Tougher Penalties, Worker Safety Laws Discussed at Senate Hearing

April 2, 2008
Companies demonstrating a “dangerous pattern of disregarding worker safety” must receive stricter penalties and stronger criminal provisions, a trade union expert told members of the Senate Employment and Workplace Protections Subcommittee of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee during an April 1 hearing.

Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator for the Change to Win foundation, said companies such as Cintas, BP, McWane, House of Raeford and others demonstrate a blatant disregard for workplace safety and health laws and cut corners in the name of profit. He explained that while these large, multi-million corporations have the money and resources to provide safety equipment, training and other tools to ensure worker safety, their workers have been injured or killed allegedly due to company negligence.

“These companies know how to protect workers and they don't do it,” Frumin said. “In the time allotted for my testimony, another 30 workers will have been injured on the job and in the time allotted for this hearing, another worker will die.”

Frumin pointed out that more than a year after the death of Cintas employee Eleazar Torres-Gomez, who was killed after being dragged by a conveyor belt into an industrial-size dryer and trapped for 20 minutes at the company's Tulsa, Okla., plant, Cintas workers report they continue to face the same kinds of potentially lethal dangers in their plants.

Cintas spokeswoman Heather Trainer spoke with and said the company has recently made several enhancements to its safety program and was closely working with OSHA to resolve the investigation sparked by the Torres-Gomez tragedy. Cintas also formed an executive safety council, with membership including OSHA Chief John Henshaw; Dr. Richard Fulwiler, former director of health and safety for Procter & Gamble; and Michael Deak, former corporate director of safety, health and environment for DuPont.

Trainer added that Cintas enhanced its wash alley safety training and procedures and introduced monitors at every location. The company also accelerated its pursuit of certification in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program.

“Although every indicator suggested our existing safety practices were working, the Tulsa accident made us redouble our commitment to the heath and well-being of our employee-partners,” she said.

Current Fines Insufficient

Frumin emphasized that OSHA “has repeatedly failed in its 37-year history to protect workers” and said weak or missing standards and a lack of political will, resources and tools contribute to the problem. He urged the Department of Justice to take action to make sure “the McWanes and Cintases of the nation do not escape the full consequence when their willful violations kill workers.”

He complained that the “paltry” $3 million OSHA issued in fines equaled less than 1 percent of the Cintas's annual profits. Such fines will not encourage Cintas or other large companies to take safety and health seriously, he said.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who serves in the subcommittee, said in a statement that the “industry-backed appointees have weakened OSHA enforcement, eviscerated regulatory standards programs and ignored emerging workplace hazards.”

Subcommittee Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., proposed legislation calling for stiffer fines – as much as $100,000 for willful and repeat violations – and criminal penalties for repeat and willful violations of federal health and safety laws.

Kennedy said if other companies are able to provide safe sites for their workers, there is no excuse for companies with repeat violations and citations not do the same.

“It can be done, and American workers are entitled to have it done and it is not being done,” he said.

Management Failures

Gerard “Jerry” Scannell, who headed OSHA under the first Bush administration, said the part of the problem lies in company management systems. He suggested that CEOs or equivalent leaders are not holding the next level of management accountable for safety and health.

“When the accountability of safety is missing, the communications between management gets fuzzy or at best poor,” he said. He added that several CEOs stated in the aftermath of workplace explosions, “No one ever told me we were at risk.”

Scannell insisted that merely complying with OSHA standards and regulations “doesn't guarantee a safe workplace.” After the hearing, he explained to that a management system must be fully integrated into OSHA standards and other requirements to ensure a safe working environment. He stressed that while standards and regulations are very important, they often exclude several aspects integral to a good safety culture, such as training.

“Just because you have a standard or set of regulations doesn't make this room safe,” he pointed out. “Someone could trip over a chair or a misplaced file cabinet. They [standards and regulations] are definitely important, but there is more to it.”

“Hard Work Should Not Be Unsafe Work”

Doris Morrow, a poultry worker employed by Tyson Foods for 12 years, was present at the hearing and painted a vivid picture of a day in the life of a plant employee.

She described extreme cold temperatures workers were exposed to for hours at a time. Employees contracted frostbite on their hands and feet, she said, and respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia are commonplace. She added that icy floors place workers at the constant risk of slips, trips and falls.

In addition, musculoskeletal disorders, caused by the rapid line speed and repetitive motion, also are a major problem. But workers rarely bring up these concerns, Morrow said, for fear of losing their jobs. A call made to Tyson Foods for comment was not returned.

“Working at a poultry plant is hard work,” Morrow said at the hearing. “But hard work should not be unsafe work.”

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