Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Temp workers live more dangerously than the rest of us

The tragic death of a temp worker buried alive in sugar at CSC Sugar in Pennsylvania dramatizes how hard it is for federal officials to enforce workplace safety.

Pro Publica and Univision reported the company that employed Janio Salinas had deliberately removed a safety device that would have saved his life just 13 days before he died.
Inside the sugar plant in Fairless Hills, Pa., nobody could find Janio Salinas, a 50-year-old temp worker from just over the New Jersey border. 
Throughout the morning, Salinas and a handful of other workers had been bagging mounds of sugar for a company that supplies the makers of Snapple drinks and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. But sugar clumps kept clogging the massive hopper, forcing the workers to climb inside with shovels to help the granules flow out the funnel-like hole at the bottom. 
Coming back from lunch that day in February 2013, one employee said he had seen Salinas digging in the sugar. But when he looked back, Salinas was gone. All that remained was a shovel buried up to its handle. Then, peering through a small gap in the bottom of the hopper, someone noticed what appeared to be blue jeans. 
It was Salinas. He had been buried alive in sugar.
The reason the safety device was removed: a manager thought it was slowing production

Unfortunately, the death of Janio Salinas was not an isolated incident. An average of 4,400 people are killed every year in the U.S. at work, including untrained workers who suffocate while cleaning chemical tanks, get caught in food grinders and tire shredders or suffer heat stroke after a long day in a warehouse, on a garbage truck or on a roof.

Many of the nation's 2.9 million temporary workers often do dangerous jobs with little or no training or safety equipment. Though OSHA is trying to step up enforcement of safety rules, its task is daunting. OSHA had warned CSC Sugar about safety violations, for example, before Salinas' death. After he died, the company replaced the safety device and OSHA fined it a mere  $18,098.
Jean Kulp, director of OSHA's Allentown, Pa., office, told Univision that her agency doesn't have the ability to shut down businesses and has limited criminal enforcement provisions. 
In CSC's case, even though it removed a safety device and had received previous warnings to train its temp workers, OSHA didn't find the company "willfully in violation," which would have triggered bigger fines, she said. Kulp said the violations that were found didn't show "total disregard" for OSHA standards.
Temp workers are far more likely to die or be injured on the job than permanent employees, according to an analysis by Pro Publica. They are far more likely to find work in dangerous occupations like manufacturing and warehousing: five states, representing more than a fifth of the U.S. population, temps face a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than permanent employees. 
In California and Florida, two of the largest states, temps had about 50 percent greater risk of being injured on the job than non-temps. That risk was 36 percent higher in Massachusetts, 66 percent in Oregon and 72 percent in Minnesota.
Protecting America's Workers Act has been introduced in Congress every year for the past 10, but has been pretty much forgotten otherwise. In California, Teamsters are working hard to pass a law that would make employers responsible for the temp workers they hire through agencies. The bill, AB 1897, would crack down on employers that steal wages and put their temp workers in harm's way.