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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: IAM Supports Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

In a letter to House leadership, Machinists (IAM) International President Robert Martinez Jr. urged representatives to support the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (H.R. 1195). This bipartisan legislation would create and maintain needed protections against workplace violence for health care and social service workers. A 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office study concluded that rates of violence against health care workers are up to 12 times higher than rates of violence for the overall workforce.

“Health care and social service workers who are called on to help us and our families in times of need deserve a safe and secure work environment,” Martinez wrote. “This legislation would instruct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a workplace violence prevention standard requiring employers in the health care and social service sectors to develop and implement a plan to protect their employees from workplace violence.”


This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon March 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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On the Introduction of the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act to Protect Meatpacking Workers

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Washington, DC—Following is a statement from Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project:

“NELP applauds the introduction of the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, championed by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Rosa DeLauro, which would protect the health and safety of meatpacking workers by suspending and prohibiting any line speed increases in meat and poultry plants during the ongoing COVID pandemic. The Act would halt any line speed waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration.

“COVID-19 spread like wildfire across the meat and poultry industry in the last year, and it continues to spread through the plants. Despite guidance issued in March 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that emphasized the key protective measure of social distancing, the companies operating the plants continued to require meat and poultry workers to work shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow through the entire pandemic. Stunningly, in the middle of the pandemic, as tens of thousands of meatpacking workers were getting sick and many were dying, the USDA gave permission for many poultry, beef, and swine slaughter plants to increase their production line speeds—thereby forcing workers to stand closer together rather than father apart.

“Workers, their families, and their communities—and especially Black and brown workers and other communities of color—paid a huge price when the meat industry failed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that this failure was associated with between 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases—and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths—just in the first few months of the pandemic (as of July 1, 2020).

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in addition to this being a workers’ right issue, this is also a racial justice issue. The meat and poultry industry is built on the labor of workers of color. The CDC estimates that 87% of all infections in the meat industry occurred among people of color in the industry.

“The Act will affect policies implemented by the USDA during the previous administration as follows: temporarily suspend line speed waivers in meat and poultry plants; block funding to implement line speed increases in hog slaughter plants; and require the issuance of an accountability report to document whether the industry implemented worker safety protections and to evaluate how the relevant agencies in the previous administration responded to the outbreaks of COVID-19 in the industry.

“This legislation is a landmark in the advocacy of meat and poultry workers, organizers, and communities that have been demanding safer workplaces and accountability for employers and government agencies that failed to put basic safety measures in place during the COVID-19 crisis. The voices and direct actions of these communities laid the groundwork for federal action.

“The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the racial inequities in housing, healthcare, and the workplace. Big Meat’s commitment to profits for a few instead of preventative and protective safety protocols to protect hundreds of thousands of meatpacking workers during the greatest public health crisis of our time exemplifies why it’s critical to hold both the industry and government accountable for practices and policies that endangered workers and their communities. Accountability must be a part of a just and inclusive recovery.

“The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act is a critical first step toward ensuring worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to working with Congress and the Biden-Harris administration to secure safety protections for the nation’s meat and poultry workers by revoking all existing line speeds waivers and relinquishing any further rulemaking that increases line speeds in the meat and poultry industry; and by promulgating and enforcing a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

This blog originally appeared at NELP on March 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers. 


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Labor watchdog backs calls for binding Covid-19 workplace safety standard, slams Trump’s policy

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The Labor Department’s independent watchdog recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration consider issuing Covid-19-specific safety rules employers would be required to follow, saying that would better protect Americans from exposure to the coronavirus.

The recommendation adds weight to calls by President Joe Biden, other Democrats and labor unions for the agency to issue such emergency protections, which business groups and many Republicans oppose.

In a report released Tuesday, the department’s Inspector General said mandatory rules “could be of importance” because it’s extremely difficult for the agency to cite employers for safety risks without them.https://953a1f8cee7a9b5ef151aee5a2980011.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

If OSHA issued a Covid-19-specific emergency temporary standard, “employers would be legally obligated to comply with it,” the IG said, and OSHA inspectors “may not be hampered by a lengthy process” when it comes to proving a violation.

OSHA has already issued Covid-19 guidance under a January executive order from Biden and published numerous documents detailing ways that employers can protect their workers from exposure. But the guidelines are not enforceable and do not require companies to comply.

OSHA inspectors in area offices across the country told the IG that a coronavirus-specific safety standard would be helpful to identify safety hazards during Covid-19-related inspections and make it easier to issue citations.

“Guidance in and of itself cannot operate in lieu of an [emergency temporary standard] as an enforcement tool,” the IG report said.

The Trump administration took the position that a Covid-19-specific safety standard wasn’t necessary because the agency could use other safety rules, like its requirements to provide workers personal protective equipment, to police businesses during the pandemic.

Biden took a different approach with his executive order, which directed the agency to decide by mid-March whether it was necessary for OSHA to issue an emergency standard.

The agency, currently being led by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Frederick, released stricter guidelines in January for employers on how to protect their workers from the coronavirus.

But so far, there hasn’t been any sign of whether OSHA will issue a safety rule or simply release more non-mandatory safety recommendations for workplaces, although Frederick has said that the January guidance was “not going to be the last step in the process” of responding to Biden’s order.

The IG’s findings could help the Biden administration justify the emergency rulemaking, which Republicans and the business community have opposed, warning it could increase liability and costs for already-struggling businesses.

However, the IG’s audit Tuesday found that the Trump administration’s business-friendly approach at OSHA did not provide the level of protection workers needed during the coronavirus pandemic and left workers’ safety at increased risk.

The report noted that while OSHA has received an influx of safety complaints during the pandemic, the agency suspended most of its on-site safety inspections last year, instead opting for informal inspections that typically result in a phone call to the facility, putting employees’ safety at greater risk.

“While remote inspections might help mitigate potential transmission of Covid-19, a reduction of on-site inspections could result in more work-site accidents, injuries, deaths or employee illnesses,” the IG report said.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 2, 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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Clyburn pressures OSHA over its failures on meatpacking plant COVID-19 outbreaks

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Meatpacking plants have been the sites of some of the worst outbreaks—and the worst abuses—of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, is planning to investigate. Clyburn put the meatpacking industry and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on notice Monday.

Clyburn charged that OSHA failed “to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws.” With 482 outbreaks in the meat industry, more than 45,000 workers having gotten sick, and 482 deaths, OSHA has nonetheless issued just eight citations and $80,000 in fines for COVID-19 issues in the industry.

That’s despite workers alleging that managers at one plant had a betting pool on how many employees would get sick while they pressured workers to stay on the job no matter what. Despite the industry coming under such scrutiny in public that Tyson Foods took out a full-page ad defending itself. But the public scrutiny didn’t mean government scrutiny—the Trump administration and state and local governments repeatedly gave meatpacking companies a pass.

At meatpacking giant JBS, 3,084 workers have had COVID-19, and 18 have died, Clyburn noted, and an OSHA investigation found serious safety lapses. Meanwhile, the company’s profits have skyrocketed, growing 778% in the third quarter of 2020. At Smithfield, 3,553 workers contracted COVID-19 and eight died. In just one outbreak, 1,300 people were infected, 43 were hospitalized, and four died. Clyburn is requesting “all documents” relating to worker complaints or concerns, as well as documents relating to federal or state safety investigations.

“The meat and poultry industry became a vector for the spread of COVID 19 because it did not implement basic safety precautions. Stunningly, when workers filed complaints about unsafe conditions in the pandemic, OSHA failed to conduct inspections,” Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff who is now director of the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program, said. “This investigation is critical to find out why, among all the big industries, the meat industry was able to get a pass at protecting workers in this pandemic.”

Clyburn’s warning shot to OSHA—obviously with a very different leadership than presided over the meatpacking industry’s coronavirus response to this point—comes as the agency considers whether to put emergency standards in place to require employers to take COVID-19 precautions. That decision will be made on March 15.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 2, 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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States become worker safety watchdogs as pandemic worsens

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States are increasingly bypassing the federal government and imposing their own rules to protect workers from the coronavirus, creating a patchwork of regulations that could serve as a blueprint for new national standards promised by President-elect Joe Biden.

Oregon last month began requiring employers to supply masks, develop infection control plans and notify staff of ill coworkers. California rushed out 21 pages of business mandates covering everything from proper ventilation and social distancing to testing, reporting and quarantine procedures. In New Jersey, more than 1,000 complaints of alleged workplace health and safety violations have poured in from workers in the four weeks since the state enacted its own new safety program.

In all, 14 states have instituted their own comprehensive restrictions as the federal worker safety watchdog, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has come under fire for its lax enforcement during a pandemic that has turned America’s most mundane jobs into dangerous, frontline deployments.

Labor leaders and other advocates for tougher rules say the hands-off approach taken by President Donald Trump’s administration has put workers in harm‘s way, forcing the states to step in.

“It would be pretty hard to fall on your face as hard as OSHA has during the pandemic,” said Maggie Robbins, an occupational health specialist at Worksafe, a statewide workplace advisory group in California that has pushed for new rules. “It’s easy to outperform OSHA right now.”

Experts say Biden could borrow heavily from the states that have crafted their own policies, and the most stringent local requirements could give the new administration a baseline for those standards. But negotiating with industry groups could take months, and labor leaders say any delay will only result in more cases and, in turn, more deaths.

report released Nov. 19 found that up to 8 percent of the early U.S. coronavirus cases could be rooted in outbreaks among workers at meatpacking plants. Large outbreaks of the virus, which has killed more than 250,000 Americans, continue to be linked to employers that hold important positions in the nation’s supply chain.

Some state-level business groups acknowledged the need for a nationwide standard, saying a jumble of state-by-state — and, in places, town-by-town — regulations has been difficult for employers to navigate. But, they say, the vast majority of companies are doing the right thing, and imposing too many regulations will hinder the country’s economic recovery.In the unfolding pandemic, economic crisis and reckoning on race, governors and mayors are shaping our shared future. Who are the power players, and how are they driving politics and influencing Washington?Full coverage »

“If a national standard isn’t feasible or isn’t well-written, it could be worse than the presently evolving patchwork,” said Rob Moutrie, policy advocate and workplace safety lead for the California Chamber of Commerce.

Critics say OSHA has done little to punish companies when their workers get sick or even die from the coronavirus. While the agency has cited more companies for coronavirus-related risks over the past several months, large corporations have received meager fines, and OSHA has used its special enforcement powers far more leniently than previous administrations.

Megan Sweeney, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, said DOL is committed to protecting the country’s workforce during the pandemic, and OSHA has been “working around the clock to that end.”

OSHA has preexisting requirements and standards that are enforceable and has issued guidance for employers, including additional resources for high-risk industries, like meat and poultry processing. Through Nov. 26, the agency has issued citations arising from 255 inspections for violations related to coronavirus, resulting in proposed penalties totaling $3,403,139.

Sweeney also said that earlier this year, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that OSHA reasonably determined that a new emergency temporary standard is not necessary.

“Since that court ruling, OSHA has continued to rely on its preexisting authorities to keep America’s workplaces safe,” Sweeney said. “OSHA continues to investigate every complaint about workplace safety.”

While federal OSHA sets national standards, states are allowed to run their own occupational health and safety plans, so long as they are at least as stringent as the federal government’s standard. About half the states have their own plans. Those that don’t have separate plans found creative ways to enforce standards, using executive orders and rulemaking to set new rules without OSHA approval.

The new rules adopted by states are consistent in mandating things like social distancing, mask wearing and improved ventilation in workspaces. States are also making it easier for workers to know their rights and report any violations. Many states have taken punitive action on their own and imposed some hefty fines where federal OSHA has not.

State-level business groups say that while employers want to keep their workers safe, some of these restrictions have been cumbersome and at times unrealistic, particularly for smaller businesses that are struggling to stay afloat. There are not just the added costs of protective supplies, but the increased labor costs as well: Workers are being redirected to police how many people are in a store and routinely wipe down surfaces.

One way that Oregon made these regulations easier for businesses is by phasing in requirements. The state adopted a temporary rule in November that has several elements that employers must comply with, including developing infection control plans, improving ventilation and notifying workers when someone contracts the coronavirus.

Paloma Sparks, Oregon Business Industry vice president and general counsel, said her organization convinced the state to gradually implement new rules instead of imposing them all at once. Some of the requirements, like servicing HVAC systems, can be challenging for small businesses that won’t have someone on staff to do the work.

“We want to make sure our employees are safe and healthy, and we’ve been very clear about that point throughout,” Sparks said. “The difficulty is that at this point in the pandemic, you’ve got businesses that are really struggling, they have limited resources, their staff are exhausted.”

Graham Trainor, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said he is hopeful the requirements will make a difference. Oregon had previously issued Covid-19 recommendations for employers to follow, but his union has seen countless examples of workers being “unnecessarily and dangerously” exposed to the virus.

The Oregon Health Authority found that, to date, workplace outbreaks of coronavirus have resulted in 11,139 cases and 61 deaths.

“There’s no question that there’s a correlation between cases on the rise, deaths from the virus, and the lack of workplace protections,” Trainor said.

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser for OSHA under President Barack Obama, said the incoming Biden administration should look to Virginia, the first state to issue emergency rules, and California, the most recent state to take action, as guides for creating national policy. Those states have some of the more comprehensive policies. She urged Biden to draft new standards as soon as possible.

“It’s an emergency,” said Berkowitz, who now works at the National Employment Law Project. “The only way we’re going to mitigate this disease is if we protect the workers at work.”

California has just implemented a stringent, 21-page emergency standard that covers everything from social distancing and ventilation protocols to employee notification and testing following an outbreak.

Robbins of Worksafe, the California group that lobbied for the emergency standard, said the state needed something that was more easily enforceable and gave clear expectations for employers.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Drive an appropriate speed for the conditions on the road,’” Robbins said. “It’s another to say, ‘You should go 35 miles per hour, no faster.’”

Some business groups have pushed back on the speed of California’s emergency rulemaking. Industry groups are already considering lawsuits to block the emergency regulation.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy released guidelines earlier in the pandemic related to worker protection. But a coalition of labor groups waged a six-month campaign urging the governor to take further action to mandate these rules, and create a process in which workers can actually report violations. Murphy eventually committed to signing an executive order that did just that in late October.

“Like so much else where Washington has failed to lead, New Jersey will step up to fill the void,” Murphy said.

About the Author: Katherine Landergan covers the state budget, tax policy and labor issues for POLITICO New Jersey.

About the Author: Katy Murphy covers consumer regulations with a focus on data privacy for POLITICO California. 

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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OSHA Complaints Show the Morbid Dangers Healthcare Workers Face During Covid

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During the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, with thousands dying every day, America relied on a select few essential workers to keep society running, like postal workers, grocery workers and meat packers—all industries that have seen, together, hundreds of Covid-related deaths among workers. Chief among them are nurses, on the front lines of the pandemic, who have put their lives on the line to intubate disease victims and provide lifesaving medical care. Since the pandemic began, over 500 healthcare workers in the United States have died from the virus.

But these workers who we rely on so deeply—dubbed “warriors” by President Donald Trump and “heroes” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—continue to work under hostile management and in dangerous workplaces that make the disease even more contagious and deadly.

That’s according to a dataset and interactive map recently released by Strikewave, a newsletter of original reporting and analysis for the U.S. labor movement. The data show at least 21,510 Covid-related Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaints since the start of the pandemic. It’s unknown exactly how many more complaints than usual have been filed, as OSHA complaints are relatively confidential. But it’s clear that they are surging.

Common in the complaints are allegations of managerial neglect, carelessness and abuse.

And while we may like to think that bad management is the exclusive territory of greedy corporations, the complaints show how healthcare workers, some of them working for nominally non-profit hospitals, have been failed by their employers even as they perform dangerous and essential work.

At Ascension Genesys Hospital in Grand Blanc, Michigan, a suburb of Flint, several OSHA complaints filed at the end of March alleged widespread shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and threats from management.

Carolyn Clemons, a registered nurse working in Genesys Hospital’s Covid-19 intensive care unit and member of Teamsters Local 332, said that in late March, when cases were skyrocketing, nurses who wore masks outside of patient rooms were threatened with disciplinary actions and firings. In hallways and offices, where nurses worked closely together, managers enforced a no-mask policy into April, according to Clemons. Ironically, some of the managers who threatened mask-wearing employees were the same who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

“There was not good communication,” Clemons said. “We felt a lack of respect for what we do.”

At the height of the pandemic, management kept stockpiles of PPE under lock and key in their offices while telling nurses to wear garbage bags instead, according to Kimberly Cox, a registered nurse and the Chief Steward of Teamsters 332. Even now, she says, much of that equipment remains unused.

Nurses at the hospital have tested positive. According to Cox, however, Genesys has so far refused to either provide on-site tests for nurses or inform employees of the number of positive or assumed cases among staff, despite repeated union requests. Nurses, some of them exhausted by persistent coughs and high fevers, were told to drive to the next hospital over.

There are complaints from hospitals across the Ascension health system.

One, filed on April 28 at Ascension St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, claimed management failed to implement social distancing practices “properly or effectively” and that workers were not informed when they were exposed to patients and coworkers with confirmed cases of Covid-19. At that point there were almost 3,000 Covid-19 cases in Milwaukee and more than 150 deaths.

There have been more than 15 such complaints against the health system, including the ones against Genesys and St. Francis, and there are likely more (detailed information about OSHA complaints is only available for “closed” cases, suggesting there could be several ongoing but confidential complaints). Additionally, Teamsters Local 332 has filed more than 100 grievances with the hospital.

Ascension, which operates as a non-profit out of St. Louis, Missouri, cut its CEO a $13.6 million paycheck in 2017, the last year on record. It also operates a venture capital fund, Ascension Ventures, which manages more than $800 million, and an investment advisory fund, Ascension Investment Management, which is responsible for $38.7 billion in corporate money.

The health system, which has been fined nearly $70 million for various regulatory violations over the past decade, received more than $400 million in federal funding in May. Genesys itself received more than $20 million. The funding, like all federal stimulus so far, comes with no stipulations regarding employee treatment.

Ascension Health did not respond to a request for comment.

These kinds of complaints can be seen across the industry. At publicly-traded HCA Healthcare, one of the wealthiest hospital chains in the country, complaints are, in some cases, nearly identical to those lodged against Ascension: N95 masks locked away by management, a total lack of protective equipment for housekeepers and food service workers, and prohibitions on mask-wearing. One complaint even alleged that nurses were directed to clean their masks with household cleaning wipes, return them to a bag, and then reuse those masks. In total, workers in the HCA network lodged at least 35 complaints, almost twice as many as Ascension received.

HCA paid its CEO more than $26 million in 2019 and has made more than $7 billion over the past two years. The chain received $1 billion in federal pandemic aid, also without stipulation. Weeks later, nurses at HCA claimed the company threatened them with mass firings unless they agreed to wage freezes.

These OSHA complaints are just a few of the thousands filed, all of which show how so-called essential workers have been treated as disposable. There are more than 3 million Covid-19 cases in the United States, but many essential workers are already losing meager hazard pay raises. As of April, at least 135,000 health care practitioners who work in hospitals had lost their jobs, including many nurses.

It’s a racial justice issue as well. In New York City, 75% percent of frontline workers are people of color. And Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist studying Black healthcare workers, found that those workers are more likely to work at hospitals in the same impoverished Black communities that have been devastated by the coronavirus.

Both the pandemic and the protests sweeping the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd carry the same lesson: our brutal status quo has long been untenable for many Americans, particularly the poor and non-white.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nick Vachon is an In These Times editorial intern.


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7 Best Practices to Accelerate Employee Safety in the Workplace

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Research has shown there’s a direct link between worker productivity and workplace health and safety. These findings should be enough to motivate employers to accelerate the safety of all staff members in the workplace, and for many businesses, they have been. 

“Safety culture” is a phrase often repeated, and it refers to the concept of making high standards of occupational health and safety a core company value. By fostering such a culture, employees are not only physically protected; they feel like valued team members and are empowered to take initiative. As the workers are strengthened, so too is the organization – and vice versa.

The seven best practices listed below need to be an intrinsic part of a business owner’s vision. If your employer doesn’t actively strive to achieve them, the Occupational Safety and Administration (OSHA) recommends you bring the issue to their attention. If no resolution is reached, you can file a confidential complaint with the Administration. 

Take a closer look at the treatment you should be getting, and the conditions you’re within your rights to expect.

Inclusion in a Safety Task Force

As employees, you must be involved in health and safety initiatives at all stages. This creates a strong foundation, and creating a dedicated task force is a crucial element of this. 

You’ll need time to meet, plan, and execute activities during the workday rather than after hours – none of your own time or wages may be sacrificed. If you take on additional responsibilities as a result of being included in such a task force, you must be properly remunerated.

Engagement in Discussions 

As each business is different, the requirements for an effective health and safety program also vary. The OSHA provides several helpful resources on how to assess and maintain safety standards in diverse work environments. 

In discussions on how to maintain health and safety, staff should be treated as equals to executives, with as much to contribute to the conversation. After all, you have front-line experience of work circumstances and conditions. The number of employees, their various tasks, and the equipment used must all be considered. As part of best practice, these circumstances will be regularly reviewed.

Involvement in Developing Protocols

The discussions the worker-centric task force is involved in should result in the development of several protocols. Safety, inspection, training, and recording procedures, among others, would be developed by this team, and be reexamined on a scheduled basis. 

Any new practices or apparatus must be factored in, and protocols appropriately expanded or amended. The protocols will stipulate how frequently you receive training, and what specific issues are covered.

Regular Training Sessions

New employees must receive comprehensive training as part of their induction, along with further instruction when any new policies or procedures are introduced. Thereafter, sessions can be scheduled at regular intervals and assessments conducted to verify that your knowledge and skills are up to date.

Frequent Inspections of Working Conditions

The condition of all equipment and work environments, including offices, factory floors and outside areas, must be checked according to a list of requirements. In addition, you should be assessed according to KPAs (key performance areas) as developed in taskforce discussions. You know how to do your job well and giving this input in the discussions means you’ll know what to expect in the inspections too.

Proper Maintenance of Records

Meticulous records are essential in the case of injuries (or illness, as the current COVID-19 pandemic illustrates) that result in workman’s compensation claims. If you have a rightful claim, the proper documentation will make it easier for you to access your payout. In addition, your employer will require valid, in-date compensation insurance so that you are properly covered.

Records are also helpful in identifying positive or negative trends regarding health and safety standards and culture, so they can help prevent future incidents. Best practice recommendations are to keep detailed records that are easy to access and understand, and to review them at regular intervals.

Investigation of All Incidents

If something goes wrong in the workplace a thorough investigation needs to be conducted. By reviewing what happened, companies can take steps to avoid recurrences. This will accelerate your safety, and any employees who were on the scene or have knowledge of the situation must be consulted. 

You should also see clear evidence that changes have been made, to guard against the incident happening again. Executives are required to act – and if they don’t, you can remind them to.

About the Author: With a passion for writing, Megan is a freelance writer focusing on business, workplace compliance, and GRC topics. When she’s not typing away at her keyboard, Meg loves playing Broadway scores on the piano and enjoys roasting her own coffee.


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Vague testing guidance hinders business reopenings

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Companies can require diagnostic coronavirus tests and temperature checks but the Trump administration hasn’t said when or how often to test.

Gaps in federal guidelines and ongoing fears about contaminated workplaces are keeping businesses from reopening the way the White House envisioned a month ago, when it shifted its pandemic message to an economic revival.

The Trump administration has said businesses can make diagnostic coronavirus tests and temperature checks a condition for returning to work. But it hasn’t answered key questions like when or how often to test workers or whether there should be a blanket testing policy for job seekers.

Now, employers worried about a do-it-yourself approach are asking Congress to give them broad legal protections in case workers or customers get Covid-19. And they’re bracing for the added cost of testing, hiring companies like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics to repeatedly screen their employees.

Critics blame the Trump administration for deferring too much decision-making to states and localities and leaving businesses hanging in its eagerness to reboot the economy.

“We’ve got different people in different places doing different things because there is no universal plan, no comprehensive plan to guide people, and I think that to me is very unacceptable,” said Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

The government’s top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, last week warned about the possibility of new hot spots if businesses don’t heed the existing recommendations and instead rush to reopen.

“We are going to see upticks in cases even in the best circumstances,” Fauci said on CNN. “Don’t start leapfrogging over some of the recommendations and the guidelines because that’s really tempting fate and asking for trouble.”

The testing picture is complicated by the fact that several federal agencies provide guidance on business planning during the pandemic, though their enforcement powers are limited.

No enforceable rules

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which polices workplace discrimination, said in April that employers can require workers to be tested, wear masks and have their temperatures checked as a condition of employment without running afoul of federal discrimination and disability law.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversees worker safety, often relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for technical expertise. But OSHA hasn’t issued a mandatory workplace safety standard for Covid-19, so whatever guidelines it and the CDC develop are largely unenforceable.

The agencies and others have moved to set guardrails for businesses coming back from lockdowns. New CDC guidelines for office buildings suggest employers step up disinfection of work spaces, promote distancing and screen for Covid-19 symptoms. FEMA separately announced the government will distribute non-contact infrared thermometers to support workplaces “with a high degree of person-to-person interaction.”

The landscape makes it possible for employers to make Covid-19 screening or testing a condition of employment, meaning they could delay a worker’s start date or withdraw a job offer if someone is shown to have symptoms, said Beth Alcalde, an attorney at the law firm Akerman LLP. However, the EEOC has cautioned an employer must screen all potential employees applying for the same job.

Beyond the evolving rules is the question of whether there are enough tests to even open critical segments of the economy. Experts including Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, have warned more than 900,000 daily tests are needed to safely reopen the country — more than double the amount being conducted today. A lack of basic supplies like swabs that bedeviled earlier efforts to contain the virus could again prove to be a roadblock.

“It was inadequate testing that precipitated the national shutdown,” Jha told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last month. “We must not make the same mistakes again as we open up our nation.”

Even blanket testing won’t guarantee that a business is free of Covid-19. Diagnostic tests can prove unreliable and can miss an infection. And antibody tests, once promoted as a vital tool for safely reopening the economy, are meant to identify who has been exposed to the virus, not active cases. The CDC says antibody tests should not be used to make decisions about employees returning to work.

“There is no way to be 100 percent certain that we’re not going to have a virus in the workplace no matter what you do,” said Jay Wohlgemuth, Quest’s chief medical officer.

Lawmakers aware of the limitations are working to insulate companies from legal claims. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the GOP is working to provide Covid-19 liability protections to companies that are sued for failing to protect their workers and customers from the illness.

Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are asking for “targeted liability relief” for businesses that work to follow the government’s guidelines.

Employers worry “about potential [legal] exposure if they do something that falls short of securing the safety and health of their population,” Alcalde said.

The CDC largely has avoided making recommendations when employees should be tested for an active coronavirus infection. But the agency says employers shouldn’t require sick employees to submit to a test or to produce a doctor’s note to qualify for sick leave or return to work.

Though the agency has taken steps like recommending facility-wide testing in nursing care facilities, it doesn’t have any corresponding guidance for businesses on testing employees. CDC spokesperson Jason McDonald told POLITICO it is up to state or local health departments to provide specific guidance to businesses on testing.

“Testing is a complex issue, and right now CDC doesn’t have the establishment-wide guidance to give an employer who’s interested in doing testing,” John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said during a worker safety hearing last week. “We may be coming out with more guidance on that issue, but right now we don’t have enough information.”

Commercial laboratories LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics have started return-to-work services, such as employee symptom screening and testing for active or past coronavirus infections to help businesses bring workers back on-site.

Quest’s Wohlgemuth told POLITICO the frequency of how often workers are screened should hinge on factors like the rates of transmission in a given community and the characteristics of jobs.

“It’s very different to be in an office with distance than to be an ER doctor or to be in a meat packing facility,” Wohlgemuth said.

Attorneys predict businesses will pick up the cost of testing, as well as giving workers the necessary time and ensuring the results are confidential.

Privacy issues

Civil liberties groups like the ACLU caution that widespread testing could still raise a host of privacy issues that keep workers and job seekers away.

“Privacy is not a side issue here, but it’s actually a core part of making the response to Covid effective,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst on technology-related privacy and civil liberties issues at the ACLU. “If people don’t feel that their privacy is being protected they will resist screening programs that they feel might threaten them.”

The CDC in its reopening guidelines states that if implementing health checks, businesses should “conduct them safely and respectfully, and in accordance with any applicable privacy laws and regulations. Confidentiality should be respected.”

Stanley recently warned that companies should “skeptically scrutinize all such products and proposals, especially where they have implications for our privacy or other civil liberties.”

“We don’t want to wake up into a post-Covid world where companies, employers or others feel like they have a permanent free hand to start collecting physiological data about people,” he told POLITICO.

The EEOC stresses that any data about workers or potential employees obtained through medical examinations must be kept confidential.

Wohlgemuth said Quest has developed an informed consent process for businesses to use to ensure employees understand how their health data will be used by employers for infection-control purposes. No personal health information will be shared with employers unless it is needed to drive a health and safety decision, Wohlgemuth said. “Even then, it’s held very tightly and we have processes in place to make sure that the identity of the person is only known when absolutely necessary,” he added.

Former EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, now a partner at Morgan Lewis, said the privacy aspect “is really not overly burdensome.”

If an employer wants to keep a record of that medical information, Feldblum says they “just need to make sure that that information is not in that employee’s personnel record, and just kept separately, as a medical record.”

But Feldblum cautions that employers should keep in mind that they do have to try to accommodate those who have disability or other concerns with procedures like wearing face masks and, if necessary, provide an unpaid leave of absence.

Companies including Ford Motor Company announced recently that they would provide Covid-19 testing for employees showing symptoms at its plants in Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. The car manufacturer has recently shut down plants for cleaning after workers tested positive in Chicagoand Kansas City.

Casino companies MGM, Caesars Entertainment and Boyd Gaming also recently announced a Covid-19 testing policy for their employees.

The Culinary Workers Union, which represents thousands of workers at Las Vegas casinos and hotels, is pushing the Nevada Gaming Control Board and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to adopt their recommended public health guidelines for the industry that include testing employees for Covid-19.

But for all the precautions, employers won’t be able to make their employees take a vaccine for Covid-19 once one is ready.

The EEOC cautions that federal disability and anti-discrimination law bars such a requirement for a flu vaccine due to a worker’s potential medical conditions or religious beliefs.

“Employers should consider simply encouraging employees to get the influenza vaccine rather than requiring them to take it,” the agency recommends.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 2, 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. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

About the Author: David Lim is a health care reporter at POLITICO focused on covering the policy, regulation and politics that affect the medical device industry and the Food and Drug Administration. Before joining POLITICO, David helped launch Industry Dive’s MedTech Dive and worked at Inside Washington Publishers’ FDA Week. A fan of the Mountain Goats, he enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and rock climbing in his spare time.


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The Miners Who Fought for Workplace Safety Have a Thing or Two to Teach OSHA Right Now

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In October 1993, Charles Patrick Hayes, or Pat, was working at a grain bin in Defuniak Springs, a small town in southern Alabama near Fairhope, where Pat was raised. Pat was knocking down corn from the walls of the silo when the crop caved off the sides and crushed him. Pat, just 19, suffocated to death. It took five hours to retrieve his body.

Pat’s father, Ron Hayes, quickly turned his grief into advocacy. A few months after Pat’s death, Hayes quit his job as an X-ray technician and manager of a clinical outpatient facility, and he founded a non-profit called the FIGHT Project, or Families In Grief Hold Together. For almost 30 years, Hayes traveled from Fairhope to Washington, D.C. (45 times by his count) pressuring legislators to improve federal worker safety regulations under the act, implemented in 1971, that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. According to Hayes, stricter enforcement of worker safety protocols may have saved his son’s life.

Although OSHA, which monitors most major employment sectors, including the agricultural, construction and service industries, has been criticized for lax regulations for almost 50 years, Covid-19 has brought worker safety back into the forefront of national news and rekindled the conversation around reform. If such reform is to happen, advocates say regulators can look for guidance from a conglomerate OSHA doesn’t monitor: the mining industry.

According to Tony Oppegard, an attorney who specializes in miner safety, the Mine Act is so much stronger than OSHA that “there’s no comparison.” Enacted in 1969, the inherent dangers in mining meant stricter regulations were implemented from the get go.

The Mine Act made mining much safer, and fatalities continue to decrease, with 24 on-the-job fatalities in 2019. While the decrease might be related to a loss of jobs—the coal industry has flatlined in recent years—experts say it’s also related to regulations in the Mine Act: For example, underground mines have to be inspected, at minimum, four times a year.

Meanwhile, OSHA guidelines have no requirement for the minimum number of inspections. That means a lot of businesses can essentially go unregulated. Along with a lack of inspections, there’s a lack of inspectors. While mines have about one inspector for every 50 miners, OSHA has just one inspector for every 79,000 workers. According to data compiled by the AFL-CIO, over 3.5 million injuries were reported to OSHA in 2017. In 2018, an average of 275 laborers died each day from workplace-related illnesses or injuries.

One of the biggest differences in these fatality numbers may also be a workplace right unique to the Mine Act: the broad right to refuse unsafe work.

Take Charles Howard. Howard worked in a number of underground coal mines around his home of Letcher County, Ky. since he was 18 years old. While Howard knew mining was dangerous work, as he grew older, he observed his supervisors making unsafe decisions to get the coal out cheaper and quicker, increasing the likelihood of injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Howard himself suffered multiple injuries while underground including a torn rotator cuff, a broken back, a traumatic brain injury and black lung—a fatal respiratory disease unique to coal miners.

So, between 1989 and when Howard retired in 2014, he fought hard for miner protections on the job site. This was easier under the Mine Act than OSHA because of a section called 105(c) which allows workers to refuse work they consider unsafe without getting fired—and quick temporary reinstatement pending a full investigation and hearing. Under 105(c), when one of Howard’s former employers, the Cumberland River Coal Company, tried to unlawfully fire him twice, Howard filed federal complaints with the help of Oppegard. After he filed, a federal review commission permanently reinstated Howard in his old job.

Under OSHA, this right isn’t nearly as strong. In order to refuse work, an employee has to prove they faced imminent danger of serious injury or death. That’s difficult to do in jobs that contain regular hazards. For example, in farming, workers could face silo explosions or extreme summer heat. In construction, laborers could fall off roofs or scaffolding. But it’s notoriously difficult to place the onus of these accidents on the employer.

But the Mine Act isn’t perfect, and OSHA can also learn from its failures. For example, under the act, safety violations can only lead to misdemeanor charges, not criminal convictions. So mining violations often mean little to no jail time for operators. When the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, caused by a dust explosion, killed 29 West Virginia miners a decade ago, Don Blakenship, CEO of Massey Energy, spent just one year in prison.

According to Oppegard, a solution could be implementing an industrial manslaughter law under the Mine Act and OSHA, like one passed in Queensland, Australia. Now, if there’s criminal negligence in a mining death, Australian operators could receive 20 years in prison.

Howard, now 60 and retired, agrees that company management might feel more incentivized to protect workers if supervisors are personally responsible for injuries and illnesses on the job site. But, according to Howard, another problem is a lack of education around miner’s rights.

“They didn’t want me on the job because I stood up for my rights,” said Howard, who believes he was let go from multiple jobs because of his advocacy. “Other miners started saying, well we ain’t going to let them [the mining company] do that either.”

For Hayes, like Howard, one of the biggest problems with OSHA is not its scaffolding, but how the act has been implemented.

“I’ve always said OSHA is fair to business and workers both, but it’s been so mismanaged over the years,” Hayes said over the phone. “We’ve got to have a leader who knows what they’re doing.”

According to the AFL-CIO, under President Trump, a pro-business agenda means worker safety has been significantly deregulated since 2016, with budgets slashed and the number of OSHA inspectors at its lowest level in half a century.

Hayes, who recently suffered a series of strokes which he attributes to stress over reforming OSHA, is frustrated by the slow pace of change, but he’s not giving up. He has one wish for the legacy of his work: “I want to be remembered as the man who gave OSHA a heart.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer from Kentucky who has written for HuffPost, onEarth, Sierra and Vice.


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OSHA Needs A Prescription for Safety Now

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Kimberly Delbrune-Mitter, a cardiac nurse, cares deeply about her patients and remains steadfast in her desire to help them, even as COVID-19 spreads across America.

What plagues her about the new disease isn’t that she might encounter it. It’s the lack of guidance, vital information that would help her balance quality care and her own health.

Medical professionals looking to the Trump administration for leadership will hear nothing but a resounding silence.

Instead, people on the front lines have to fight for their own health and safety even while they care for their patients.

A group of labor unions, including the United Steelworkers (USW), last week sent Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a petition demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implement an emergency safety standard to protect health care workers, first responders and others at risk of contracting the virus on the job.

The unions and the workers they represent want OSHA to specify the types of equipment employers must provide and the procedures they must follow to keep workers safe.

For hospitals, this could mean providing doctors, nurses and others with the most advanced facemasks on the market. It could mean minimizing the number of people who enter a patient’s room, screening workers for sickness at the start of their shifts or providing staff members with a vaccine when one becomes available.

So far, they’ve received no response.

While the Trump administration fiddles, hundreds of health care workers already are quarantined because of possible exposure to COVID-19, and many others have questions about how to do their jobs without contracting the disease.

“Do we need to wear eye shields? Do we need hair caps? Do we need gowns?” asked Delbrune-Mitter, president of USW Local 9620, which represents about 500 nurses in New Jersey.

Right now, each hospital, clinic and doctor’s office is largely free to take whatever precautions it wants. At some hospitals, nurses cite a lack of personal protective equipment like facemasks and say their employers haven’t even told them how to identify patients who might have the disease.

If large numbers of health care workers get sick or quarantined, the whole treatment system could collapse.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) struck Toronto in 2003, health care professionals became the biggest victims, making up 45 percent of those infected. A doctor and two nurses died. The city’s hospitals were so poorly prepared for infection control that they became breeding grounds for the disease, the very places where most people contracted it.

Clearly communicated safety precautions for COVID-19 will prevent a similar catastrophe limiting medical personnel on the job at a time they’re crucially needed.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time health care workers had to lead OSHA to provide common-sense protections in the face of a deadly disease.

HIV struck seemingly out of nowhere more than 30 years ago, battering patients’ immune systems before killing them. Unsure how it spread and fearful of the future, health care workers risked their own lives to treat the victims.

Research soon showed that HIV is spread through an infected person’s blood. Health care workers risked infection when they accidentally got stuck by a needle or when a patient’s blood got into a cut or scrape. Other serious diseases like hepatitis B are spread the same way, and workers demanded that OSHA set standards so they would remain safe on the job.

OSHA implemented those measures, known as the bloodborne pathogens standard, in 1991 and revised them several years later.

Workers made this happen.

Among other provisions, the standard requires that needles be equipped with safety devices that cover or retract them immediately after use.

Employers must provide gloves and other personal protective equipment to workers, decontaminate surfaces any time they’re touched by blood or other fluids, and track accidental needle sticks. Needles and other sharp objects must be discarded in puncture-proof containers. These provisions protect patients as well as health care workers.

Some hospitals opposed the bloodborne pathogen rules because they didn’t want to shell out a few extra bucks to keep workers safe.

But the standard’s effectiveness cannot be denied.  Since it was implemented, HIV and hepatitis B infections among health care workers plummeted.

Even after OSHA imposed the standard, health care workers continued fighting to make their workplaces safer.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick in New Jersey, that meant looking for new ways to further reduce the accidental needle sticks that can transmit HIV and hepatitis.

Nurses represented by USW Local 4-200 tested various syringes, lancets and IV insertion tips, then began using the ones they considered least likely to cause accidental sticks. Between 2010 and 2014, the hospital reduced needlestick injuries by 70 percent, an achievement that won the nurses recognition in a national health care journal.

These kinds of safety measures are the result of workers’ and unions’ relentless fight for health and safety.

The USW and other unions began pressuring OSHA for an infectious disease standard long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

Their demand for infectious disease controls goes back years, amid outbreaks of other diseases, including SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 flu in 2009, that exposed the nation’s lack of readiness for epidemics.

OSHA’s top officials finally put an infectious disease standard on their to-do list. Then Donald Trump, an enemy of industry regulation and worker safety, took office. OSHA suddenly put infectious disease control on the back burner.

That delay now haunts the nation. The federal government and health care organizations are as poorly prepared for an epidemic as workers knew they’d be.

Delbrune-Mitter said the lack of clear safety direction from federal officials leads some staff members to mine TV and the internet for information.

“We don’t really know what’s true,” she said.

This article was originally printed in Our Future on March 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


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