Not an “accident”: Ernesto Rodriguez, 41, suffers fatal work-related injuries at southern Oklahoma oil rig site
Ernesto Rodriguez, 41, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Wednesday, September 10 while working at an oil rig site in southern Oklahoma. Local news reports provide some initial information on the worker’s death:
- The incident occurred at an XTO Energy well near Mannsville, OK (about 2 hours north of Dallas, TX). Rodriguez was employed by Mercer Well Service. The company’s headquarters is in Gainseville, TX, which was also Rodriguez’s hometown.
- Sheriff John Smith reported “that a pipe was somehow forced out of a well hole and struck Rodriguez.”
- “Rodriguez was operating a workover rig drilling out frac plugs” when the blowout occurred. The sheriff reported that “the victim was knocked about 10 feet down a stairway due to the force of the blast.” Two workers, who were in a rig basket situated just above where Rodriguez was working, witnessed the event.
Mercer Well Services has a history of violating worker safety regulations. Since 2009, the company has been the subject of 17 OSHA inspections, primarily in Texas (but none in Oklahoma.) For more than 20 violations, including four repeat and six serious, OSHA proposed $169,200 in penalties. (As a result of settlement agreements, the firm actually paid $83,925 for those infractions.) Following a November 2011 inspection at an oil drilling worksite in the Midland, TX area, Mercer received a citation for five repeat violations. OSHA said in a news release announcing the citations:
“Repeated disregard of employee safety will not be tolerated.”
Despite their illegal behavior, Mercer Well Services did not meet OSHA’s criteria for the designation “severe violator.” Now that Ernesto Rodriguez has been killed on the job, maybe now they will. (As I’ve said before, OSHA’s threshold for the “severe violator” label is too steep.)
Each year, dozens of workers in Oklahoma are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 86 work-related fatal injuries in Oklahoma during 2013 (preliminary data, most recent available.) Nationwide, at least 4,405 workers suffered fatal traumatic injuries in 2013.
The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:
- Federal OSHA has 19 inspectors in Oklahoma to cover more than 90,000 workplaces.
- The average penalty for a serious OSHA violation in Oklahoma is $1,872.
Federal OSHA has until mid-March 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Ernesto Rodriguez’s life. It’s likely they’ll determine that Rodriguez’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”
New data from the U.S. Census Bureau finds that the U.S. poverty rate declined slightly between 2012 and 2013, however the numbers of people living at or below the poverty level in 2013 didn’t represent a real statistical change.
Yesterday, the Census Bureau released two annual reports: “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2013” and “Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2013.” The agency found that between 2012 and 2013, the nation’s poverty rate declined from 15 percent to 14.5 percent. But the 45.3 million people living in poverty as of 2013 was not a “statistically significant change” from 2012. The 2013 poverty rate was still two points higher than it was in 2007, before the recession. It’s the third year in a row that the actual poverty numbers did not experience a statistically significant change.
Median household income didn’t change in a significant way either, increasing less than $200 from $51,759 in 2012 to $51,939 in 2013. In better news, the Census reported that the poverty rate for children younger than 18 years old declined from the previous year for the first time since 2000, falling from 21.8 percent, or 16.1 million, in 2012 to 19.9 percent, or 14.7 million, in 2013.
The income and poverty report also found that in 2013, real median household income was 8 percent lower than it was in 2007, just before the recession began. And while 2012–2013 changes in real median household income weren’t significant for most populations, it did increase by 3.5 percent among Hispanic households — and that’s the first annual increase in median income that Hispanic households have experienced since 2000. The 2013 male-to-female earning ratio (sometimes referred to as the gender wage gap) was about the same as the previous year at 0.78.
The Census found that income inequality between 2012 and 2013 didn’t change in a significant way; however, it did note that income inequality has increased between 1999 and 2013. The report stated that “incomes at the 50th and 10th percentiles declined by 8.7 percent and 14.3 percent, respectively, while there was no statistically significant decline in income at the 90th percentile between 1999 and 2013.”
In examining the job market, the Census found that the number of men and women working full-time and year-round increased by 1.8 million and 1 million, respectively, between 2012 and 2013, “suggesting a shift from part-year, part-time work status to full-time, year-round work status.”
The new poverty and income numbers attracted the attention of advocates, many of which called on policy-makers to address the issues facing working families. At the Center for American Progress, President Neera Tanden said:
The new Census data reveal that four years into the economic recovery, low- and middle-income families are still feeling the pain of unshared growth, stagnant incomes, and widespread economic insecurity. The economy is off kilter, with households at the top continuing to capture most of the gains from economic growth, while middle-class and struggling families are still waiting for the recovery to reach them.
Congress seems intent on making things worse. In 2013, Congress allowed across-the-board cuts to hit education, job training, and child care services, alongside reductions in nutrition assistance for families who can barely put food on the table. Today’s data should be a clarion call that Congress must change course to invest in job creation, raise the minimum wage, and enact measures to improve the economic security of struggling families.
In an article on MSNBC, writer Ned Resnikoff reported this quote:
“We’ve still got a large, ongoing crisis,” said Stephen Pimpare, a professor in Columbia University’s School of Social Work. “And it’s a crisis not just of economics and the Great Recession, which is the way a lot of people are going to talk about it. Because while it was true that poverty is greater than prior to the Great Recession, poverty is where it was in the early 1990s and early 1980s.”
And in a statement from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, President Robert Greenstein said:
In contrast with the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s — when the benefits of economic recoveries were more broadly shared and poverty and median income improved more quickly when recoveries started — the recoveries of the past two decades have been much slower to generate income gains for middle- and low-income Americans. Part of the problem is the rising inequality of recent decades, which has meant that economic growth has not been widely shared.
Along with poverty and income data, the Census also released new health insurance numbers. The agency reports that in 2013, 42 million people, or 13.4 percent of Americans, didn’t have health insurance for the entire calendar year. That’s a big change from 2012, when the Census reported that 15.4 percent of Americans had no health insurance. Still, children living in poverty were less likely to have health insurance, as were black and Hispanics residents. Liz Borkowski offers additional insights into changing health insurance numbers in a post published yesterday.
Visit the Census Bureau to download the new reports and read highlights.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
New findings from CDC’s National Health Interview Survey show the uninsured rate at its lowest level since the agency started tracking this statistic 17 years ago. In the first quarter of 2014, an estimated 13.1% of the US population did not have health insurance at the time of interview. That figure was 15.4% in 1997, and rose to 16.0% in 2010 before it began falling.
Vox’s Sarah Kliff points out that the percentage of US children without health insurance has dropped more dramatically than that of the US population as a whole, from 13.9% in 1997 to 6.6% in 2014. Much of the credit for that decrease goes to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Uninsurance rates have also declined more substantially for the poor and near-poor than for those not living in poverty. In 2009, 30.2% of those with incomes under 100% of the federal poverty level and 29.4% of those with incomes between 100% and 200% FPL were uninsured, compared to 10.7% of those with incomes above 200% FPL. In early 2014, 24.1% of the poor, 26.2% of the near-poor, and 9.0% of the not-poor were uninsured at the time of interview. (For 2014, the federal poverty level is $11,670 for one person and and $23,850 for a four-person household, so even the “not-poor” income of 200% FPL will leave many families struggling.)
CDC’s report on the new NHIS findings highlights the differences between states that accepted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion (which the Supreme Court made optional) and those that didn’t. The researchers found that in states that expanded Medicaid, the percentage of uninsured adults ages 18-64 fell from 18.4% in 2013 to 15.7% in the first quarter of 2014. They found no such significant decrease in the states not accepting the Medicaid expansion.
It’s still shameful that 13% of people in one of the world’s wealthiest nations don’t have health insurance coverage. But at least things are moving in the right direction.
“OSHA nunca llego.” [Translation: "OSHA never came."] That was the disappointed phrase I heard from a worker who told me about his on-the-job injury. He was a temp worker hired by a moving company to relocate a small manufacturing company. The worker’s shoe got caught in a faulty industrial dumbwaiter and his toes were smashed. He was patched up at a local urgent care clinic, but developed a serious infection a couple of weeks later. Gangrene set in and his toes had to be amputated. He still suffers pain and walks with a limp.
The fact that “OSHA nunca llego” surprised this worker. Like the public at large, the worker thought OSHA would investigate the incident. Afterall, he lost part of his foot. What he didn’t know is there’s no requirement for employers to report to OSHA a serious injury of this nature.
Under current federal OSHA regulations, there’s a high bar for employers before they are required to report serious incidents to the agency: a fatality or the hospitalization of three or more workers. But that will change on January 1, 2015 in regulations announced last week by OSHA.
In the 29 states covered by federal OSHA, employers will be required to report to the agency all work-related in-patient hospitalizations, amputations and losses of an eye, within 24 hours of the event. In the case of a fatality or hospitalization of three or more workers, they are already required to report those incidents within 8 hours.
The 21 states that run their own OSHA programs have six months to adopt the new OSHA rule or one of their own that is more stringent. Six of these State OSHA agencies already have a rule on the books that is comparable or more robust than the new federal regulation. For example:
- Alaska OSHA: Since 1976, employers have been required to report within 8 hours, occupational accidents that result in the death or overnight hospitalization of one or more employees.
- Utah OSHA: Since 2002, employers have been required to report, within 8 hours, work-related fatalities, disabling, serious, or significant injuries, and occupational disease incidents.
- Washington OSHA: Since 2009, employers have been required to report, within 8 hours, the death, or probable death, of any employee, or the in-patient hospitalization of any employee.
“Last year, OSHA was notified after a worker was struck and killed when he entered a large wire mesh manufacturing machine to retrieve a fallen metal bar. The worker killed was 32 year old Luis Rey Rivera Pavia – he was the sole supporter of his mother, who lives in a small village in Mexico. His death should never have occurred. The light curtain that would have automatically turned the machine off before he entered the danger zone had been disabled. During our inspection, OSHA learned that previously, two other workers at that same factory had been severely injured on this same piece of machinery — one worker suffered an amputation and the second had his right forearm crushed by that same machine. Earlier this year, we issued a fine of almost $700,000 against Wire Mesh Sales, of Jacksonville, Florida. However, I believe that if we had been notified after that amputation, or after his co-worker was hospitalized with a crushed forearm, Mr. Rivera might be alive today.”
OSHA estimates that it will receive annually reports for 6,300 amputations, and for about 112,000 in-patient hospitalizations. The total cost to employers is an estimated $2.6 million per year.
OSHA proposed these changes in June 2011 and took comments from the public for four months on its proposal. The agency submitted its draft final rule for review to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in February 2014. OIRA’s review, which is supposed to be no longer than 135 days, extended more than six months.
OSHA last revised these reporting requirements in 1994. Prior to that, stemming back to 1971, employers were only required to report hospitalizations if it involved five or more employees. The report had to be made within 48 hours. The 1994 rule changed the threshold to three employees and required the report be made within in eight hours.
These new OSHA requirements do not go as far as what is required of employers in the mining industry. Following the 2006 Sago mine disaster, Congress mandated that mine operators notify MSHA within 15 minutes of the death of an employee or serious injury incident. There are a host of injury and non-injury incidents that must be reported to MSHA within 15 minutes. Failure to comply will result in a penalty of at least $5,000 and up to $60,000. OSHA penalties for failing to report incidents will be a fraction of these MSHA amounts.
Temp workers organize for change in an industry rife with reported abuses: ‘They would treat people as disposable’
For eight years, Dora worked at a frozen pizza factory in Romeoville, Illinois, called Great Kitchens. For eight hours a day — sometimes seven days a week — she assembled pizza boxes or arranged cheese and other toppings on pizzas. The consequences of years of such repetitive work surfaced in October 2012, when her hands would go numb and a painful cyst formed on her left wrist. She told her supervisor about the problem, but he said he couldn’t do anything about it — Dora was a temporary worker hired through a staffing agency and so Great Kitchens wasn’t responsible for addressing her injury.
“I went to the temp agency and they told me to just put a bandage around it and use ice and they would send me to work the next day,” said Dora, 36, who asked me not to use her last name. “It was seven months later that they sent me to a doctor because I couldn’t work anymore.”
Unfortunately, Dora’s experience has become a typical one among temporary workers, as more and more corporations outsource their hiring to temporary staffing agencies and effectively absolve themselves of the legal responsibility of ensuring safe and healthy workplaces that adhere to labor laws. In other words, Dora and other temporary workers are considered employees of the staffing agencies, not the factory or office in which they actually work. That means it’s the staffing agency that takes on the workers’ compensation liability, which weakens the incentive for the onsite supervisors to enforce health and safety standards.
It’s a problem that’s growing bigger and bigger as more major corporations — from Wal-Mart to Nike to Arizona Iced Tea — look to staffing agencies to take over key production operations. And as those staffing agencies race to underbid each other and compete for lucrative contracts, it’s the workers who ultimately suffer. In a new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “Temped Out: How the Domestic Outsourcing of Blue-Collar Jobs Harms America’s Workers,” authors Rebecca Smith and Claire McKenna write:
Our country is in the midst of a seismic change in how businesses organize the way that work central to their success is carried out. It’s a change that can have dire consequences for workers. In recent decades, major employers across the economy have restructured, franchising their businesses, outsourcing, and using staffing agencies to take over core operations. While these practices sometimes may yield greater efficiencies, too often they reflect explicit employer strategies to evade labor laws and worker benefits. And even when not implemented with such intentions, the effect can be the same, as “lead” companies for which workers are producing goods or providing services disclaim any employment relationship with them. Thus, at the same time that major corporations continue to closely direct the provision of their services and the manufacture of their products, they attempt to shed responsibility for compliance with core labor standards.
According to the report, which was released earlier this month, temporary work has reached an all-time high in the U.S., with 2.8 million Americans employed in temporary help services. In addition, temporary work is moving from the office to the factory, with production and material moving jobs making up 42 percent of temporary staffing jobs in 2013, and office and administrative jobs making up just 21 percent. Within this growing business model, injured workers or those who’ve experienced wage violations are left navigating a confusing maze to determine who’s responsible.
When Dora’s temporary employer, Staffing Network, finally sent her to a doctor, she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and told she had to undergo multiple surgeries to correct the damage in her hand, wrist and elbow. But Staffing Network refused to cover all the care her doctor recommended. So with the help of a local worker advocate organization, the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, Dora sued the temp agency. (The lawsuit is still in progress and is now against Great Kitchens after Staffing Network’s workers’ comp provider went bankrupt.)
“Honestly, this has really affected me a lot because I am a single mother, I have three children…so to even make them food, to wash them, to give them the attention they need is very difficult (because of the injury),” Dora told me. “It makes me feel helpless.”
However, Dora’s experience compelled her to become an advocate for other workers, and today she is a health and safety promoter with the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative.
“I don’t think it is just that they abuse us because we don’t know our rights,” she said. “They think that because some of us might be undocumented that we don’t have any rights to anything. It’s what compelled me to learn about my rights and how to help one’s self and to help others who need it. …I think it’s really important that people know that we don’t need to be afraid, that we need to speak up.”
Temporary workers join forces to fight workplace abuses
According to the NELP report, staffing agencies often hire the most vulnerable workers, with Hispanic and African-American workers comprising about 40 percent of the staffing industry. Also, temporary workers tend to report higher work-related injury rates than workers in more traditional employment arrangements, experience a higher incidence of retaliation for speaking up and are paid less on average. NELP reports that the median staffing agency worker earns about 22 percent less than other workers. To top it off, staffing agency workers are excluded from the bargaining and organizing rights authorized via the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NELP report states:
Staffing workers face a perfect storm of health and safety risks. They work in some of the most dangerous jobs in our economy. According to OSHA, temporary workers often receive insufficient safety training and are more vulnerable to retaliation for reporting injuries than workers in traditional employment relationships. … A ProPublica analysis of worker’s compensation claims in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon found that the incidence of temporary worker workplace injuries was between 36 to 72 percent higher than for non-temporary workers. Perceived job insecurity can also have negative physical and mental health consequences, so that temporary workers may experience increased levels of depression and anxiety because of their contingent status.
Rebecca Smith, a co-author of the report and NELP’s deputy director, told me that third-party employment is becoming a permanent feature of many business plans and is expected to be one of the fastest growing sectors of the next decade.
“From a worker’s perspective, it creates confusion over who’s the boss and over who’s supposed to train you and provide health and safety equipment,” she said. “It can prove fatal for some workers.”
Smith said that today’s labor laws, such as the NLRA, are not equipped to “deal with this fracturing of the employment relationship.” However, the tide may be slowly changing. OSHA is increasing its focus on temporary workers and is working with staffing agencies to make sure they’re aware of their legal obligations. According to the NELP report, OSHA is ramping up its temp worker-related data collection and enforcement activities through its Temporary Worker Initiative. (On the OSHA site, agency administrator David Michaels is quoted as saying: “Host employers need to treat temporary workers as they treat existing employees. Temporary staffing agencies and host employers share control over the employee, and are therefore jointly responsible for temp employee’s safety and health. It is essential that both employers comply with all relevant OSHA requirements.”)
State policy-makers are also stepping up. For example in August, California lawmakers passed a law that would hold companies legally responsible if temp agencies or subcontractors violate workers’ rights. And across the country, staffing workers are coming together to fight for better working conditions — the NELP report highlights successful campaigns in Chicago, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“We need to ensure that the companies at the top are taking responsibility for the workers at the bottom,” Smith said. “We need to enforce existing laws, we need to change the laws and we need to ensure that workers can come together.”
Fortunately, temporary workers aren’t waiting for the law to catch up with the realities of modern work. In Illinois, despite their exemption from the organizing rights given under the NLRA, temporary workers have come together to create the Staffing Workers Organizing Committee, an association that can collectively put pressure on employers to improve workplace conditions. The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative supports the committee, providing health and safety education to committee members and helping them arrange meetings and inspections with local OSHA staff. For example, just this summer, the collaborative helped workers identify 40 dangerous worksites and is now turning the evidence over to OSHA, said Tim Bell, the collaborative’s organizing director and coordinator of the temp worker health and safety program.
“Before this whole industry was operating in the shadows,” Bell told me. “And now they’re going to have to clean up their act. …If (this employment model) is profitable in one sector, there’s going to be companies that want to use it to maximize profits in their sectors as well. Even if you’re not morally outraged by this, it could affect you one day.”
Bell said temporary workers often work in dangerous jobs and receive little training and inadequate protective equipment. The majority of injuries he sees among temp workers are repetitive motion injuries, which can “destroy the productivity of that worker and so they’re not employable again and end up being essentially disabled,” he said. (Unfortunately, OSHA has no authority to enforce ergonomic standards.) Bell noted that traditionally, many temporary jobs may have eventually turned into permanent positions directly with the host company, but that’s not happening today. In the Chicago area, he said, you’d be hard-pressed to find a direct-hire job in a factory or warehouse.
“This is a system that’s pushing health and safety standards to the bottom,” Bell told me. “The idea is to push the liability back on the host employer — that’s where the leverage lies.”
Former Staffing Network employee and Great Kitchens worker Marcela hopes she can help make that happen. Marcela, 32 and who asked I only use her first name, was a temporary worker at Great Kitchens for 18 months, assembling frozen pizza boxes for companies such as Wal-Mart, 7-11 and Costco. Between Marcela and about six to eight co-workers, they’d assemble about 80 boxes per minute. They couldn’t slow down or the pizzas would pile up.
After doing the work for six months, Marcela told me her hands would fall asleep at night, she began experiencing pain in her hands and arms, and a cyst formed on her right wrist. She told her supervisor at the factory about the pain and they sent her back to Staffing Network, which told her to put ice on her wrist and wrap it in a bandage. Between November 2012 and May 2013, Marcela treated her injury with ice and a bandage, watching the cyst grow bigger and bigger.
Finally, the pain was too much and Staffing Network sent her to their doctor, who recommended surgery for carpal tunnel. After the surgery, Staffing Network sent Marcela back to work just days later even though she had just one working arm. Both Marcela and Dora filed complaints with OSHA and requested OSHA injury logs from Staffing Network and Great Kitchens. The logs revealed that Great Kitchens was home to dozens of work injuries over the previous 18 months; Staffing Network never provided a log. Marcela also filed a lawsuit against Staffing Network, which is when she said she began experiencing significant workplace retaliation.
Like Dora, Marcela became a health and safety promoter with the collaborative and said that she believes “change is possible.”
“I got really angry at knowing and realizing that it didn’t matter…that they would treat people as disposable,” she said. “To hear (workers) cry in the bathroom and in the lunchroom, complaining about the pain they feel in their hands and wrists and knowing that it’s because they’re afraid that they can’t speak up. …(Change) is difficult, but it’s possible, even if it’s just one person that speaks up.”
To learn more about the issues facing temporary workers, download the full NELP report and read this investigative series on temp work from ProPublica. Recommended practices for protecting temp workers from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety can be downloaded here.
(Special thanks to Tim Bell for arranging the interviews with Marcela and Dora and to Irene Romulo for providing translation during the interviews.)
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
As we’ve written before, the routine use of antibiotics in livestock operations contributes to the global problem of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. So I was delighted to visit Maryn McKenna’s Superbug blog and read that Perdue Farms, the US’s third-largest chicken producer, has announced that it has stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention, and is no longer using antibiotics important for human medicine in 95% of its birds. (McKenna is always my favorite source for all things antibiotic-related; check out her antibiotics archive to learn more about this and related issues.)
According to Perdue, this dramatic reduction in antibiotic use has taken 12 years and careful planning about alternative strategies. McKenna reports:
To compensate for the lost effect of the antibiotics the company relinquished, [Perdue Senior Vice President of Food Safety, Quality and Live Operations Bruce] Stewart-Brown said they also improved chickens’ diets by removing animal byproducts and going to an all-vegetable feed of soybean meal and corn oil; using prebiotics and probiotics including “oregano and yucca” and “yogurt type things”; increasing the number of vaccinations chickens receive; and doubling down on cleaning chicken “houses,” the long sheds that can hold tens of thousands of broilers at a time.
This is a good reminder that the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) model is dysfunctional in many ways. Unhealthy diets and poultry houses that don’t get cleaned often enough to avoid waste buildup may lead to cheaper chicken prices, but they also help create conditions in which disease can flourish. Antibiotics are often both a means of speeding animals’ growth and a natural response to disease-prone (or disease-ridden) flocks. As my George Washington University colleague Lance Price said in a recent TEDx talk, “The most diabolical villain could not design a better system for creating superbugs than the modern CAFO.”
I hope that Perdue’s announcement will inspire other poultry producers to follow suit. And I hope the company’s commitment to figuring out how to change their procedures for the good of public health extends to assuring that poultry-processing workers are able to do their jobs without developing carpal tunnel syndrome or other disorders for which poultry workers are at high risk. (For more on this topic, see our Poultry Plants category.)