Cong. Woolsey’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee held a hearing today on OSHA’s inadequate enforcement of safety and health standards at large, multiple-facility corporations. Members of the Committee heard the gruesome details of the death of Mr. Eleazar Torres-Gomez in an industrial dryer at a Cintas Corp. laundry and how the deadly hazards encountered by Mr. Torres-Gomez are standard operating procedure at Cintas workplaces. Cintas Corp. has more than 400 facilities in the U.S and Canada, boasts it has 700,000 customer-businesses, and reported sales in 2007 of $3.7 Billion and more than $334 Million in profit.
At the hearing, witnesses and Members expounded on whether “enforcement” is more effective than “compliance assistance” for eliminating workplace hazards. One witness insisted that financial costs associated with injuries cause employers to work diligently on prevention, while another countered that workers are actually discouraged from reporting injuries and even given turkeys and other gifts for maintaining an “injury-free” worksite. Well, it sounded like all the same-old same-old to me until Frank White (ORC Worldwide) said something like “a negative story in the Wall Street Journal is bound to be more effective than a $2 million penalty from OSHA.”
Well, on the morning of today’s hearing, James Bandler and Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal did exactly that. Their story “House Panel to Examine Cintas Safety Record” (April 23, B1) relied on internal company memos, surveillance video and records from OSHA to offer a behind-the-scenes look of Cintas’ real attitude about workers’ safety and health. Bandler and Maher write:
“A person familiar with the probe said OSHA officals believe Cintas workers climbing on moving conveyors and jumping atop stuck laundry were ‘standard work practices at a number of facilities.’ …In its investigation, OSHA found that employees weren’t trained in how to shut off equipment properly. A surveillance videotape at the Tulsa plant showed workers engaging in activities similar to what led to Mr. Torres-Gomez’s death over several weeks prior to the accident.”
“A government memo, sent by Richard E. Fairfax, director of enforcement for OSHA, states that over the previous two weeks, other employees had used the same method of dislodging jams some 34 times. ‘Employees climbed on and walked up the moving shuttle conveyer, and kicked at, jumped on, and tried to knee the jammed clothing into the dryer opening. The recording also showed two employees inserting one of their legs into the chutes of the operating washing machines and jumping up and down to clear jams of laundry in the chute.’”
“In a confidential safety bulletin in 2004 that hasn’t been previously disclosed, Cintas’s director of safety noted that laundry jams were ‘fairly common on automated wash floors’ and presented a serious safety risk to workers. The memo refers to an incident at a Cintas plant in Ohio in which a worker trying to dislodge a jam at the top of a shuttle was forced into a rotating dryer. The worker wasn’t seriously injured because a second worker was present and immediately shut off power. In the memo, Richard Gerlach, Cintas’s director of safety, told managers to implement several basic safety procedures before trying to dislodge jams, including shutting off power to the shuttle and to dryers and having an observer present to prevent a mishap. These procedures weren’t followed prior to the Tulsa accident.”
“People close to the OSHA probe in Tulsa say plant managers knew that workers were standing on moving conveyer shuttles in order to dislodge jams. Surveillance video, they say, shows the dangerous practice sometimes occurred multiple times in a single shift. Workers told OSHA investigators they were ‘under a lot of pressure to keep everything going.’ The company said that while the company sets reasonable goals for employees, pressure didn’t play any role in Mr. Torres-Gomez’s death.”
Hopefully, after reading the entire WSJ article by James Bandler and Kris Maher some of Cintas’ 700,000 customers might think twice about renewing their contract with this uniform company, and seek laundry services elsewhere. Perhaps Cintas stockholders will consider investing elsewhere or insist the company dramatically improve their labor standards.
I suppose this is the kind of fall-out that ORC’s Frank White was suggesting when he quipped that a WSJ article has more influence over corporation’s behavior than an $2 million OSHA penalty. Unfortunately, there are too few editors and reporters* who see the public interest in exposing the dangerous conditions in which many women and men work and examining the economic forces (e.g., greed) which create the danger and injustice.
Knowing that, the best advice of all to emerge at the hearing was from Randy Rabinowitz: “workers need to ORGANIZE.”
Let’s face it: it’s the American way for companies and corporations to look out for their financial interests. Workers must feel and act the same way. As the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights reminds us:
“Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” (Article 23)
Workers have a right to just treatment and safe conditions at work; they should expect more from government agencies like OSHA and MSHA; and they should encourage and assist journalists reporting on workplace conditions. But there’s something to say for self-help–and that means–Organize, WORKERS, Organize.
*Among the too few are: the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, LCJ’s Ralph Dunlop and David Hawpe, NYT’s Lowell Bergman and David Barstow, my fav Andrew Schneider, and new on my radar screen Las Vegas Sun’s Alexandra Berzon and Charlotte Observer’s Ames Alexander, Kerry Hall and Rick Thames. From a few years back: Jim Morris, Sam Roe, Mike Casey. Feel free to add your own favorite labor reporter’s names in the comment section.