I often find myself trying to reconcile a company’s description of its safety program with what I hear from workers. One worker I met summed it up this way:
“Yeah, we have safety talks, but a talk is where it ends. It’s all talk, not real action on safety problems.”
Two recent incidents brought his remark back to life for me. It started with a recent news release from OSHA. The agency announced a proposed penalty of $50,600 to Grede Wisconsin Subsidiaries LLC at the firm’s Browntown, Wisconsin iron foundry. Funny thing is, the firm was touting its safety record last month at OSHA’s public hearing on its proposed silica regulation.
In its comments to the agency, Grede said
“safety is the top priority, with environmental, health and industry-leading safety policies and safety metrics that are best in class.”
Yet with “safety as a top priority” they didn’t offer a single provision of OSHA’s proposed regulation that they would support. And their OSHA inspection history also tells a different story. In just the two last years, the firm has received citations for five repeat and 31 serious violations at its foundries in Biscoe, NC; Berlin, WI; Browntown, WI; Columbiana, Alabama; Kingsford, MI; Omaha, Nebraska; and Radford, Virginia. One inspection at the Browntown foundry resulted in citations for 17 serious and three repeat violations. OSHA proposed a penalty of $274,500 which was settled by the company for $133,000. Just a few weeks ago, came the citations for one repeat and two serious violations, and the proposed penalty of $50,600. Their “safety is a top priority” talk sounds to me like it’s just talk.
The second incident comes courtesy of the American Meat Institute. It’s the trade association for U.S. packers and processors of meat and poultry industry. AMI announced this week the recipients of its awards for “high levels of worker safety performance.” AMI chairman and president and CEO of American Foods Group, Greg Benedict, said:
“Worker safety progress is one of our industry’s greatest success stories. During the last 19 years, injury/illness rates in the US meat industry have improved by nearly 80 percent. The rate of injury and illness in the meat and poultry industry continues to fall — and this is no accident.”
Let’s have a reality check. Both the meat and poultry industry are listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as those with the highest reported rates of injuries that require a worker to be on restricted duty or transferred from their regular work tasks. Out of 1,066 six-digit NAICS industry codes, both meat and poultry are on that illustrious list of just 17 industries. At one poultry plant which was recently evaluated by NIOSH, the researchers reported alarming results: forty-two percent of the workers (n=318) had physiological evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome. 42 percent! That’s no success story.
It’s true in foundries, in meat packing, poultry processing and every other industry. Firms will tout their safety records, but when a light is shown on them, we see a different story. It is, as the worker said, just safety talk.