Thursday Oct 01

Everybody's Business: The Battle Over Covid Safety on the Job

Since the country reached the sorrowful milestone of 100,000 dead from covid-19, there has been much discussion of the unequal distribution of fatalities around the country. Instead of focusing only on which cities have lost the most lives, we should also be analyzing what portion of the deaths have occurred in the workplace. The latter is part of one of the biggest scandals of the pandemic: the extent to which employers are being allowed to put workers in high-risk situations, with little or no intervention from health and safety regulators.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, we have seen contradictory tendencies when it comes to at-risk workers. There has been an enormous amount of justified praise for front-line nurses, doctors, EMTs and others who have been helping covid patients. The nightly applause and other demonstrations of appreciation are important affirmations of the vital role these workers play.

Their efforts are all the more heroic in that most of these workers readily accepted the risk, seeing it as part of their professional responsibility to help those in need, despite the circumstances. Many of these workers, nonetheless, have spoken out forcefully about inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment.

Potentially fatal workplace risk becomes a trickier matter for other occupations not usually regarded as quite so hazardous. Prior to the pandemic, no one ever took a job in a supermarket expecting to put his or her life on the line. Warehouse and factory jobs have had higher accident rates, but in most cases they were still not viewed as deadly environments.

Now the calculus of workplace safety has become a lot more complicated, and the situation is being exacerbated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s abdication of its watchdog role. OSHA has been performing very few covid-related inspections and as of this writing has reportedly not proposed a single penalty against an employer.

The agency has claimed it plans to increase inspections, and it put out a statement affirming that employers are responsible for recording coronavirus illnesses among its workers. Yet it was unclear whether that data collection would have any enforcement consequences. Since the Trump Administration took office, the agency has increasingly relied on voluntary employer compliance rather than carrying out its traditional regulatory role.

Perhaps the most disturbing workplace safety situation involves the country’s meatpacking plants, which have seen some of the worst clusters of covid-19. The Trump Administration, after resisting calls to make full use of the Defense Production Act to address the crisis regarding masks and ventilators, chose to invoke the law to compel meat plants to open even before the outbreaks were brought under control.

Meatpacking is an industry that had a poor track record on safety even before the pandemic. Since 2000 Swift, Pilgrim’s Pride and other operations now owned by the Brazilian company JBS have been cited by OSHA with 100 serious violations. The Chinese-owned WH Group, parent of Smithfield, has had 74 such violations. Over the past decade, the meat and poultry industry overall has had more than 300 serious violations and has paid more than $6 million in penalties, which is a lot given OSHA’s pitifully low fine standards.

The Trump Administration’s Defense Production Act policy essentially invited these firms to go on jeopardizing workers in the name of national recovery. Rarely has a President made it so clear that the he was giving the well-being of workers lower priority than the desire to stimulate economic activity—and his desire to gain personal political advantage. What made things worse in this case was that the stimulus took the form of increasing the nation’s supply of ground beef and bacon strips. Many have pointed out that in these plants, workers as well as animals are being led to a form of slaughter.

In the decades following the creation of OSHA, annual workplace deaths sharply declined from around 17 per 100,000 employees to around 4 per 100,000. The Trump Administration’s two-pronged attack on safety threatens to reverse that trend.

There are already signs that workers in various industries are resisting. We’ve seen increased militancy over safety at places such as distribution centers, and we’ve seen the filing of a class action lawsuit against McDonald’s. Mayday saw safety protests among workers at companies such as Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, FedEx and Instacart.

More extensive work stoppages are possible. One way or another, workers will defend their right to safety on the job.

PHILIP MATTERA heads the Corporate Research Project in Washington, DC, and writes the blog Dirt Diggers Digest.


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