Mistakes of West, Texas Repeated In West Virginia

By Mike Elk

Mike Elk

Mike Elk

WASHINGTON, D.C.—“This is an issue of proportionality,” says Dr. Gerald Poje, a former member of the federal U.S. Chemical Safety Board, as he watches me get patted down by a security guard on my way into a session of President Obama’s chemical safety task force on Tuesday.

“How are we proportioning our larger social resources for security and safety?” asks Poje while I put back on my belt. “We come into a government building just for a public hearing, and we have half a dozen people at the front gate doing checking. Then you look at what’s missing in our high-hazard chemical infrastructure.”

Poje is referring to the failures of regulators to take sufficient steps to prevent the West Virginia chemical spill, which cut off the drinking water supply for more than 300,000 people for the better part of the past week. Continue reading

Paltry Fines and Repeat Offenders: The Story of OSHA’s Life

by Chaz Bolte

Man-on-ScaffoldFollowing a disastrous explosion at the West, Texas fertilizer plant earlier this year, national attention shifted briefly to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), its underfunding, and the way in which it is handcuffed when overseeing workplace safety. As Think Progress noted this fall (when the investigation into the West tragedy was halted by the government shutdown), “The actual plant is facing $118,300 in federal fines for two dozen serious safety violations, including the lack of an emergency response plan, despite costing more than a dozen lives and $100 million in property damage.”The 24-hour news cycle, even among labor’s most loyal, has found new daily drama to latch on to leaving OSHA to return to its sad version of what workers — and many businesses — would consider oversight. Even a quick search of recent injury- and fatality-related fines shows how dire the situation remains and how little impact the current system of regulation and punishment has on workplace safety. Three examples are below. Continue reading

Vigil for Georgia Worker Victimized by Management Neglect

Ballon Release at Vigil

Ballon Release at Vigil

THE UNTIMELY DEATH OF TERESA WEAVER PICKARD

                                                                                          by Scott Smith

(Editor’s Note: Teresa Weaver Pickard worked at the Sewon America factory in LaGrange, Georgia, which supplies parts to the Kia auto plant there. On May 29, Mrs. Pickard complained to management of difficulty breathing due to extreme heat where she worked — reportedly 102 degrees — and was told to wait in the break room, which also lacked air conditioning. She waited for three hours before an ambulance was called, according to another worker (the company’s account is different). She died in the ambulance. The following speech was delivered at a vigil in Atlanta, Georgia on June 26, called by the Georgia Student Justice Alliance, Atlanta Jobs with Justice, Georgia AFL-CIO, NAACP and other groups.)

 I did not know Mrs. Pickard. I never had the pleasure of meeting her. But Mrs. Pickard was a hard-working member of my community, and what happened to her could have happened any number of others.
 
I have close friends who have worked at Sewon America, and I’ve heard about the horrendous working conditions there, from former and current employees. I’ve heard about the extreme heat inside the plant. I’ve heard that management doesn’t turn on the air conditioning unless visitors are passing through. I’ve heard that it got so hot in the break room that the candy in the vending machines melted. I’ve heard that workers can’t have their own bottles of water, and that the water stations are often out of water or cups.
 
I’ve also heard about the company’s reluctance to call 911 in emergency situations. I’ve heard from a mother who had to go pick up her son and take him to the hospital when he had an asthma attack. I’ve heard from a former worker who found herself on her front porch after having a seizure at work. I’ve heard from employees who were asked to find somebody else to pick them up instead of calling an ambulance.
 
I’ve heard, and I’ve come to understand, that at Sewon America, the company’s bottom line is more important than the safety and the lives of the people who work there. David Macaray, a former steelworker and union rep in Pittsburgh who’s now a playwright in Los Angeles, predicted this attitude in an article he wrote two years ago:
 
“Without having the unions to use as leverage… Without the resistance of organized labor, the law of supply-and-demand will spur an inexorable race to the bottom.  And instead of Alabama [and Georgia] becoming the New Detroit (as the glossy brochures advertise), [this area] will, in time, resemble the New Bangladesh.”
Continue reading

Help End Walmart & Gap Deathtraps: June 29 Day of Action

International Labor Rights Forum

gapdeathtrapprotestOn Saturday, June 29th, students, consumers, workers, and community members will come together in cities across the world to demand that Gap and Walmart put an end to deathtrap factories in their supply chains.

Real action from Gap and Walmart on fire and building safety is long overdue. In April, over 1,100 garment workers perished in the the Rana Plaza collapse, marking the deadliest industrial disaster in a manufacturing facility in recorded history. Since 2005, more than 1,800 garment workers have died in preventable factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh alone.

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Walmart Accepted Clothing from Banned Bangladesh Factories

by Michael Grabell
ProPublica, June 12, 2013

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

Photo by Jaber Al Nahian, Creative Commons

Since the Rana Plaza building collapse killed more than 1,100 people in April, retailers have faced mounting pressure to improve safety at Bangladesh garment factories and to sever ties with manufacturers that don’t measure up.

The world’s largest retailer, Walmart, last month released a list of more than 200 factories it said it had barred from producing its merchandise because of serious or repeated safety problems, labor violations or unauthorized subcontracting.

But at least two of the factories on the list have continued to send massive shipments of sports bras and girls’ dresses to Walmart stores in recent months, according to interviews and U.S. customs records.

Continue reading

OSHA Inspected Philly Building Collapse Site, But Did Not Shut It Down

 by Mike Elk

On June 5, 2013, rescue workers search for victims of a building that collapsed in Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

 (June 6) Yesterday [Wednesday], a four-story building undergoing demolition in Philadelphia’s Center City district collapsed directly onto the Salvation Army store next door. According to Reuters, six people were killed. Already, questions are being raised about whether the building collapse was yet another workplace accident that could have been easily prevented.

So far, reports have focused on whether or not the City of Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) did its job by properly investigating a number of complaints from nearby workers and passersby about the safety of the construction site. In a press conference earlier today, Philadelphia Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections Carlton Williams said, “No subsequent inspection occurred to indicate there was any unsafe conditions. We did not follow up and we are definitely looking into that.” Continue reading

In Wake of West, Texas Explosion, Safety Advocates Recommend Harsher Fines

by Mike Elk

On average, 13 U.S. workers die a day in workplace accidents, as in this OSHA illustration of grain entrapment. (Wikimedia Commons)

On average, 13 U.S. workers die a day in workplace accidents, as in this OSHA illustration of grain entrapment. (Wikimedia Commons)

“My happiness was taken away in a matter of seconds,” says Adrianna Martinez of the death of her husband, Orestes Martinez, in a workplace safety accident four years ago. “My family and I are broken.  Losing my husband, my best friend, my love has left an empty space in my heart.”

Orestes Martinez, a construction worker in Houston, was killed on the job. Martinez and two other workers were moving a two-ton lead door by hand because no lift devices were available. The door fell and crushed Martinez.

OSHA found that Martinez’s employer, J.T. Vaughn Enterprises, Inc., had committed two serious safety violations that led to Orestes Martinez’s death. But OSHA fined the company only $10,000. On appeal, an administrative judge dismissed one of the violations and reduced the fine to $3,500 Continue reading

Murder by another name

by John Jacobsen

Pictured above: business and economics correspondent for Slate, Mathew Yglesias, standing under what appears to be a fire alarm.

A response to Matthew Yglesias‘ musings on Bangladesh, outsourcing, and the murder of 359 garment workers.

“Where’s my mother? Where’s my mother?” cried Rana Ahmed as she rushed through Enam Medical College and Hospital.

Mosammat Khurshida wailed as she looked for her husband. “He came to work in the morning. I can’t find him,” she said. “I don’t know where he is. He does not pick up his phone.

An arm jutted out of one section of the rubble. The lifeless body of a woman covered in dust could be seen in another.

Only 4 months after a factory fire in Dhaka killed 112 workers, another 362 have died in the collapse of a garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh; and in a compassionately timed piece put out by Slate this week, business correspondent Mathew Yglesias explained to us why “it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.”

Continue reading

Obama’s West, Texas Memorial Speech: No Mention of Workplace Safety

by Mike Elk

Mike Elk

Mike Elk

(April 25) Today, President Obama spoke at a memorial service at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, for the 15 people who were killed in the West Chemical and Fertilizer Plant explosion. Standing in front of caskets and large photos of many of the firefighters killed, President Obama said, “To the families, the neighbors grappling with unbearable loss, we are here to say you are not alone. You are not forgotten. We may not all live here in Texas, but we’re neighbors too. We’re Americans too, and we stand with you.”

Obama’s remarks in West come three years to the day after he gave a similar speech eulogizing the 29 miners who died in 2010’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion. But in that speech, Obama used the memorial to make the case for workplace safety.

“How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work; by simply pursuing the American Dream?” said the president. “We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy; to do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground–to treat our miners like they treat each other–like family.”

Today’s memorial speech in Texas, notably, did not include any such calls for increased workplace safety measures.

Continue reading

Death Trap Plants Win ‘Safe’ Certifications, New AFL-CIO Report Reveals

by Mike Hall

responsibility-outsourced_mediumWould you trust that your food is clean and uncontaminated, the plane you’re flying in airworthy or your workplace safe, if those were certified by companies counting on the profits they’ll make from your purchases, travel and labor? Of course not.

But that’s the dilemma millions of workers around the world face—often with deadly results—when it comes to their safety on the job, a new report from the AFL-CIO reveals.

As two 2012 fires that claimed the lives of nearly 1,300 workers in Bangladesh and Pakistan show, the problem is especially acute in the garment industry that produces goods for well-known brands such as Faded Glory and retailers including Gap, Walmart and H&M. Since 2006, more than 600 garment workers—mostly young women—have been killed in preventable factory fires in Bangladesh alone.

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