Employees of the fast-food giant McDonald’s recently filed 28 complaints with federal OSHA about health and safety problems at their workplaces. The complaints involved McDonald’s locations in 19 cities, including Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Kansas City. The complaints were announced on Monday in a press event organized by the Fight for $15 and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
I wondered, how often does OSHA get safety complaints for or on behalf of fast food workers? Looking at data for 2014, here’s some of what I found:
- Federal OSHA and the States that run their own OSHA-approved State Plans conducted 416 inspections in 2014 in “limited-service restaurants.” (For comparison, these agencies conduct annually about 90,000 inspections.)
- 177 involved well-known fast-food chains (e.g., Wendy’s, Sonic, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Chipotle, Burger King, Subway)
- 16 occurred in McDonald’s stores
- The 239 other inspections occurred in restaurants with names including Martin’s BBQ, El Mexicano, and Johnny’s On Main.
Of the 416 inspections, 148 of them (35%) were conducted in Puerto Rico. It’s a territory that operates its own OSHA-approved State Plan.
- The majority (126) of the inspections conducted in Puerto Rico were “planned” inspections, not the results of complaints or referrals.
Besides Puerto Rico, a handful of state-OSHA programs conducted the majority of the remaining inspections of limited-service restaurants.
- California OSHA conducted 57 inspections in the industry, of which 43 (75%) were in response to serious injury incidents or complaints.
- Washington State OSHA conducted 42 inspections, of which 22 (52%) were the result of complaints. Fifteen (36%) were scheduled/planned inspections.
- Oregon OSHA conducted 21 inspections, of which 11 (52%) were the result of complaints or referrals, and six (29%) were scheduled/planned inspections.
- Nevada, North Carolina, and Michigan conducted 15, 14 and 12 inspections, respectively, in limited-service restaurants.
Among all of the federal and state OSHA agencies, the above seven states and territory conducted 75% of all inspections in limited-service restaurants.
In the States where federal OSHA has authority to conduct inspections, there were 56 conducted in 2014 in this industry sector. The numbers in each state are quite small. There were six inspections, for example, in Georgia, five each in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and three in Texas. Of this sample of 19 inspections, not a single one resulted in a citation for a health or safety hazard.
Looking at all 416 inspections conducted in limited service restaurants in 2014, just about half (210) resulted in citations. Of those violations, 71 percent were classified as “other-than-serious.”
When violations were observed by inspectors, they frequently involved:
- Failing to provide workers with information and training on the hazardous chemicals they use for their jobs (e.g., cleaning products)
- Inadequately labeled or situated electrical outlets, breakers and feeders
- Failing to inspect regularly fire extinguishers
- Failing to assess hazards to determine if personal protective equipment is needed (e.g., gloves or goggles)
- Failing to keep passageways and exits clear
Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ survey of employers’ injury records, restaurants are considered a low-hazard industry. As a result, Congress prohibits OSHA from requiring restaurants (and dozens of other industries) from keeping records of employees’ work-related injuries or illnesses. These companies are, however, required to follow OSHA regulations which are designed to prevent impairments and harm.
The McDonald’s restaurant employees’ complaints allege:
“understaffing and pressure to work too fast – hazardous conditions often created by the company’s computer system that dictates staffing levels and the pace of work – are the main drivers responsible for the injuries.”
These safety problems are not unique to fast-food workers, and OSHA does not have regulations to address them.
I’ll be eager to learn the results of OSHA’s response to the 28 complaints. Regardless of OSHA’s findings, I know we’ll be hearing much more from the Fight for $15.
Workplace suicides took a sharp upward turn in 2008, with workers in the protective services, such as police officers and firefighters, at greatest risk, a new study finds. Researchers say the findings point to the workplace as a prime location for reaching those at risk with potentially life-saving information and help.
According to the study, which was published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1,719 people died by suicide in U.S. workplaces between 2003 and 2010, with an overall rate of 1.5 per 1 million workers. Workplace suicide rates had been on the decrease, but increased sharply in 2008 — between 2003 and 2007, such suicides ranged between 210 and 182 and then jumped to 247 in 2008. Comparatively, non-workplace suicides, which are a leading cause of injury and mortality in the U.S., continued a more gradual increase over the study period. The study also found that workplace suicides were 15 times higher for men than for women and about four times higher for workers ages 65 to 74 than for workers ages 16 to 24.
“Occupation can largely define a person’s identity, and psychological risk factors for suicide, such as depression and stress, can be affected by the workplace,” said lead study author Hope Tiesman, an epidemiologist with the Division of Safety Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in a news release. “A more comprehensive view of work life, public health, and work safety could enable a better understanding of suicide risk factors and how to address them. Suicide is a multifactorial outcome and therefore multiple opportunities to intervene in an individual’s life — including the workplace — should be considered.”
To conduct the study, NIOSH researchers analyzed data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries database and the Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System.
The highest workplace suicide rate was found among those in the protective services, at 5.3 per 1 million workers, followed by workers in farming, fishing and forestry occupations, at 5.1 workplace suicides per 1 million workers. Workers in installation, maintenance and repair occupations experienced a workplace suicide rate of 3.3 per 1 million. Within the installation, maintenance and repair category, researchers uncovered a somewhat new and startling finding: workers in automotive maintenance and repair occupations had a workplace suicide rate of 7.1 per 1 million. Suicides among members of the armed forces were not included, as such statistics are not included in the databases used in this study.
Eighty-nine percent of workplace suicides occurred among white workers; however, people of unknown or “other” races experienced the highest workplace suicide rate at 2.1 per 1 million. Overall, racial minorities were at greater risk for workplace suicides compared to non-workplace suicides, the study found. Among all occupation groups, firearms were used in 48 percent of workplace suicides, with firearms involved in the great majority of workplace suicides within the protective services industry. Study authors Tiesman, Srinivas Konda, Dan Hartley, Cammie Chaumont Menendez, Marilyn Ridenour and Scott Hendricks write:
Contributing factors for the high suicide rate among protective service occupations include increased access to lethal means, shiftwork, and high-stress work experiences. Details concerning firearm ownership (service issued or privately owned) are not available in the (Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries), but prior research has shown that access to lethal means and socialization of officers to firearms may increase their suicide risk. …Another risk factor for suicide among protective service workers is the high-stress situations that are often part of their normal duties. Exposure to high-stress events can lead to negative mental health outcomes such as post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorders, and depression. Many protective service workers do not seek counseling for these issues because of the fear of being stigmatized.
Access to mental health care services was another contributor to workplace suicide risk cited in the study. For example, farmers and those working in the agricultural industry often reside in rural communities, many of which are home to health and mental health provider shortages. Within the installation, maintenance and repair industry, which has a comparatively high workplace suicide rate, the study authors cited previous research that has linked increased suicide risk among automotive workers to solvent exposure. Regular and long-term exposure to solvents can have serious neurological effects, such as memory impairment, irritability, depression, emotional instability and brain damage. However, the study noted that it’s not clear why workers in other occupations with frequent solvent exposure don’t experience similarly high suicide risks.
The study concluded that workplace-based suicide education and intervention programs could provide life-saving assistance: “This upward trend of suicides in the workplace underscores the need for additional research to understand occupation-specific risk factors and develop evidence-based programs that can be implemented in the workplace,” Tiesman said.
To read the full study, visit the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
In the first study of its kind, researchers have found that improved air quality in southern California had a direct effect on children’s respiratory health. The findings point to the effectiveness of smart public health policy — in other words, even as southern California experienced increases in traffic and commerce, aggressive air pollution policies resulted in cleaner air and healthier kids.
Published earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study concluded that air quality improvements in the southern California communities studied were associated with significantly positive effects on lung function growth in children. In even simpler terms, as pollution declined, children’s lungs actually grew stronger.
“The most surprising part was the magnitude of improvements over a relatively short period of time,” study co-author W. James Gauderman, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine, told me. “It’s really an amazing turnaround to have had these improvements even with increased sources of emissions.”
To conduct the study, researchers measured annual lung function among more than 2,100 children in three different cohorts and during three separate time periods: 1994-1998, 1997-2001 and 2007-2011. The children, who were 11 years old at the beginning of each time period and 15 years old at the end, hailed from the communities of Long Beach, Mira Loma, Riverside, San Dimas and Upland. Lung function growth over the four-year intervals was measured via forced expiratory volume in one second (also known as FEV and defined as the amount of air exhaled in the first second of a forced exhalation) and forced vital capacity (known as FVC and defined as the amount of air exhaled after taking the deepest breath possible). Pollutant levels were gleaned from data collected via outdoor monitoring stations.
Researchers found that lung growth between ages 11 and 15 was more than 10 percent greater for the children exposed to lower levels of nitrogen dioxide from 2007 to 2011 compared to children breathing higher levels of the air pollutant from 1994 to 1998. Also, the percentage of 15-year-old children with abnormally low lung function dropped from about 8 percent within the 1994-1998 study cohort to 6.3 percent in the 1997-2001 cohort to 3.6 percent in the 2007-2011 cohort. Those improvements coincided with the enactment of health-driven air quality policies and vehicle emissions standards, which have produced dramatic air quality results. The study found that combined exposure to two pollutants harmful to human health — nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) — declined by about 40 percent for the 2007-2011 cohort when compared to the 1994-1998 cohort.
What’s even more impressive is that the positive gains in children’s lung function were documented even after researchers adjusted for confounding variables, such as tobacco smoke exposure, health insurance status, parental educational attainment, asthma and indoor pollutants, such as pets and mold. Indeed, both children with and without asthma experienced better lung function growth as air quality improved. Study authors Gauderman, Robert Urman, Edward Avol, Kiros Berhane, Rob McConnell, Edward Rappaport, Roger Chang, Fred Lurmann and Frank Gilliland wrote:
This study shows an association between secular improvements in air quality in southern California and measurable improvements in lung-function development in children. Improved lung function was most strongly associated with lower levels of particulate pollution (PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide. These associations were observed in boys and girls, Hispanic white and non-Hispanic white children, and children with asthma and children without asthma, which suggests that all children have the potential to benefit from improvements in air quality.
Gauderman told me that while we’ve known for some time that breathing dirty air is bad for kids via studies that compare polluted and unpolluted communities, this is the first study to start with a polluted community and follows its young residents over time as air pollutants decline. He noted that the study caught kids at a time of rapid lung development. By age 15, lung function development in girls is about finished and boys’ development is slowing down, Gauderman said, and so by the time adolescents transition into adulthood, they have the lungs they’ll have for life. That’s why it’s so important to encourage respiratory health in the early years, as reduced lung capacity and function is a primary risk factor for lung disease in adulthood as well as reduced lifespan. In other words, kids who grow up breathing cleaner air may have a jumpstart on becoming healthier adults, he said.
Gauderman added that among the pollutants studied, declines in nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, which are products of fuel combustion, were most associated with improvements in kids’ health. And because such pollutants are common in urban areas, Gauderman said similar health improvements could be expected in other communities that pursue stricter clean air policies.
“In an urban environment, you obviously can’t make decisions about breathing the air or not, so it really does take societal decisions to change those exposures,” Gauderman told me. “Given the projections we have for even more cars, more people and more economic activity, we definitely do not want to lose the gains we’ve made. It’s going to take continued vigilance — we certainly don’t want to get complacent as if the job is done.”
Marlon Boarnet, professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs as well as director of graduate programs in urban planning and development at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, told me that the children’s lung study is a reminder that air quality protections and a robust economy can coexist. But he added that a strong regulatory regime, political support and decades-long commitment were “absolutely necessary” to achieving the clean air and health gains documented in the study.
“This was absolutely a result of public policy, there’s no question about it — end of story,” he said. “This would not have happened without policy. …If you want to have reduced lung capacity in our children, then by all means, leave it to the market.”
To read a full copy of the children’s lung study, visit the New England Journal of Medicine.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
In 2003, the city of London took a dramatic step in the battle against traffic congestion: It implemented a congestion charge of £5 for those driving private vehicles into an eight-square-mile central congestion zone on weekdays between 7am and 6:30pm. The fees were increased twice, and since 2011 have stood at £10. Drivers purchase day passes online, and a camera network and a license-plate-recognition system allow for enforcement and penalty collection. Motorcycles, bicycles, taxis, and buses are exempt from the charges.
An essential aspect of London’s system is that it invests the revenue fees in public transportation — helping to make transit more attractive as driving downtown has become more expensive. And even without spending on more buses or drivers, the fee system helped. After the congestion charge began, bus congestion delays dropped 50%, while ridership increased 14%.
While the program has certainly succeeded in reducing traffic congestion, safety advocates have raised concerns about the possibility of faster traffic speeds resulting in more crashes. Now, the Washington Post’s Emily Badger reports on new research with an encouraging finding: Central London’s roads have actually become safer since the congestion charge began.
Colin Green, John Heywood, and Maria Navarro of the Lancaster University Management School analyzed crash data, and find a “substantial and significant” decline in serious and fatal crashes both within the congestion zone and in the surrounding areas following the system’s implementation. Badger summarizes the findings:
In total, the researchers conclude that congestion pricing in Central London has been associated with 30 fewer crashes a month in the area, a drop of about 40 percent. Meanwhile, they estimate that the policy has led to about 46 fewer serious and fatal collisions a year — and 4.6 fewer deaths.
This wasn’t an obvious result when the city began this experiment a decade ago. Buses, taxis, motorcycles and bikes are exempt from the charge, which now costs £10 a day (it’s enforced through a series of video cameras and license plate readers). It’s possible that any safety gains from having fewer cars on the road might have been wiped out by other changes created by the policy — if, for instance, faster travel turned fender-benders into major crashes, or if more taxis and bikes flooded the roads, or if cars simply changed when and where they drive to skirt the congestion fee.
A system that reduces both pollution and congestion benefits public health. If a city is going to expect a large portion of its workers and residents to switch from driving to riding the bus, though, it had better have a high-quality, affordable bus system. Congestion reductions can make for a faster bus trip, but that’s little help if the bus doesn’t stop near your home or workplace, or if it’s not sufficiently usable for parents with small children or people with disabilities. Congestion fees can fund expansions in transit service, but voters are likely to be skeptical of new service that won’t materialize until a congestion-charge system is implemented.
As far as making transit more financially attractive than driving, Seattle recently began discounting fares for lower-income residents — specifically, those whose household incomes are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level ($47,700 for a family of four in 2014). Rides are now $1.50 — a discount of more than 50% off peak fares — when riders use an ORCA smart card. King County transit officials anticipate getting ORCA cards to 100,000 qualified people, in part by relying on an outreach network developed to enroll people in health plans that recently became available under the Affordable Care Act. One driving force behind Seattle’s program is concern for the region’s economy, explains the New York Times’ Kirk Johnson:
The problem it addresses is that many commuters from places like SeaTac, an outlying suburb, are too poor to live in Seattle, where prices and rents are soaring in a technology-driven boom. If they are pushed out so far that they cannot afford to get to work or give up on doing so, backers of the project said, Seattle’s economy could choke.
“I would characterize this as a safety valve,” said Dow Constantine, the King County executive and chairman of Sound Transit, a transportation agency serving multiple counties in the region. From 1999 to 2012, Mr. Constantine said, 95 percent of the new households in King County have been either rich or poor, earning more than $125,000 a year or less than $33,000, with hardly anything in between.
It’s in everyone’s interest for people to be able to get where they need to go without spending hours sitting in traffic. Studying outcomes in cities like London and Seattle that try bold new approaches to transportation gives us important data to inform future transportation policies.
Cronyism, retaliation, and abuse of power are just a few of the many unsavory terms and themes on full display at last week’s congressional hearing about the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB). It was the second time in less than 10 months that CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, PhD and board members have been called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee).
For me, and others in the worker health and safety community, it was disappointing and discouraging to watch the four-hour spectacle. Congress pays too little attention to the causes and toll of work-related injuries and illnesses. It’s a rare occasion when the head of a workplace safety agency is given the congressional stage. When it does, I want them talking about protecting workers’ lives and health, not about their pissing match with the Inspector General. [Was I the only person talking to my computer saying “sign the damn form”?] At the Committee’s June 2014 hearing, we heard allegations of retaliation against those with dissenting views, and the use of personal email for official business. Last week’s hearing added more including new questionable steps at the CSB to elevate the chair’s power.
Others have written about the beleaguered agency‘s problems (here, here, here), and members of the Committee, both Republican and Democrat, were unanimous in their calls for the chairman to resign, retire, be fired, or step down. For all the dark clouds hanging over the CSB, a glimmer of hope pierced the tension filled hearing room. Rick Engler, who was sworn in on February 5 as the CSB’s fourth board member, pledged to get the agency back on track. Among others, he said the reforms he’ll be seeking should include:
- “Hold frequent, publicized, public business meetings and votes and take other steps to ensure public transparency. Every public meeting agenda should include ample time for public statements and dialogue. I reject any notion that carrying out the people’s business by a public agency is merely theater.”
- “Ensure that CSB Members and staff work together collegially, where all views are respected, even when there are disagreements. It is especially important to respect differing scientific viewpoints.”
- Resolve the controversy over CSB governance including the Board’s role—not just the chair’s—-in deciding budgets and major use of funds, deciding key contracts, and approving appointment of department heads.
As the hearing was wrapping up and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) was preparing to offer his closing remarks, he gave Rick Engler the last word. Engler described what happened at the CSB in the lead-up to the congressional hearing:
“…which involved going over voluminous documents and involving an outside consultant to, frankly, spin what cannot be spun. I want to go on the record to point out that I said—-and I think this is pretty close to a precise quote—‘I refuse to participate in this process.'”
Engler went on:
“This agency has no credibility whatsoever to tell anyone outside the agency virtually anything around its internal practices. …I am dedicated to the mission of the agency. I want to move forward. I hope to be back here before your committee and to work with the Inspector General, but based on whether we are accomplishing the mission of the agency, not whether we are taking steps that have been described today to interfere with the mission of the agency. I pledge to you that’s why I am here, that’s what I’m going to work for, and I look forward to coming back to this committee and to be accountable to all the relevant stakeholders and the Inspector General in the months ahead.”
Congressman Cummings responded, “to hear that is refreshing.”