Long Absences from Long Covid

We don’t really know how many workers died of COVID-19 acquired on the job. But we are starting to find out how Long COVID is affecting the workforce. Although COVID cases are down across the country, new research shows that many employees report being too sick to return to work or require ongoing medical treatment due to long COVID.

Nearly a third of workers’ compensation claimants in the state have long COVID, with more men than women suffering from the condition, according to a report from the New York State Insurance Fund (NYSIF), the largest workers’ compensation insurer in New York State.

Of New York residents who have filed for workers’ comp because of long COVID, roughly 70% said they experienced symptoms that kept them out of work for at least six months or needed continued medical care.

People with long COVID often suffer a range of physical and neurological symptoms, including muscle pain and difficulty concentrating, that can persist for months and even years after the start of a COVID-19 infection.

The the New York State Insurance Fund, found that “long Covid as an underappreciated yet important reason for the many unfilled jobs and declining labor participation rate in the economy, and they presage a possible reduction in productivity as employers feel the strains of an increasingly sick work force.”

Will Low Road Construction Companies Pay the Price for Killing Workers

OSHA is responsible for enforcing safe working conditions in this country, but its low fines are usually not enough of deterrent to force low road employers to provide a safe workplace. Nowhere is this more evident than New York City where 22 construction workers were killed on the job last year. (And already an additional 3 this year).

New York legislators are seeking to remedy  this problem with Carlos’ Law which will fine construction companies convicted of criminal negligence that led to an employee’s severe injury or death up to $500,000 in penalties. The law goes into effect this month. Current OSHA penalties are $15,625 for a serious violation and $156,250 for a willful violation

Carlos’ Law was named after 22-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant Carlos Moncayo, who was buried alive in a 13-foot trench

But the penalties are not automatic:

It ultimately falls on prosecutors to go after suspected bad actors, according to Diana Florence, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Florence led the case against Moncayo’s non-union employer, Harco Construction, after his death in 2015.

“Carlos’ Law will merely be symbolic unless construction and workplace safety is consistently enforced,” said Florence.

Walkaround Representatives in the 21st Century

One of the challenges to running OSHA in the 21st century is that it operates under a 1970 law. One of the many rights provided to workers in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was the right for worker representatives) to “walk around” with OSHA inspectors during an inspection. But this right, like many other rights in the OSHAct, was based on the world in 1970 when most of the workplaces inspected by OSHA were represented by labor unions. Unfortunately, today — over half a century later — only a small minority of workers are represented by unions.  But a walkaround representative is no less necessary today — and no less necessary to non-union workers — than it was 50 years ago.

During the Obama administration, OSHA was approached by non-union workers who wanted representatives from outside organizations — unions, COSH groups, worker rights organization, public health experts, etc — to serve as the walkaround representatives, even though there was no collective bargaining agreement.  In 2013, OSHA’s Director  of Enforcement, Richard Fairfax sent a letter  to United Steelworkers health and safety representative Steve Sallman, which reinterpreted OSHA’s longstanding walkaround regulation, allowing workers in non-union workplaces to choose their walkaround representatives, even if they had no collective bargaining representatives. OSHA determined that was the clear from the language of the OSHAct and from intent of Congress when it passed the OSHAct that workers should be able to choose their own representatives to walkaround with inspectors — regardless of the union status of the worksite.

The Chamber of Commerce and other business interests went berserk, accusing OSHA of aiding and abetting union organizing, undermining capitalism and destroying the American way. They argued that if OSHA wanted to change its policy, it needed to seek public comment go through the lengthy rulemaking process. As might be expected, in 2017,the Trump administration quickly withdrew the interpretation.

Now OSHA has resumed its defense of workers rights, but has somewhat acceded to the the request of the business community by starting the process of issuing a regulation that would return the practice of allowing non-union employees to have a walkaround representative. The agency expects to issue an official proposal that will seek public comment in May of this year. The downside of the regulatory process is that it takes a long time. But the upside is that if, or when, Republicans again take the White House, it will be harder for them to take this right away from workers again.

As Martin Luther King said, ““the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  In OSHA’s case, it’s very, very long.

Heat Kills…Workers

The world is heating up, causing all kinds of climate problems. That much is certain. But high heat is also bad for people. Especially workers who often have no choice to to work in dangerously hot conditions. As veteran labor reporter Steve Greenhouse reminds us, “High heat can be a big problem for the nation’s workers, not just farmworkers and construction workers, but delivery workers, utility workers, landscaping workers, and warehouse workers.”

OSHA is working on a standard to protect workers, but it may be years — or even more than a decade — before that standard is issued.

Meanwhile Greenhouse and other criticize the media for not paying enough attention to the heat hazards faced by workers. And there’s a reason:

Some safety experts say one reason the media — and the nation — pay so little attention to the threat that high heat poses for workers is that the hardest hit occupational group is farmworkers, a group that society often overlooks, partly because it’s largely comprised of low-paid immigrants.

There are, of course, exceptions. Rolling Stone, NPR, Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Texas Newsroom, the The Morning Call in Allentown, PA, the Washington Post and others have done excellent investigative stories about tragic workers deaths in the fields and warehouses across the country.

Greenhouse calls on the media to ask why it’s taken OSHA 50 years to start work on a standard to address a well-known hazard, why a disproportionate number of workers who die from heat are Black or brown, why enforcement by understaffed and under resourced agencies like OSHA is so feeble, and why, even when OSHA issues a citation, “judges sometimes overturn those fines, saying employers shouldn’t be punished when there aren’t specific federal heat regulations stating what an employer’s obligations are in such situations.”

In addition, the media should explore the extensive industry opposition to creating federal heat regulations, even though (or because) the most vulnerable workers have little control over their working conditions and are afraid of being fired if they speak up.

OSHA’s Slap on Amazon’s Wrist Causes Major Convulsions

Earlier this month, OSHA cited Amazon for exposing workers to ergonomic hazard and issued hazard alert letters after inspections at three warehouse facilities – in Deltona, Florida; Waukegan, Illinois; and New Windsor, New York. OSHA also found workers at an Amazon warehouse in Deltona, FL, were at risk for “serious heat-related illnesses,” and that employees there had suffered repeated injuries from improperly secured packages, including a 61-pound piece of furniture that smashed one worker’s face and a bed frame that crushed a worker’s hand.

Last month, OSHA cited Amazon for 14 recordkeeping violations as part of the same investigation.

In the current investigation,

OSHA investigators found Amazon warehouse workers at high risk for lower back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders related to the high frequency with which workers are required to lift packages and other items; the heavy weight of the items; awkward postures, such as twisting, bending and long reaches while lifting; and long hours required to complete assigned tasks. OSHA also reviewed on-site injury logs required by OSHA and discovered that Amazon warehouse workers experienced high rates of musculoskeletal disorders.

Amazon faces a total of $60,269 in proposed penalties for these violations.

Wait, you say. $60,000? Really? That’s not even couch change for a company with a nearly $1 trillion market cap.

OSHA penalties have gone up significantly over the past several years, but they’re still no where near as high as they need to be to impact the bottom line of huge companies like Amazon.

But for Amazon, it’s not the money, it’s the stigma. Perish the thought that Amazon might not be the stellar employer it makes itself out to be.

As former OSHA Chief of Staff Deborah Berkowitz explains

In the end, it’s not the fine that changes companies’ behavior, but the message that it sends. Other companies cited by OSHA for ergonomic violations have been quick to reform their practices, says Berkowitz, “because in the end, it saves them money. It prevents injuries, it’s good for the worker, it’s good for the company. So the fact that Amazon built all these warehouses and ignores ergonomic principles . . . it’s stunning to me.”

Nevertheless, Amazon is hurt, deeply hurt by the citations and is challenging them.

“We strongly disagree with these allegations and intend to appeal. We’ve cooperated fully, and the government’s allegations don’t reflect the reality of safety at our sites,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel”

The appeals could take years, and under the federal OSHAct, Amazon is not required to fix the problems until the appeal is resolved.  That’s federal law. Washington State OSHA, on  the other issued a rule in 2011 that requires serious or willful violations to be abated during the appeal process unless the employer can demonstrate “good cause” for a stay of abatement.  A good cause stay will not be granted if “based on the preliminary evidence it is more likely than not that a stay would result in death or serious physical harm to a worker.” 

The Mine Safety and Health Act also requires abatement during contest.

Sounds like a good model for federal OSHA.

7 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Front Lines of Workplace Safety and Health”
  1. Joining an inspection team in a walkaround is good for many reasons. One being that the worker who joins the team is able to learn from the inspector, listen to the conversation, participate in a post-inspection meeting and take all this info back to the workplace or the union. A worker who participates in a health and safety inspection — even as a observer — is more likely to identify and report hazards in the future.

    1. I tried to report HAZARDS and make workers aware of issues in the workplace. The STUPIDVISOR I was reporting to tried killing me multiple times over a 5 year period. Only ended my career after conspiring with another 2 workers to SET ME UP. THEY ALL still worked for decades in job titles they were COMPLETELY UNQUALIFIED FOR!!! FRAUD!!! In the ranks of NYC DOC!!!
      Support Services Electric Shop!!!
      Go FIGURE!!!

  2. I am assuming that there are no OSHA standards for the requirement that there be air conditioning in Postal Trucks, even though postal workers are in these trucks for hours per day, and some have died from heat exhaustion. If you were established to protect workers from unsafe environments, why should it take such a long time to add protections? It seems that all Government Departments and Services no longer do the job they were put in place for, but are rather in effective entities. It appears that our Government is unable to function thanks to the Congress of the US.

    1. You’re right Mary, OSHA doesn’t have a heat standard yet, they’re working on one but it may take 10 years to get it final.

      OSHA does have what’s known as the General Duty Clause which allows OSHA to enforce dangerous conditions when heat is at dangerously high levels.

      You’re also right that something in the government is broken when it takes an agency 10 years to issue a regulation that’s obviously needed to protect workers.

      This is obviously not what the originators of the Occupational Safety and Health Act had in mind when they passed the law in 1970.

      1. Osha has been regularly weakened since it inception, which included many compromises to get it off the ground. That said a lot of these problems come from deregulation of industries a favorite economic improvement easy button of many presidents leaving most industries deregulated and safety laws neutered.

  3. My daughter used to work for Amazon. In Idaho in the summer those vans get over 100%. The push to get the deliveries, is never ending. The safety of the drivers is not important. Their routing system adds hours to the delivery route. Some of the ‘roads’ are not even two feet wide, go miles around to get to a decent road.
    Several times my daughter was so over heated customers were concerned and made her take a water bottle. Thanks to all of you who care for the driver’s safety.

  4. I used to accompanied driver as called delivery helper and yes it was so hot especially in midland Texas during summer. Temperature go up over 120 degrees

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