Occupational Health News Roundup

Last November, a roof section larger than a football field collapsed at the Woodgrain Millwork in Prineville, Oregon. Luckily, no one was harmed. However, mill workers, who spoke of a variety of workplace hazards, say they had alerted management to the leaky roof long before the collapse, reported Amanda Peacher for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

In 2004, Woodgrain, a global company with manufacturing facilities across the U.S., bought the 14-acre Prineville mill. Noting that each of the 23 former mill workers interviewed for the story described a “roof riddled with leaks,” Peacher writes:

Peggy Murphy managed inventory at Woodgrain. She described leaks throughout the building, and onto electrical equipment.

“It was a downpour on some of those machines. Like if you were standing in a shower,” she said.

Workers dealt with the leaks as best they could. They’d place buckets at their feet so they wouldn’t get soaked.

Brian Godat, a forklift driver, said he sliced a 50-gallon bucket in half and placed it sideways on two sawhorses to catch water at stairs, not far from the cut shop where the roof collapsed. During heavy rain, workers said, the bucket would fill every few hours.

Workers said they hung plastic sheets above cut saws to redirect the water.

According to former workers, maintenance staff instructed them to mark problematic leaks with red tape. Sam Rufener, who supervised the cut shop, remembers the red tape on several electrical panels. He said those leaks were not fixed.

Peacher described other hazards at the mill as well, such as Woodgrain’s temperature policy stating that “heat is used for manufacturing purposes only and not for comfort.” In turn, she reports, workers were forced to wear layers of bulky clothing and gloves, which made cutting lumber difficult and possibly dangerous. In reporting on OSHA’s response to the collapse, Peacher wrote:

The anonymous complaint that brought Oregon OSHA out to the mill after the collapse said, “The day before the employer was aware that the roof was unstable, and leaking water, in the building and on an electrical panel.”

The inspector’s visit was narrowly focused on the roof collapse so, state OSHA officials said, he was not responsible for investigating safety overall. But they also said that during any site visit inspectors can probe about potential safety concerns.

The inspector did not ask detailed questions about the leaks or potential hazards in an environment where water was falling onto workers, equipment and the concrete floor, according to OSHA. He did not ask how long the roof had been leaking, or if it had ever leaked onto electrical panels in the past.

Following the roof collapse, the Woodgrain company closed most of the Prineville operations and laid off hundreds of workers. Read the full investigation here.

In other news:

The New York Times: Last Wednesday, April 15, thousands of low-wage workers across the nation took to the streets to call for a minimum wage of $15 an hour and justice on the job. Reporter Noam Scheiber writes: “The protest by tens of thousands of low-wage workers, students and activists in more than 200 American cities on Wednesday is the most striking effort to date in a two-and-a-half-year-old labor-backed movement that is testing the ability of unions to succeed in an economy populated by easily replaceable service sector workers.” Joining fast food workers last week were armored guards, part-time college professors, child care providers and many more. Scheiber reports that there was initially some skepticism within the Service Employees International Union as to whether the union should spend millions organizing fast food and other low-wage workers. To that, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said: “We can no longer change our lives, and our kids’ lives, without the support of a broader movement of workers.” Visit Fight for $15 for all the coverage and check out the video below of one of last week’s protests in Pittsburgh.

ThinkProgress: Sacha Feinman reports on the aftermath of the Feb. 18 explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California, and which sent a “chemical ash” raining down on the surrounding community. Feinman writes about the slow government response as well as worries among residents that no one really knows what the possible health impacts might be. He also reports that the Torrance facility has a long history of accidents, such as a 1994 explosion that injured 20 workers. Regarding the February explosion, Feinman quoted Dave Campbell, the local United Steelworkers representative: “The truth of the matter is that the only reason workers weren’t killed that day is because they were out on a coffee break.”

Slate: United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has filed an official complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Walmart of shutting down five stores in retaliation of workers organizing for better pay and conditions. Reporter Beth Ethier writes that Walmart claims the stores were abruptly shut down for plumbing repairs. However, the giant retailer has announced that the more than 2,000 workers who suddenly lost their jobs will have to re-apply as new applicants. Workers were literally given just a few hours notice that the stores would be closing and they would be out of work. Ethier reports that the now-closed Walmart store in Pico Rivera, California, was the site of some of the earliest OUR Walmart wage protests.

In These Times: Workers at the online media site Gawker, often known for its quick wit and unique contribution to political discourse, are hoping to form a union, reports Alex Lubben. Lubben writes that Gawker staffer Hamilton Nolan said that while Gawker is good place to work, forming a “union in good times will protect their staff in bad times.” Lubben also writes that Gawker’s efforts could set a progressive example in the world of online publishing and new media: “Gawker’s union drive is bigger than any particular workplace dispute. Nolan stressed when we spoke that they are unionizing because they believe in unionism. ‘Every workplace could use a union,’ Nolan wrote in his post announcing the union drive. ‘A union is the only real mechanism that enables employees to join together to bargain collectively, rather than as a bunch of separate powerless entities.’”

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