Workplace Violence Back on Congressional Agenda

Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-02) and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) re-introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would require OSHA to issue a standard to curb the rising rates of workplace violence facing health care and social service workers, including nurses, emergency responders, medical assistants, physicians, and social workers within 42 months of enactment. The bill would require covered employers to adopt plans to address preventable acts of workplace violence. Similar legislation has passed the House with large bipartisan majorities in the last two Congresses. The current bill was introduced with the support of two Republicans: Don Bacon of Nebraska and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. OSHA has been working on a workplace violence standard since 2016, but is only now completing the earliest step, the small business (SBREFA) review.  At this rate — even assuming Democrats keep the Presidency in 2024, it will be several years before the standard is issued. The bill has the support of numerous labor unions and health care organizations.

Arrest Following Trench Collapse Death

In another hopefully sign that law enforcement officials are getting serious about workers killed in trench collapses, a Connecticut business owner and equipment operator are facing criminal charges after a worker was killed in a trench collapse.  Vernon Connecticut police have charged the owner of  Botticello Inc., Dennis Botticello and equipment operator Glen Locke with first-degree manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges after Dennis Slater was crushed to death in an 8-foot deep trench while laying pipe at a new housing development last July 22. Prior to his death, Slater had complained to a friend that he was working in a trench at his job site alone and it had collapsed on him twice. Chillingly, admitted to police that they were supposed to “use a trench box to maintain the wall,” and went on to say that they use them in certain applications “but the banks were holding up fine here. I guess we play the odds,”  OSHA issued three willful violations against the company for a total of 375,021.  At least three workers have been killed in trench collapses in the last couple of weeks, two in New York, and one in Oklahoma.

CalOSHA Indoor Heat Standard Proposed

The Cal/OSHA Standards Board) has published a draft indoor heat illness prevention standard. The standard would apply to all indoor work areas where the temperature equals or exceeds 82 degrees Fahrenheit when employees are present. Covered employers would  be required to develop a written heat illness prevention plan that would include include access to water, cool-down areas, acclimatization for newly assigned employees, emergency response procedures, control measures to minimize the risk of heat illness and training. Additional requirements would apply when the temperature reaches at least 87 degrees Fahrenheit. Employers must also involve workers and their union representatives in measure temperatures and evaluating all other environmental risk factors for heat illness. There will be a 45-day comment period, and the Cal/OSHA Standards Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed regulation on May 18.

Heart Attack or Electrocuted?

A South Coast Paper worker in Alabama was electrocuted last September 28th. The company failed to de-energize a piece of machinery when a worker tried to replace the motor belt. OSHA’s lockout-tagout standard requires employers to implement procedures to protect employees performing maintenance on machinery by de-energizing or “locking out” the machine. (In certain cases, employers are also allowed to “tag-out” machines.) OSHA cited the company with one willful violation and the total fine was $227,040.   OSHA also cited the company for a repeat violation for allowing workers to perform maintenance on machines without first being trained in lockout-tagout. The agency had previously cited the company for a similar violation in June 2022 at another facility.

Failure to de-energize machinery before a worker gets electrocuted or sticks a limb or head in to repair it is a sadly common way of death in the American workplace. What made this fatality different was that, according to the OSHA report,  “the employer reported this incident to OSHA as a heart attack, the coroner’s office called OSHA to report that it was an electrocution. The company’s lawyer contacted the coroner’s office asking them to change the cause of death from electrocution to heart attack.” OSHA also said  that a local police chief had been informed “that tampering of the site was done before and after they had left.” This included cleaning out the area where the motor was located and adding a lockout/tagout sign to the machine.

27 Workers a Day Suffer Amputations or Hospitalizations

An average of 27 workers a day suffer amputation or hospitalization, according to new OSHA data from 29 states. Former OSHA Chief of Staff Debbie Berkowitz and Kalmanovitz Initiative Research Analyst Patrick Dixon point out in a report for the Economic Policy Institute that “Updated data released by federal OSHA reveal that employers from the covered 29 states reported 74,025 severe injuries to the federal agency between January 1, 2015, and May 31, 2022. That amounts to a stunning 27 workers a day, on average, suffering among the most severe work injuries in just over half the states.”  While many of trhe largest companies — the Postal Service and Walmart also have the highest number of injuries, ” meatpacking and poultry companies, with substantially fewer employees than the other top reporters, continue to be among the most dangerous industries.” Those include Tysons Food, JBS/Pilgrims Pride and Smithfield

Labor Nominees Move Forward

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has voted to approve two important labor nominees who now must head to the Senate floor for final confirmation. The Committee approved Jessica Loomans to head DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, and Moshe Marvit to chair the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Both were nominated in the last Congress, but didn’t come to a vote on the floor.  Looman, is a former labor union and Minnesota state official, has been running WHD for more than two years without being confirmed as the official director.

Safety Before Profit

Two weeks ago, a sanitation worker was crushed to death while working at the Shelby County, Tennessee, Landfill which is managed by Republic Services and represented by Teamsters Local 667 . The following week, Republic announced that it was taking away workers’ safety bonus that they had been receiving for the last 30 years for performing one of the country’s most dangerous jobs. In response,  Republic workers in Memphis and Millington staged a walkout last Wednesday. The workers aren’t even asking for a raise, just for payment they’ve been receiving for decades and a right that should be given to every human being: “Better safety conditions… these guys deal with medical waste, needles, asbestos, anything you can think of,” according to Corey Hayes, one Local 667 spokesperson.

The strike has special meaning for the workers. Just over 55 years ago, on 1 February 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.  Their deaths lead to the Memphis  garbage collector strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King who was in Memphis to lead the labor and civil rights strike. Hayes says, “Our goal is safety before profit.”

Historic Disrespect Against Black Communities by South Carolina OSHA

And just to the East of Tennessee, the Union of Southern Service Workers helped coordinate a three-state walkout at the beginning of April to protest South Carolina OSHA’s failure to adequately inspect workplaces that are the most dangerous for employees and that employ the largest number of African Americans. According to the union, An estimated 416,000 South Carolinians are employed in the state’s food and beverage, general merchandise, food service and warehouse industries, and a disproportionate number of them are Black, but between 2018 and 2022,  SC OSHA conducted only two scheduled inspections of facilities in those industries combined. “In contrast, during the same period, the S.C. Occupational Health and Safety Administration conducted 499 planned inspections of construction and specialty trade contracting industry, where Black South Carolinians are underrepresented.”

“There is a historic disrespect that Black communities have suffered when it comes to working conditions in the United States,” said Eric Frumin, the health and safety director at the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition formed by four national unions, who helped draft the complaint.

Trench Cave-ins Are Preventable

Washington Labor Secretary Joel Sacks, writing in the Tacoma Tribune, recounts several tragic and preventable trench cave-in deaths and warns that “business owners who fail to follow the rules to keep their workers safe there can be significant consequences. AAA Contractors, the company Surjit Gill worked for, has been fined nearly half a million dollars. Where circumstances warrant it, we are working closely with local prosecutors to pursue criminal charges: Harold Felton’s employer, Phillip Numrich, was sentenced to jail last year.” Sacks notes that “It’s simple: trench caves-ins are preventable. These steps could be what determine whether a worker gets to go home to their family or not. There is no excuse for not taking them.”



4 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Front Lines of Workplace Safety and Health”
  1. Concerning the CT trench collapse….Dennis Botticello and Dennis Slater were both from the area. Slater’s obituary stated he worked for Botticello for several years. “Slater served with the Broad Brook Fire Department for 29 years before retiring, where he became chief engineer” Although I cannot state it as fact, I would be willing to bet these three older fellows knew each other well and this was not an abusive employer-employee relationship with some clueless employee being sent into a trench. Mr Slater had a background in construction and likely had choices where he could work. With his firefighting background he surely knew something about excavation hazards and the collapses the day prior gave him warning.
    Did Botticello play the odds? Sure. But so do many big corporate company executives today….day after day exposing their employees to imminent hazards. And none of them will ever appear in a mugshot or pay huge fines out of their personal bank accounts. Going after the little guy and making a ‘victory” out of it is pathetic….kinda like celebrating prison time for a guy who accidentally shoots his hunting buddy due to carelessness. Is their culpability? But it’s a tragedy the remembrance of which is punishment enough for the one who survived.

    1. So should the message be that if you run a small operation, and your employee is willing to assume risk, said employee’s fatal accident should serve as the punishment? I am not sure what proportion of construction jobs are generated by small to mid-size outfits, but imagine it is a large number. Is it wrong to send a message to smaller companies when they may be in many cases the worse offenders?

      1. There is nothing wrong in the slightest with holding an employer of any size responsible when they are found to be negligent by the court. My issue is judging people when the facts are not known and assuming that because a fatality took place at a small company that the owner must have been negligent. If you take the time to study many of these trenching fatalities, they involve smallish contractors. Developers don’t hire Jacobs Engineering to dig a sewer line. Unlike many fat cat CEO’s who never knew the employees who died under their watch, many owners of these smaller contractors likely did know the deceased. It does not remove their responsibility. But to paint a picture that they could care less about the welfare of their employees…well, anyone involved in a small family business knows you tend to get very close to your employees.

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