other issues associated with the stresses and hazards urban life–like exposure to secondhand smoke and the mother’s mental health (“demoralization” was one potential factor)–which can also shape children’s development.

Much of this environnmental research focuses on everyday exposures, not work-related pollution specifically. But in unhealthy workplaces, there’s a unique convergence of economic, gender and environmental injustice. The economic and ecological abuses looming over working-class women on the job each day may pose crippling costs for the whole family.

Urban environmental justice advocates recognize that workplace protections, especially for working moms and women of childbearing age, are critical for community health. Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of the Harlem-based environmental group WE ACT, says, “It’s a good thing to avoid creating a dynamic where a worker has to choose between their health and their livelihood. It’s like forcing someone to choose between either having a heart or having lungs.”

Dr. Shanna Swan, a professor of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says more research is needed on the intersection between workplace health and the everyday exposures that encircle expecting mothers in struggling communities:

This is an important and understudied area, especially since exposures are usually far higher in the occupational setting than those to which the general public is exposed, and because the period of fetal development is the most sensitive window; developmental damage during this time is irreversible. We have just begun to recognize that this may be a sensitive window, not only the developing fetus, but for the pregnant woman herself, since she is subject to the stress of pregnancy, workplace stress and likely the added stress of low socioeconomic status. All of these may contribute to adverse development for the fetus and challenges to the woman’s own health.

The right rallies to defend the sanctity of “the unborn” while vilifying women for trying to exercise reproductive choices in response to socioeconomic realities. This is the same kind of rhetoric that assaults environmental regulation, healthcare programs, and labor protections that alleviate gender inequity. So the ideology that claims to honor life actually militates against the right to a healthy childhood and safe community. Women’s bodies carry the burden of this hypocrisy, and the next generation will bear the fruits of the injustice.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on June 8, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

After 8 Years of Bush Neglect, Job Safety Gets New Boost from Obama, Solis

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Image: Mike HallA little more than a year after taking office, the Obama administration and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have taken significant steps to repair the damage to workplace safety and health left behind after eight years of the Bush administration.

With Workers Memorial Day (April 28) approaching, this is a good time to look at the progress made since the “the new sheriff” hit town. (Click here for fact sheets, fliers, posters, stickers and other Workers Memorial Day materials.)

As Esther Kaplan writes in the Nation:

During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse.

For eight years under the Bush Administration, corporate officials and management representatives headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Bush’s first MSHA head, David Lauriski, was chief safety officer at Emery Mining’s Wilberg, Utah, mine in 1984 when an explosion killed 27 coal miners. The blast,  says Kaplan, “was later attributed to numerous violations at the mine.”

The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record…Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under [the] Clinton [administration], advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with industry.

Today, MSHA is headed up by Joe Main who began work in the mines when he was 19, became a local union safety committeeman, a safety inspector in the Mine Workers (UMWA) Safety and Health Department and eventually is director.

At OSHA, Bush’s last administrator, Edwin Foulke, was former partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis. He so strongly opposed workplace safety and health laws The New York Times labeled him “an antiregulatory ideologue.”

Contrast Foulke with David Michaels, Obama’s choice as OSHA administrator. Michaels is an occupational safety and health expert, co-founder of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and epidemiologist at George Washington University.

Under Bush, OSHA and MSHA emphasized voluntary compliance programs over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health regulations. When they issued penalties, the employers often negotiated down the fines, which were negligible to begin with.

Now, both OSHA and MSHA have stepped up enforcement, assessing large penalties against employers with serious, repeated and willful violations. In October, OSHA levied the largest fine in its history-$87 million against BP Products for failing to correct the safety problems that caused a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people at a Texas City oil refinery.

OSHA also is strengthening its enforcement program to focus more on repeated violators and to develop corporate-wide approaches to enforcement.  It’s launched a national investigation in the under reporting of injuries and employer practices that discourage workers from reporting job injuries.

During the eight-year run of the Bush administration, not only did OSHA and MSHA put the brakes on new safety and health rules laws in the pipeline when they took office, neither agency issued any new standard unless forced by the courts or Congress. OSHA is now moving forward with rules on silica, cranes and derricks, hazard communication, combustible dust and other workplace hazards.

The Bush administration presided over the repeal of the nation’s first ergonomics standard and made it so that OSHA’s hands tied to set a new ergonomics rule. But the agency now has proposed changes in the injury recordkeeping rule to reinstate a requirement, repealed by the Bush administration, for employers to identify musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the workplace injury log.

At MSHA, new rules to limit exposure to coal dust and silica and to address increases in lung disease among miners are top priorities. Main also told Kaplan that MSHA will identify the top risk factors  that lead to mining deaths and injuries and help educate mining companies on how to eliminate them, but not as a substitute for enforcement.

We’ll provide assistance to the mine operators who do need it, .but never as a replacement to the enforcement tools. There was some confusion about that in recent years. I’m not confused about that.

Both safety agencies suffered drastic cuts in budget and personnel (especially in inspection and personnel) under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has restored those cuts and its FY 2011 budget includes some modest increases.

Employers’ rights appeared paramount in the Bush OSHA and MSHA. Today both agencies have established programs focusing on workers’ rights, including whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections and better worker access to fatality and injury.

The Obama administration also is backing congressional efforts to improve workplace safety and health laws, including the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which toughens penalties, expands OSHA coverage to public-sector workers, strengthens anti-discrimination protections and expands workers’ rights.

It’s likely the same corporate and Republican forces that blocked improvements in workplace safety and health will fight this legislation and each and every new safety initiative.

So this Workers Memorial Day, along with honoring workers killed and injured on the job and demanding good, safe jobs with decent wages, health and retirement security and a voice on the job, workers will continue the fight for strong new safety and health protections.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on March 18, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

Putting Wage Theft on the Map (Literally)

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Image: Adam KaderWorkers employed in low-wage and poorly regulated industries (most prominently restaurants, residential construction, domestic cleaning, and mechanics) are confronted with staggering exploitation as employers look to cut corners in today’s recession. Such exploitation includes health and safety violations, discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, firing for participating in union activity, and wage theft—failure to pay workers for work performed, including overtime hours and final pay periods.

To combat this wave of illegality, a Chicago worker center has collaborated with a local university to create a map of law-breaking employers against which they have organized, giving workers and activists a powerful visual tool to bring to politicians and the community.

The Arise Chicago Worker Center has no shortage of evidence for the dire conditions facing Chicago’s low-wage workers, having collaborated with over 2,050 workers in the past seven years.

None of the restaurant workers who have contacted our organization during that time received overtime wages. One of our members seriously injured his back at a construction site, but his employer refused to pay legally required workers’ compensation. One African-American member, who works for a state-funded social service agency, has consistently received paychecks one to three weeks late, for more than two years. A group of candy manufacturers were denied bathroom breaks.

Recently, we spoke with a Guatemalan immigrant car wash worker who works from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week, for $5.25 an hour. He does not receive overtime pay and takes home an average of $9 a day in tips. If that weren’t enough, the employer does not provide gloves needed for the work, and illegally deducts the cost of the workers’ required uniform from his paychecks.

With the help of the University of Illinois-Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development, Arise has mapped by ward—a political district—the law-breaking employers against which Arise has organized. The maps illustrate law-breaking employers in 43 of Chicago’s 50 wards, affecting workers living in 47 of the wards.

Groups of worker center members plan to meet with their ward aldermen to discuss workplace abuses and enlist support for a city response to the biggest problem facing low-wage workers: wage theft.

Clergy whose congregations are located in the 43 wards will join the workers. Recently, Catholic Bishop John Manz attended a meeting with Alderman Danny Solis in the 25th Ward, where Arise has recorded a dozen labor violations.

Solis committed to introducing the issue to the city council’s Hispanic Caucus, whose wards include great concentrations of Arise membership. Alderman Mary Ann Smith’s office offered to explore legislative strategies that could deny additional business permits to law-breaking employers. Additional meetings and research are planned to determine the best approach to address wage theft in Chicago—which may include a citywide ordinance that could make stealing a worker’s wages treated like other forms of theft.

*This post originally appeared in Labor Notes on December 3, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Adam Kader (www.arisechicago.org) is the director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center, part of the national Interfaith Worker Justice network.

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