If you read nothing else this week, read this: Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs.

It tells the soul-crushing story of workers — mostly “temporary” employees — killed, dismembered, and permanently disabled in foreign owned auto parts companies producing parts for large auto companies like Kia and Hyundi. As the author, Peter Waldman, says, these are stories that “read like Upton Sinclair, or even Dickens.”

Waldman tells the story of Regina Elsea, age 20, killed in an Ajin plant two weeks before here wedding; Cordney Crutcher who lost his left pinkie while operating a metal press at Matsu Alabama; Phyllis Taylor, 53, who scorched her hand inside an industrial oven last year at the HP Pelzer Automotive Systems Inc. insulation plant in Thomson, Ga.; Nathaniel Walker, 26, who fell into a vat of sulfuric and phosphoric acid 4 feet deep; Rico Allen, who lost his right forearm and three fingers on the other hand when he was 30; and on and on and on.

Warning: You need a strong stomach to read all the way through this article. An example: 

Nathaniel Walker, 26, had been doing the same high-wire act for three years at the factory of WKW-Erbsloeh Automotive, a supplier of metal trim parts to Mercedes and BMW, in Pell City, Ala. Every Saturday he climbed onto a ventilation duct above big dipping pools of acid on the plant’s back line, where the aluminum parts were anodized to give them a protective coat. It was always a race. At first, Walker and a co-worker had 24 hours to clean and service as many of the 34 tanks as possible. As production demands rose, management cut that to 14 to 16 hours, and sometimes to as few as 6. The job required balance and dexterity. Walker and his colleague hopped on and off the 4½-foot-high ventilation shafts, hauling hoses, tools, and 50-pound bags of caustic soda. They were always exhausted—Walker worked from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., seven days a week, for up to six months straight.

There were no gangways, no cables, no handrails. The only training the workers got from the plant’s German supervisors, according to Walker, was in how to rinse off the ventilation ducts so they weren’t so slippery.

In July 2014, Walker fell in. He was balancing on the duct between two tanks—one empty, one full—while using a crowbar in the empty one to remove and replace a lead cathode. His hands slipped, and he tumbled backward into a vat of sulfuric and phosphoric acid 4 feet deep. Submerged, he swam for a second before righting himself. A nearby co-worker quickly pulled him out and hosed him down, minimizing damage to his skin and eyes. Walker’s cotton shirt pulled off his skin like wet tissue paper. His throat burned and swelled from swallowing the solution. He spent four days in intensive care and didn’t fully recover for months.

OSHA is hard at work citing these companies, unfortunately, mostly after injuries or fatalities happen. Dr. David Michaels, OSHA’s Assistant Secretary during the entire Obama administration even traveled to Korea to meet with Korean automakers to warn them that their parts contractors were killing workers.

“I gave them a very strong message: ‘This brings shame on your reputation. American consumers are not going to want to buy cars stained with the blood of American workers,’ ” say Michaels.

“I gave them a very strong message: ‘This brings shame on your reputation. American consumers are not going to want to buy cars stained with the blood of American workers — Dr. David Michaels

Key Points

Read the article for yourself, but here are a few major points the article makes:

  • All of the tragic incidents described here were preventable. They are the result of no lockout-tagout procedures (where machines are locked and de-energized before workers try to repair them) or lack of machine maintenance, lack of worker training (many were temps, asked to do a job they had never done and had never been trained on), unsafe procedures, no machine guarding, poor housekeeping, lines and machines sped up to unsafe levels, etc., etc.
  • Most of these workers were “temporary workers,” paid barely minimum wage, receiving very little training.
  • Management was well aware of all of these safety flaws, but did nothing. “They treated people like interchangeable parts,” according to Adam Wolfsberger, the former manager at a staffing agency that supplied workers to Matsu Alabama.
  • Union parts shops are safer and pay better
  • Impossible quotas — often set by the manufacturers for their “just on time” production schemes — forced employees to work faster, unsafely, without taking time to safely repair or maintain machines. As one worker said: ““If you made 28,000 parts one day, the next day they’d want 29,000….You heard all day long, ‘If we don’t get these parts out, the customer is going to fine us $80,000.’ ”
  • The Southern states have become part of the bottom end of the global supply chain, modeling

“the global economy’s race to the bottom. Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South….workers earn about 70¢ for every dollar earned by auto parts workers in Michigan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Many plants in the North are unionized; only a few are in the South.)”

Political Resistance to OSHA Enforcement

Three years ago, during Secretary of Labor Tom Perez’s budget hearing for the Department of Labor, Alabama Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-AL) launched an attack on OSHA for launching a “Regional Emphasis Program” to better oversee Southern auto parts plants.  A little background: Legally, OSHA can’t just walk into any business without some kind of reason. A fatality, hospitalization, amputation, or a worker complaint can get OSHA in to a plant, but those often happen when it’s too late to prevent and injury or death. OSHA also has “programmed inspections” where OSHA can proactively inspect in a specific industry or focus on a specific hazard, if it has laid out a written justification (for example high injury or illnesses rates, local knowledge of unsafe conditions, etc.) These are called “emphasis programs,” and can either be conducted nationally or locally. All OSHA emphasis programs are preceded by months of outreach to industry so that companies have a chance to clean up their acts before inspectors arrive.

At the 2014 hearing, Roby went after Perez on a recently issued Regional Emphasis Program targeting Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia auto parts makers. OSHA had the evidence. “The agency cited one year, 2010, when workers in Alabama parts plants had a 50 percent higher rate of illness and injury than the U.S. auto parts industry as a whole.” Roby, nevertheless, went on the attack,  accusing OSHA of trying to help UAW organizing campaigns:

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, said she is unaware of any pattern of accidents that would justify the extra inspections. Singling out a specific industry in three states, Roby said, is suspicious. All three states, like most of the South, have right-to-work laws preventing employees from being compelled to join a union.

Roby sent a letter to Perez, accusing OSHA of being

“part of a coordinated effort to advance a pro-union agenda within the growing Southeastern automotive manufacturing industry, which is thriving due in part to the pro-business environment and skilled workforce found in our region….It is concerning that a federal government agency may be advancing on Southeastern workers a pro-union agenda that they do not want.”

Although OSHA moved forward with the emphasis program, Congress put language into OSHA’s next budget requiring the agency to notify Congress ten days before implementing any new national or regional emphasis program.

The gap OSHA cited in its emphasis program has narrowed,  but OSHA Penalties are still too low to have a major impact:

the incidence of traumatic injuries in Alabama’s auto parts plants remains 9 percent higher than in Michigan’s and 8 percent higher than in Ohio’s. In 2015 the chances of losing a finger or limb in an Alabama parts factory was double the amputation risk nationally for the industry, 65 percent higher than in Michigan and 33 percent above the rate in Ohio.

Questions for the next OSHA Director

I’m highlighting this article not just for your reading pleasure.  It also raises a number of important questions to ask the next OSHA Assistant Secretary:

  1. Will you continue OSHA emphasis programs to crack down on auto parts manufacturers and other high hazard industries?
  2. Will you continue OSHA’s efforts to hold temporary staffing companies and host employers responsible for safety?
  3. Will you resume publicizing these serious cases so that others in the industry can learn about what’s happening to workers, that their violating the law and that OSHA is taking these problems seriously?
  4. OSHA’s penalties are clearly too low to have a deterrent effect on large companies. Will you advocate for raising OSHA’s penalties?
  5. Other questions? Use the comment box below.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether the companies care about the carnage in their workplaces, Elsea’s mother still hasn’t heard a word from Ajin’s owners or senior executives. “They sent a single artificial flower to her funeral.”

Final note: Special appreciation for this story goes to Jesse Lawder,  formerly of DOL’s Public Affairs staff, who bird dogged this story for months, David Michaels, who made safety in these plants a personal crusade, even traveling to South Korea, and all the dedicated OSHA staff who quietly save lives every day, despite constant attacks and little appreciation.

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