Amazon Prime: Hazardous Workplaces and Possible Fraudulent Conduct
Here’s some rare good news. It’s well known that Amazon facilities are hazardous workplaces, and that OSHA — especially Washington State OSHA — has gone after the giant company for the high rate of injuries that Amazon workers suffer. The new and exciting development is that the Justice Department is now joining OSHA: “Federal prosecutors in New York and the Department of Labor (OSHA) are inspecting Amazon warehouses around the country as part of a civil investigation into unsafe and unseemly workplace conditions.” The inspections, which began Monday morning, were conducted at Amazon warehouses outside New York City, Chicago and Orlando, “based on referrals received from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York concerning potential workplace hazards related, among other things, to Amazon’s required pace of work for its warehouse employees.” In addition to investigating health and safety hazards, they’re also looking at possible fraudulent conduct designed to hide injuries from OSHA and others.
Memo to Amazon employees: they’re looking for more information from workers:
The U.S. Attorney’s office pointed members of the public who want to report workplace safety and injury-related issues at Amazon warehouses to the Justice Department’s website. Current and former Amazon warehouse workers who have information about safety issues — including safety issues related to the pace of work — or a failure to report injuries, or who were injured and did not receive adequate care at Amazon’s onsite first-aid center or at a clinic recommended by Amazon, were urged to share that information with the SDNY.
Shut This Job Down!
The United Steelworkers has issued a publication on “Bargaining for Stop Work Authority.” Stop Work Authority (SWA) is the right of workers to stop unsafe work and processes until the potential hazard is thoroughly investigated and abated to the satisfaction of workers, the union and management. The publication is intended to help local unions win effective SWA processes in collective bargaining agreements with management. Authored by former Rick Engler, former Chemical Safety Board member and former director of the New Jersey Work Environment Congress, and USW Health and Safety Director Steve Salman, the guide notes that
A strong, participatory role for workers and local unions is essential for workplace safety and health. This includes the right of workers to pause or halt a task – or even stop a major operation or process – that they reasonably believe is unsafe or unhealthy. The right to stop unsafe work processes should continue until the hazard is thoroughly investigated and abated to the satisfaction of workers, the union and management. Workers must be able to exercise this right without fear of retaliation or discipline. This right is called Stop Work Authority (SWA). SWA can save one’s own life and the lives of fellow workers.
The Manual notes that workers’ first priority must be a safe workplace, “But, when other safety and health protections fail, a strong negotiated SWA policy offers workers and their representatives an essential right that may be critical to preventing injuries and saving health and lives.”
‘There Is Anger. He Should Be Alive.’
In what former NPR Labor journalist Howard Berkes calls “Another example of priceless local journalism that is thriving at NPR affiliates across the country,” Alex Hall at KQED, San Francisco’s NPR affiliate, published a story that investigated COVID-19 outbreaks at Foster Farms poultry processing facilities in California. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 Foster Farms poultry processing workers in the company’s California plants died from COVID-19 and at least 20 more were hospitalized. CalOSHA issued citations against the company. alleging that “Foster Farms did not provide or enforce the consistent use of face coverings and that in some areas of the plants, employees were stationed closer than 6 feet from each other or not separated by barriers.” Foster Farms also hid information about outbreaks from employees.
The company is fighting the OSHA citations, claiming that it wasn’t working conditions, but the workers ethnicity that was to blame. Many Foster Farms workers are of Asian/East Indian origin. Foster Farms and other California companies are also fighting workers comp complaints from families of workers who contracted COVID on the job. California employers fear that if CalOSHA citations are sustained, it may show that the company acted with disregard for worker safety and those findings could be used as evidence the company acted with” serious and willful misconduct.”
“If accepted, a petition for benefits for serious and willful misconduct adds an additional 50% in penalties on top of workers’ compensation benefits. Under state regulations, those added penalty amounts cannot be covered by insurance, meaning employers must pay out of pocket.”
Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. This one is from north of the border, but we’ve all seen similar occurrences down south.
Over the past seven months, two workers have been killed at American Iron and Metal, a scrap yard in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. So what did the CEO of the company, Herb Black, say about the tragedies? “Shit happens in life.” Yes, really.
But it gets worse. Rather than taking any of the responsibility himself, Black blamed one of the deaths on “human error” and the other was allegedly unpreventable. When asked who was responsible for safety at AIM, Black Black blamed a higher power: “You have to make a connection with the Lord and ask him. I’m not God. I don’t decide.” (I’d like to be a fly on the wall when he gets to the Pearly Gates.) WorkSafeNB is investigating both of the recent deaths at the yard. AIM is also apparently not the best neighbor: “AIM signed a 40-year-lease for its scrap yard with the Port of Saint John in 2002 and has since been the site of fires and dozens of loud explosions. There have been threats of legal action, and mayors, a member of Parliament, and community members have called for AIM’s licence to be suspended.”
‘The Knife Was Just Going Everywhere’
As OSHA plods along at its glacial pace on a workplace violence standard, health care workers continue to be assaulted every day on the job. Rarely, the assaults are so bad that they make the news. “A patient was arrested and charged after two people were stabbed at a Missouri hospital. Just before 11:30 a.m. Monday, officers were called to DePaul Hospital near St. Louis for a stabbing. Upon arrival, they found two victims – a nurse and a paramedic – being treated for injuries. The condition of those injured has not been released.”
All in a days work.
Jakayla Palmer was in the emergency room waiting area and witnessed the attack. “I heard somebody say, ‘She has a knife,’ so I looked up and I’ve seen a woman. She was stabbing the nurse; and everybody, all the workers, they just rushed to her, all the paramedics and everybody, and the knife was just going everywhere,” Palmer said.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes — and Your Cells
When one thinks about the hazards faced by firefighters, one usually thinks of buildings collapsing on them, being burned to death or succumbing to smoke inhalation. But there’s a much more insidious hazard that firefighters face: cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), has now found sufficient evidence to warrant reclassification for fire smoke to a known human carcinogen (Group 1). Firefighting was last classified by IARC in 2010 as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B).
The IARC workgroup found that:
There was sufficient evidence for cancer in humans for the following cancer types: mesothelioma and bladder cancer. There was limited evidence for cancer in humans for the following cancer types: colon cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, melanoma of the skin, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma….there were more than 30 long-term studies of cancer among firefighters that provided new evidence to support the re-classification. The Working Group conducted a meta-analysis of all the evidence from the group of more than 20 non-overlapping cohort studies and found consistent evidence for an increased risk among firefighters for cancers at certain sites.”
What is it about firefighting that causes cancer? According to the IARC report:
Firefighters are exposed to a complex mixture of combustion products from fires (e.g. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, metals, and particulates), diesel exhaust, building materials (e.g. asbestos), and other hazards (e.g. heat stress, shift work, and ultraviolet and other radiation). In addition, the use of flame retardants in textiles and of persistent organic pollutants (e.g. per- and polyfluorinated substances) in firefighting foams has increased over time. This mixture may include many agents already classified by the IARC Monographs programme in Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans), Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans), and Group 2B (possibly carcinogenic to humans). Dermal exposure, inhalation, and ingestion are common routes of exposure, and biomarker studies among firefighters have found enhanced levels of markers of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, flame retardants, and persistent organic pollutants.