Should Your Job Kill You?

chloe osmer

Chloe Osmer, California Labor Federation campaign coordinator, and Jessica Martinez, National Council

At first, she said, Cal/OSHA didn’t respond to complaints or return phone calls. With advice and support from SoCalCOSH, she led a group of workers right into the Cal/OSH district office and finally got some attention.

“OSHA is a tool for workers to make their workplaces better and also use it as an organizing tool,” she said “If one man says ‘my hands are burning and cracking,’ you find how to get him to take action with his coworkers. Health and safety is not a side issue, it’s part of an organizing campaign, getting workers to take collective action, to become experts and do trainings for other workers.”

Attendees shared problems and recommendations. Lisa Fu of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative pointed out that workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals but because they are considered independent contractors, the salons are not inspected. Domestic workers and day laborers aren’t covered either. And day laborers aren’t just picked up at Home Depot to work for a few hours at a private household. They may be contracted to a single construction site for weeks or even months. Angela Alvarez, a lead organizer with the Workers Health Program of IDEPSCA (Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California) and new member of the SoCalCOSH advisory board, just heard from a worker whose thumb was almost sliced off on the job. He was immediately let go. After treatment at the emergency room, he was told he would need surgery to regain use of his hand. He’s left without work and without money to pay for the surgery. The boss told him if there was an accident, it was his own fault.

(The blame game gets played a lot. The Injury Illness Protection Program requires safety training for workers in a language they understand. But many employers reportedly just hand out a sign-in sheet and then use the signatures to tell injured workers this means you knew not to act unsafely and are responsible for the accident.)

Angela Alvarez, a lead organizer with the Workers Health Program of IDEPSCA (Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California)

Angela Alvarez, a lead organizer with the Workers Health Program of IDEPSCA (Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California)

A day laborer named Fernando said when he worked on a construction project for the US Navy in San Diego, they made sure he wore a safety harness and goggles. Here in LA, he said, no one cares about him. He works on sites where there’s no protective gear.

The difficulty of regulating anything in an environment of multiple contractors, and subcontractors came up again and again on construction sites and elsewhere. In a single warehouse, for example, the logistics workers may come from as many as six different staffing agencies. If there’s an safety violation or an injury, it is often difficult to unravel who exactly is the employer of record.

Participants came up with recommendations for Alvarado del-Aguila to take to Ellen Widess, most often citing:

  • Coordinated enforcement with other agencies. Employers who violate OSHA regulations are often in violation of Wage and Hour rules and Workmens Comp rules as well. A more comprehensive look should also be taken at specific industries where abuses are widespread.
  • Better training for OSHA staff.
  • Targeted hiring of culturally competent inspectors. The hiring freeze should be lifted so that complaints can be investigated in a timely manner. Cases now take so long, workers don’t see the point in filing. More bilingual inspectors are needed as immigrants predominate in the most hazardous jobs. Written materials about OSHA and workers rights as well as safety training must be available in the language the workers understand. (Participants reported cases in which managers served as interpreters during safety inspections by OSHA–hardly the best way to get workers to speak openly about working conditions.) And Mark McGrath from the Adult Film Industry Subcommittee, UCLA School of Public Health, added that cultural competency includes respect for all marginalized groups, including workers in the adult film industry, “a very at-risk and transient population” who need better health protection, such as mandatory condom use. “If they use their bodies in labor, Cal/OSHA should protect them without moral judgments.”
  • Off-site interviews. Workers should have a way of arranging meetings with inspectors away from the jobsite where they may not feel it’s safe to air their complaints.
  • Protection against retaliation. Workers who file OSHA complaints now risk being fired, reported to immigration authorities, or having their hours cut or schedule changed to a less desirable shift or location. According to “Dying at Work,” workers who’ve file complaints about retaliation have waited as long as seven years for a decision.
  • Expanding who is covered.
  • Stiffer fines and sanctions. When nothing is done to correct problems or punish violators, workers stop reporting. “Fines are ridiculously low,” said Jessica Martinez of the national Council, and so corporations pay them as an ordinary cost of doing business. Under Cal/OSHA, the minimum fine for violations is $5,000–very little for a big corporation and certainly inadequate when a known hazard leads to a fatality. “It’s nothing to a corporation.” In practice, on appeal, even the $5,000 is often reduced.

diane lefer

Given our economic woes and high unemployment, the importance of advocacy groups and community organizations becomes very clear. Without support and backup, workers are less likely to demand their rights and risk retaliation at the very time when employers are tempted to cut corners.

Sometimes we prevail: Before the meeting ended, Chloe Osmer reported that carwash workers who’d been cheated of money had won an $80,000 wage and hour settlement.

The next morning, at the rail car loading facility at the BP Refinery in Carson, an employee was fatally injured on the job. His name was not released.

Diane Lefer

Published by the LA Progressive on June 23, 2011
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About Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal; the crime novel Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as "sifting the ashes of America's endless class warfare" and, most recently, her historical novel The Fiery Alphabet, which tells a woman's adventurous life-story against the backdrop of the 18th-century tension between Enlightenment values and religious faith.