Occupational Health News Roundup

Reporter Anna Merlan at Jezebel chronicles the stories of women truck drivers who experienced severe sexual harassment and rape after enrolling in a training program. Her story begins with Tracy (who asked Merlan not to use her last name), who attended a driving school that contracts with Cedar Rapids Steel Transport Van Expedited (CRST), which is among the largest trucking companies in the country. During her training, Tracy was matched with a seasoned trucker who was supposed to help her safely accrue the training hours she needed before she could drive a truck on her own. Merlan reports:

The trainer started off by telling (Tracy) that one of the two fold-down bunk beds in the truck was broken.

“He told me the upper bed was broke and I’d have to sleep in his bed with him,” she says scornfully. “I declined that.” She ran across another woman who was training on another truck, who showed her how to get the bunk down.

“I got back on the truck, had it down, and made a bed,” she says. Her trainer got back on the truck, took a look, and said only that he “didn’t think that one worked.”

After that, she says, he started claiming that at truck stop showers along their route, management would only let them have one shower room at a time. “He said we’d have to shower together.” She declined that too.

“He hardly ever let me drive,” Tracy says. “I’d get bored and sit with my elbows on my knees and my chin resting on my hands. He’d smack me on the head and tell me I was in the way of his mirrors. He slapped my ass. He slapped me on the thigh. He told one of the people we were delivering to that we were late because I was his wife, I was pregnant and I was having morning sickness. They bring me Sprite and soda crackers and I’m looking at them like they’re crazy.”

For more than three weeks, Tracy kept telling herself she could handle his attentions.

Earlier this year, three women sued CRST, alleging they were sexually harassed, sexually assaulted or raped during their training. Merlan reports that it’s not unusual for women trainees in the trucking industry to experience retaliation for not agreeing to sexual favors. She interviewed trucker Desiree Wood, who founded Real Women in Trucking, a nonprofit that raises awareness about unsafe conditions for women in the industry. Wood told Merlan she originally began the nonprofit as a “protest group” — she felt that the industry-supported Women in Trucking Association, which works to recruit women into trucking, wasn’t being transparent about the risks they would face. Merlan reports:

The consequences for women who complain can be extremely high, Wood says, because there’s just one accusation a driver needs to make against her to derail her career. “‘She can’t drive.’ That’s all anybody needs to say about you as a woman. If you’re on a truck with a man and he’s naked and says, ‘You need to have sex with me or I’ll tell them you can’t drive,’ that’s real in trucking. Somebody saying you can’t drive is a death sentence.”

Tracy, the woman whose trainer she says slapped her until she bruised, thinks there has to be some better or more thorough screening mechanism before two people climb on a truck together, mentioning the time she learned that one co-driver had served time in prison for rape only after he got in a minor traffic accident while driving with her.

To read the full story, visit Jezebel.

In other news:

Houston Chronicle: The Pump Handle’s own Celeste Monforton, along with Jessica Martinez of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, authored an op-ed published last week calling out chemical giant DuPont, which despite its designation by OSHA as a “severe violator,” actually sells its workplace safety advice to other companies (yep, you read that correctly — the company makes millions as a safety consultant). The company’s “safety” program contradicts OSHA best practices, placing the onus for safety on the worker. Monforton and Martinez write: “In consultant-speak, this self-serving concept is called ‘behavioral safety.’ Whatever it’s called, the concept is truly awful, suggesting that workplace illnesses, injuries and deaths result from errors made by rank-and-file workers. It does not consider the management’s decisions to cut costs, disinvest in new equipment, forego maintenance and put production over safety.”

The Nation: Michelle Chen writes about last week’s court ruling that revived an Obama administration regulation bringing minimum wage and overtime protections to millions of home health care workers, who were originally excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Chen writes that the ruling is good news for workers who often work long, grueling hours providing critical care to vulnerable patients. However she writes that more reform is needed in the industry: “The wage hike only goes so far. In fact, advocates point out that many states already cover these workers under state minimum wage and overtime laws, which often exceed the federal wage floor. Homecare workers are primarily encumbered by a lack of adequate provisions on the consumer side for comprehensive, high-quality services that both pay living wages and offer affordable services to families at all income levels.”

Texas Observer: Texas probably isn’t the first state that comes to mind when talking about living wages, but Maria Luisa Cesar reports that a number of Texas cities are leading the way on the issue. For example, she writes that officials in San Antonio are considering a measure that would impact hundreds of the city’s lowest-paid employees, raising pay to a wage of $13 an hour. Similar wage increases are on the horizon for Austin, Dallas and Houston. However, Cesar points out that Texas state law bars municipalities from raising wages for private-sector workers above the federal minimum wage of $7.25, meaning current wage increases would only affect public employees. She quoted Jerry Gonzalez, a retired worker in San Antonio who had attended a city council meeting to support a wage increase: “I’m fighting for the single parents, for the young couple that is just too busy trying to make ends meet.”

Salon: Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, writes about workers employed in the on-demand or sharing economy (think: Uber drivers) — a sector Reich refers to as the “irregular” economy for its propensity to result in unpredictable hours and income. With estimates that more than 40 percent of the American labor force will soon face “uncertain” work, Reich writes that while the new on-demand economy allows business to be more responsive to consumer demand, it shifts much of the risk onto workers. Indeed, the new and increasing employment arrangement is leading to all kinds of questions about who’s considered an employer and who’s considered an employee, with many such issues ending up in court. Reich’s solution: “We should aim instead for simplicity: Whatever party – contractor, client, customer, agent, or intermediary – pays more than half of someone’s income, or provides more than half their working hours, should be responsible for all the labor protections and insurance an employee is entitled to.”

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