Unions are struggling. Workers are intimidated. Congress is comatose. The courts are rigged. OSHA is too small and drastically underfunded. And the Occupational Safety and Health Act is outdated and in dire need of modernization. (But, see above re. Congress.)
So is there any hope for change? For improvement? Or should we all just kick the dog, whine on the platform formerly known as Twitter or just crawl under the bed?
Don’t despair. There is hope. From where, you ask?
There are a number of journalists in this country who are doing amazing work revealing the safety and health issues in U.S. workplaces. Many of their articles are the result of months-long investigations and extensive interviews with workers and other experts. Others are opinion pieces that focus on correcting obvious cases of injustice.
And much more than Congress, unions or OSHA, journalists may be able to stimulate change. We can go all the way back to Jacob Riis’s muckraking in the late 19th century, Louis Hine’s photos of child laborers in the 1920s, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which admittedly stimulated more change in food safety than workplace safety, but still…) Or move forward to David Barstow’s 2003 series on death in the workplace which led to OSHA’s establishment of what today is known as its Severe Violator Program, and Alexandra Berzon’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on construction worker deaths on the Las Vegas strip that led to OSHA’s review and modernization of their over site procedures over OSHA state plans.
And one can credit Hannah Dreier’s recent New York Times exposé on child labor entitled “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.” , her follow-ups, as well as other articles for much of the current government focus on keeping kids out of hazardous workplaces.
Just in the last few weeks, a number of hard-hitting, informative pieces by enterprising investigative journalists have appeared that will hopefully make people (and legislators — or future legislators) so angry that they will act to fix the problems. (I also try to post many of these on my platform-once-known-as-Twitter feed.)
As a public service, I’ve summarized a few of the most recent pieces below. And judging from the number of reporters who call me every week, there are many more of these pieces on the launch pad. Stay tuned.
Wisconsin Dairy Workers
ProPublica’s Maryam Jameel and Melissa Sanchez published a hard-hitting piece on the deaths of Wisconsin dairy workers and how many of these deaths are never investigated because Congress forbids OSHA from inspecting small farms. But that’s not the end of the story. Jameel and Sanchez also provide evidence showing that in many cases, “the agency may have more power to open an investigation into these farms than even its own leaders seem to be aware of.” Will this lead to a change in OSHA policy?
Unheeded Warnings of Unsafe Workplace Before Worker’s Death
Matti Gelman of the Kansas City star tells that tragic story of the death of Jose Sanchez, an asbestos worker who fell down an elevator shaft on July 17 in a workplace that was “super dark” because the ceiling lights had been removed. The story is especially tragic as workers knew the workplace was unsafe and had complained to the safety manager. “In his last month on the job, he said New Horizons requested the safety manager inspect their job sites. “Every time I told them to solve a safety problem, I’d tell them what I thought we needed to do and they’d say that’s too expensive,” he said. “A former safety manager had resigned the prior year because the company was not prioritizing the safety of employees on their construction sites.
Arizona Penalty Reductions
OSHA is required by law to “consider” the size of a company in determining an appropriate fine for violation of OSHA standards. But as Ann Ryman at ABC-15 in Phoenix, Arizona points out, the requirement to “consider” reductions for small employers, does not mean that the agency is compelled to always reduce fines for small businesses. And in Arizona, she write, the state OSHA is inappropriately and indiscriminately providing discounts to small businesses even when workers were killed as a result of clear failure of the companies to comply with OSHA standard.
Unions Make Workplace Safety
Former OSHA head David Michaels, along with Adam Dean and Jamie K. McCallum in the American Prospect describe a study conducted showing how “unions in health care act as a much-needed counterweight to poor management that allows workplace hazards to exist unabated. They are critical to building safer and more accountable workplaces.” The main focus of their study is how unions force companies to comply with OSHA”s requirement to submit injury and illness data. The authors found the “OSHA’s reporting rule shows that two years after caregivers establish a union at their facility, it was over 30 percentage points more likely than its non-union counterparts to report illness and injury data to OSHA.”
Silica Countertops Are Killing Workers
Emily Alpert Reyes and Cindy Carcamo describe in the Los Angeles Times how workers — mostly Latino immigrants — who cut and polish countertops made of engineered stone are needlessly dying of silicosis, “an incurable and suffocating disease that has devastated dozens of workers across the state and killed men who have barely reached middle age.” Instead of cropping up in people in their 60s or 70s after decades of exposure, some workers are dying in their 30s. Tragically the disease is easily preventable through the use of wet saws to limit any dangerous dust rising in the air and NIOSH-approved respirators to avoid breathing it in. California workplace safety regulators are now drafting emergency rules to try to protect workers and legislators are exploring options for a potential ban. (I’ve been reminded that this story follows a Public Health Watch story from December 2022.)
Dollar General’s War on Workplace Safety
Josh Eidelson and Brendan Case write for Bloomberg about “Why Dollar General Might Just Be the Worst Retail Job in America.” They describe Dollar General’s long history of endangering workers and ignoring OSHA citations. “Rat infestations, blocked fire exits, expired kids’ food, machete-wielding and watermelon-throwing shoppers and other nightmares at the biggest dollar chain in the US.” I wrote here about Dollar General’s competitor Dollar Tree which had similar issues, but recently reached a corporate-wide settlement with OSHA.
Brothers Killed in Refinery Explosion
Jenny Strasburg writing in the Wall St Journal tell the tragic and heartbreaking story of two brothers, Max and Ben Morissy who were killed last year in an explosion of a BP refinery in Oregon, Ohio. She discusses some of the warnings and root causes of the explosion such as delayed maintenance, cost-cutting, elimination of jobs at the refinery and recent history of serious spills and releases. Max had had concerns about the plant’s safety and had filed safety complaints about unaddressed leaks that were ignored. His wife, Darah, said “He told me I didn’t understand how dangerous his job was. He told me that BP was going to kill him.” OSHA cited the company for failure to train workers about the presence of naphtha and to control how refinery equipment is drained. (The article is behind a paywall, but the WSJ allows you to read some free articles with a code they’ll send you. Read it.)
Declining Interest in Musculoskeletal Disorders
Benjamin Ryan writes in The Atlantic about how interest and research in carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal diseases have decreased in recent years after OSHA’s ergonomics standard was killed by a Republican Congress and the Bush Administration in 2001. “As for today’s potential ‘hazards at the keyboard,’ we know precious little. Almost all of the research described above was done prior to 2006, before tablets and smartphones were invented. Workplace ergonomics used to be a thriving academic field, but its ranks have dwindled. The majority of the academic experts I spoke with for this story are either in the twilight of their careers or they’ve already retired. A number of the researchers whose scholarship I’ve reviewed are dead,” Ryan writes.
What is to be done?
To paraphrase Karl Marx, “The journalists have only described the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Here’s what to do:
- As we enter an election season, make sure our legislators and wannabe legislators know about these issues. Send them copies of these articles. Ask them about these issues during candidate forums.
- Also, when you see an article about workplace safety issues that may not quite hit the mark, get in touch with the writer. Explain the issues. Put them in touch with workers or other experts. Every once in a while, a reporter catches the OSHA bug.
- When you see a great article, find the author’s email and send them a note thanking them.
- When you have a great issue, contact your favorite reporter (Or me. And I’ll contact my favorite reporters.)
- Finally, if you see or hear anything in your local media, send it on over here.