Only strong worker organizing can guarantee that jobs in the so-called green economy will be healthy and safe for workers.
Former Worksafe Executive Director Gail Bateson contributed to this op-ed, which originally appeared on Alternet on March 30, 2016.
Americans have made a decision: We’re throwing away the throwaway economy. Curbside recycling is available in more than 9,000 municipalities, and one-third of America’s waste stream is now diverted from landfills.
It’s great that we’re conserving raw materials, saving money and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions. Now it’s time to make another decision: We need to raise pay and improve working conditions for recycling workers. These are green jobs and good for the environment. But they are also dangerous, with high rates of serious injury and even the risk of death.
On March 1, a 42-year-old worker was killed at a Waste Management recycling plant in northeast Philadelphia, crushed to death under a one-ton bale of paper.
Ironically, on the very same day, across the country, a Bay Area recycling firm was honored by workers and community leaders for “dramatically improving working conditions.” At an interfaith luncheon, the Sierra Club’s Ruth Abbey recognized Chris Valbusa, general manager of Alameda County Industries (ACI), for the firm’s efforts to partner with its workforce in creating safe, sustainable jobs.
ACI and Waste Management are both private companies. Like nearly all recycling firms, however, their workers are paid by us, the taxpayers, through contracts awarded by local governments.
When you drop a newspaper, bottle or food waste in a recycling bin, it’s good to know it stays out of a landfill, but do you know much about what happens next? Unfortunately, the hazardous work of recycling can be hidden by employers who cut corners on safety and exploit workers.
Long before a worker was killed at Waste Management’s Philadelphia facility, the Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH) had received reports of workers getting sick on the job. We heard stories about dizziness, nausea and workers coughing up blood and black mucous.
You’d be surprised to see some of the stuff that winds up in a recycling bin, including syringes, toxic chemicals, animal carcasses and even human waste. A 2015 study by public health experts found that recycling workers are injured on the job more than twice as often as workers in other U.S. industries. Among other findings: 15 recycling workers died on the job in a two-year period between 2011 and 2013.
Facing such hazards, it’s critical that these workplaces have active health and safety programs that involve workers. Among other requirements, workers need proper training in materials handling, access to gloves and other personal protective equipment, and good ventilation.
At the Waste Management facility in Philadelphia, we learned that a large proportion of workers were temps, assigned by an agency called Centrix Staffing. To check the company’s approach to safety, we asked a Spanish-speaking colleague to apply for work there. He was shown a short training video—in English—and deemed ready for assignment, with no evidence that he understood the material presented to him.
The incident was captured on film and can be seen in the excellent documentary film, A Day’s Work, which details the hazards, including risk of fatal injury, faced by workers in America’s growing temp industry.
Across the country in Alameda County, recycling workers at ACI were also temps until 16 months ago. Frustrated by poor conditions and low pay, workers began an organizing campaign with support from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The effort included legal action to enforce living wage laws. Workers also attended classes on their own time to learn about safety and their rights on the job at trainings provided by the University of California’s Labor Occupational and Health Program. In addition, a labor community coalition, including Worksafe, joined workers to contact elected officials in communities where ACI has recycling contracts.
ACI responded in a positive way to the growing pressure. The company dropped the temp agency and made the workers real employees. In October 2014, ACI’s recycling workers voted to join ILWU. Instead of fighting the outcome, ACI management negotiated a fair agreement with a bargaining committee elected by workers.
The results have transformed pay and working conditions at ACI. Previous wages of $8 an hour will reach over $20 an hour by July 2019. Workers also now earn sick pay, vacations, holidays and health insurance for their families. And safety has improved dramatically, thanks to an active health and safety committee that meets every three months—with a strong voice for workers.
This remarkable story of progress shows a clear path to reducing illness and injury on the job and preventing future tragedies. Listen to workers. Respect their right to organize. Support smart, effective labor-management cooperation.
The people who handle our recyclables work for us. Let’s treat them with the dignity they deserve.
Gail Bateson is the former executive director at WorkSafe, based in Oakland, CA.
Barbara Rahke is executive director of PhilaPOSH and board chair of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
Reclaim Labor! Reclaim Lives!
Oakland-based Collaborative, Worksafe, Street Level, and Centro Legal de la Raza to Host Workers Memorial Day Event, April 28th, 2016
Oakland, CA – An Oakland collaborative of community and advocacy organizations, Worksafe, Street Level Health Project, and Centro Legal de la Raza will host a Workers Memorial Day event on April 28th, 2016 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in Oakland. Workers, advocates, and allies will meet at the Lake Merritt Amphitheatre located between 12th Street and 1st Ave. on Lake Merritt Blvd. in Downtown Oakland. Participants will then march in solidarity to City Hall located at 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. At 5:30 p.m. at 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, there will be a short memorial program featuring workers, labor, government agencies, and advocates. A moment of silence will be observed to mourn workers who passed in the workplace in the prior year.Read more...
17 Recent Fatalities; Workers Injured at Twice the Average Rate
East Bay Workers Take Action to Make Jobs Safer
OAKLAND, CA - A new report, released Tuesday, June 23 by environmental, occupational safety, and community benefits experts, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, finds that recycling work is unnecessarily hazardous to workers’ health and safety.
Seventeen American recycling workers died on the job from 2011 to 2013, including at least three in California. Recycling workers are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker.Read more...
Health, Firefighter, Consumer and Science Groups Seek Ban on Household Products With Toxic Chemical Flame Retardants
97% of U.S. residents at risk from toxic organohalogen flame retardants in their bodies
Washington, D.C. — Today, a broad coalition of health, firefighter, consumer and science groups filed a petition asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban four categories of consumer products—children’s products, furniture, mattresses and the casings around electronics—if they contain any flame retardant in the chemical class known as organohalogens. Petitioners include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Hispanic Medical Association, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Learning Disabilities Association of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Worksafe, Dr. Philip J. Landrigan and the Green Science Policy Institute.
Workplace safety is one of the core issues of concern for the thousands of refinery workers who went on strike February 1 at plants in Texas, California, Washington, and Kentucky. The workers are members of the United Steelworkers (USW), and say their employers— LyondellBasell, Marathon Oil, and Royal Dutch Shell—put lives at risk with excessive work hours, delayed maintenance, and production pressure. Their previous contract was negotiated and approved in 2012.
“Union members believe it is time to take a stand,” USW spokesperson Lynn Hancock told the Houston Chronicle. “If we don’t, our people will continue to get injured and killed on the job.” The last time there was a walk-out of this magnitude by the USW was 1980.
Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released preliminary data on the number of work-related fatalities for 2013; final figures are due out next spring. While the overall trend nationwide indicates both a lower number of deaths (4,405) and rate of fatal incidents (3.2 per 100/000 workers) compared to 2012 figures, California moved in the opposite direction: more workers killed and a startling increase in deaths among Latino workers.
The preliminary number of deaths for California in 2012 was 339, which was later revised up to 375; the preliminary figure for 2013 is already at 385 deaths. We can reasonably expect the final count to surpass 400.
On April 15, 2013, 26-year-old temporary worker David Eleidjian never came home from his job at a Bay Point industrial manufacturing facility. The Iraq war veteran and recent father was caught and pulled into an unguarded spinning shaft, and died later at the hospital.
Four days later, in Santa Rosa, 21-year-old Hugo Tapia also left for his temp work position, at the glass company his father had worked at for decades. He too never returned. Only two weeks into the job, he was crushed by heavy, unsecured glass that fell off an A-frame rack.
In October, amid the tensions of a BART strike brought on in part by concerns over worker safety, BART employee Chris Sheppard and consultant Laurence Daniels were inspecting a dip in the tracks near the Walnut Creek station. They were struck and killed by a train on a maintenance run, driven by a student trainee likely being instructed in the event of a prolonged strike.
On September 4, 2013, Ellen Widess resigned from her position as Chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), also known as Cal/OSHA. Worksafe and many of our allies among unions, worker centers, and OSH professionals were caught off guard by the news; even more startling was the characterization of the OSH community’s reaction by the Cal-OSHA Reporter, which claimed that “both employer and labor representatives were practically jubilant at the news.” Worksafe was the only organization that was quoted on the record; we praised her work in carrying out the mission of the agency: to protect the health and safety of California workers.
A little more than a week later, the Cal-OSHA Reporter printed a handful of letters from agency staff, worker advocate organizations, and OSH professionals who supported her record and chastised the publication for its biased reporting. The Cal-OSHA Reporter mentioned in passing but did not print any of the letters from organized labor. Her detractors remain unidentified.
Workers Memorial Day Event in Oakland Honors Those Who Died at Work in 2012: Event and annual report mark the 26th anniversary of Workers Memorial Day in the United States
Oakland, CA – Eva Macias thrived for 13 years working at the San Leandro Waste Management recycling and transfer plant. On June 18, 2012, she was hit by a front-end loader and killed. Overly informal driving rules, insufficient training, and lack of a traffic control system were to blame, according to Cal/OSHA.
46-year-old Anita Paratley was one of more than 12 female San Francisco firefighters in the Richmond district to be diagnosed with breast cancer. She began to wonder if her work was related. “When you don’t see the heat and the smoke dies down, you think you’re safe,” she says. But, the process of cleaning up and checking for hot spots after the fire takes several hours, and all the while, workers are exposed to hazardous gases and soot as materials smolder.Read more...