“Fight for 15” takes to the streets in Chicago: Fast-food and retail workers demonstrate for raise beyond their lower-than $10 average wage
by Elizabeth Grossman
On April 24th, hundreds of workers at fast-food restaurants in Chicago staged a one-day walk-out to demonstrate for a raise to $15 an hour and the right to form a union. Striking workers included employees of Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Subway, Popeyes Chicken, Macy’s, Nordstrom Rack, Sears, Lands’ End, Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods. Some stores were unable to open or forced to close when all workers who were not management either walked out or did not report to work. Photos from Chicago show lines of striking workers stretching for several blocks.
Among them was Charde, who is 21, the mother of a 3 year-old and a 5 month-old, and works as a cashier at Sears. She’s been working there for about a year, she told me, and earns $9 an hour. Providing for a family of three with 40 hours a week at that wage would be challenging, but Sears hasn’t given Charde more than 20 hours of work a week, and her schedule changes from week to week. She said she’d recently been offered five more hours a week but that Sears has told her it has no full-time positions available. Because it isn’t full time, her job includes no benefits, and Charde says she can’t afford the healthcare insurance that’s offered through Sears. She’s also just gotten a new apartment where the rent is $650 a month. “It’s going to be a struggle, but my children make me strong,” she says.
The April 24 strike was organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago campaign called “The Fight for 15.” It is part of an ongoing effort begun last year that is supported by numerous Chicago area labor, community and other organizations, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The Chicago strike comes a few weeks after a similar one held in New York in early April, when a reported 400 fast-food restaurant workers held what’s being described as the largest such walk-out ever. A demonstration is also planned for Oakland, California on May 1.
“The $15 is the tip of the iceberg” said Reverend Liz Muñoz of St. James Episcopal Church, whose clergy are supporting the “Fight for 15” workers who rallied at the Cathedral on the 24th. “They’re asking for the right to organize” because they have no job security or benefits, she explained. “The workers are ready to take the risk and take a stand and ask for corporations to look at the human face of what’s happening in the community.”
A disparity between wages and living costs
According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, about a third of Chicago’s workforce earns $12 or less an hour. Of those who work in retail, about half earn $12 per hour or less. Approximately one-third earns less than $10 per hour, and about 20% earn less than $9 per hour. This means about a third of the people who work in Chicago earn $24,960 before taxes. According to the MIT “Living Wage Calculator,” the estimated living wage for a household with one adult and two children is $53,055 — before taxes.
Minimum wage in Chicago pays $8.25 per hour. Working full-time at that wage would earn $1320 a month or $17,160.00 annually before taxes, based on an 8-hour day and a 260-day work year. But the average weekly hours worked by non-supervisory food-service employees – like those who marched in Chicago on April 24th – is currently 24. Average weekly hours for non-managerial retail employees – again like those who marched in Chicago – is 31. Average wages for these positions in both industries is less than $10 per hour.
With the hours Sears gives her, Charde earns $180 a week, or $720 a month. This adds up to before tax income of $8640. Even with the extra five hours a week, she’ll still be nearly $9,000 below the 2013 poverty level for a family of three.
“These workers would like to be able to work full-time, but employers won’t give them the hours,” said the Rev. Muñoz. The unpredictable part-time schedules many low-wage workers juggle make it difficult to piece together the several jobs needed to make ends meet, not to mention the challenges of organizing childcare and other household responsibilities.
Charde said that about 15 Sears employees participated in the strike. “Everyone is going through the same problems,” she said. “We’re all making the same amount of money and all struggling and trying to pay our bills.”
The $15 hourly wage the striking workers are asking for would mean monthly earnings of $2400, or $31,200 for a year before taxes. According to the MIT “Living Wage Calculator,” that is about $6,000 less in after-tax income than what’s needed to support one adult and one child in Chicago, where monthly costs for modest homes run between a minimum of $600 and $800 and where a monthly Chicago Transit Authority pass is $100. Monthly food costs for a Chicago family of three – one adult and two children – MIT puts at $536. So if you are one of the 30-plus percent of Chicago workers earning $12 or less per hour that means after covering basic housing, transportation and food costs, a single parent with two children, like Charde, would be figuring out how to pay for utilities, phone, childcare, clothing and healthcare costs on less than $200 pre-tax dollars each week.
At current wage rates, many low-wage workers have to rely on public assistance to fill the gaps, says the Rev. Muñoz. She calls a living wage an investment in the community. The links between poverty and violence are well known, she says, and Chicago is one of the most violent cities in the country in terms of gun violence. “People want a secure and safer future for their children.” In addition to the most obvious adverse impacts of community violence, recent environmental health studies have shown that exposure to the stress of living in such environments can increase risk for childhood asthma and exacerbate its symptoms and also those of exposure to contaminants like lead and car exhaust.
Asked for a comment on the strike, Sears, Subway, and Whole Foods have not responded by press time (The Pump Handle will follow up when they do respond), but McDonald’s said in a statement, “”We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants.” McDonald’s also said most Chicago McDonald’s restaurants, like others around the country, are independently owned and operated. “Both our company and franchised-owned restaurants work hard every day to treat McDonald’s employees with dignity and respect. Employees are paid competitive wages and have access to a range of benefits to meet their individual needs,” the company said, noting that it offers “a variety of training and professional development opportunities” for employees “who want to go from crew to management.”
Asked for her employer’s response to the strike, Charde replied, “They haven’t said anything yet.”
When I spoke to the Rev. Muñoz on the afternoon of April 25, she told me that “today from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m” elected officials, community leaders and others were “walking workers back to their jobs.” That, she said, “sends a message to corporations that these workers have support and a message to other workers that their plight is being heard and there is support in the community. This story needs to be told until workers get fair wages.”
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.
by Kim Krisberg
Another day, another study that shows investing in public health interventions can make a serious dent in health care spending.
A new study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that banning smoking in all U.S. subsidized housing could yield cost savings of about $521 million every year. That total includes $341 million in secondhand smoke-related health care expenditures, $108 million in renovation expenses and $72 million in smoking-attributable fire losses. In fact, just prohibiting smoking in public housing alone would result in a savings of about $154 million annually, of which $101 million would be in health care cost savings.
To reach the estimates, researchers Brian King, Richard Peck and Stephen Babb analyzed previously estimated national and state cost data. They noted that about 7.1 million Americans lived in subsidized housing in 2009–2010, including 2.1 million people who lived in housing either owned or operated by a public housing authority. In 2009, nearly 33 percent of adults living in subsidized housing smoked cigarettes — a rate more than 10 percentage points higher than the general U.S. adult population. The study noted that secondhand smoke may pose a particularly harmful risk within subsidized housing settings, as many residents are elderly, disabled or are children. Study authors wrote:
With the increasing number of U.S. states prohibiting tobacco smoking in indoor public places, private settings are becoming relatively larger contributors to total (secondhand smoke) burden. This may be particularly true for residents of multiunit housing, where (secondhand smoke) can infiltrate smoke-free living units from units that permit smoking and shared areas.
In a news release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the study results, researcher King noted that “opening windows and installing ventilation systems will not fully eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke. Implementing smoke-free policies in all areas is the most effective way to fully protect all residents, visitors and employees from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.”
And implementing such smoke-free policies wouldn’t necessarily come up against much resistance — according to the study, a majority of subsidized housing tenants favor such rules. As of 2012, more than 250 public housing authorities had instituted smoke-free policies, however the study noted that the prevalence of such policies still remains low nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) encourages public housing authorities to voluntarily go smoke-free and provides resources to residents and housing managers to help them do so. In January 2013, more than a dozen health organizations, including the American Public Health Association, American Lung Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, sent a letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan stating that “we strongly believe that the only way to protect all residents of federally assisted multi-family housing is to adopt a nationwide smoke-free policy covering all multi-family housing under HUD’s control.”
The letter cited a Boston study released in 2009 that examined nicotine levels in 40 low-income housing units in multi-unit buildings. The study found detectable nicotine levels in 94 percent of the units, including 89 percent of units in which no one in the household smoked. The letter also noted that children living in multi-unit housing experience significantly more exposure to secondhand smoke than children who live in detached housing. The authors went on to write:
U.S. law supports many restrictions on the conduct of individuals that affect their neighbors, including prohibitions on nuisances such as excessive noise levels. Smoke-free air policies in multi-family buildings do not prohibit residents from smoking altogether; they only prohibit residents from smoking in locations that can cause harm to their neighbors. …Building-wide smoke-free air policies, therefore, do not infringe on any protected liberties or freedoms afforded to a person who smokes. Rather, such policies protect the right of all the children and nonsmokers who reside in shared indoor environments.
In addition, authors of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine study addressed concerns that smoke-free policies could “exacerbate socioeconomic disparities” by displacing low-income people who don’t want to abide by smoking bans. They reminded readers that such policies don’t prohibit smokers from living in subsidized housing and can actually help encourage smokers to quit.
According to CDC, 443,000 U.S. deaths happen every year due to cigarette smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.
To read the full study on the cost-savings of smoke-free housing policies, click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Will Tom Vilsack’s USDA keep its promise to poultry plant workers about their grueling, disabling work?
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack seems determined to implement a new poultry slaughter inspection system, despite strong calls from the food safety and public health communities for him to withdraw it. At an April 17 congressional hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittees on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA and Related Agencies, Vilsack indicated that the new regulation would be completed soon, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Opponents say the proposal will do little to improve food safety, at the same time reducing USDA’s ranks of poultry inspectors and shifting their food-safety inspection duties to the poultry producers. Without those pesky government inspectors examining the poultry carcasses, the companies will be allowed to increase production line speeds up to 175 birds per minute. Congressional Quarterly reports that Vilsack acknowledged that concerns have been raised about worker safety issues related to the program and said “we intend to address those concerns.”
Similarly, the Gadsden (AL) Times, reports that USDA’s under secretary for food safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen says they have consulted with the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure the rule “doesn’t have unintended consequences.” Hagen said she would “never put forward a rule that I thought would increase risk or reduce protections for anybody,” the paper reported.
Short of scrapping the provision to increase the line speeds—the giant carrot in the regulation promised to poultry producers—-I’m curious to learn how USDA officials will address the adverse consequences for poultry workers if the new inspection system is put in place. Is it wise for me to take Secretary Vilsack at his word that they’ll address the worker safety concerns?
As we’ve written before (here) as have others (here, here, here) the production process in many of these plants is already grueling for workers on line. USDA’s proposal will simply make matters worse. The disturbing reality came to light in new report “Unsafe at these speeds: Alabama’s poultry industry and its disposable workers,” released by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed. It’s based on interviews with 302 workers currently or previously employed in Alabama’s poultry industry, including the familiar companies named Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Wayne Farms, Koch Foods, AlaTrade Foods, Cagle’s and Equity Group. There are about 25 major poultry processing plants in Alabama, and the survey participants worked in 20 different plants. Here’s some of what you’ll read in the report:
“The processing line that whisks birds through the plant moves at a punishing speed. Over three-quarters of workers said that the speed makes their work more dangerous. It is a pre-dominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.”
“Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. …Poultry workers often endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems – tell-tale signs of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and other ailments that flourish in these plants.”
“It’s a world where employees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor. In this report, they describe being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”
“Workers would process 30,000 to 60,000 birds per shift as they raced to keep pace with the mechanized line. If a chicken became lodged in the machinery, the line would stop so it could be dislodged. Hurt workers couldn’t count on the same mercy. The processing line never slowed or stopped for them.”
Although this report’s focus is Alabama workers, I have no reason to believe that their situation is much different than poultry plant workers in other States. Their experiences, in fact, are strikingly similar to what we read in the Charlotte (NC) Observer’s 2008 series The Cruelest Cuts about workers in North Carolina’s poultry industry.
I hope that Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a personal copy to Secretary Vilsack and his under secretary for food safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. The voices of poultry workers comes through loud and clear to explain how the speed of the production line can gravely affect their health.
It doesn’t take more than a moment of thought to realize how the USDA’s proposal to change the poultry inspection system will make matters worse. Much worse.
A few of the recent pieces I’ve liked:
Mike Elk in the Washington Post: The Texas fertilizer plant explosion cannot be forgotten
Laurie Garrett in Foreign Policy: The Big One? Is China covering up another flu pandemic — or getting it right this time? (About the H7N9 flu, which has been confirmed in 108 patients in China)
Kari Lyderson at Reporting on Health: ‘That Feeling Doesn’t Go Away’: Mental Health and Undocumented Children
David Schultz in Kaiser Health News: Nurses Fighting State by State for Minimum Staffing Laws
Emily Badger at Atlantic Cities: New Chicago Plan: Pedestrians Come First
For this Workers’ Memorial Week, the National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) has released “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities,” a report that tells the stories of six workers killed on the job and promotes solutions to prevent other workers from sharing similar fates. The report notes that in 2011, 4,609 workers were killed, and construction was the deadliest industry sector, with 721 worker fatalities. The report tells the story of one construction worker killed on the job:
One day in April 2009, Orestes Martinez (29) and two co-workers were working at a construction site for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, helping to install a two-ton, lead-lined door in the radiation department of the hospital. They were moving the door by hand since no lift device was available. During the installation, the door fell on Martinez, crushing him to death.
The report includes thoughts from Adriana Martinez, Orestes Martinez’s wife. She also told her story for the six-minute video “Our loved ones died at unsafe workplaces,” which features the stories of four families who lost a loved one to a fatal work-related injury.
National COSH’s report includes several important recommendations for federal OSHA, the US Congress, and states to strengthen worker protections. In addition to those recommendations, there are steps that people in charge of building design and construction can take to protect workers at every stage of a building’s life cycle.
At last week’s Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, Christine Branche and Matt Gillen of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Office of Construction Safety and Health delivered a fascinating presentation on using a “Life Cycle Safety” approach to ensure that green buildings are safe buildings. We’ve seen a lot of interest in green buildings in recent years, as companies seek to reduce their energy use and earn environmental seals of approval like the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification. So far, however, such green certifications haven’t lived up to their potential to protect the workers who build, maintain, and eventually demolish or refurbish the buildings.
Matt Gillen’s photo of a worker fixing an HVAC system (below) captures several ways that a poorly designed building can be hazardous for workers. This worker didn’t have easy access to the machine – he had to climb a ladder to get to it, and then didn’t have enough space between the equipment and the edge of the building. Without an easily accessible power supply, he had to run an extension cord up to the roof, which presents a potential electrical hazard as well as something additional to trip over. The thing that makes me cringe the most, though, is that he’s sitting on a low parapet and looks like he could very easily fall over the edge.
NIOSH takes the perspective that “a sustainable product, process or technology should not only protect the environment and the consumer but also the worker. Green jobs must be safe jobs.” To ensure that green buildings offer safe jobs, it’s important to consider worker health and safety at the design stage. Architects and engineers should collaborate with occupational health professionals to consider how a building will be constructed, maintained, and repaired or demolished. They should consider all the hazards workers might face at each stage and modify their designs to eliminate or reduce those hazards.
Features common in green buildings can present occupational hazards if those involved in design and construction planning don’t consider workers sufficiently. Installing and maintaining solar panels, for instance, can be hazardous; workers can fall off roofs or through skylights and can be electrocuted. At the design stage, architects can reduce these hazards by ensuring workers installing, repairing, and cleaning solar panels have enough room to maneuver around the solar panels; specifying guardrails or parapets high enough to prevent workers from toppling off the roof; and including anchor, or tie-off, points for workers using safety harnesses. Ensuring easy access to the roof – e.g., by a stairway rather than a ladder – is important, too, especially because solar panels need regular cleaning to operate efficiently.
Ideally, these “upstream” modifications will reduce risks, and additional “downstream” practices can address the remaining risk. The California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program responded to a rash of deaths among construction workers installing solar panels by producing a video and fact sheets about risks and preventive measures. These include using fall protection systems and ensuring that lifts are available to hoist solar panels to the roof, so that workers aren’t trying to manually carry panels up ladders. Construction planning is important for ensuring that lift equipment is available, and it can also allow for some assembly to be done on the ground rather than on the roof. At the NIOSH presentation, I also learned that workers can use solar blankets to keep light from getting to solar panels while they’re being worked on – in essence, shutting off the electricity by blocking sunlight.
OSHA’s Fall Prevention Campaign, developed in partnership with NIOSH, lays out a three-step “Plan, Provide, Train” process for preventing falls throughout the construction industry. Their resources include educational resources for employers and workers, many of them geared to workers with limited English proficiency.
NIOSH has made progress in working with the US Green Building Council and others to integrate worker health and safety into green building design; check out their Prevention Through Design site for more. With better planning, fewer families will join Orestes Martinez’s family in grieving for a loved one killed on the job.
The funeral services are beginning this week for the 10 volunteer firefighters and the five other individuals who were fatally injured by the horrific explosion at West Fertilizer. The initial call about the fire at the plant was made to the West Volunteer fire department at 8:30 pm. The explosion occurred 21 minutes later. The Dallas Morning News is reporting that the firefighters knew the plant stored chemicals used in explosives, “but whether that knowledge factored into the attempts to put out the fatal blaze near the plant remained unclear.” The Texas State Fire Marshall’s Office will not only be investigating the cause of the blast, but also examining how the volunteers attempted to battle the fire. Both fields of inquiry can identify ways in which a similar disaster can be prevented.
That’s the same purpose of a small program within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Since 1998, Congress has appropriated funds to NIOSH for a “Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program.” Its purpose is to “examines line-of-duty-deaths or on duty deaths of fire fighters to assist fire departments, fire fighters, the fire service and others to prevent similar fire fighter deaths in the future.” Each year, about 100 U.S. professional and volunteers die on-the-job.
The program’s website contains nearly 500 investigation reports, dating back to 1998, of firefighter fatalities from all 50 States and the District of Columbia. The incidents involve fuel tanker explosions, aerial ladder collapses, and drownings, as well as heart attacks and motor vehicle crashes and roll overs. Each describes the circumstances leading to the firefighters’ deaths, and offers recommendations to enhance fire departments operating procedures and training. For example, NIOSH investigated the deaths in September 2011 of two volunteer firefighters in South Dakota who were attempting to extinguish a fire in a coal storage silo. In their attempt to apply water to the fire, the silo exploded. The fire department didn’t fully comprehend the unique hazards of oxygen-limiting silos. Among one of the recommendations made by NIOSH was for fire departments to conduct pre-emergency planning for all types of silos located within their jurisdictions.
As I browsed through dozens of the NIOSH firefighter fatality investigation reports, I noticed that certain recommendations kept appearing in the reports. Specifically, that fire departments should implement a strong occupational safety and health program such as the one outlined in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500. Among other things, the program is designed to improve risk management, training and competency in fireground operations, tactics, and equipment. Another key recommendation cited in previous reports involves the development, implementation and enforcement of a written Incident Management System (NFPA 1561). Importantly, the incident commander continually assesses the “risk versus gain” of the operations. According to NFPA 1500
“Where there is no potential to save lives, the risk to the fire department members must be evaluated in proportion to the ability to save property of value. When there is no ability to save lives or property, there is no justification to expose fire department members to any avoidable risk, and defensive fire suppression operations are the appropriate strategy.”
The staff from NIOSH’s Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program will be conducting an investigation into the factors that contributed to the deaths of the 10 volunteer fire fighters at the West Fertilizer plant. Their report, along with that of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, will provide recommendations on ways to prevent similar catastrophes. The challenge for policy makers will be taking the bold steps to learn from the fallen.
This week is Workers’ Memorial Week, when we remember the thousands of men and women who die on the job each year and work to prevent future deaths by improving workplace health and safety. Workers’ Memorial Day is recognized worldwide on April 28, and more than a dozen US communities are holding local Workers’ Memorial Week events. In the US, nearly 5,000 workers are killed on the job each year and, as the AFL-CIO notes in its annual Death on the Job report, an estimated 50,000 die from occupational diseases.
This week begins in the shadow of a tragedy in Texas, where a massive fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West killed at least 14 people. Among the casualties listed on the Waco Tribune’s website are several firefighters:
- Morris Bridges, 41. Fire sprinkler technician for Action Fire Pros. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
- Perry Calvin, 37. Student at Hill College Fire Academy. Member of Mertens and Navarro Mills volunteer fire departments.
- Jerry Chapman, 26. Worked as a server. Member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department.
- Cody Dragoo, 50. Foreman at West Fertilizer Co. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
- Kenny Harris, 52. Dallas city fire captain.
- Joey Pustejovsky. West City Secretary. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
- Cyrus Reed. Worked at Waxahachie plant. Member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department.
- Robert Snokhous, 48. Central Texas Iron Works employee, West volunteer firefighter.
- Doug Snokhous, 50. Central Texas Iron Works employee, West volunteer firefighter.
Manny Fernandez writes in the New York Times about the memorial service for ten firefighters and two men who are being recognized as firefighters for their work battling the blaze:
The department lost five of its 28 members, officials said. Several members were injured and taken to hospitals, including the chief, George Nors Sr., 67, who was released on Friday. The acting chief is his son, George Nors Jr., 34.
… The department had five engines and trucks; now, it has two. On Friday night, trucks and firefighters from Waxahachie and other towns were in the fire station, covering the day-to-day duties so that members of the West department could recuperate and grieve among themselves and their loved ones.
“They lost one-fifth of their organization,” Mr. Ondrasek said. “Many of the officers within the organization either died or are in the hospital. It all brings home how dangerous the job is that you don’t get paid to do. You’re serving your community because this is what you want to do and feel like you need to do. And you can pay with your life.”
First responders deserve our praise and gratitude for serving their communities in jobs that can endanger their lives. All too often, though, their deaths are preventable — as are thousands of other on-the-job deaths.
During Workers’ Memorial Week, people who’ve lost loved ones to workplace deaths are in our thoughts and, in many cases, in the media spotlight. Many brave members of group United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities have told their stories to reporters, lawmakers, and regulators in efforts to advocate for improved worker health and safety protections. This year, Danielle Dole told the (Tennessee) Cadillac News about her father, Sherman Holmes, who was killed in a logging incident while working at K&K Forest Products. Reporter Rick Charmoli wrote:
Danielle Dole struggles every day with the loss of her father.
On April Fool’s Day, Dole typically would get a call from her dad, Sherman Holmes, and he would tell her jokes.
Last Monday, there was no such call.
Every Christmas, the Tustin native would spend the holiday with both her parents even though they were divorced and had been for a number of years. The past two holiday seasons, a spot at the table was left unfilled.
This is part of the grief Dole deals with every day. While death is inevitable, Dole’s father didn’t die after a long sickness or from natural causes. He died from a work-related accident. He was 55.
Dole didn’t get to say goodbye. She didn’t get the chance to introduce her father to his yet-to-be-born granddaughter. Her son Jackson, who was 2 when Holmes died on Feb. 1, 2011, will only have fleeting memories of his Papa Sherman.
… A few months after her father died, Dole and her sister received a flyer from the United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities. The non-profit organization is a support group made up of families who have been in the same situation and understand the emotions and questions people like Dole may have regarding the loss of their family member.
The group has helped make things easier, but the struggles still remain for Dole. It has made her stronger, however, knowing that she is not alone and others are dealing with the same emotions.
“It is like my extra family,” she said.
In addition to the the support, Dole said the group also advocates for the families who have lost loved ones by lobbying in states and in Washington, D.C., for the transformation of the work environment to safe and healthy conditions for all workers.
Danielle Dole has organized the June 1 Sherman L. Holmes 5K Run-Walk as part of her efforts to raise awareness of workplace safety while honoring her father’s memory. She has also traveled to Washington, DC and joined other USMWF members in meeting with regulators and demonstrating in the front of the US Chamber of Commerce to advocate for stronger workplace health and safety protections (read more about their DC visit on page 17 of our report The Year in US Occupational Health & Safety).
Workers’ Memorial Week of Action events are taking place in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) has compiled listings for these events as well as more info about Workers’ Memorial Day, and their website features several Stories of Fallen Workers. National COSH will also be holding a Facebook Town Hall on Wednesday, April 24 (submit your questions now; a live Q&A will start at 1pm ET) and leading a Twitterstorm on Thursday April 25 (concentrated at 1pm, but going on throughout the day).
by Kim Krisberg
Eric Rodriguez and his colleagues at the Latino Union of Chicago quite literally meet workers where they’re at — on the city’s street corners. Many of the day laborers who gather there during the morning hours are hired to work construction at residential housing sites. Work arrangements are hardly formal, to say the least, and day laborers are frequently subjected to unnecessary and illegal dangers on the job. Unfortunately, worker safety is often kicked to the curb in the street corner marketplace.
For years, Rodriguez, who started as an organizer and is now the union’s executive director, heard stories about the high rate of injuries among construction day laborers, from the minor to the extreme. And research shows that foreign-born and Hispanic construction workers experience disproportionate rates of injury and death at the workplace. Safety training was desperately needed, Rodriguez said, but providing adequate training to such an informalized network of workers with diverse backgrounds and educational levels was tricky.
When Rodriguez was an organizer in the early 2000s, even reaching out to OSHA for construction safety training was of little help — the agency didn’t have instructors fluent in Spanish, had little in the way of Spanish-language materials and wasn’t familiar with the Spanish terminology that would resonate with Hispanic day laborers, Rodriguez said. There was an enormous training gap that OSHA simply couldn’t fill.
“It was really about taking an old practice that was created decades ago by OSHA and creating something more adaptable to the realities on the ground,” Rodriguez told me.
Around the same time the Latino Union was working to improve safety standards, occupational health and safety researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago wanted to get a better handle on safety and injury statistics among Hispanic construction workers. It was a mutually beneficial relationship and both groups, along with other area worker centers and advocates, came together to develop a safety curriculum that combines leadership development with the complete participation of workers.
They eventually turned to a safety curriculum developed by researchers at Rutgers University Occupational Training and Education Consortium and advocates at New Labor of New Jersey. The Spanish-language curriculum is a modified 10-hour health and safety OSHA training that takes a “popular education” approach, which facilitates the teaching of technical themes to any type of audience regardless of educational backgrounds. According to Rodriguez, the innovative curriculum “respects the actual experience of workers, instead of treating them as if they know nothing…it’s no longer just an instructor talking to an audience, it’s more of a two-way street.”
But before bringing it to Chicago’s day laborers, Rodriguez and his colleagues wanted to give it more of a “Chicago flavor.” They added more photos and illustrations and made it as interactive as possible.
“It was so interactive and so inclusive of participants, it truly evolved into a great piece of curriculum at the end,” he said.
And it worked.
From workers for workers
In a new study, researchers found that the curriculum adapted by Rodriguez and colleagues was indeed effective at improving safety knowledge among low-wage, low-literacy Hispanic construction workers. The study, published online in late March in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, found that the modified OSHA 10-hour curriculum delivered within a peer-to-peer format — in other words, worker leaders were trained to provide the training to fellow workers — resulted in improved safety knowledge, hazards identification and self-efficacy as well as sustainable health and safety activities.
“Adults learn best from each other and from doing,” said study co-author Emily Ahonen, an assistant professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Environmental Health Science at Indiana University. “It was very hands-on training and involved peers as experts…and that style was very much in line with how worker centers already conduct their activities. It was very synergistic.”
Study researchers partnered with eight worker centers in seven cities to train worker leaders to deliver the safety curriculum, eventually resulting in 32 worker leaders training hundreds of fellow construction workers over three years. Training sessions took place on the weekends, were highly participatory in nature, and included the “presence and input” of OSHA-authorized trainers and sometimes an OSHA investigator.
The results? Nearly 450 workers participated in the two-day trainings and earned OSHA’s 10-hour certification card, and an additional 17 workers came to only one day of training. Trainees were mostly male and born in Mexico; only one-third reported speaking English well or very well; and 61 percent had less than a high school education. Among 270 participants during year three of the training, nearly 36 percent reported a work-related injury in the prior year. Interestingly, a great number of workers reported having received health and safety training in English, even though they spoke little or no English. Study authors Rodriguez, Ahonen, Linda Forst, Joseph Zanoni, Alfreda Holloway-Beth, Michele Oschner, Louis Kimmel, Carmen Martino, Adam Kader, Elisa Ringholm and Rosemary Sokas wrote:
At one meeting with (worker leaders), one pulled out a billfold with six OSHA 10-hr cards that he had been issued in English courses and reported that his co-workers — non-English speaking roofers — had been required to sit through English language courses and had received OSHA 10-hr cards as well.
Training participants reported significant gains in knowledge on how to prevent falls, the impact of “grounding” to reduce electrical shock risk and how to recognize worksite hazards. The new knowledge stuck as well. In a three-month follow-up call, workers said they “more critically assessed worksites, working more slowly and deliberately, and they reported greater concern for fellow workers. Many also reported having increased confidence to address hazards with supervisors.”
Bringing health and safety front and center
The study also found that many worker centers said the experience helped them realize that occupational health and safety is “part of the larger goal of worker/human rights” and that the safety training helped them build leadership among workers, recruit new members and build a broader worker movement.
“It’s not that health and safety weren’t on their radars…but it was now clearer how safety is central to social justice and worker justice,” Ahonen told me. “Quite frankly, health and safety are things that if not right in front of you will often take a back seat to more immediate human needs, like income. Not being paid for work is so immediate that it’s a logical place for worker centers to focus their efforts.”
Ahonen noted that none of the researchers realized just how far beyond the classroom walls the training would go.
“It was truly multi-layered dissemination in the end,” she said. “The amount of workers reached and the levels of empowerment gained from an organizing perspective is more than what we had hoped for. Workers clearly saw what their roles at their worksites could be now — it was incredible to watch.”
Ahonen reported that worker centers involved in the study hope to continue such health and safety work, though sustainability can be a challenge.
Study co-author Adam Kader said the trainings had a big impact on confidence and feelings of empowerment among workers at the Arise Chicago Worker Center. Kader, who directs the Arise Worker Center, said that while it’s true that occupational health and safety haven’t always been at the forefront of the worker center movement, it’s a good bet that the same employers who are stealing wages are also forgoing safety. He said health and safety are now a regular part of the conversation at Arise.
“Wage theft can be easier to grasp and sadly, many workers might just think (hazardous work conditions) are part of the job,” Kader told me. “But I think we can reach more workers with multiple messages. We’re the ones in contact with these workers, so if we’re not talking about health and safety, I don’t know who will.”
Building on the study experience and lessons learned from construction workers, Kader said Arise is now working with a graduate student to develop a mini safety curriculum for car wash workers, who face a number of hazardous conditions and exposures at work.
Rodriguez at Latino Union of Chicago noted that simply the act of putting workers in the role of trainers was “pioneering.” And OSHA’s taken notice as well, awarding grant funds to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, of which the Latino Union is a member, to continue the health and safety training model.
Today, Rodriguez said “even the culture on the street corner is changing.” Day laborers are now talking about safety on the job, he said, and organizers are bringing aspects of the training curriculum directly to the street corner. The goal doesn’t always have to be OSHA certification, Rodriguez noted, because even a little information can prevent an injury on the job.
“It all starts with a conversation,” he said.
To request a fully copy of the safety training study, click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
US industrial sand production increases dramatically, yet industry says worker protection too costly
By Elizabeth Grossman
Since the White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) began reviewing the Labor Department’s proposed rule to reduce by one-half the permissible workplace exposure to respirable crystalline silica more than two year ago, the US has seen a dramatic increase in industrial sand mining, a major route of workers’ exposure to silica dust. As Celeste Monforton reported for The Pump Handle on March 20th, OIRA’s review of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) draft proposed rule crystalline silica exposure has now been going on for more than 800 days. During this time – since 2010 – the amount of industrial sand production in the US has increased more than 50 percent. Industrial sand production is but one of the ways workers can be exposed to the silica dust that can put them at increased risk of developing lung cancer and other lung diseases, including silicosis. Exposures often occur in stonecutting, sandblasting and foundry work, in construction and – spurred by recent growth in natural gas extraction – among workers producing, transporting and using industrial sand in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations.
According to the most recent US Geological Survey (USGS) estimates, US industrial sand production jumped an estimated 37% between 2010 and 2011 and another 14% between 2011 and 2012, with approximately 57% of this sand destined in 2011 for US hydraulic fracturing operations. USGS estimates that in 2011, sales of frac sand increased by 77% compared to those in 2010. USGS calls the production and sale of hydraulic fracturing sand the past several years’ “most important driving force in the industrial sand and gravel industry.” USGS put the value of industrial sand production in 2012 at $2.2 billion. While the USGS reporting excludes data from China and several other countries, the US is considered the world’s leading producer and consumer of industrial sand.
Nearly 90% of this industrial sand and gravel came from 72 operations, each of which produced at least 220,000 tons. The top ten producers, USGS reports, are the Unimin Corporation, U.S. Silica, Fairmount Minerals Ltd.; Frac Tech Services International, LLC; Premier Silica, LLC; Badger Mining Corp.; Pattison Sand Co., LLC; Preferred Rocks of Genoa, LLC; Sand Products Corp.; and Cadre Material Products, LLC. These companies are apparently responsible for about 72% of all US industrial sand production. A number of these companies are members of the National Industrial Sand Association (NISA) that, along with Unimin and U.S. Silica, have been lobbying the White House, most recently on March 18, 2013, urging the Administration not to approve OSHA’s proposed more stringent silica exposure standard. Among their arguments is that increasing the protective standard would be too expensive. An analysis by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) puts this cost at upwards of $5 billion annually. Public health experts estimate that 1.7 million US workers are exposed to silica on the job each year, that 7,300 new cases of occupational silicosis are diagnosed annually and that about 200 American workers die each year from silicosis.
ACC and NISA say that exposures can be reduced without lowering the allowed exposure level by implementing dust prevention, exposure and medical assessments, and “employee involvement.” Yet given the current rapid expansion in places where industrial sand is being produced, transported and used, it’s difficult to get a complete picture of where oversight might be needed to ensure proper worker protections.
Individual states leading current industrial sand production in 2012 were – in descending order as reported by USGS – Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arkansas, Missouri, Michigan, and Oklahoma – which together represented 73 % of all US production. Nearly 60% of all frac sand produced in the US currently comes from the Midwest, thanks to what’s called the St. Peter Sandstone formation, and it’s here that industrial sand mining has been particularly active in recent years. A notable footnote to these statistics is the fact that of the 36 states listed as industrial sand producers in 2010 and 2011 (the most recent years for which USGS figures are available), 14 withheld production volume information “to avoid disclosing company proprietary data” in 2010 and 2011. An additional three withheld this information in 2011. States withholding information to protect confidential business information include Iowa, Arkansas, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Some of the top ten producing industrial sand companies have operations in these states.
More hours, more exposure
All of this adds up to a large increase in the number of hours worked at these sand mining operations. At some facilities, annual hours worked, as reported by the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA), increased markedly between 2010 and 2012. MSHA also reports that more than 700 new industrial sand and gravel mines went into operation in 2010 and 2011 (total 2012 figures are not yet available), a number that dwarfs any other new US mining operations. And as USGS reports, the vast majority of this category of mining is now devoted to industrial sand rather than gravel.
While USGS writes that “Except for temporarily disturbing the immediate area while operations are active, sand and gravel mining usually has limited environmental impact,” it goes on to note that the “increase in frac sand production and sales had a profound effect on the transportation of industrial sand and gravel to sites of first use.” This observation may be important in terms of potential occupational exposure to respirable silica dust, as USGS estimates that in 2011, “of all industrial sand and gravel produced, 65% was transported by truck from the plant to the site of first sale or use, up from 25%” from the amount shipped by truck in 2010. Exactly where this industrial sand goes is less clear. USGS reports that because “some producers did not provide this information, their data were estimated or assigned to the “Destination unknown” category. In 2011, 53% of industrial sand and gravel shipped by producers was assigned to that category.
Meanwhile, nearly a year after the presentation by National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) researchers that reported on elevated levels of respirable silica exposure at hydraulic fracturing operations where frac sand was in use, a peer-reviewed article based on this information has been published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. It adds some technical data to the information presented by NIOSH researchers at last April’s Institute of Medicine meeting that was reported on by NIOSH in its science blog, but does not change any conclusions or recommendations – or those of the OSHA/NIOSH Hazard Alert that was issued in June 2012.
Since NIOSH reported on its initial silica dust site studies, no new such studies have been conducted and no additional companies have volunteered to host or participate in such studies, said NIOSH spokesperson Fred Blosser. “We continue to explore opportunities for research and outreach,” Blosser told The Pump Handle. The FOIA request I submitted to NIOSH in June 2012 requesting details on the companies and locations participating in the silica dust studies is still pending.
Reflecting on growing concern about the rapid expansion of industrial sand operations in its 2011 report on silica, USGS writes:
The industrial sand and gravel industry continued to be concerned with safety and health regulations and environmental restrictions in 2012. Local shortages of industrial sand and gravel were expected to continue to increase owing to local zoning regulations and land development alternatives, including ongoing development and permitting of operations producing hydraulic fracturing sand. Operations that use hydraulic fracturing sand to produce hydrocarbons may also undergo increased scrutiny. These situations are expected to cause future sand and gravel operations to be located farther from high-population centers.
The bottom line on all of these statistics appears to be that while US industrial sand production has skyrocketed – increasing about 50% in the past two years – the businesses that produce this material and that use the most of it maintain that it is too costly to improve protection for workers who may be exposed to respirable silica dust, a known lung carcinogen. At the same time there appears to be little progress in expanding information available to workers or the public on where industrial sand is being used in fracking operations, exactly how much of this sand is being produced and where – and how many workers this may put at risk of breathing this dangerous dust.