Fast food restaurants and OSHA

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.