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Biden administration weeks behind on Covid-19 workplace safety rules

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The federal worker safety watchdog is weeks behind on President Joe Biden’s deadline for the agency to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that experts say will fight the spread of the coronavirus and protect workers.

Shortly after taking office, Biden gave the Labor Department a March 15 deadline to decide whether such emergency rules were necessary, and it was widely assumed the department would recommend moving forward with them. But three weeks later, newly minted Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is asking the agency to continue reviewing the rule.

“Secretary Walsh reviewed the materials, and determined that they should be updated to reflect the latest scientific analysis of the state of the disease,” a Labor Department spokesperson told POLITICO. “He has ordered a rapid update based on CDC analysis and the latest information regarding the state of vaccinations and the variants. He believes this is the best way to proceed.”

Biden campaigned on making Covid-19 guidelines — currently just optional recommendations for employers — into mandatory rules. Business groups and unions have been bracing for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to release an emergency workplace safety standard that would immediately require employers to take steps to protect their workers from exposure to the virus.

The rule was expected to at least mandate CDC guidelines on mask wearing, which some industry groups have warned would create headaches for businesses in the states that have already moved to rollback social distancing and mask requirements for businesses. It also would likely require employers to develop a Covid-19 response plan, similar to a required fire drill, for how the businesses would respond if someone was exposed to the virus at work.

The delay is raising concerns among former workplace regulators and worker advocates, who fear Biden may be dropping an essential piece of his Covid-19 response plan, as well as sowing confusion in the business community.

“I’m concerned that there are administration staff who incorrectly believe that the pandemic is under control and that an ETS isn’t necessary,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration.

“The CDC director is pleading with the country to take precautions, but workers can’t take those precautions” without an ETS, said Michaels, now a professor of occupational health at George Washington University.

Business groups are also scratching their heads after broadly expecting the rules.

“I’m as in much of a befuddlement as anyone,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber of Commerce. “This sounds like Secretary Walsh and the DOL are grappling with what everyone else is seeing — the increasing success of the vaccines raises serious questions about whether an ETS is justified, such as whether employees are still in ‘grave danger,’ and an ETS can be called ‘necessary.’”

The longer it takes for the Biden administration to release the rule, the harder it could be for the rule to stand up to legal challenges, according to Freedman and attorneys who specialize in workplace safety law.

OSHA only has the authority to issue an “emergency temporary safety standard” if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.” But that justification could be slipping as the Biden administration rushes to get Americans vaccinated against the virus.

While Biden administration officials have been warning that more contagious strains of the virus are taking hold, the president has been moving to expand access to the vaccine and was optimistic in his last message to the nation, promising Americans a return to some sense of normal life by Independence Day.

Republicans, who have been broadly opposed to any mandatory safety rules, are criticizing what they see as a mixed message from the administration.

“The Biden administration is speaking out of both sides of its mouth,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. “The President claims every adult will be eligible for a vaccine in May and then argues an immediate ‘emergency’ standard is necessary to curb the crisis.”

“This politicized process highlights the Biden administration’s blatant incompetence and hypocrisy. The federal government must not add more uncertainty and bureaucratic red tape for job creators, workers, and consumers as we continue to emerge from this crisis.”

But worker-safety experts say that the longer the Biden administration waits, more workers will get sick with the virus and could die.

“We are deeply concerned about when the standard is coming out. Basically workers have been going for a year facing untold numbers of illnesses and deaths without just a basic agreement that employers need to create a safety plan,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“It’s essential, it’s life saving and it needs to come out now,” she said. “We can’t wait another day for this.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Six dead in Georgia poultry plant liquid nitrogen leak, this week in the war on workers

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Six people are dead after a liquid nitrogen leak at a Georgia poultry plant and 11 others were hospitalized, with at least three in critical condition. Two of the people killed were Mexican citizens, and those injured included at least four firefighters.

“When leaked into the air, liquid nitrogen vaporizes into an odorless gas that’s capable of displacing oxygen,” the Associated Press explains. “That means leaks in enclosed spaces can become deadly by pushing away breathable air, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.”

The Foundation Food Group plant, previously known as Prime Pak Foods, was cited for worker amputations in 2017.

”Our hearts go out to the loved ones of the six workers who tragically died and those who were critically injured in a preventable accident at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Georgia,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a response. “This did not have to happen. Safety concerns have long been raised as a major issue in many poultry plants, and Thursday’s incident shows what can happen when those calls go unheard.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Warehouse Workers Are on the Front Lines of the Covid Crisis. They’re Worried They’ll Be Passed Over for the Vaccine.

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As Hal­loween approached, Ronald Jack­son spent his days at a Chica­go-area ware­house for the Mars can­dy com­pa­ny ?“get­ting Hal­loween can­dy to Amer­i­ca.” After co-work­ers got Covid-19, Jack­son com­plained to man­age­ment about a lack of safe­ty pre­cau­tions. Rather than improv­ing pre­cau­tions, he said, the com­pa­ny fired Jack­son for an alleged infrac­tion that occurred months ago.

Such sit­u­a­tions are why work­ers and advo­cates are demand­ing the state of Illi­nois des­ig­nate ware­house work­ers as essen­tial work­ers and pri­or­i­tize them when Covid-19 vac­cines are dis­trib­uted. Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice and oth­er labor groups on Tuesday pub­lished a peti­tion to Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er mak­ing these demands. 

They note that ware­house work is essen­tial to the econ­o­my, includ­ing by dis­trib­ut­ing clean­ing sup­plies, per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) and oth­er prod­ucts that are espe­cial­ly crit­i­cal dur­ing the pandemic.

Work­ers in ware­hous­es are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble because the struc­ture of ware­house work?—?where employ­ees are gen­er­al­ly hired through tem­po­rary staffing agen­cies with few pro­tec­tions or rights?—?makes it easy for the own­ers and oper­a­tors of ware­hous­es to ignore risks and fire or silence work­ers like Jack­son who speak up. The peti­tion to Pritzk­er says the 650,000 tem­po­rary staffing work­ers in Illi­nois are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black and Lat­inx, mean­ing they are also among the groups at dis­pro­por­tion­ate risk for Covid-19infec­tions and com­pli­ca­tions. (There are also tem­po­rary work­ers in oth­er indus­tries, but many thou­sands are employed in the Chica­go area ware­house sector.)

“To devel­op an equi­table vac­ci­na­tion plan you have to ask who bears the brunt of the health and eco­nom­ic impact of the pan­dem­ic, and the answer will always be com­mu­ni­ties of col­or,” said Sophia Zaman, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the group Raise the Floor, a coali­tion of Chica­go work­ers centers. 

The Trump administration’s Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices Sec­re­tary, Alex Azar, said last month that while the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will issue rec­om­men­da­tions on vac­cine dis­tri­b­u­tion, it will be up to gov­er­nors to decide how to dis­trib­ute vac­cines and pri­or­i­tize recip­i­ents. The Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health has pub­lished guide­lines for local gov­ern­ments to ulti­mate­ly dis­trib­ute the vac­cine giv­en them by the state; mean­while, Chica­go will also receive vac­cines direct­ly from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Right now, ware­house work­ers are list­ed as a ?“pos­si­ble group to include” in Phase 2 of Illi­nois’ vac­cine roll­out when a ?“larg­er num­ber” of vac­cine dos­es is available.

There are sprawl­ing com­plex­es of ware­hous­es in sub­urbs and towns south­west and west of Chica­go, and increas­ing num­bers of ware­hous­es?—?includ­ing for Ama­zon?—?with­in the city lim­its. Many of the ware­house work­ers employed in the sub­urbs live in Chica­go, com­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly from Lat­inx and Black com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard-hit by Covid-19. 

The governor’s office and Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health didn’t respond to a request for com­ment about the peti­tion by the time this sto­ry was published. 

Dur­ing the governor’s dai­ly coro­n­avirus brief­ing on Decem­ber 8, pub­lic health depart­ment direc­tor Dr. Ngozi Ezike said, ?“While the vac­cine is com­ing, it’s not going to be as much as we want and won’t come out as quick­ly as we like. The first groups to receive the vac­cine will be our health care work­ers and also the res­i­dents of long-term care facil­i­ties… We’re pri­or­i­tiz­ing those at great­est risk of expo­sure and severe illness.”

Mark Balen­tine, a com­mu­ni­ty nav­i­ga­tor for Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice, also worked at the Mars ware­house until April, when an acci­dent and his con­cerns about Covid-19 caused him to leave the job, he said. 

“Peo­ple are com­ing up pos­i­tive. There’s a chance you work right next to them on the floor and (man­agers) don’t warn you,” he said, not­ing that he found out one cowork­er had Covid-19 only when he called her on unre­lat­ed Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice busi­ness. ?“The bot­tom line with Mars was the dol­lar?—?they were more con­cerned with the dol­lar bill than with people’s health. I don’t believe in play­ing Russ­ian roulette with people’s lives like that.” 

(The U.S. media office for Mars did not respond to a request for comment.)

After being fired from Mars, Jack­son got work at anoth­er sub­ur­ban Chica­go ware­house that ships prod­ucts ?“from fan­cy chi­na to per­fume and every­thing else” for Wal­mart, Ama­zon and oth­er retail­ers. A Covid-19 out­break occurred and the ware­house shut down for about a week, Jack­son said, and he was required to get a test on his own time in order to return to the job that pays $14.50 an hour with no health insur­ance. Jack­son said work­ers still wor­ry they are at high risk of con­tract­ing Covid-19 since, he said, man­age­ment does lit­tle to pro­tect them. 

“They’re just hav­ing us sign a piece of paper say­ing they took our tem­per­a­ture,” he said. ?“It’s real­ly an unsafe work area, they’re not lis­ten­ing to the work­ers, they just want to move these products.” 

Even if he or oth­er work­ers are exposed to some­one with Covid-19, he said, they would like­ly keep going to work because they are not paid if they are quar­an­ti­ning. Balen­tine said his broth­er con­tin­ues to work at the Mars ware­house despite feel­ing at risk, since he needs the money. 

“You make this mon­ey and put it in the bank and now you’re not here to spend it, so what good is it?” said Balen­tine about his deci­sion to quit. He doesn’t believe the com­pa­nies oper­at­ing ware­hous­es will improve pro­tec­tions any time soon, hence the urgency for vac­cines for workers. 

“We need our doc­tors and nurs­es in order to take care of us, we need the health­care work­ers to go by the elder­ly folks and see that they’re straight, and you need the ware­house work­ers because every­thing comes from a ware­house?—?hand san­i­tiz­er, toi­let tis­sue, clean­ing sup­plies,” said Balen­tine. ?“You want to pro­tect (ware­house work­ers) to keep them working.”

Jack­son said that while he thinks ware­house work­ers should be deemed essen­tial and giv­en pri­or­i­ty access to vac­cines, he would him­self be reluc­tant to take it. 

“Me being Black and the way the gov­ern­ment has treat­ed Black peo­ple deal­ing with (med­ical care), I’m not sure I would take the vac­cine,” he said, cit­ing the infa­mous Tuskegee syphilis exper­i­ment, in which Black men were not giv­en ade­quate care or ful­ly informed about the trial. 

Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice has long tried to raise aware­ness of abus­es in the indus­try and demand reforms. The tem­po­rary staffing struc­ture means that work­ers have lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to advance or earn high­er wages, and can be fired for any rea­son. As a result, there has been lit­tle recourse for work­ers to address report­ed­ly ram­pant health and safe­ty prob­lems, dis­crim­i­na­tionand sex­u­al harassment. 

As with many inequities and injus­tices, the pan­dem­ic has just ampli­fied and cast light upon the long­stand­ing prob­lems with the ware­hous­ing indus­try, advo­cates and work­ers say. 

“It’s not just about Covid, it’s the way we’re dis­re­spect­ed and mis­treat­ed in these ware­hous­es,” said Balen­tine. ?“They look down on us. We’re treat­ed as invis­i­ble. But with­out ware­house work­ers, noth­ing happens.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.


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How Offices Are Tackling The Change In Security Demands

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The conversation about workplace security is not a new one. However, with the evolving demand for health-conscious solutions, the discussion of office security has taken a new turn. 

Remote work and in-office safety precautions to combat COVID-19 has triggered a movement of flexible and resilient workplaces. Employers and employees alike will no doubt see a shift in security and operational protocol in the very near future. Below, we’ll discuss how offices are preparing for just that. 

The Shift to Identity Security 

Network security refers to software – whether it be on-site or otherwise – that sets the security parameter for access authorization. What this means is that a security system grants authorization based off of an identity that the network assigns each particular individual. This identity is associated with different permissions, access, etc. New security standards made possible by new technological advances, however, are finding it more secure to associate authorization with individual identity as opposed to one that is network-assigned. 

Identity security can be assigned to any credential, such as a mobile phone or a biometric characteristic. This eliminates the risk of a physical security breach from a lost, stolen or cloned key card. Cloud managed systems make it easy to assign security permissions and authorizations to any identification credential they choose. Further, system administrators are able to change those permissions of their own volition as opposed to interacting with a third party system operator or hardware. 

When it comes to visitor management, cloud-based office intercom systems also have the capacity to assign identity to visitors within the same platform for a comprehensive access database. 

Advanced Cybersecurity for Remote Work 

Cybersecurity is a constant threat for businesses. When employees are working from the office, they use devices and protocols that are secured with the latest layers of physical and electronic security. But remote work often means that employees use personal devices and public Wi-Fi networks that can expose sensitive data to vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities can result in costly data breaches and system compromise. 

Companies are taking a proactive approach to thwart the data breach and liability challenges associated with remote work. Increasing awareness and sensitizing users on potential dangers is a great first step. Other measures include educating remote workers on preventive best practices, and implementing strict password policies with two-factor authentication. 

Coworking Spaces 

Coworking is a new take on the traditional office model. It’s incredibly flexible, convenient, and has shown to be very popular, yet there are still security challenges that need to be ironed out. 

A 2020 Clutch Survey shows that 23% of users in a co-working space are concerned with security and safety issues. To rectify this, coworking space owners and operators are allocating unique credentials and Wi-Fi passwords to users. Coworking users are also being provided with a security policy as part of their sign in agreement. 

When it comes to physical security, coworking spaces are adopting advanced, secure visitor management-like models for temporary access. This approach perfectly aligns with the primary idea behind the coworking model. 

Touchless Access Control 

Office security must ensure employee wellness in addition to physical security. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need to mitigate health safety risks in the office setting. Along with CDC guidelines such as social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing, offices are leveraging technology for a more health-conscious approach to security. Touchless access control solutions are being used to reduce the need to touch high-use surfaces at entrances, exits, and elevators. This technology facilitates a frictionless and touchless access experience that encourages social distancing by reducing bottlenecking and mitigates the spread of disease. 

Conclusion

Security will continue to be a discussion among the workplace, and companies that join that conversation to utilize the latest technology and trends will remain resilient and foster business continuity. As offices move to tackle the shift in security, employees can do their best to educate themselves on the changes to come and how they work in order to create the most secure environment possible. 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Haley Fox has several years of experience as an Employment and Labor Paralegal, specializing in specialty occupation workplace visas and employer compliance. She currently works with Swiftlane to advocate for workplace innovation and safety. 


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This pandemic-year Thanksgiving, think hard about the system that has workers on the job today

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Every Thanksgiving, people across the United States gather with their family and friends to celebrate and eat and be with their loved ones. And at the same time, people across the United States are at work—maybe having rescheduled their holiday meal around their work and maybe having given up the celebration entirely. 

Well, this year is different. Fewer people will be gathered in big family groups. And the people who are working are doing so in radically different, more stressful, more dangerous circumstances. That’s true of the healthcare workers and first responders standing ready to respond to emergencies every hour of every day of the year. More than 1,000 healthcare workers have died of COVID-19, and no one is keeping a reliable count of how many have gotten sick, a fact that hangs over these workers every day.

The grocery workers ringing up the people scrambling to get that one forgotten ingredient for the big meal now do their work at risk to their health, on Thanksgiving and every other day. They’re essential workers who are too often treated as disposable, and paid too little to pay their bills. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union represents 1.3 million workers in grocery stores, other retail stores, meat packing and processing, and more. As of early September, at least 238 of its frontline members had died of COVID-19, with 29,000 having been infected or exposed to the virus. Obviously, UFCW members are just a small fraction of the grocery workers nationwide. 

Then there are the workers at the retail chains that try to milk that Black Friday business for every penny they can get by opening on Thanksgiving. Because people shouldn’t have to wait until Friday morning for those sweet sweet doorbuster deals. There’s absolutely no reason those workers should be on the job on Thanksgiving, not even a shred of a reason—besides capitalist greed.

If you’re sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal—even a much more solitary one than you had hoped for, even if back in April you were looking ahead to the holidays when the pandemic would surely be behind us—take a moment to think about these workers and about the organization of our society that forces so many of them to be on the job for such flimsy or nonexistent reasons. 

Whatever Thanksgiving means to you, it shouldn’t be a symbol of the race to the bottom, especially during a pandemic that means people in the workplace are very often people whose health is at risk. In a normal year, Thanksgiving should be time to recommit yourself to the fight for everyone to get a (paid) holiday sometimes, for everyone to have the leisure and the budget to relax and celebrate and eat well. In this coronavirus year, it should be a time to recommit yourself to the fight for the government to pay people to stay home if they don’t absolutely need to be at work, to keep people housed and fed and healthy while we wait for a safe and effective vaccine.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 26, 2020 Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Businesses brace for mandatory workplace safety rules under Biden

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President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that employers must follow to protect workers from coronavirus exposure. It’s likely to be one of his first big fights with American business and a test of how far he can go to create a national strategy to slow a pandemic that is still raging out of control.

Employers, which until now have been treated to a flurry of optional guidelines by the Trump administration that have been revised and rewritten throughout the coronavirus crisis, are bracing for the new Biden rules.

Biden and his allies believe that a national set of rules for employers could help workers return more quickly to offices and other workplaces since everyone would be following the same emergency standard, rather than a patchwork of state-by-state, county-by-county regulations.

“We cannot successfully restart our economy until workers are safe — and the first step is to require that businesses implement very basic measures to prevent the virus from spreading in the workplace,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama who’s now with the National Employment Law Project. “To stem the growing number of cases, hospitalizations and death from COVID 19, it is critical that OSHA, or the Biden administration, promulgate an emergency temporary standard immediately to mitigate the spread of this disease at work and then back out into the community.”

But Republicans and the business community are likely to come out strong against any such broad mandates.

“If done the wrong way, if it’s implemented as a strict regulatory requirement with little flexibility, I think it will be difficult for many businesses to implement,” Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s chief policy officer, said during a press call this week. Ultimately, he said, it “will hold back both fighting the coronavirus and restoring the economy.”

The issue threatens to set up a contentious battle in the lame duck session of Congress, when lawmakers debate a new coronavirus relief package.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are demanding a robust liability shield for businesses and schools as a condition for a new aid package — a provision that former OSHA officials say would strip Biden of the ability to enforce Covid-19 workplace protections.

As part of his plan to combat the coronavirus, Biden says he will direct his administration to issue the so-called emergency temporary standard, which would lay out specific precautions that employers must take to protect their workers from exposure to the virus.

The standard isn’t likely to fully take shape until the new administration assumes control of the government, but a former OSHA official predicted it would at least mandate the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines, which broadly suggest allowing for social distancing, frequently disinfecting the workplace and providing protective equipment like gloves, goggles or face masks.

Implementing such a rule is something the new president could do quickly, even without Senate-confirmed leadership at the Labor Department or OSHA, according to two former senior OSHA officials.

Unions and labor advocates have slammed OSHA over its response to the pandemic. While the worker safety watchdog has cited companies for coronavirus-related risks over the past several months, large corporations have received meager fines in cases where their workers fell ill or have even died from the coronavirus. OSHA has also used its special enforcement powers far more leniently than previous administrations.

Unions say that much of the problem lies with the flexibility the watchdog has given to employers and the influence businesses have had over its enforcement efforts.

But flexibility is what businesses want to maintain.

The Chamber’s Bradley said that while he’s confident the Biden administration will listen to businesses’ position, any emergency standard would need to “be flexible enough to recognize” employers’ ability to implement public health safety measures and to “accommodate the differences in how businesses operate.”

“There is a big concern,” said Robyn Boerstling, who oversees human resources policy issues at the National Association of Manufacturers. “Every manufacturing facility is generally different. They make different things, they have different procedures, they have different assembly lines, production processes. So, manufacturers need flexibility in different ways to implement their controls.”

Boerstling says Biden’s plan will leave businesses with little room to weigh in on how the rules affect their specific industry once the emergency standard is in place.

When OSHA determines workers are in “grave danger,” the agency is able to issue emergency temporary standards that take effect immediately. The emergency standard stays in place until a permanent final rule is issued, but the agency will accept public comments on the standard during that period.

“An ETS is very immediate,” Boerstling said. “It’s permanent until it’s not permanent.”

The American Hospital Association, which represents more than 5,000 hospitals and health care providers that would be heavily regulated under any such infectious disease rule, suggested that an emergency infectious disease standard could hinder the health response to the virus.

The organization issued a fact sheet warning its members that an emergency standard would create “a new layer of conflicting and unnecessary regulatory burden at precisely the wrong time,” putting a strain on supplies of protective equipment and limiting hospital capacity.

“Unions have reported filing numerous OSHA complaints against hospitals; such actions could force hospitals to dramatically reduce their inpatient capacity rather than potentially expose themselves to very large fines,” the fact sheet said.

The maximum fine OSHA can issue against an employer is $134,937 per violation, when an employer’s breach of safety rules is considered “willful” or is a repeated violation. For other violations, including “serious” and “other than serious” offenses, the safety agency’s fines max out at $13,494 per infraction.

Such concerns were what prompted McConnell to push for Covid-19 liability protections — including shielding employers from being fined under federal safety laws — warning that “one-size-fits-all” rules would prompt “an epidemic of lawsuits” against employers who can’t comply.

But with both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats facing runoff elections that will determine which party controls the upper chamber, the GOP’s negotiating posture over another aid bill is weaker than when McConnell first made those calls.

While there’s little chance Democrats would be willing to limit their incoming president’s ability to police workplace safety in exchange for an aid bill in the lame duck, McConnell seems in no mood to drop his demand for liability protections.

“It should be highly targeted, very similar to what I put on the floor in October and September,” he said of the next aid bill during a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Health and Safety Standards for Frontline Healthcare Workers

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America’s frontline healthcare workers have rightly been called our country’s real superheroes. But the truth is that the US healthcare system is falling far short in its obligation to protect these essential workers in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than a century.

A Failure to Protect

It should perhaps come as no surprise that frontline healthcare workers are at extreme risk for contracting communicable illnesses, particularly when we are dealing with a pathogen as infectious as COVID-19. And with a new flu season looming in the northern hemisphere, the increased influenza risk incurred by nurses and other frontline healthcare workers only serves to amplify the threat.

Worse, more than eight months after the advent of the virus, healthcare workers are still facing a significant shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). This lack of access to adequate PPE may well be the single most significant source of danger for doctors and nurses working with COVID patients.

When infected persons are asymptomatic, for example, the impulse to relax PPE standards by rationing equipment may well lead to potentially preventable disease transmission.

The Significance of Training

Because COVID-19 is a novel virus, there is still much about the disease that is unknown. Safety, prevention, and treatment guidelines continue to evolve. Healthcare systems, however, must be highly proactive in ensuring that frontline healthcare workers are up to date on the latest disease information and safety protocols.

This must include rigorous training in pre-appointment patient screening, treatment room sanitation, and risk mitigation and infection containment processes.

Job Losses and Furloughs

Perhaps one of the less-discussed but potentially most harmful risks facing today’s frontline workers is the risk of job losses and furloughs. Current research suggests that system mismanagement is pervasive across the US healthcare system, resulting in tens of thousands of job cuts, despite billions of dollars being allocated to US hospitals and healthcare systems from the emergency CARES act.

Thus, America’s frontline workers are not only confronted today by the threat of the virus, but they are also faced with the possibility of layoffs, furloughs, and termination. In the wake of a national crisis not only to public health but also to the economy, this may well leave frontline workers facing the loss of not just their health but also their income, their home, and their security.

The Takeaway

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect across the US, but few people have been more affected than America’s frontline healthcare workers. The risk of infection for these workers is particularly great, amplified by an ongoing shortage of PPE.

In addition, due to the novelty of the virus, healthcare providers may still be uninformed on best practices in risk mitigation and disease prevention. Efforts to ensure up-to-date training and support must be made to ensure that workers are prepared to protect themselves, their families, and their patients. Perhaps worst of all, the healthcare system is challenged with massive layoffs, putting frontline workers’ jobs and livelihoods at risk.

This means it is incumbent on the public whom these workers care for to help care for and protect them in return. If you are able, donate to your local organizations that are now providing equipment, financial assistance, and other resources to frontline workers. If you own a business, consider offering these heroes freebies and discounts, special operating hours, or other perks to show your appreciation and offer support.

Help relieve the burden on these healthcare workers by always remaining vigilant about your own health and the health of your community, adhering to public health guidelines to help prevent the spread. Above all, reach out to your local, state, and government officials to demand they make caring for these care providers priority number one, which must include not only financial support but also employment protection and access to quality healthcare, child and elder care, and other resources they may need to weather this crisis.

After all, our frontline workers are saving lives day in and day out. The least we can do is anything and everything we can to return the favor.

About the Author: Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but business and technology topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.


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Workers Fired, Penalized for Reporting COVID Safety Violations

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When COVID-19 began making headlines in March, Charles Collins pulled out a protective face mask from the supply at the manufacturing company in Rockaway, New Jersey, where he was the shop foreman and put it on. The dozen or so other workers at the facility followed suit. There was no way to maintain a safe distance from one another on the shop floor, where they made safety mats for machines, and a few of the men had been out sick with flu-like symptoms. Better safe than sorry.

Management was not pleased. Collins got a text message from one of his supervisors saying masks were to be used to protect workers from wood chips, metal particles and other occupational safety hazards. “We don’t provide or for that matter have enough masks to protect anybody from CORVID-19 [sic]!” If workers didn’t stop using the masks for that purpose, the supervisor texted, “we’ll have to store them away just like the candy!”

“I was shocked,” said Collins, 38. “They weren’t taking it seriously.”

Shortly after that, Collins left for a planned vacation. When he returned a week later, the company told him to quarantine at home for two weeks because he’d been traveling.

But when the quarantine ended, Collins didn’t want to go back to work. Co-workers, he said, told him that recommended safety measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distancing hadn’t been implemented. When he told human resources that he feared becoming infected and endangering his mother and his 8-year-old nephew who live with him, he said, he got an ultimatum: Return to work or resign.

Collins stayed home and says he was fired. He hired a lawyer and filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey under the state’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. The law prohibits employers from firing, demoting or otherwise retaliating against workers who refuse to take part in activities they believe are incompatible with public health and safety mandates.

As many employers, with the strong encouragement of the Trump administration, move to bring employees back, a growing number of workers are resisting what they feel are unsafe, unhealthy conditions. In recent months, a few states have passed laws specifically aimed at protecting workers who face COVID-related safety risks and retaliation for speaking up about them. Some states, like New Jersey, have whistleblower protection laws already. But advocates say stronger federal protections are needed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is responsible for enforcing 23 federal whistleblower statutes that protect workers from retaliation if they report workplace safety violations, among other problems.

But according to a new analysis, the agency isn’t up to the task. The National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy and research group, found that of 1,744 COVID-related retaliation complaints filed with OSHA between April and mid-August, 20% were docketed for investigation and 2% were resolved. More than half were dismissed or closed without investigation.

“Even before COVID, workers had a really bad track record of getting any justice for their concerns if they were retaliated against,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project and a former senior OSHA official.

The numbers are growing. Whistleblower complaints filed with OSHA increased by 30% between February and May, to 4,101, according to an August report by the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General that criticized the agency’s handling of the complaints.

Nearly 40% of the complaints — 1,618 — were related to COVID-19, the report found, filed primarily by workers who claimed they were punished for reporting workplace safety violations. Those could include, for example, not having appropriate personal protective equipment or sanitation materials, or a lack of social distancing on the job.

While complaints rose, the number of whistleblower investigators decreased from the previous year, according to the report. The average time it took to close an investigation at the end of March was roughly nine months.

Worker whistleblower protections under the Occupational Safety and Health law are “incredibly weak” compared with whistleblower statutes that protect employees who report other types of wrongdoing, Berkowitz said. If OSHA dismisses a complaint, workers have no right to appeal the decision, and once they file a complaint with OSHA they aren’t permitted to take their case to court on their own, she said.

Consumer advocates would like to see those provisions changed.

Advocates have urged OSHA to adopt mandatory COVID safety standards for workplaces, but the agency has declined to do so, maintaining that its “general duty clause,” which requires employers to maintain a workplace free from hazards likely to cause death or physical harm, is sufficient.

“The Administration has remained committed to providing the Whistleblower Protection program with the resources it needs to fulfill its mission,” a spokesperson for the Department of Labor wrote in an email to KHN. “In fiscal year 2020, OSHA asked for and received five new full-time employees and requested an additional ten in the President’s budget for fiscal year 2021.”

If workers don’t pursue a whistleblower complaint through OSHA, they can file a state lawsuit claiming “wrongful discharge” or use a state’s whistleblower law, as Collins did.

According to a COVID employment litigation tracker by Fisher Phillips, an employment law firm, since the beginning of the year 169 retaliation/whistleblower lawsuits have been filed across the country — the second-biggest category, behind suits related to remote work/leave, with 206 cases. An additional 27 lawsuits have been filed for wrongful discharge.

Juan Carlos Fernandez, the Morristown, New Jersey, attorney representing Charles Collins, said he’s seen a significant uptick in inquiries from workers about safety concerns in recent months. Before the pandemic began, he typically received one or two such calls per month. Now, he gets three or four a day.

Many callers say they were terminated after they asked for protective equipment on the job, Fernandez said. Others had asked for time off to care for a family member or a child whose school had closed because of COVID-19 and then were told not to come back to work.

In addition to reporting safety violations, Collins’ lawsuit claims, he was fired for asking to take time off. Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees are generally entitled to two weeks’ paid leave if they’re quarantined, and another two weeks’ paid sick leave at two-thirds pay to care for a child whose school has closed, as well as expanded family and medical leave. Collins has cared for his nephew since his sister died two years ago in a car accident. His nephew’s school closed in March because of COVID-19.

Collins said his employer, ASO Safety Solutions, paid him for only the first week of his company-ordered quarantine. Any additional time off would come out of his accrued sick and vacation time, he was told.

ASO Safety Solutions didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did the law firm representing the company.

In his response to the complaint submitted to the court, the lawyer representing the company denied that ASO had retaliated against Collins for whistleblowing, asserting he had resigned. The response, by John Olsen, with Ferdinand IP Law Group, also said that the provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act do not apply to the company. The lawyers have exchanged requests for discovery, Fernandez said, which should be answered in the next several weeks.

A few states and cities have stepped in to help whistleblowers. Virginia was the first to put in place statewide workplace safety standards related to COVID-19, spurred by concerns from workers in poultry plants, said Rachel McFarland, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. The standards include specific provisions protecting workers from retaliation for raising safety concerns or refusing to work in a location they believe is unsafe.

Colorado and the cities of Philadelphia and Chicago likewise passed laws prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who raise COVID-related safety concerns, refuse to work in unsafe conditions or take time off to minimize the transmission of the virus.

But these laws are the exceptions, said Brent Newell, a senior attorney at Public Justice in Oakland, California, who has represented the interests of workers in meatpacking plants. “Many states haven’t done that and won’t do that,” he said. “For the federal government to put it on the states to protect workers is wholly and fundamentally inadequate.”

This blog originally appeared at KHN on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Andrews is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience conceiving, reporting, writing and editing features, analyses, commentary and news for leading print and digital publications, including Kaiser Health News, the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR. 


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4 Overlooked Workplace Safety Hazards and What You Can Do About It

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According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, there were 2.8 million injuries in the workplace. On average, a worker injury costs a company between $38,000 and $150,000. As a facility safety manager, your job is to minimize hazards and save the company money by decreasing injuries in the workplace.

However, that’s often easier said than done. This is especially true if you work in a warehouse or factory, where hazardous equipment is part of the job. You probably already follow the standard advice, like cleaning up spills or enforcing safety training. But you might be overlooking some hidden hazards.

Here’s a look at four commonly overlooked workplace safety hazards with some tips to overcome them.

1. Overworking Employees

Every company has quotas, minimums, and costs to cut. Unfortunately, this often leads to overworked employees. Overworked employees are often suffering from severe fatigue. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleepy workers are 70% more likely to have a workplace accident.

Aside from fatigue, overextended employees are often burnt out and suffering from a lack of motivation. This not only hurts company efficiency, but it can lead to these employees being more lackadaisical about safety precautions or take more shortcuts.

Tips to Decrease the Risk: Be sure that workers aren’t working too many hours. Foster an environment that encourages a work-life balance. A happy and rested staff leads to more focused work.

2. Too Much Clutter

Keeping your facility clean is crucial, but it’s not just about deep cleaning. Clutter and disorganization can be more disrupting than a stain on the floor. If workers have to navigate machinery around a maze of clutter, the chance for an accident increases exponentially.

Inventory, trash piles, and general stuff can pile up quickly. Additionally, liquids and standing puddles can cause catastrophes. It’s not uncommon for facilities to allow standing water or liquids because their existing solutions aren’t cutting it.

Tips to Decrease the Risk: Work on developing cleaning routines for your workers and promote an environment of cleanliness. Encourage workers to keep their work areas clean and clutter-free. If there are areas that lack organization, get in, and organize them. If your facility is struggling with spills and standing water, be sure to upgrade your solutions. Consider using an industrial pre sloped trench drain system versus a standard grate drain. Or, if standing water in the parking lot is an issue, look into permeable paving.

3. Not Accounting for Comfort

While this one aligns with overworked employees, worker comfort can also become a safety hazard. If your employees work in confined spaces, uncomfortable temperatures, or in environments laden with pollutants and toxic air, they aren’t going to be comfortable.

Why does this matter? The Workers’ Compensation Board wrote an entire book on the hazard of confined spaces. Workers who work in tight areas are at higher risk of toxic fumes, low levels of oxygen, falling objects, poor visibility, and more. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also dangerous.

Temperature extremes have obvious consequences like heat exhaustion and hypothermia. Beyond that, if it’s too hot or too cold, your workers are going to feel demotivated, exhausted. As we’ve already talked about, an exhausted and unmotivated worker can lead to dangerous situations. 

Tips to Decrease the Risks: Take inventory of your workers’ comfort level. If they’re complaining about discomfort, the chances are that those uncomfortable working conditions have more serious implications. If confined spaces, temperatures, and toxic fumes are unavoidable, allow for more frequent breaks. Additionally, to combat dust build-up (which accounts for 12% of serious employee lung issues), invest in an industrial vacuum cleaner. These vacuums also ensure that the air stays breathable while minimizing the risk of combustion.

4. Ignoring Ergonomics

You probably had your employees watch a training video or read a manual about ergonomics. If they have to do any heavy lifting or maneuvering, ergonomics is crucial. According to The National Safety Council, the second leading cause of injury in adults is overexertion. It’s also the cause of 35% of workplace injuries. Additionally, it’s the most significant contributor to workers’ compensation, and it’s the primary reason for missed workdays.

It’s the simple things, like lifting with your legs and taking breaks. It’s avoiding repetitive motions. Taking ergonomics into account is all about thinking about people’s efficiency and body movements in the workplace.

Tips to Decrease Risks: Encourage proper maneuvering habits with your employees. That one-time training when the company hired them isn’t enough. Instead, ergonomic training should be ongoing and enforced. Consider regular assessments of your workers’ form to make sure that they know how to safely and effectively do their jobs. 

Creating a Safe Work Environment

Eliminating safety hazards is an ongoing and ever-evolving process. It requires diligence and attention to detail. Facility safety managers often overlook these four hazards. However, ignoring them could be dangerous and costly.

Do yourself and your company a favor by being proactive and taking action to avoid these common hazards. Moreover, be diligent about stopping any problematic behaviors or habits in their tracks. Your job isn’t an easy one, but it’s necessary for the safety of your employees and the posterity of your company.

About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.


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The Details of Worker Abuse at One of the World’s Largest Logistics Companies Are Appalling

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XPO Logistics flies under the radar. The company is one of the ten largest logistics companies in the world, with 97,000 employees and over 1,500 locations, operating in thirty countries. Last year, XPO, led by billionaire CEO Bradley Jacobs, reported over $16 billion in revenue. While you may never have heard of the company, the brands it services are more familiar: Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, Starbucks, and Peloton, among others.

But according to a new report compiled by the XPO Global Union Family, a network of unions representing workers in countries where XPO Logistics has its largest operations, business as usual at XPO deserves more attention.

“Behind the glossy marketing,” write the report’s authors, “are supply chains mired in worker exploitation, a cavalier and even negligent approach to safety that has led to injury and death, and a company where workers who protest against pregnancy discrimination and harassment are met by retaliation.” The report, titled “XPO: Delivering Injustice,” compiles workers’ stories from around the globe, painting a picture of the logistics company’s flouting of the law and blasé attitude toward worker safety, even as the global coronavirus pandemic hit. (XPO has not responded to a request for comment, but told Motherboard, “The report repeats wholly inaccurate allegations that have been entirely debunked.”)

Even as Jacobs told shareholders in April 2020 that “We’ve deliberately built XPO like a bulletproof tank to surmount all kinds of challenges,” workers at the transportation and logistics giant, which specializes in last-mile delivery, were in crisis.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

As the report details, a March 2020 survey of XPO/ASOS workers at a 4,000-person warehouse in the United Kingdom found that 98 percent of respondents felt unsafe at work, emphasizing management’s failure to provide them with personal protective equipment (PPE), ensure social distancing, and provide handwashing facilities and sufficient supplies of soap. In July 2020, the company refused to shut down another distribution center in the country, even as sixty-four workers tested positive for COVID-19.

In the United States, a survey conducted by the Teamsters found similar concern and uncertainty among XPO’s workers. Asked to rate the company’s performance in addressing COVID-19 risks on a scale of 1 to 10, 24 percent of respondents gave XPO a 1.

The situation is, if anything, even more dire in Europe. According to the report, XPO’s use of Eastern European subcontractors leads to rampant labor-law violations, leaving workers stranded abroad with fake documentation. In interviews conducted in June 2020, Ukrainian drivers told Stichting VNB, the research and enforcement arm of Dutch union FNV, that they “live for months in the cabin of their trucks, do not get paid the agreed Lithuanian salary, and are even given false attestation de détachement documents in France stating that they get a much higher €10 hourly wage.” The report continues,

The drivers told VNB that they had begged their Lithuanian employer to allow them to go home but that the company ignored their requests. For their time on the road, the drivers only receive enough money for food — with too little to enable them to leave their trucks in France and go home of their own free will.

One Ukrainian driver employed in Lithuania told VNB in June 2020 that he had not been home since December 2019, despite begging his employer, the subcontractor, to send a replacement driver. “Luka was forced to live illegally in his truck the whole time, isolated and alone,” write the report’s authors.

These exploitative conditions didn’t begin during the pandemic either. A New York Times story from October 2018 revealed rampant pregnancy discrimination against workers in a Verizon warehouse operated by XPO in Memphis, Tennessee. There, working conditions led to several miscarriages. In response to the story, XPO established a new pregnancy policy. “While the new policy appears progressive on paper and seems to be a large improvement of the former policy,” write the report’s authors, it “lacks any oversight or enforcement mechanism.” Further, shortly after rolling out the new policy, XPO closed the Memphis facility, a move Senator Richard Blumenthal, who represents Connecticut, where XPO headquarters is located, said “reeked of retaliation.”

As the report notes, XPO workers in the United States have filed 120 unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against XPO since 2014. As Lafe Solomon, a former acting general counsel of the NLRB, concluded in 2018:

The sheer number of unfair labor practice charges filed and complaints issued by NLRB regional directors against XPO, resulting in numerous board decisions and settlements, are extraordinary and outside the norm of employer opposition to its employees’ organizing efforts, and evidence XPO’s intent to flaunt its obligations under the NLRA to deny its employees their right and ability to form and join a union.

Despite this resistance, which includes the hiring of anti-union consultants, workers have unionized at seven XPO facilities in the United States. Not one of these, however, has ratified a union contract yet.

“Unions representing working people at XPO are greatly concerned that XPO’s business model is based on exploitation, illegal underpayments, and a callous approach to safety,” conclude the report’s authors. They have repeatedly demanded to meet with the company to discuss workers’ concerns, but so far, they say, XPO has refused.

This blog originally appeared at Jacobin on October 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.


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