July 5, 2016 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At the Detroit Free Press, Jennifer Dixon and Kristi Tanner investigate Michigan’s workplace safety and oversight system and talk to the families of victims who say there’s no justice for workers who’ve been injured or killed on the job. During the year-long investigation, the reporters looked into more than 400 workplace deaths across the state, finding “a flawed system of oversight with penalties against employers so low they’re not a deterrent.”

The article began with the story of Mary Potter, who worked at a group home for people with developmental disabilities. Dixon and Tanner write:

The Clinton Township woman died in February 2014 of blunt force trauma to her head. According to a police report, Potter was assaulted — unprovoked — by a 54-year-old man with Down syndrome.

Eric Smith, Macomb County prosecutor, said the man was charged with second-degree murder but a court dismissed the case after he was found to be permanently incompetent.

MIOSHA cited Macomb Family Services, which operates the Macomb Township home for adults with developmental disabilities, for two record-keeping violations: failing to report the death within eight hours and failing to keep a log of work-related injuries. It proposed $7,000 in penalties and settled for $1,680.

It did not cite the agency for failing to provide a safe workplace, which might have resulted in a willful violation with penalties of up to $70,000 and a referral to the Michigan attorney general for possible criminal prosecution.

MIOSHA said the case didn’t meet federal OSHA criteria for such a citation.

Macomb Family Services officials did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

In contrast, Alaska proposed $75,000 in penalties against an assisted living facility where an employee was beaten and strangled by a resident — a $70,000 willful violation for failing to provide a safe workplace and a $5,000 serious violation for failing to promptly notify the department of the death.

Dixon and Tanner also found that Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) penalties are relatively low compared to other states that run their own workplace safety agencies and that criminal prosecutions related to workplace deaths are rare. For example, of the 418 workplace deaths that MIOSHA has investigated since 2004, just 14 were referred for prosecution. And of the 322 closed cases in which a worker died and MIOSHA determined that violations occurred, the median penalty was just $2,800. Dixon and Tanner write:

Michigan is one of 21 states that operate their own workplace safety agency for public and private sectors. Some of the other states are much tougher than Michigan in levying penalties when a worker is killed.

Minnesota sets minimum penalties when a violation causes or contributes to a death: $25,000 per serious violation and $50,000 per willful violation. In contrast, Michigan has a $200 minimum penalty for a serious violation and a $5,000 minimum penalty for a willful.

Willful violations are issued when an employer is plainly indifferent to employee safety — for example, excavating a trench without protection against a cave-in.

Serious violations are issued when an employer fails to protect against workplace hazards that could cause an injury or illness most likely to result in death or serious harm. Examples include no eye protection for flying particles and corrosive liquids or welding near flammable liquids.

“I can’t think of a more insulting thing than to tell someone, ‘Your spouse’s life was worth $1,500 in fines. It’s offensive,” said Minnesota Sen. John Marty, who sponsored the legislation setting the minimum penalties more than a decade ago.

To read the full investigation, visit the Detroit Free Press.

In other news:

Slate: Kathleen McLaughlin and Noy Thrupkaew investigate the dangerous, often life-threatening conditions inside China’s fireworks factories, which produce about 90 percent of the world’s fireworks. The story begins with Huang Mingwei, who worked in the Nanyang Export Fireworks Factory in China’s Hunan province and was left with burns over 70 percent of her body after an explosion in the factory. The authors write: “For decades, China’s fireworks industry has been plagued by deadly accidents. By 2009, the government began scaling back production and ramping up safety checks in Hunan and surrounding areas. But as late as 2014, the same year as the Nanyang explosion, Wang Haoshui, chief engineer with China’s State Administration of Workplace Safety, told a Chinese newspaper that fireworks continued to be the country’s second-most dangerous industry, right behind coal mining. Between 1986 and 2005, an average of 400 people were killed every year making fireworks in China, according to official data published in Chinese media. But coal mines, where 931 workers were killed in 2014 according to Chinese government data, get far more attention.”

Santa Fe New Mexican: Andrew Oxford reports that the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled last week that farm and ranch employers must provide workers’ compensation insurance, striking down a state law that had exempted such employers from offering workplace injury coverage. The case was brought by two workers who had been injuried on the job: Maria Angelica Aguirre, who was working as a chile picker when she slipped and broke her wrist; and Noe Rodriguez, a dairy farm worker who sustained a brain injury after being hit by a cow. Oxford writes: “In the majority decision, (Justice Edward) Chavez noted state law requires employers to provide workers’ compensation coverage for laborers who process and package agricultural products but not for laborers who harvest those products in the field. The distinction, he wrote, amounts to discrimination and violates a section of the New Mexico Constitution guaranteeing ‘equal protection of the laws.’”

The Hill: In a blog post, Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow with the National Employment Law Project, writes about the new increase in OSHA penalties — previously, the agency’s penalties had been among the lowest across federal regulatory agencies. For example, she writes that the Federal Communications Commission can fine a TV station up to $325,000 for indecent content; in contrast, the maximum fine OSHA could levy against an employer for serious violations that could result in physical harm or death was just $7,000. But with the recent change, maximum OSHA fines will increase by about 80 percent. It’s the first hike in OSHA penalties in more than two decades. Berkowitz writes: “Even with today’s increase, the fines are still low in comparison to other federal agencies. But it is a step in the right direction.”

Detroit Free Press: Jennifer Dixon reports that OSHA has awarded Theresa Ely, a school janitor, more than $193,000 in damages and lost wages after determining that her employer had retaliated against her for complaining about asbestos exposure in Michigan’s Dearborn Heights School District No. 7. Dixon reports that Ely and another janitor were told to dry-sand tiles and only learned that the tiles contained asbestos afterward. Also, the workers said they had never received proper training on dealing with asbestos. Dixon writes: “Federal OSHA ordered the district to pay her $8,139 in lost wages and $185,000 for emotional distress, future medical bills and loss of her reputation and humiliation stemming from the district ‘deliberately labeling her a troublemaker’ in district-wide emails and ‘subsequently refusing to retract this statement when in possession of multiple reports indicating her concerns were legitimate,’ OSHA said in its report.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

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