This is not generally how a good company wants a supervisor to respond to a worker who reports unsafe conditions: “Next time you have a problem with safety, talk to me. Then get in your car and hit the f***ing road.” Then you write him up, don’t renew his contract — and, for good measure, fire his son for “talking on the job.”
But that’s how Leon Wagner, a superintendent for Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) contractor, Abhe & Svoboda responded to Shane Duane Luey when Luey reported unsafe working conditions, according to NW Laborpress.org.
More troubling, however, is what happened eight months later:
On Feb. 8, 2017, eight months after Luey Sr. warned OSHA about unsafe scaffolding, Marco Montello fell 40 feet from a scaffold under the bridge and landed on his son Christopher, who was on a lower level. Both were hospitalized after a fire department ladder rescue.
Luey says he decided to go public with his story after hearing about the accident. “When I heard it on the news, I really got pissed off about it. If they would have handled this when I called OSHA, it probably wouldn’t have happened,” Luey said.
Abhe & Svoboda is working on a $22 million contract with ODOT to sandblast and paint the underside of the Ross Island Bridge in Portland, OR. NWLaborpress reports numerous cases of workers being intimidated for talking about safety concerns, and being retaliated against for reporting injuries.
One worker, “D.R.” described the intimidation on the job:
D.R. says by about November, the company was behind schedule. Managers began pushing workers to go faster, and imposed a “no-talking-on-the-job” policy on the project. D.R. says he told his co-worker Shane Luey Jr. that the speedup was going to cause an accident; someone would fall from the scaffolding. Their conversation was within earshot of the new foreman. The next day, D.R. was told there was no work for him. Two days later the project superintendent gave him his last check, and an explanation: “He didn’t need me up there yapping when I was supposed to be working,” D.R. said.
OSHA recently issued a regulation forbidding companies from discouraging workers from reporting injuries on the job. That regulation is facing stiff opposition and lawsuits from employer associations.
The Painters Union, which is trying to organize Abhe & Svoboda, also reports that the company actually discourages workers from using safety equipment:
Orvin Dean, a member of Portland-based Painters Local 10, worked for Abhe & Svoboda in New Jersey and Florida three years ago, and says workers didn’t wear safety gear as required: “A few times I tried to put on my harness and [a company foreman] told me the company doesn’t have time for you to walk from Point A to Point B just so you can put on your harness.”
OSHA has cited and fined Abhe & Svoboda more than a dozen times at projects around the nation, including nearly $30,000 for dozens of violations on the Astoria Bridge in 2011. To publicize the company’s violations of safety and other labor laws, the Painters District Council 5 put together a web site, abhe-exposed.com, which went live April 11.
Most employers want to do the right thing. Some excel, some comply with the minimum, some just do it because they’re afraid they’ll get cited if they don’t. And then there are some, like Abhe & Svoboda, who seem to be hostile to the whole idea of ensuring safe working conditions — especially if it might cost more or slow down the job. For these employers — and those who just comply with the law because they’re afraid of being fined — you need a strong, and well funded, OSHA enforcement program. And workers need to know about unsafe conditions, what to do about them and their rights on the job. Finally, workers need to be able to work — and discuss safety issues — free from the threat of retaliation. That’s why OSHA ensures that workers know about their rights, and why OSHA has the Susan Harwood Training program to provide training to workers on workplace safety and health, and their rights. And a strong union helps as well.
OSHA’s budget, the Harwood Program and workers rights are currently under attack by the Republican led Congress and the Trump administration. Make sure your Congressional representatives know how important a strong, well-funded enforcement program is.