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

OSHA Weaknesses Force Workers to Choose: Report Safety Violations, or Keep Their Jobs?

by Mike Elk

 Weaknesses in OSHA’s whistleblower protection laws leave employees vulnerable to retaliation for speaking out against workplace hazards. (Greg Younger / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Weaknesses in OSHA’s whistleblower protection laws leave employees vulnerable to retaliation for speaking out against workplace hazards. (Greg Younger / Flickr / Creative Commons)

According to a report released last week by the Center for Effective Government (CEG),  the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspects only 1 percent of workplaces in the United States in a given year. In the absence of inspections, that means more of the burden to report safety abuses falls on individual workers themselves. However, the CEG study shows that due to weak protection laws, many workers find themselves choosing between reporting a safety violation and keeping their jobs—creating a vicious cycle that can lead to workers too fearful to report potentially deadly workplace hazards.

“Too often, when workers raise concerns about health and safety hazards on the job, employers retaliate with reduced hours or dismissal, even though doing so is clearly illegal,” says Katie Weatherford, regulatory policy analyst at CEG and the author of the report. “Neither federal OSHA, nor its state-level counterparts, currently do enough to protect workers from being harassed, suspended, or fired for reporting health and safety problems, leaving workers with no place to turn.” 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

The Killing Towers of the US Telecom Industry

by Bob Simpson

He fell 120 feet to the ground while dismantling an unused communications tower in Lincoln, Illinois on June 8, 2005. Although identified only as employee #1 in the official OSHA report, he was 43 year old Toby Wheale of Glendale, AZ. Wheale’s employer, Wireless Horizon Inc. of Lincoln IL, was fined $750. The head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) once called tower climbing “the most dangerous job in America.” Apparently $750 was the worth of this person’s life in the communications industry.

A total of 100 people died falling from communication towers between 2003-2011. Of these, 50 fell from cell phone towers. The worst carnage was between 2006-2008 when the iPhone rollout caused a spike in phone traffic that ATT had not anticipated and a major overhaul of the system was required.  The death rate for tower climbers is about 10 times that of construction workers.

Tower climbing in the telecom industry is non-union.
Cell tower

Many of us wake up to our cell phones and even go to sleep with them at night. We talk, text, browse the web, listen to music, take photos, shoot videos, record notes, check the time and so much more. The first commercial US cellular phone system was set up in Chicago in 1983. As of 2011, there were more mobile phones than people in the USA and approximately 280,000 cellular phone tower sites around the nation.

People are aware that cellular phone use while driving can be deadly. But there is another type of fatality involving cell phones that has received almost no attention, the deaths of tower climbers who install and upgrade cellular technology. A driver yakking carelessly on a cell phone can be a death foretold; so can a corporation demanding that workers climb towers hundreds of feet high on impossible deadlines without proper safety enforcement and training.

But now tower climbers are speaking out. As one climber put it: “People have no idea what we go through on a day to day basis to give them that service when they hold their cell phones.”

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Why Does OSHA Move at a Glacial Pace? Democrat Calls on Obama Admin to Speed Up Safety Measures

by Mike Elk

Sen. Harkin criticizes White House for delaying new workplace safety rules

Mike Elk

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Republicans typically accuse Democats of not doing enough to streamline regulations. But at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Republican senators defended the Obama administration against criticism from labor leaders and workplace safety advocates who say the administration has made it too cumbersome to create and issue new workplace safety rules.

The April 19 Senate hearing, titled “Time Takes Its Toll: Delays in OSHA’s Standard-Setting Process and the Impact on Worker Safety,” focused on why it takes so long for workplace safety rules issued by OSHA to be implemented. It coincided with the release of a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO report found that between 1981 to 2010, the time it took OSHA to develop and issue safety and health standards ranged from 15 months to 19 years, averaging more than seven years. The report found it took OSHA 50 percent longer than it takes the EPA to issue new rules, nearly twice as long as it takes the Department of Transportation and nearly five times as long as it takes the SEC. Twenty-five percent of all OSHA rules took more than 10 years to be issued, the GAO said. The increasingly slow process has limited the number of OSHA rules implemented (PDF) in recent years.

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Dying for Work

Leo Geard, USW President

Across America, people are dying for work. It’s not because they’re unemployed. It’s because they work for corporations that don’t care if they die.

Every day, 12 workers die on the job in America — often because a corporation has defied regulations or ignored standard safety procedures. Many more die prematurely from work exposure to toxic materials.

If corporations are people, as Mitt Romney and the Republican majority on the Supreme Court claim, then their privileges as humans come with the responsibility to act humanely. Corporate-people must fulfill their obligations to workers and communities. Profit can’t be their sole raison d’etre. That’s not how it is with flesh-and-blood people. If it were, then society would condone profit-motivated murder, like killing a parent for insurance money. Now that they’re people, corporations have an even greater duty to prevent deaths on the job. And if they don’t, they must be held accountable in criminal court the same way a money-grubbing son would be if he murdered his parents for the life insurance.

Workplace explosions get all the attention. Three that occurred two years ago next month killed 47 workers. Within 18 days, seven died at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash.; 29 in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia and 11 on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

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OSHA Fines Honeywell, Citing 17 ‘Serious Violations’ at Uranium Facility

by Mike Elk

Federal action comes almost exactly one year after USW members were locked-out of Illinois plant by international company

When union workers were locked out over a year ago at the Honeywell uranium facility in Metropolis, Ill., they warned that the unskilled scabs being brought into the plant would cause accidents at the uranium enrichment facility due to their lack of experience. Despite these warnings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the workers as being qualified to operate the plant, and it has continued to operate.

Since then, a very loud explosion has been caused at the plant last August, a small amount of lethally toxic UF6 was released last September, and a very large release of the toxic HF gas occurred in late December that set off alarms and troubled local community members. Locked-out union workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 7-699, claimed that the scab replacement workers running the plant were unqualified and should not be allowed to run it.

They cited an NRC report from last November, which showed that Honeywell cheated on initial safety qualification reports for its workers. The NRC claimed that after the cheating on the tests was discovered all workers were retested and passed after being retested.

But a new citation against Honeywell from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) bolsters their claim that the Honeywell uranium facility is being run unsafely. Last Wednesday, OSHA cited Honeywell with 17 separate “serious violations” that could have resulted in death or serious harm and fined Honeywell $119,000 for the accidental release of HF gas in December.

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OSHA at Forty

by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

On July 28, Alex Pacas, 19, and Wyatt Whitebread, 14, of Mount Carroll, IL were suffocated to death, sinking into several thousand tons of quicksand-like shelled corn in the grain bin where they were working. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) quickly determined that their deaths were preventable if Haasbach, LLC, the grain elevator’s owner, had followed proper safety regulations.

Such tragedies are more common than you might think. Every day, an average of 14 American workers die in work-related accidents, many of which are preventable. In addition, every year 3.3 million American workers are injured or sickened by their work conditions. As shocking as this is, these figures represent a dramatic improvement when compared to the situation before the federal Occupational Safety and Health act (OSH) was passed 40 years ago this week.
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Hyatt Sweeps Dirty Safety Record Under the Rug

By Carl Finamore

Carl Finamore

Carl Finamore

The Hyatt Corporation just posted quarterly profits that jumped six hundred percent with their stock prices climbing at around the same rate. Along with this jumping and climbing, the corporation has taken up running, as in running away from the worst safety record in the industry.

Hyatt ranks last in workplace injuries suffered by its housekeeping staff according to UNITE-HERE, the union representing over 100,000 workers in more than 900 hotels in North America. The union is not alone. It cites a peer-reviewed academic study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that places Hyatt dead last among the 50 hotels studied.

The abysmal record prompted Hyatt housekeepers at twelve hotels in eight different cities to simultaneously file injury complaints a few weeks ago with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). The union cites public records submitted by the hotels that indicate a 50 percent higher injury rate than the rest of industry.

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