Little Fires Everywhere…at Amazon

Neither rain, no sleet, nor snow stops the US mail.  Apparently for Amazon, that also includes fires. On Monday, a fire broke out in a trash compactor at the JFK8 Amazon fulfillment in Statin Island, New York and in a separate event, the second fire in a week broke out at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Madison, Alabama,  not once, but twice in the past week — and in the same area of the warehouse.

At the New York facility, over 100 night shift workers refused to go back to work because the warehouse smelled of smoke and that they couldn’t breathe. One worker went to the hospital, according to the Washington Post. The next day, Amazon suspended at least 50 workers involved in a work stoppage, claiming that “it respected employees’ rights to protest working conditions but that occupying work spaces was inappropriate.” This is the same union that voted to organize last April, although Amazon has refused to bargain with the union. The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Meanwhile, the source of the Madison fires has not been identified, although workers speculate that it may be lithium batteries. Needless to say, as one Amazon employee stated, “We don’t feel safe, I mean, we think they sent us back to work too soon.” No shit.

Of Rats and Sinking Ships: Amazon Safety Head Throws in the Towel

Even the safety pros at Amazon may be having second thoughts about the company’s safety record. Amazon scored quite a prize in 2019 when they hired Heather McDougall as the giant company’s top executive overseeing workplace health and safety. Prior to the Amazon gig, McDougall was chair of the Occupational Safety and Health Review commission — sort of the Supreme Court of disputed OSHA citations.  The appointment cam shortly after OSHRC overturned an OSHA heat citation. Not unrelated, Amazon, then and now, had come under criticism for failing to address serious safety problems in their warehouses, including those related to heat.

Last week, Amazon announced that McDougall would be moving on. “After building with us for over three years as an important member of our leadership team, Heather has decided to pursue other opportunities outside Amazon,” according to John Felton, Amazon’s head of operations. During her time heading up Amazon’s health and safety operations, the company had come under criticism for high rates of musculoskeletal and other injuries, heat hazards, failure to respond adequately to COVID-19. In 2021, 6 Amazon employees were killed when a tornado hit their warehouse in Illinois. OSHA later sent a letter to the company criticizing them for inadequate emergency response programs.

So, greener (and more profitable) pastures? Or did she find it increasingly hard to look herself in the mirror every morning?

Democratic Commissioners Finally Confirmed to Mine Safety Commission

Until last week, almost two years into the Biden administration, Republicans still controlled the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, holding two seats, while the other three were vacant after the term of Chairman Art Traynor expired on August 30.  FMSHRC is an independent 5 member agency that serves as the high court of the Mine Safety and Health Agency.

That anomaly ended last week when the Senate finally confirmed two Democratic appointees — Mary Lu Jordan and Timothy Baker — by voice vote.  In June, President Biden also nominated Moshe Marvit to the fifth seat on the Commission, but the Senate has not yet acted on his nomination.

The Commission had been plagued by controversy over the past two years as the Republican Commissioners upended FMSHRC precedents, undermining the rights to miners.  The Republicans had declared war on Commission Chair (and Democratic appointee) Art Traynor, and fired up Senate Republicans to obstruct the confirmations of Jordan and Baker. Now that Traynor’s term has expired, Republicans have apparently dropped their opposition to the Biden nominations.

So for now, there is a 2-2 split on FMSHRC, which may spell deadlock over major decisions, but should at least stop the undermining of miners’ rights. When will Marvit be confirmed? That may depend on how the mid-term elections go.

Healthcare Workers: COVID, Monkeypox and Every Disease Everywhere

I often write that healthcare workers are on the front lines of every disease outbreak, epidemic and pandemic.  Indeed, healthcare workers have higher injury rates than construction workers or coal miners, and thousands needlessly died from COVID-19 while caring for those most impacted by the pandemic without the needed protections. In the latest issue of AFT’s Health Care Magazine, I review the history of OSHA’s efforts to protect healthcare workers and the need for more standards and enforcement to protect America’s caregivers.

Meanwhile, the first U.S. healthcare worker to be infected with Monkeypox while on the job has been reported in Los Angeles County. According to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the case was the result of a “needle stick injury.”

Washington State Gets Serious About Residential Fall Protection

Washington OSHA has cited two roofing companies for more than a million dollars in total fines for repeatedly putting workers at risk of dangerous falls.

Allways Roofing, Inc. in Snohomish has been inspected 11 times in the past three years resulting from reports of roofers not wearing fall protection. The two most recent citations  include $788,000 in fines. Allways Roofing has amassed nearly $2.5 million in penalties over the past 15 months. United Roofing Solutions has been inspected a dozen times since it opened in 2009 and has been cited and fined more than $500,000 for workers not wearing fall protection. The most recent case resulted in a $305,254 penalty for repeat, willful, serious violations for not using fall protection.

Just over ten years ago, the residential construction industry went berserk when federal OSHA reinstated fall protection rules for residential construction which had been “temporarily” waived in 1995. The industry accused OSHA of creating unnecessary hardships on the roofing industry and driving small construction companies out of business. Despite withering pressure from some members of Congress, OSHA persisted in enforcing the requirement, although it delayed enforcement of the new requirements over many months.

COVID-19 Causing Burnout Among Healthcare Workers

At least a quarter of health and care workers surveyed reported anxiety, depression and burnout symptoms as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic according to a report released today by by the Qatar Foundation, World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO).

The report found that 23 to 46 percent of health and care workers reported symptoms of anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic and 20 to 37 percent experienced depressive symptoms.

Burnout among health and care workers during the pandemic ranged from 41 to 52 percent in pooled estimates. Women, young people and parents of dependent children were found to be at greater risk of psychological distress — significant considering that women make up 67 percent of the global health workforce and are subject to inequalities in the sector, such as unequal pay.

The report also highlights 10 policy actions to address the problem, including investing in workplace environments and culture that prevent burnout, promoting staff wellbeing, and supporting quality care. This includes the obligations and roles of governments and employers for occupational safety and health.

2 thoughts on “Short Stuff: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Workplace Safety”
  1. Jordan, I understand the title “COVID-19 Causing Burnout Among Healthcare Workers” but surely more significant factors are the under-resourcing of healthcare facilities and the lack of pandemic preparedness. Addressing either or both of these factors would have prevented or reduced the burnout risks.

  2. …a perspective concerning the departure of Amazon’s EHS leader. My perception(would love to see some hard data to support or refute) is that the average tenure of EHS managers at a certain site/company has decreased over time. This may be due in part to the evolving gig economy, but I tend to think there is more to it. And this “more to it” is at the root of our lack of progression in safety over the years.
    As we all know, it takes many years to build a sustainable safety program at a site. The revolving door of safety managers I have seen at manufacturing sites in my region is concerning. With each change there is a disruption and potentially a backsliding of the program. A local construction company canned a good safety professional after six months because “he was not a good fit.” Six months later and they are still trying to find the “right” person to manage the program.
    A good safety pro can work magic in the right setting with far more impact than any exterior force, ie regulatory agency. These are the real difference makers…the folks in the trenches. And safety pros have been operating in an increasingly challenging environment. We are expected to challenge our bosses…bosses who can put us on the street in a heartbeat. Like the expanding roles of teachers in our society, the role of the safety pro has evolved from one of technician/engineer to nurse, industrial hygienist, organizational psychologist, coach, cultural change agent…basically doer of all because sites are so lean nobody has time for EHS…and all the while, don’t ever forget you must be a “good fit” round here. Expectations today are completely unrealistic. And what happens if you stand up for yourself? I was told by my last boss at a manufacturing site, “If you don’t like my leadership style, then leave.”
    At will employment is the problem behind so many ills in today’s workplace. Everyone deals with it to some extent, but the safety pro is especially at risk. It’s a conflict of interest to be auditing the person who controls your destiny. Until safety pros can operate with impunity, their effectiveness will be limited. Want to change safety in this country? Set standards for the employment of safety pros, including required labor contracts. Teachers and law enforcement are in precarious positions today, but at least they have contracts and/or union protection. Safety pros have neither. Just as teachers and law enforcement are facing increasing scrutiny and subsequent effects of cancel culture, I’ve seen an increase in safety pros being used as sacrificial lambs when things don’t go well and/or they try to hold their organization accountable….thus, the revolving door of safety pros today.
    The safety profession has been its own worst enemy. Some of our brethren are still drinking the behavioral safety kool-aid and trying to take on organizational dysfunctions beyond their scope and using meaningless metrics, ie measuring engagement. I wish OSHA could help put an end to this fluff and provide leadership as to where the focus of the safety profession needs to be…identifying hazards and controlling them…not managing useless behavioral safety programs. Industry made up its own rules without such guidance, ie “OSHA uses recordable rates so we should, too.” The emphasis on behavioral safety ran wild over the past 20 years and sidetracked us as a profession from doing what we do well..working in the field, not behind computers crunching data, 3/4 of which we will never use.
    So, at will employment and clarifying the role of the safety pro. I don’t expect OSHA to fix these problems, but I think they can help by being advocates. Just as we are losing teachers and LEO’s, I think we will struggle to attract people to the safety field if there is not change. It’s a losing battle. Bureaucrats need to remember…without us, good luck getting any stuff implemented today. We are your best bet, not threats to employers.

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