January 9, 2018 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At Bloomberg, Peter Waldman and Kartikay Mehrotra report on the conditions facing those who work the graveyard shift in America’s meatpacking plants — these are the workers, often undocumented immigrants, who come in to clean up after a long day of processing, butchering and packaging animal meat. The reporters write:

The only slaughterhouse job worse than eviscerating animals is cleaning up afterward. The third-shift workers, as the cleaners are often called, wade through blood and grease and chunks of bone and flesh, racing all night to hose down the plant with disinfectants and scalding water. The stench is unbearable. Many workers retch.

Known as sanitation workers, the job comes with some of the harshest and most dangerous working conditions in America, often exacerbated by the fact that such work is subcontracted out to sanitation companies, allowing the meatpacking parent companies to sidestep responsibility for worker health and safety. The exact number of illnesses and injuries experienced by meatpacking sanitation workers is unknown, as contracted workers often fall through the data-tracking cracks. But Waldman and Mehrotra report that Packers Sanitation Services Inc., the country’s biggest cleaning contractor to the food industry, had the 14th-highest number of severe injuries (defined as amputation, hospitalization or loss of an eye) among the 14,000 companies tracked by OSHA in 29 states from 2015 to September 2016. The reporters write:

To meet output targets, production lines are operating later into the night, leaving fewer hours for sanitation workers to scrub down equipment before morning inspections, says David Greer, who’s managed chicken plants and sanitation crews for Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, Gold Creek, and others since 1991. And the third shift is getting more complex and hazardous as meatpackers add automated blades, belts, and other gear to the nightly steam bath, with many not adding to crew sizes.

“The plant says if you were cleaning it with five people before, you’re cleaning it with five people now,” says Greer.  “These guys are so pressed for time, it creates a big temptation for shortcuts.”

Brent Sherman, 37, couldn’t keep track of all the modifications at Tyson’s meatpacking plant in St. Joseph, Mo. Early one morning in 2015, he was hosing down a Cozzini meat blender, capable of grinding 8,000 pounds at a time, when it did something he didn’t expect. Before starting, Sherman had set the blender’s controls on sanitation mode, ensuring it wouldn’t power up for 60 minutes; safety sensors on the machine were meant to keep it powered off until he reinstalled all the pieces, even if it took him more than an hour.

What he didn’t realize was that someone had disarmed the sensors so it would automatically restart after the sanitation cycle, making it easier—but infinitely more dangerous—to hose down, according to OSHA’s investigation. When the hour was up, the blender suddenly jerked back to life, snagging Sherman’s hose and snapping off both his arms below the elbow.

Visit Bloomberg to read the full investigation.

In other news:

NBC News: Suzy Khimm reports that the number of federal workplace safety inspectors has gone down under the Trump administration, with OSHA losing 40 inspectors via attrition and not filling any vacancies. A Labor Department spokesperson told Khimm that the agency has hired “several additional inspectors” and is trying to recruit many more, but wouldn’t give specific numbers. She quoted David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama years, saying: “It means there’s greater pressure to quickly reach a settlement with the employer, which often means reduced fines. The lack of new inspectors makes OSHA invisible. If employers don’t think OSHA will come, workers are much more likely to be hurt.”

ProPublica: Kiera Feldman reports on the dangerous world of private garbage collection in New York City. Private garbage companies pick up about half the city’s total waste, with many companies paying workers a flat fee regardless of hours worked and offering no benefits. Private-sector waste collection come with a number of occupational hazards — nationally, such jobs are some of the deadliest for workers — but the pressure to work quickly only exacerbates the dangers. Feldman reports that “most everyone has to rush” to meet collection goals, with some shifts including more than 1,000 stops. She writes: “After three years on the job, (Alex) Caban was marked from head to toe. He had a deep scar on his left leg (stitches after glass in a bag sliced open his calf). On his right leg, there was crosshatching below his kneecap (more glass), and below that another scar from the time he missed when jumping onto the back of a Viking Sanitation garbage truck as it hurriedly pulled away (a jump he might have landed had he not been so exhausted at 5 a.m.). Then there was the deep indent on the left side of his head ‘about four inches behind what used to be my hairline,’ Caban explained: A winch once slipped off a Viking container and smashed open his skull.”

USA Today: Brett Murphy investigates the practices of port trucking companies around Los Angeles that push dangerously tired workers to keep driving despite federal safety rules aimed at preventing impaired driving. According to Murphy, the USA Today investigation “shows for the first time that fatigued truckers are a near-constant threat on the roads around America’s busiest ports.” More specifically, reporters analyzed years of data related to the “time stamps” that are created each time a driver enters ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, finding that, on average, trucks were operating without the required driver breaks 470 times per day. In addition, they found the trucks were involved in at least 189 crashes within a day of an extended period on the clock. Murphy writes: “Jose Juan Rodriguez, who drove for Morgan Southern for five years, said he sometimes worked 16-hour shifts for days at a time, a claim the company denied. He kept a bucket of ice water by his seat to splash on his face when he felt himself nodding off. More than once, he said, he found himself hallucinating, a side effect of extreme sleep deprivation.”

PBS Newshour: Rhana Natour reports that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has experienced a four-fold increase in website hits since the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment stories broke last fall. A growing number of companies are looking to strengthen anti-harassment training as well. However, she reports, there’s not much evidence that such training actually works. For example, last year, an EEOC task force found only three studies on the effectiveness of such training, with the most recent one being 15 years old. Natour writes: “Trainings themselves are partly based on the premise that employee education can prevent or at least curb sexual harassment. But Louise Fitzgerald, a psychology professor and sexual harassment researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that ignorance of what constitutes harassment is not the problem. ‘Do you really think that educated grown men need to be taught not to grope their co-workers?’ she said.”

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