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OSHA Chief: Inequality in America Is About Workplace Hazards, Too

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Today’s post was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries and comes from www.nbcnews.com

W hy should I care? Why should anyone care? And where do we go from here – what is needed most for safe workplaces?

The article linked to below is an incredibly insightful interview from the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known far and wide as OSHA. Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels answers quite a few of these questions with frank messages that all should consider, whether you’re a worker or love someone who works. Because, to review, OSHA is limited only to holding businesses accountable for safety violations, and once those violations are fixed, proposed fines are almost always adjusted down.

As is often seen at law firms like ours, what happens once a worker is injured greatly affects that worker and their loved ones financially and emotionally, in both the short-term and long-term. That’s one of the many reasons this blog features so many posts advocating for worker safety, and the firm’s efforts include articles on other social media outlets that highlight when OSHA is holding businesses accountable for safety lapses. Though workers are affected badly by unsafe conditions throughout the spectrum of wages, this issue affects low-wage workers more, and almost always, there’s less of a financial cushion for workers who make less money in the first place.

“There’s a clear correlation between low wage jobs and unsafe jobs….Workers in low wage jobs are at much greater risk of conditions that will make it impossible for them to live in a healthy way, to earn money for their family, to build middle class lives,” Michaels said.

I would continue to argue that when businesses and insurance doesn’t step up to do the right thing after someone is hurt, regardless of regulatory requirements lagging behind, then society as a whole is also affected by the cost of supporting injured workers and, often, their loved ones. As Michaels mentioned, employers should make workplaces even safer than OSHA’s minimum requirements and focus on prevention, which can also result in cost savings. But if a worker does happen to get hurt, the employer should make the choice to help the worker recover, and ultimately, if at all possible, get back to meaningful work. In the long run, this benefits the worker, their loved ones, employers and society the most. And as Michaels said about injury prevention, “There’s a lot of evidence that companies that manage safety well are more productive and outperform their competitors.”

So workers, and especially businesses, should care enough to take care.

Image: Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration attends a full committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 23 in Washington, DC.
Image: Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration attends a full committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 23 in Washington, DC.

Inequality and poverty have taken center stage in American politics in the years since the recession. Fast food workers have raised the profile of low-wage work, cities and states around the country are raising the minimum wage, and elected officials in both parties have made the struggles of poor Americans core political issues.

But David Michaels, Ph.D., M.P.H., who leads the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Obama administration, says that workplace inequality is more than just wages. In an interview, Michaels, who is responsible for enforcing federal laws to project workers from illness and injury, says the regulatory structures he oversees aren’t sufficient to protect vulnerable workers from harm.

NBC: The political conversation about inequality in recent years has focused on wages. You’ve made the point that when addressing inequality, we should focus more on workplace health and safety issues. Why?

Michaels: Wages are clearly a core component of the discussion of inequality and the ability to get into and stay in middle class. But workplace health and safety issues also have an enormous impact. Workplace injury and illness can push workers out of middle-class jobs and make it hard to enter into the middle class in the first place.

Studies show that workplace injury…

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Sugar Plant Removed Safety Device 13 Days before Temp Worker’s Death

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Today’s post was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries and comes from www.propublica.org

ProPublica is running an extremely informative investigative series on the trials and safety risks of being a temporary worker. This post is another story in that series. It is both brutal and thought-provoking. Sympathies go out to all the families whose lives are changed as their loved ones who are just trying to work for a living die in unsafe work environments.

There are a whole lot of people without any job security at all. “The temporary staffing business has been one of the fastest growing industries since the end of the 2007-09 recession. It now employs a record 2.9 million people in the United States,” according to the ProPublica article.

In this particular warehouse in Pennsylvania, every employee, including the warehouse manager, was a temp worker! The warehouse manager told OSHA that he had “complained repeatedly to upper management about the dangers of becoming engulfed while unclogging the sugar hopper,” according to the article, including requesting “a safety device to prevent clogging.”

But after that screen was installed, it was removed by the plant manager, as it was “slowing down production.” Less than two weeks after that, temp worker Janio Salinas, 50, was “buried alive in sugar.”

Even though CSC Sugar had been inspected and fined before, the original fine for this incident of $25,855 was reduced to $18,098 after the plant made safety adjustments, according to the article.

Although Mr. Salinas’ family thought OSHA should have done more, “Jean Kulp, director of OSHA’s Allentown, Pa., office, told Univision that her agency doesn’t have the ability to shut down businesses and has limited criminal enforcement provisions.”

If you or a loved one are hurt at work, please contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney to discuss your options. As was written in previous blog posts, in Nebraska and Iowa, most but not all, temporary employees are covered by workers’ compensation. A better solution continues to be a safer job environment and stronger training programs for all workers.

This story was done in collaboration with Univision.

Inside the sugar plant in Fairless Hills, Pa., nobody could find Janio Salinas, a 50-year-old temp worker from just over the New Jersey border.

Throughout the morning, Salinas and a handful of other workers had been bagging mounds of sugar for a company that supplies the makers of Snapple drinks and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. But sugar clumps kept clogging the massive hopper, forcing the workers to climb inside with shovels to help the granules flow out the funnel-like hole at the bottom.

Coming back from lunch that day in February 2013, one employee said he had seen Salinas digging in the sugar. But when he looked back, Salinas was gone. All that remained was a shovel buried up to its handle. Then, peering through a small gap in the bottom of the hopper, someone noticed what appeared to blue jeans.

It was Salinas. He had been buried alive in sugar.

As harrowing as the accident was, federal safety investigators recently discovered something perhaps even more disturbing: A safety device that would have prevented Salinas’ death had been removed just 13 days before the accident because a manager believed it was slowing down production.

After a series of gruesome accidents involving untrained temp workers, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has stepped up its enforcement of rules affecting temp workers. In recent cases, OSHA has held companies and temp agencies jointly responsible for training, and it…

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OSHA Enforcement Cases Involving Temps On the Rise

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Today’s post was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries and comes from ohsonline.com

I am so glad to see that temporary workers are being included more in OSHA enforcement. It is just frustrating that it took an injury to a worker in New Jersey for one of the companies in the article below to be inspected through “a referral from the Maplewood Fire Department,” according to the article.

Our firm’s blog has included articles focused on temporary workers and their special challenges when it comes to workers’ compensation in 2012 and earlier this year.

The short article below that is today’s focus came from a business and industry publication, so I think it serves to put its readers on notice for OSHA’s renewed focus “on the safety of temporary workers.”

Generally speaking (with exceptions for some agricultural jobs), temporary workers qualify for workers’ compensation, though that coverage does not replace wages from your main job if the temporary job is a second job. Workers’ compensation laws and systems vary by state, so if you or a loved one is injured on the job, please speak with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney about your specific situation.

Today’s post shared from OshOnLine.com illustrates a new enforcement effort by OSHA that will improve the work environment for all Americans.OSHA’s emphasis on the safety of temporary workers is being driven home by a series of enforcement actions. The latest case announcement on June 19 involved the Macon, Ga., facility of a company named California Cereal Products Inc., which OSHA has cited for exposing full-time and temporary workers to electrical, fall, and noise hazards, with proposed penalties totaling $40,600. OSHA opened an inspection last December based on a complaint.

“The employer has failed to protect full-time and temporary workers from easily identified workplace hazards that can result in death or permanent disability,” said Bill Fulcher, director of OSHA’s Atlanta-East Area Office.

The case against beverage bottling company Maplewood Beverage Packers LLC and temporary employment agency Corporate Resource Services Corp. in Elizabeth, N.J., also began with a December 2013 investigation, but it started with a referral from the Maplewood Fire Department after a temporary worker was injured falling from a ladder. OSHA has proposed $182,270 in penalties. “Host employers and staffing agencies are jointly responsible for ensuring worker safety and health,” said Kris Hoffman, director of OSHA’s Parsippany Area Office. “Employers must protect all workers from job hazards-both permanent and temporary workers.”

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OSHA Cites Nebraska Food Supplement Plant for 10 Violations

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vitamin-food-supplementsWorker safety is essential, and one way to help ensure worker safety is through inspections by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Records of these inspections are often very important documents in workers’ compensation cases after a worker has been injured on the job.

In its first OSHA inspection ever, a Geneva, Nebraska, food supplement plant was cited for 10 safety and health violations and also earned a spot in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program, according to a recent news release. The proposed fine was $101,200.

“Bioiberica Nebraska is a subsidiary of Bioiberica S.A. based in Barcelona, Spain. The company, which produces products for the pharmaceutical, food supplement and functional foods industries, employs 322 workers worldwide and 11 at the Geneva site.”

I appreciate OSHA holding this manufacturer accountable, especially with some of the problems that came to light with the inspection. The willful violations alone netted the company $84,000 in fines, according to the citations list.

“The three willful violations were cited for exposing workers to injuries, such as electrocution, burns, crushing, lacerating, amputating or fracturing body parts,” according to the OSHA news release. “These violations included failure to develop written procedures, provide training, and implement a program with locks, tags or other hardware to prevent machines from starting up while employees performed service and maintenance of machinery. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.”

I am particularly troubled by one of the serious violations that was mentioned in the citations list. “Employees had not been provided training to recognize, evaluate and control exposure to hazardous chemicals. Hazardous chemicals used in the facility include, but are not limited to, diatomaceous earth containing up to 44% crystalline silica,” according to the listed citation.

I have written about the silica standard and referenced it in regard to its use in Nebraska and Iowa as a raw material, but its use in manufacturing processes and other industrial uses can also definitely be dangerous, especially with workers having no information or training about such hazardous chemicals. The OSHA news release regarding Bioiberica Nebraska’s inspection bears out this concern.

“Silica exposure can cause silicosis, an irreversible lung disease, and other health hazards,” according to the news release.

Although OSHA fines are often decreased once a company is in compliance and shows proper documentation, I hope that this company will be more diligent in providing a safe workplace immediately. Being put in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program means this employer and its workers can look forward to more OSHA inspections in the future.

Nebraska, however, is one of the states that definitely needs more labor inspectors, according to the recent AFL-CIO’s annual report on job fatalities, which was written about in a previous blog post. With one labor inspector for 102,255 employees (for a total of nine statewide), 92 more inspectors in the state would meet the International Labor Office benchmark for labor inspectors, which “is one inspector per 10,000 workers in industrial market economies.” Nebraska also has the dubious distinction of being one of seven states where “the ratio of inspectors to employees is greater than 1 per 100,000 workers,” according to the AFL-CIO report. The other states are Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and West Virginia.

So although Bioiberica Nebraska should be inspected again soon, the idea of “soon” is relative and limited by the number of inspectors available in our state. Let’s hope that efforts for safety are successful at this plant before workers’ lives are affected through death or injury.

Subway leads fast food industry in underpaying workers

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Today’s post was shared by Steven Greenhouse and comes from money.cnn.com

This analysis by CNNMoney shows the impact that fast-food companies have on wages for their workers. I find it interesting that by drawing distinctions between company-owned and franchise-owned stores, the companies can provide a buffer for themselves – the example that immediately comes to mind is when a business hires a temp agency to act as a go-between from their company to the worker. “Meanwhile, the corporate parents can distance themselves from being found liable of labor violations,” according to the article. In addition, that means each franchise needs to be investigated individually by the Department of Labor, Mr. Greenhouse writes.

Sometimes it’s challenging to impossible for people with busy lives to avoid fast food. If a person dines out at all, even at a local establishment, wage violations can occur, and the consumer is usually not aware of the situation. This article provides both useful information and also an overview of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to provide more context about how shortcuts that employers take can very quickly add up to real money wages that their employees are not getting.

As we have written a lot about employer fraud this year, it is easy to make overarching generalizations about a group of business owners based on what we see. But sometimes the benefit of having a corporate brand like the fast-food companies mentioned in the article is that the actions of their franchisees reflect on their brand. So even though corporate headquarters might prefer to distance themselves from those employed by franchises, the companies are still forced to hold the franchises more accountable for employees’ wages, if for no other reason, so consumers don’t think the restaurants are withholding wages from their employees.

subway employee

McDonald’s gets a lot of bad press for its low pay. But there’s an even bigger offender when it comes to fast food companies underpaying their employees: Subway.

Individual Subway franchisees have been found in violation of pay and hour rules in more than 1,100 investigations spanning from 2000 to 2013, according to a CNNMoney analysis of data collected by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

Each investigation can lead to multiple violations and fines. Combined, these cases found about 17,000 Fair Labor Standards Act violations and resulted in franchisees having to reimburse Subway workers more than $3.8 million over the years.

It’s a significant sum considering many Subway "sandwich artists" earn at or just above the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

The next most frequent wage violators in the industry are McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts stores.

The numbers only reflect unlawful acts that have been caught. To be fair, Subway has more than 26,000 locations throughout the country — the most of any fast food chain — so it might not be surprising that it also tops the list of offenders.

That said, Subway’s problems were considered serious enough to prompt the Department of Labor (DOL) to partner with the company’s headquarters to boost compliance efforts last year.

"It’s no coincidence that we approached Subway because we saw a significant number of violations," a Department of Labor spokesperson said.

The franchise model impact

In…

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A preventable work-related death is not “totally an accident”

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Today’s post was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries and comes from scienceblogs.com

This article is an excellent perspective on how people’s gut reactions can cloud a situation. First, I have to say it’s tragic that we need to talk so much about work-related fatalities, but it’s also important to remember that they happen to real people doing real work in real towns, just like ours, and yes, even in ours. I realize that people talking to the press are human and make slips of the tongue, but words are important, and how a person describes a situation is also important. That’s why I think this article is so important. Because describing a work-related fatality as an accident devalues the situation and the worker’s death. There is power in words.

I also appreciated the article’s comments section. Mr. Mark Catline from Maryland wrote, “Does OSHA ever contact local public safety agencies after such public comments? What if this was turned around and a Federal or State OSHA inspector commented to the press on police matters, ‘that (this incident) does not seem to be a criminal act’? I suspect the Area OSHA office would be hearing from the local police department.”

Although OSHA’s ability for enforcement is limited to safety violations, its representatives have referred company incidents to the Department of Justice for criminal sanctions. This process most likely involves local law enforcement as part of the investigation, so for them to declare an “accident” early on – when there may eventually be criminal charges – can’t be helpful to anyone’s investigations.

In a recent special report by Lincoln’s channel 10-11 about grain elevator fatalities, Bonita Winingham, OSHA Area Director for Nebraska, noted OSHA’s safety focus, saying “‘Our penalties do not reflect what someone’s life is worth at all.’”

She “says they make citations after each incident investigation, but they can lower those fines if the employer gets rid of the hazard or makes extra safety improvements.”

“‘When we talk to them about these cases we’re looking for abatement of the hazard, correction of the violation so that employees are no longer exposed to those hazards,’” says Wingingham. “‘That’s the main thing, we want to make sure that no one else is exposed to those hazards so everyone goes home safe.’”

“Wingingham says they can, and have, made recommendations to the Department of Justice if they find a company has willingly disregarded safety. Two companies, Crossroads Cooperative in 2009 and Farmers Union Coop of Stanton in 2012, have pled guilty to criminal sanctions for Nebraska grain-related deaths.”

The full text of the article below includes this information.

“Having an employee killed on the job is no doubt a shock. But after the shock subsides, most reasonable people recognize that fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries and illnesses are largely preventable.”

So please do not call these preventable tragedies accidents anymore.

What would it take to get police departments to refrain from calling work-related fatalities “just an accident”? I read it all the time. A 60 year-old mechanic falls 50 feet through an unguarded floor opening, and it’s an “accidental death.” Or a 30 year-old production clerk gets pulled into a machine, and it’s a “tragic accident.”

The latest example I read involved a 23 year-old man, Erik Deighton, who was crushed a few weeks ago at Colonial Plastics. The small suburban Detroit manufacturing plant fabricates specialty parts for automakers. Shelby Township Police Captain Stephen Stanbury told the press, “This is totally an accident.”

In a few months, I bet we’ll hear something different from Michigan OSHA (MIOSHA) about what happened on March 5 at Colonial Plastics. I’ll be surprised if they conclude “it was just an accident.” In reality, it’s a rare thing when on-the-job fatalities are “accidents.”

The news accounts relying on Captain Stanbury’s comments indicate that the 23 year-old worker was trying to clear an obstruction from a press machine. The machine cycled to stamp a part and he was fatally crushed. Catherine Kavanaugh of Plastics News writes:

The police did not indicate “…the exact kind of press involved but officers described it as a large machine with doors on two sides. The victim and a co-worker were operating the press together but…

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Suit: Company has history of mishandling chemicals

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Today’s post was shared by The Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group and comes from theadvocate.com. I noticed this article recently because OSHA has extended its comment period on standards tied to improving chemical safety after the West, Texas, explosion. That process is in response to an executive order “which seeks to improve chemical facility safety and security,” according to the link above.

If OSHA protects workers to the greatest extent possible, that may also help consumers and those who live by these chemical plants. The lawsuit written about below was a result of an explosion involving chemicals in Oklahoma that happened after the West explosion. Some of the problems that workers faced, maybe even the explosion itself, potentially could have been prevented if the plant would have cared about and been more aware of worker – both employee and contractor – safety.

A contractor suing over the fatal June 13 Williams Olefins explosion at its Geismar plant raises recent federal workplace safety violations brought against the Tulsa, Okla., company and alleges Williams has a history of problems handling chemicals.

Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, the new suit brought by Abraham J. Bosley of Iberville Parish is the ninth in state or federal court over the explosion and the third brought this month.

Two of the older cases have been dismissed.

A flammable vapor cloud ignited from ruptured equipment in the company’s propylene fractionation unit, causing a massive fireball, a Williams investigation found.

At the time, the plant was undergoing expansion, and 839 employees and contractors were on site. The blast killed two and injured 114 people.

Investigators with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have focused on a reboiler, or heat exchanger, that a safety board official said “failed catastrophically” inside the fractionation unit.

The most serious of the six OSHA violations brought last year involves Williams’ operation of that kind of equipment while idle.

Bosley alleges Williams had a history of “citations, warnings and shut-downs due to improper storage and handling of chemicals including propylene,” the suit says.

“This included a citation in 2010 for releasing excess amounts of ethylene, and a December 2012 plant shut down for a…

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The Right to a Safe Workplace

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Workplace SafetyUnder federal law, every employee has the right to a safe workplace. If you believe your workplace is dangerous and changes in safety policy are ignored, you can request an inspection from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

Workers’ compensation, which is regulated on a state-by-state level, covers medical bills, lost wages, disability and vocational rehabilitation services for employees injured on the job. If you have any questions regarding these benefits, please contact an experienced lawyer in your area.

If you believe you work in an unsafe work area, here are some tips to be aware of to make sure your workplace is as safe as possible, and you protect yourself from significant injury:

  1.  Know the hazards in your workplace.
  2. While in a seated position, keep your shoulders in line with your hips. Use good form when lifting.
  3. Injuries occur when workers get tired. Take breaks when you’re tired.
  4. Do not skip safety procedures just because it makes the job easier or quicker. Using dangerous machinery is the one of the leading causes of work injuries.
  5. Be aware of where emergency shutoff switches are located.
  6. Report unsafe work areas.
  7. Wear proper safety equipment.

If you are injured due to an unsafe workplace, and you are unsure of the benefits that you are entitled to, contact an experienced attorney in your area.