Workplace safety is a right denied to many workers around the world, including the United States. Prevention of worker's injuries may not become a priority until the costs of injuries affect workers' compensation rates or other expences. The rate of occupational injuries and illnesses, however, continues to increase. In 1977, there were 5.5 million cases nationwide of injuries and illnesses in the workplace; for the last year for which data are available, 1989, 6.5 million cases were reported (OSHA, 1991).
While you may be shocked and outraged by these figures, the numbers are not totally accurate. Many times injuries are not reported as workplace injuries; there are incentives for under-reporting occupational related illness and injury. The inaccuracies of OSHA and Workers' Compensation data are legend. Therefore, we must consider these numbers to be "the tip of the iceberg" and the size of the problem to be greater than the numbers may suggest.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed in 1970, was the first federal legislation with intent to address the health problems associated with work.This law gives OSHA the right to pass and enforce standards that are protective of worker health and safety. It also grants OSHA the right to inspect businesses for compliance with the laws. However, OSHA inspections fail to provide a safe workplace. The number of inspectors were at a high during the Carter administration, with 1,388. Today there are 1,186. Fewer inspectors mean fewer inspections for the 6.5 million workplaces covered by OSH Act. States have either a federally administered OSHA or a state administered OSHA. There are 23 states that have an OSHA approved state plan. One of these states is North Carolina. Recent events have mandated a closer look at this way of enforcing the OSH Act.
On September 3, 1991 Hamlet, N.C. made headlines that all people concerned with worker health and safety will never forget. At the Imperial Foods Products Inc., a chicken processing plant, 25 workers were killed and another 56 were injured. They lost their lives and health through a fire which started when a hydrolic line ruptured near a 26 foot long deep fat fryer.
The fire was not the real cause of these deaths and injuries. Timothy Bradley, North Carolina's Deputy Commissioner of Insurance, reported, "There was not a single door in the plant that met the criteria of a fire exit." Also, several doors were locked shut or blocked by vehicles. The plant had no automatc sprinklers - just one fire extinguisher and no evacuation plan. His report is doubly surprising since Hamlet Fire Chief David Fuller said, "After a fire at the same plant in 1983, the owner installed, at the Fire Department's request, a state of the art automatic carbon dioxide sprinkler system next to the deep fat fryer."
The Imperial plant was inspected daily by the Department of Agriculture for unclean conditions affecting the food, but never once in 11 years did North Carolina OSHA inspectors check the safety conditions. The average wage in the plant was $5.50 an hour. Employees worked in freezing temperatures as 100 chickens soared past them each minute. The job led to high rate of repetitive motion injuries each year as well as a type of pneumonia called parrot fever. An average reported rate of 23 of every 100 workers became seriously ill or injured each year. The first request from the families of the workers killed was for clothing in which to bury their family members.
Public outrage has resulted in a fine of $806,150 by the North Carolina OSHA. However, many believe that federal OSHA penalties would have ranged from $2.8 millio to $10 million. In March, 1992, twenty-five counts of involuntary manslaughter charges were filed against Emmett Roe, owner of Imperial, his son, Brad Roe, director of operations at the plant, and James Hair the plant manager. Each count carries up to ten years in prison.
These charges and fines will not return the 25 workers who lost their lives in Hamlet. The families did not have to loose their mothers and fathers to the open the eyes of politicians to the need of workers for a safe workplace. The true tragedy of Hamlet is that a very similar workplace fire in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Dress factory in New York promted the public awareness of unsafe workplace conditions and a cry to eliminate such firetraps. More than 80 years later, workers perished in a setting that looked like 1911. Clearly, the current laws for worker health and safety are insufficient. All people interested in this issue must monitor the legislative agenda and force a change in OSHA law and its implementation and enforcement. OSHA reform would be a fitting recognition of the supreme sacrifice made by these workers.
It is workplace tragedies like this that OSHA was originally formed and which inspired the formation of COSH groups around the country. Through a local Committee on Occupational Safety and Health organization workers have an additional venue to voice their concerns for workplace safety and health issues. COSH groups are also a way that workers can come together and discuss possible ways of fixing hazardous working conditions by talking about what has worked in other workplaces. These means range from discussing the hazardous situations with other workers, setting up meetings with managment to discuss issues on a regular basis to organizing a union to furthur protect workers rights. There are many possibilities in between as well. COSH groups are forming in many areas around the country and are locally controlled. The National Committees on Occupational Safety and Health [National COSH] can help you if you are thinking of setting up a local group. The National COSH can also put you in contact with a COSH group already in your local area.
24 Hour OSHA Hotline NumberOn October 24, 1991, a 24 hour a day Hotline for workers to report on-the-job hazards without fear of retaliation was started by OSHA. Workers can report such threats as fire hazards, risk of explosion, or potential or actual release of toxic chemicals.