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Archive for the ‘Health & Safety’ Category

By Adam Kader

We all know the phrase “going postal,” right?  It’s when someone becomes extremely angry to the point of become violent, usually in the context of work.  It came about in response to a number of horrific incidents of violence committed by postal workers in the 1980s and ’90s.*

But this past week the Chicago Tribune ran a revealing story about the risks of violence posed to postal workers just doing their jobs.  In a place like Chicago, the workplace for mail carriers–the outdoors–presents natural health and safety risks, such as heat illness.  Being in Chicago, extreme weather conditions can be expected and prepared for.  But when routes run through high-crime areas, carriers’ work can become life-endangering from human factors of violence.

In the Tribune story, mail carrier Khalalisa Norris tells her story of being nearly gunned-down in a drive-by shooting (watch a video here).  Rodney Nelson, another mail carrier, describes being taken into an alley and held at gunpoint to hand over his mail bag.  And Berenda Walker was assaulted while organizing mail in her truck.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that an average of 1.7 million people were victims of violent crime while working or on duty in the United States each year from 1993 through 1999 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that “Violence in the workplace is a serious safety and health issue. Its most extreme form, homicide, is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 521 workplace homicides in the preliminary count of 2009 in the United States, out of a total of 4,349 fatal work injuries.”  (For more information, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries summary).

More than simply a neighborhood safety story, the Tribune article shows that this is a workers’ rights issue.  Mail carriers have had to battle management to be transferred to other routes after being the victim of a crime.  And there is currently no policy that requires supervisors to inform carriers when co-workers are robbed or assaulted.   According to the Tribune, the carrier’s union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, (NALC) “is pushing for a better system of reporting incidents, more flexibility for carriers who have experienced violence, and a system that would notify all carriers after an assault, robbery or shooting.”

The story shows how local residents are not the only victims of neighborhood violence.  Norris reports that now some of the residents on her route will stay on their porches until she finishes delivery on that block, to ensure her safety.  This suggests the need for a coordinated effort between local community groups and worker organizations like the NALC.

* Despite this spate of tragedies, research has shown the phrase “going postal” to be unwarranted: “Researchers have found that the homicide rates per 100,000 workers at postal facilities were lower than at other workplaces. In major industries, the highest rate of 2.1 homicides per 100,000 workers was in retail. The next highest rate of 1.66 was in public administration, which includes police officers. The homicide rate for postal workers was 0.26 per 100,000.”

- Adam is the Worker Center Director at Arise Chicago.

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By Celeste Monforton

What do Kraft Foods Global, Tyson Foods, Sea World and Lucas Oil Production Studio have in common? They are four of the 147 employers identified by OSHA as “severe violators” of worker health and safety standards. Earlier this month, federal OSHA posted on its website adocument listing employers in 30 States who meet the agency’s criteria as a

“recalcitrant employers who endanger workers by demonstrating indifference to their responsibilities under the law.”

The OSHA document is a 4-page PDF and for your convenience, I’ve converted it into a spreadsheet in MS-Excel to make it easier to sort the information by State, NAICS or other variable. The four companies listed above made their way onto the list after receiving a willful violation in 2010 related to a worker death at one of their sites.

Getting the SVEP label is not easy.

First, a workplace has to be the subject of a federal or State OSHA inspection. In any given year, less than 1% of worksites will have a vist from a government safety inspector. Second, the employer has to receive citations with violations classified as “willful,” “repeat,” or “failure-to-abate” (W/R/FTA). The vast majority of violations, however, are classified as “serious,” with only about 4% in the W/R/FTA category.

As I wrote when SVEP was announced last year, an employer wouldn’t receive the “severe violator” label because of willful infractions in the past. OSHA is using the SVEP to identify recalcitrant employers for possible future inspections.

The information posted by OSHA about the program tells us:

(a) 147 employers in 2010 and early 2011 had an OSHA inspection and because of the severity of the violations found by inspectors, the company qualified for the “severe violator” label. Nearly 22% of the inspections (32 incidents) on the OSHA list were conducted because a worker was killed on the job and the employer received at least one W/R/FTA violation.

(b) Of the 147 employers on the list, just 14 of them (9.5%) have been subject to at least one additional OSHA inspection, at the same or a different one of their workplaces. For example, following the September 2010 death of Andrew Dill, 20, in Morral, Ohio at Gavilon Grain, federal OSHA conducted six more inspections at other grain elevators owned by the same company. In total, the firm was cited for 46 safety and health violations with proposed penalties totaling $465,500. Likewise, after an inspection at the Cooper Tire & Rubber plant in Findlay, Ohio, where OSHA inspectors identified several violations including two classified as willful, the agency did a follow-up inspection at the company’s plant in Tupelo, MS. Safety inspectors identified 14 violations, including two willful, and proposed penalties of nearly $204,000.

(c) The States with the greatest number of employers designated as “severe violators” are Illinois (26), Texas (21), New Jersey (16), New York and Ohio with 15, Florida with eight, and Alabama, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with six.

(d) Federal OSHA conducts inspections in private-sector workplaces in 29 States, while 21 States run their own OSHA programs with authority to inspect private sector workplaces. All but six of the 21 States have adopted a program comparable to federal OSHA’s SVEP. According to the information posted by OSHA, only three workplaces in three of these OSHA State Plan States (Arizona, Indiana, Washington) have an employer with the SVEP designation.

(e) More than half of the 147 employers with OSHA’s SVEP label operate in the construction industry. Given that OSHA conducts nearly 60% of its inspections at construction sites, it shouldn’t surprise us that the SVEP list is heavy with construction companies. Twenty-three of the employers on OSHA’s SVEP list are masonry contractors, 13 are involved in water and sewer line construction, and six in building poured concrete foundations. But the “severe violators” are not just in the construction industry. The OSHA list has employers involved in 78 different industries from commercial bakeries, metal stamping plants and sawmills, to Illinois meat processing plants, paper mills in New Hampshire and New York, and an Indiana boat builder.

Federal OSHA implemented the “Severe Violators Enforcement Program” (SVEP) a year ago in reponse to a March 2009 Inspector General report that was critical of the agency’s Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP). The IG said the EEP failed as a targeting program for bad-actors employers. When OSHA inspections found that an employer’s H&S practices put workers’ lives were at risk, the EEP failed to compel follow-up inspections at that site or others controlled by the same employer. Under SVEP, OSHA says that when an employer meets the “severe violator” criteria, the agency

“will conduct inspections at other worksites controlled by the same employer where similar hazards may be present.”

Thirty-one such follow-up inspections have been conducted. To put that in perspective, federal and State OSHA programs conduct about 100,000 inspections annually.

With 147 employers now on a list of bad actors, but only 14 of them subject to-date by a follow-up inspection, it may be too early to tell whether the OSHA’s SVEP is meeting its objective.

- Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is a Professorial Lecturer at the George Washington University School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.

This blog originally appeared in The Pump Handle on July 22. Reprinted with Permission.

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by Jamie Hayes

In our work at Arise Chicago, we’ve lately noticed a dangerous new trend: employers are forcing employees to work as contractors, in order to subvert labor laws and their responsibility as employers.

Campaign #1

Margarita (pseudonym) worked for 2 years at a laundromat in the Albany Park neighborhood.  She was paid $5/hour, worked over 40 hours a week but never received overtime payment, and worked seven days per week. When Arise contacted her employer to inform him of his legal responsibility to pay employees minimum wage and overtime, and to give employees one day of rest per week, he tried to shirk responsibility by claiming that Margarita was actually an independent contractor.  Since Margarita could not make her own schedule, perform her work autonomously, nor bid out the work (the basic marks of a truly independent contractor), this defense was fairly preposterous. However, we are seeing a rise in savvy employers who force employees to sign contracts and incorporate, all for the privilege of toiling day in and day out for the same abusive employer, often at rates below minimum wage, and outside of the jurisdiction of OSHA, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, and the other government agencies that enforce workers’ rights.

Campaign #2

Luis (pseudonym) worked for a suburban window and gutter washing company for 8 years.  Though the company had forced him to sign a contract stating that he was a contractor, and had forced him to incorporate, he was indeed an employee of the company: he reported to the same manager and same office day-in and day-out, he could not set his own hours or take on his own clients, and he could not bid out his own jobs. One day, he fell off of a roof two stories high.  Luis was injured badly, but thankfully survived the fall.  Though the company had forced him to sign contracts saying he was not an employee, the company knew that these contracts may not hold up throughout the workers compensation process.  Thus, the company settled out of court. The settlement was not large, but at least covered the cost of his medical bills.  Another worker had a very similar experience at this company, falling off a roof and then winning a settlement out of court.

Upon Luis’ return to work after an extended recuperation period, rather than providing workers fall prevention training and safety equipment, instead the company forced workers to sign even tighter contracts, and to purchase their own workers’ compensation insurance (conveniently deducted from their paychecks).  Workers get to keep 50% of the cut, but must also provide their own transportation, pay for their own gas, cover any damages to homes, pay twice as much in tax as employees, and pay out their assistants (the company insists that all workers hire assistants, again violating the autonomy of a truly independent contractor).  At the end of the day, sometimes workers barely make enough money to cover their expenses. Luis reports that oftentimes he shows up to a job, only to find out that the company has improperly bid out the job.  For example, clients have more windows than reported, or different types of windows that take many hours to clean. However, Luis is forbidden from charging clients more for this extra work.  Additionally, the company provides clients with coupon promotions–promotions that come out of workers’ paychecks, even though they have no say in how and when these promotions are given.  Finally, since Luis is classified as an independent contractor, he is not entitled to breaks or overtime wages even though he regularly works 12 hour days.

But perhaps most disturbingly, workers are not provided with fall protection gear and safety training by the company.  In fact, Luis reports that when a worker on Luis’ team fell off a ladder and grabbed onto a gutter to hang on for dear life, the company’s response was to charge Luis for the damage done to the gutter.  And, while workers have received settlements in the past for their injuries, now that they are forced to buy their own workers’ compensation insurance, it’s unclear that the company would pay for the cost of these injuries.  More importantly, these injuries are preventable, but workers are not trained properly, nor can they necessarily afford the cost of the protective gear, given their meager wages.

Classical economic theory presumes that if these contracts were really such raw deals, workers would seek work elsewhere.  However, classical economic theory does not take into account the power differential between workers and employers.  Workers are told that they will not be given any more jobs if they do not sign these contracts, incorporate, and purchase their own workers compensation insurance.  They are also forbidden from taking independent clients.  In today’s economy, workers who are often recently-arrived immigrants, often lacking knowledge of English and US labor law, feel that they have no other choice but to continue in an abusive employment relationship, especially as more and more employers catch on to this new trend of passing market and health   safety risks on to the worker, while they collect all the profits.

Recently the company has fired Luis, ostensibly due to client complaints, though the company refused to give him the names of said clients.  Luis believes that the company is actually retaliating against him for pursuing his workers compensation claim.  To whom can Luis turn? As an “independent contractor”, he does not even have a right to unemployment insurance–yet another way that his employer has passed precarity on to those most vulnerable, the workers.

The Illinois Department of Labor has recognized the severity of the problem of misclassifcation, however, the Employee Classification Act only covers workers employed on construction sites.  Here at Arise Chicago, we are attempting to pursue other strategies; but without stronger laws regarding the misclassification of all types of workers, workers are left unprotected and even more vulnerable.

-Jamie Hayes is an Organizer at Arise Chicago Worker Center

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Photo courtesy of national Partnership for Women & Families

By Melissa Josephs

Last weekend the Connecticut House followed the lead of the Connecticut Senate by approving the first statewide paid sick days law!  Governor Malloy – who made paid sick days a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign – will sign the bill soon, giving a broad cross-section of service workers in businesses with 50 or more workers the right to earn up to 40 hours of paid sick time a year for the illness of themselves or their children or spouse, or for medical appointments, and to seek services related to sexual assault or family violence.  Now, hundreds of thousands of Connecticut workers will be able to take care of themselves, their children, and their spouse without risking a paycheck or jeopardizing their job.

But we still need the federal Healthy Families Act to be passed – HR 1876 and S984 – which would provide up to 7 paid sick days for workers in businesses with 15 or more workers.

Links:

Progressive States Network – Blueprint for Economic Security: Ensuring Job Security by Protecting Workers
National Partnership for Women and Families – Briefing Book on Paid Sick Days
National Opinion Research Center – Paid Sick Days: Attitudes and Experiences
Cry Wolf Project – Exposing Myths About the Economy and Government:  Paid Sick Leave
Institute for Women’s Policy Research – San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance: Outcomes for Employers and Employees
Institute for Women’s Policy Research – 44 Million U.S. Workers Lacked Paid Sick Days in 2010
Restaurant Opportunities Center – Serving While Sick: High Risks and Low Benefits for the Nation’s Restaurant Workforce, and Their Impact on the Consumer

- Melissa Josephs is Director of Equal Opportunity Policy at Women Employed, an organization that seeks to improve the economic status of women and remove barriers to economic equity.

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By Melissa Josephs

The Connecticut Senate narrowly passed a paid sick days bill 18-17, and it moves to the House next week, where if passed, it will be the first state to pass paid sick days, as Gov. Malloy made this an election issue and will sign the bill.  The bill provides up to 5 paid sick days each year to workers in service-sector jobs to care for their own illness or that of a child or spouse, seek preventive care for themselves, a child or spouse, or seek services related to family violence or sexual assault.  The bill:

  • Applies to employers with 50 or more workers.
  • Includes caregiving for self, child, or spouse (but not parent) and for victims of sexual assault or family violence.
  • Provides up to 40 hours of paid sick leave each year, accrued at a rate of 1 hour earned for every 40 hours worked.
  • Applies to hourly or non-exempt “service workers” with a long list of job categories that qualify (includes health workers of all kinds, restaurant and food service workers of all kinds, janitors and bldg. cleaners, child care workers, hospitality and retail workers, drivers), but does not apply to temp or day workers  or to service workers with fewer than an average of 10 hrs per week in the most recent complete calendar quarter.
  • Does not apply to manufacturing industry or to nationally chartered 501(c)(3)s that provide recreation, childcare or education (i.e., the YMCA).
  • Time begins accruing on Jan 2012 for current workers and is available for use after 680 hrs of employment (and for workers hired after 1/1/2012, after 680 hrs of service).
  • Does not diminish collective bargaining rights and does not preempt or override the terms of any CBA effective prior to 1/1/2012.

A link to the amendment that contains the final language is here:

CT passing paid sick days is a monumental and historical first step as the first state to enact this desperately needed workplace benefit for all workers. It’s about time! Congratulations to Connecticut workers and their families, employers, and the public, all of whom will benefit.  I look forward to the day that Illinois and all states have paid sick days.

- Melissa Josephs is Director of Equal Opportunity Policy at Women Employed, an organization that seeks to improve the economic status of women and remove barriers to economic equity.

Links

http://www.cga.ct.gov/2011/AMD/S/2011SB-00913-R00SA-AMD.htm

www.familyvaluesatwork.org

www.SickDaysIllinois.org

www.womenemployed.org

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By Shelly Ruzicka

After attending the book talk with Paul Apostolidis, which included a though-provoking presentation and quality discussion afterward, I left with several ideas swimming in my head.  Perhaps two of the most interesting points made by the author that stuck with me are the following: 

1. The realization that U.S. citizens perhaps have more to learn from immigrants than to teach—at least when it comes to hands-on democracy in action.

2. The understand of a direct connection between harm and benefit of the physical human bodies of immigrant workers and non-immigrant consumers, respectively.

On the first point.  Paul recognized that so often non-first or second generation immigrants (a.k.a. U.S. citizens) express the need to “teach” immigrants how to live in the U.S.—how to integrate, how to act, how to speak English, and how to understand what it means to live in a “democracy.”  Paul’s book tells the story of one particular workplace struggle by Mexican immigrants at a meatpacking plant in the northwest.  The workers banned together to discuss the many problems on their job and worked collectively to make positive changes.  He argues that instead of thinking that U.S citizens need to “teach” immigrants such as in this group about democracy, citizens, in fact, should take a step back to learn from the lessons of this and similar struggles. After all, what could be more democratic than a group of workers coming together to share ideas and strategies on how to improve their workplace?  Isn’t that what democracy is all about?  A group of people, operating on a level playing field to share ideas and power to create a better society?  Indeed, Paul, citizens need to stop the preaching and take in the lessons from this and countless other struggles of immigrant workers across the country (including the efforts at Worker Centers).

The second intriguing point the author made was asking the audience to understand the direct connection between the harm caused to low-income brown (immigrant) bodies in order to feed and sustain middle-class white bodies.  The meatpacking plant he details is just one of a myriad of workplaces where health and safety hazards are rampant.  From meatpackers suffering from injuries by the speed of the line as well as repetitious movement, to farmworkers plagued by the use of pesticides and chemicals without proper protection in the fields, every day workers in the U.S. food industry put their physical health at risk.  And Mr. Apostolidis argues that we need to recognize the direct link between the health and nutrients provided to white middle-class bodies at the expense of the harm caused to brown immigrant bodies. It was an interesting connection that is so obvious, but one the general public rarely, if ever, makes.

While I found his point valid, I want to add one more layer to the argument.  The link, indeed, is currently between white and brown bodies.  I think we also need to recognize the economic, or class, role here.  The author does make a point to say white middle-class bodies and brown low-wage bodies.  Again, this is true.  But I want to make sure the direct link is also made between class and race.  And how class is largely determined by one’s industry or workplace—and the wages earned (which historically has been constructed by race in order to maintain the class structure).  Brown bodies are more at risk of injury, illness, and death on the job, because these bodies are working in the lowest paid and least regulated industries.  I do not argue that we should make a shift and put more white bodies in lower-paying jobs, or shift all brown bodies into different jobs.  Instead I argue that the only way to break the direct link of bodily harm and bodily nutrition is to eliminate the bodily harm aspect of the chain.  We obviously do not do this by eliminating these jobs.  We do it by making sure that no job requires such sacrifice.  We do it by making sure every job I this country is a safe job, and one that can be completed with dignity.  Rather than make the inane argument that “immigrants don’t belong here so they don’t need or deserve protection,” we should all be taking action to make sure that we lift the floor on wages and health and safety in the workplace for all workers.  After all, when we create improvements in the worst industries, do we not all benefit?  Would keeping workers healthier and providing more sustainable wages not benefit our entire economy and thereby each of us individually?

-Shelly is Director of Operations at Arise Chicago

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By Adam Kader

Today is Workers’ Memorial Day, a time to mourn the workers that have been killed or inured on the job.  This year is also the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Do Republicans want to kill workers?  “Republicans earlier this year proposed huge cuts to OSHA’s budget that [OSHA Director David] Michaels said would ‘have a devastating effect on all of our activities.’ Republicans also blocked new regulations that would have allowed OSHA to crack down on businesses, like the Massey Energy owned Upper Big Branch Mine, that repeatedly violate workplace safety laws” (Wonk Room).

The Republicans claim that funding agencies like OSHA and passing further regulations on business is a “job-killer.”  But let us be clear and sober: failure to fund OSHA is a worker-killer.  If anyone doubts the need for the enforcement of health and safety standards, listen to the family members of victims on the job.

Last month, the public heard about the health and safety hazards faced by immigrant workers at Arise Chicago’s Public Forum on Worker Health and Safety.  Representatives from OSHA were in attendance; an affirmation of their commitment to public outreach and education.  They, along with 65 other members of the public, witnessed testimony from workers, including a construction worker who told the story of a co-worker who fell three stories and suffered back injuries. And a factory worker who described his hearing disability as the result of years of working with loud machinery.  The Public Forum was the culmination of a survey of 208 workers.  Among the findings:

21% had suffered an occupational injury or illness

41% never received on-the-job safety training

31% were not provided protective equipment

59% had no knowledge of OSHA

(learn more about the survey at La Raza and In These Times)

Forum participants spoke of the importance of education and training, like that provided by worker centers and unions.  History shows us left to its own, businesses cannot be trusted to ensure healthy and safe workplaces.  Through the labor movement, workers have struggled to improve the conditions of the American workplace.  In a proclamation today, President Barack Obama acknowledged that:

“The protections working Americans enjoy today were not easily gained. They had to be won by generations of courageous men and women, fighting to secure decent working conditions, standing up for those most vulnerable, and sometimes risking their own economic security and lives.”

Today, an unacceptable number of workers are injured and killed each year.  Workers must continue what they have always done: in the words of Mother Jones, “Pray for the dead and fight like Hell for the living.”

- Adam Kader is the Worker Center Director at Arise Chicago

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