Occupational Health News Roundup

As Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes moves toward a 2016 presidential run, it seems he can’t talk enough about the so-called “Texas Miracle.” But upon closer inspection, it seems clear that a “miracle” based on small government, big business tax breaks and laissez-faire regulations is hardly a blessed event for Texas workers.

In an in-depth article on workplace deaths published in the Dallas Morning News, reporter James Gordon writes that Texas workers face the highest workplace death rates in the nation. In fact, Gordon notes that a Texas worker is 12 percent more likely to be killed on the job than a worker doing a similar job in another state. Gordon writes:

Forty percent of Texas’ excess death toll was among roofers, electricians and others in specialty construction trades. Such workers are sometimes treated as independent contractors, leaving them responsible for their own safety equipment and training. Many are undocumented immigrants.

Government and industry here have invested relatively little in safety equipment, training and inspections, researchers say. And Texas is one of the toughest places to organize unions, which can promote safety.

“There’s a Wild West culture here,” said University of Texas law professor Thomas McGarity, who has written several books about regulation. Texans often think, “We don’t want some nanny state telling workers how to work and, by implication, telling employers how to manage the workplace,” he said.

To compare workplace deaths in Texas to other states, the Dallas Morning News analyzed federal data between 2003 and 2012 to calculate how many deaths would be expected within each industry based on worker numbers and national fatality data. Here’s what they found:

  • Texas had 4,593 deaths; the expected toll was 4,014.
  • California had 1,204 fewer deaths than expected.
  • Texas had the highest rate of excess deaths among the 10 biggest states.
  • There were 17 states with higher rates of excess deaths. But all of them had fewer than one-fourth of Texas’ workplace deaths, which statistically skews the comparison.
  • While oil and gas drilling is among the most dangerous industries in the U.S., Texas’ fatality rate in that industry was 62 percent below average. There were 49 fewer deaths than expected.
  • The most excess deaths in Texas were among specialty construction trades. There were 719 such fatalities, or 242 beyond what would have been expected.

Gordon goes on to explore the contributors to the Texas workplace problem, such as no state occupational safety inspection agency and misclassifying workers as independent contractors, which means the usual wage and safety laws don’t apply. To read the full article, click here.

In other news:

The Stand: Earlier this month, the Washington State Supreme Court handed down a encouraging victory for workers, ruling that a parent company is indeed responsible for wage theft perpetrated by its subcontractors. In the article, writer Hilary Stern reports that the state supreme court unanimously ruled that Fred Meyer, a chain of superstores, could be liable to a group of janitors who weren’t paid overtime in accordance with state wage laws. Stern reports that “Justice Steve Gonzalez said that in these cases, courts can consider a variety of factors when determining joint employment such as whether the company at the top knew of wage-and-hour violations, whether it paid sufficient amounts to the subcontractor to allow for a lawful wage, and whether the subcontracting arrangement is a subterfuge or sham.’”

Mother Jones: A new report from the Economic Policy Institute finds that nearly 17 percent of restaurant workers live in poverty, with the median restaurant worker making 44 percent less than other workers. Reporter Tom Philpott writes: “The only real solution to the industry’s bottom-feeding labor practices are legislative.” (At the bottom of this article, check out Mother Jones’ fast food wage calculator, which tells you what it takes for a fast food worker to make a living wage around the country. In my neck of the woods — Austin, Texas — a fast food worker would have to work 128 hours a week.)

In These Times: In an unfortunate turn, rail workers discovered that their union leaders held secret meetings with one of the country’s biggest freight carriers and reached a deal to allow single-person train crews — a change that workers are calling a safety disaster. Reporter Alexandra Bradbury writes that the deal would be a first for a major railway and could lead the rest of the industry to follow. She reports: “The proposed pact would pull conductors off the trains, replacing several with a single ‘master conductor’ who’d drive around in a van, on-call for radio dispatch to any train that might need assistance. How many trains would one conductor cover? Four, eight? There’s no limit — like much else in the deal, it’s left to the carrier’s discretion.” For some more background on single-person train crews, read this article from Labor Notes.

The New York Times: Most of you probably saw this article, but if not, it’s a must-read. Reporter Jodi Kantor chronicles the life of Starbucks barista and single mother Jannette Navarro as she struggles to make ends meet working a low-wage job with unpredictable hours and little regard for her responsibilities outside of work. The story highlights popular retail software that employers use to meticulously create work schedules based on sales patterns, efficiency and profit trends, but doesn’t account for the basic needs of workers. Kantor writes: “Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. …Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families, say parents, child care providers and policy experts.” The Huffington Post reports that one day after the New York Times article, Starbucks said it would change its scheduling procedures.

The Washington Blade: Just last week, the U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance explaining that the White House will interpret an executive order on gender discrimination in the workplace as protecting the rights of transgender workers as well. In the Washington Blade article, reporter Chris Johnson quoted Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, as saying: “For the many transgender people who work for federal contractors, this brings a great sense of peace in knowing that their job security will be based on performance, and not gender identity.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.