Journalism in the Public Interest

Happy Labor Day. Here’s the Best Reporting on Worker Safety

A roundup of the best accountability journalism on dismal workplaces in the U.S.

In this week's special Labor Day edition of #MuckReads, we include one investigation by the Charlotte Observer that looked into poultry plants in the U.S. (John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer, AP Photo)

In honor of Labor Day weekend, we've compiled 12 pieces of great reporting on workplace safety: from slaughterhouse diseases to lax regulatory oversight and deadly vats of chocolate. Did we miss any great stories? Leave a link in the comments.

In U.S. Steel Town, Fatal Gas Explosion Goes Unpunished by OSHA, The Center for Public Integrity, May 2012
More American workers were killed on the job in 2009 than total U.S. fatalities in the Iraq war. This story examines questionable oversight issues that may be contributing to the high number of worker deaths. Part one of a series.

In Race For Better Cell Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Lives, ProPublica, May 2012
Between 2003 and 2011, tower climbing ranked among the nation’s most dangerous jobs -- 50 climbers died working on cell sites. AT&T has had more tower climber deaths on its jobs than the other three major carriers combined. But since the climbers were part of a daisy chain of subcontractors, and technically not employees, it was near-impossible for the government to hold AT&T and other cell carriers accountable for the deaths. The industry represents a fundamental change in the way U.S. companies handle risky work.

Deadliest Danger Isn't At the Rig, But On the Road, New York Times, May 2012
In the past decade, more than 300 oil and gas workers have died in highway crashes, many of them caused by an exemption that lets oil field truckers stay behind the wheel for hours longer than most commercial truckers' limit.

OSHA Failures

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that oversees worker safety, has come under scrutiny in a number of investigations: from stalled standards for exposure to toxic chemicals to renegade state-run workplace-safety programs. In the last story, which ran this month, Kentucky cited Toyo Automotive Parts with a fine and 16 "serious" violations when an employee caught on fire — and then dropped the violations when the firm complained.

I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave, Mother Jones, March 2012
Mac McClelland went undercover at a giant online shipping warehouse, where even the higher-ups acknowledged that the overtime, shoddy conditions and pressure to perform was intense. (But no crying. That could get you fired.) The environment is indicative of the larger world of online shipping, and is similar to conditions described at Amazon's Pennsylvania warehouse, where paramedics stood ready to treat employees' heat exhaustion and dehydration.

FedEx Fails to Deliver for Drivers, Center for Public Integrity, April, 2012
Dozens of drivers are sueing FedEx over their classification as "independent contractors," putting a spotlight on the fact that there's no single government definition of "employee." Many different agencies regulate taxation, overtime, safety, collective bargaining, and other aspects of worker's rights, and each uses a slightly different classification.

The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret, Mother Jones, August 2011
Hormel's worker benefits were pretty progressive in the company's early days. But after the family relinquished ownership, the slaughter lines sped up, the unions were dismantled and when the machine that blasts pig brains started making workers sick, the workers were dropped — often with only a fraction of their promised benefits.

Violence Afflicts ER Workers, Los Angeles Times, July, 2011
Many nurses and hospital staffers, especially in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards, are so used to biting, kicking, chasing and even more serious assaults that these attacks go unreported — it's considered just part of the job. Some hospitals have installed metal detectors and employ armed guards, but attacks are hard to predict and workers are particularly vulnerable in private treatment areas.

Model Workplaces, Center for Public Integrity, 2011 - 2012
Chris Hamby reports on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Voluntary Protections Program, which exempted companies with exemplary safety ratings from routine inspections. But Hamby's reporting uncovered that several companies, including the U.S. Postal Service, were designated as "model workplaces” by OSHA even as hazardous conditions persisted, sometimes leading to serious safety lapses and fatal accidents. Hamby's reporting exposed flaws in OSHA's inspection exemption policies and helped prompt reforms of the model workplace program.

Dark and Bitter, The American Prospect, September 2009
One worker's death in a vat of chocolate shows how Hershey's products are actually made by workers the company isn't accountable for: Vincent Smith was a temp worker hired by a staffing company, which sent him to a warehouse company, which was providing services for a chocolate manufacturer, which was melting chocolate bound for Hershey's. Two years later, a Hershey contractor came under fire when hundreds of international students protested long hours and wage violations, saying the company was exploiting a work-exchange visa program for cheap labor.

The Cruelest Cuts, Charlotte Observer, 2008
The Observer's mammoth investigation into poultry plants found that the industry's squeaky-clean safety statistics were belied by workers' accounts of chemical burns, severe carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries that come from performing thousands of repetitive cutting and pulling motions per day. An OSHA records expert spoke out to say the agency was allowing companies to get away with underreporting injuries. This year, the Nation reported that new USDA inspection rules actually increase the maximum speed allowed on production lines, raising the risk of injury.

Pace Is the New Peril, Las Vegas Sun, 2008
A rash of fatal accidents at construction sites on Las Vegas' glitzy strip revealed patterns of safety violations amid a boom of $30 billion in building projects. The Sun investigation, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, documented violations by building contractors in the deadly incidents that were later “watered down” by state safety inspectors, and a reluctance by trade unions to seek federal enforcement from OSHA.

At a Texas Foundry, Indifference to Life, New York Times, January 2003
After McWane Inc. took over Tyler Pipe, employees were, as one put it, “kicked to hell.” The company fired a slew of workers, demanded the production pace stay steady and took away basics, like soap in the bathrooms, in an effort to cut costs. Regulators called the parent company's standards “lawless” and “rogue,” and this investigation, one of the workplace safety classics, found McWane to be one of the most dangerous U.S. employers at the time.

By Tony Horwitz, when he was at the WSJ and which won him a Pulitzer:

Sad how little things have changed for the better in industries that have abysmal workers safety recs.

How about dangerous former workplaces that are now abandoned buildings? See:

DEP Abandoned Building Risk Pilot In Camden More a Photo Op Than a Program

NO really this IS my name

Sep. 1, 2012, 7:55 a.m.

Nobody complains like they should because noBODY wants to starve. Including the people employed by OSHA. Excellent article, horrific conditions, so sorry for all these folks. Things are really bad everywhere. The indifference is appalling.

Over some time OSHA appears to be AWOL in their duty to protect the most assaulted workers in the workforce, woman healthcare givers. Hospitals have always been dangerous places to work. Exposure to all manner of infectious diseases and dangerous chemical, biological and radiological. California Nurses have been call for seismically upgraded work sites. They find themselves victims from outside attackers who have little problem getting thru pourous security and inside from poorly vetted caregiver and out sourced contracted employees. The “just in time” paradigm has dramatically increase human trafic which pose a vulnerability. The extant external evaluation efforts are not filling the gaps.

Thanks for compiling this fine list.
You asked if you left out any worth stories.
You might want to consider this one:

Elizabeth Spahn

Sep. 2, 2012, 8:12 a.m.

I’m surprised that reporting on mine workers’ safety isn’t on this list?

Liz Borkowski

Sep. 2, 2012, 9:58 a.m.

Great compilation! One more series I always think of is the 2006 articles by Liz Chandler of McClatchy on undocumented immigrants who are injured or killed on the job and struggle to get healthcare or compensation. I can’t find a collection of her pieces in one place, but here are two:

Peter Rousmaniere

Sep. 3, 2012, 9:26 p.m.

Contact J. Paul Leigh, at UC / Davis, regarding his studies reporting tha ten times as many people die from work than is reported by OSHA. My research concluded that 40% of work injuries never result in workers compensation benefits.

Another source of danger is the lack of safeguards on radiation production machines (ct , X-ray , and proper radiation safety ... Some of the carelessness is due to the lack of oversight . Profit at any cost philsophy (equipment is high priced , x-ray exams are profitable ) Medicine can be just as predatory as vulture capitalism .

Some anecdotal evidence of why these problems persist even as companies get awarded for their safety protocols…

I graduated from an engineering school, so more than a few of my friends are engineers.  One was a Civil Engineer with an environmental certificate, if I remember correctly.  His first job was to evaluate a building about to undergo renovation, and the pipes were wrapped in asbestos.

As you might guess, “pipes wrapped in asbestos” made it into the report, at which point he was told that “clients don’t pay us to hear bad news.”  He still has trouble getting work, and it’s been a long time.

So whenever you see an “impartial” agency applaud how a company treats its employees or its environmental practices, ask who paid for the study.  If it wasn’t an outside, adversarial agent, the report isn’t worth reading.  (Likewise, a report packed with problems is usually only worth reading if it’s paid from the inside.)

As suggested above, something similar probably applies to OSHA.  You could write up every violation and follow up repeatedly until it’s fixed…or more likely, due to being undermanned, get yelled at for not following up enough.  Alternatively, you could announce your visits, only look superficially, and only report the most heinous violations.

Good story!

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