Special Report-U.S. regulators ignored workers’ COVID-19 safety complaints amid deadly outbreaks

 

By Chris Kirkham and Benjamin Lesser, Thomson Reuters

via The Mighty 790 KFGO | KFGO (ND) | Jan 6, 2021

 

Fargo, ND, USA / (Reuters) - Miguel Cabezola, a driver for United Parcel Service Inc in Tucson, Arizona, complained on March 27 to U.S. workplace safety regulators, alleging the company was taking a lax approach to social distancing, sanitizing equipment and quarantining workers with COVID-19 symptoms. He hoped for an inspection of the facility that would force changes to protect worker safety.

 

Instead, the state arm of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) summarized Cabezola's concerns in an email to company management, reviewed the UPS response and closed the file.

 

Over the next two months, a COVID-19 outbreak infected more than 40 Tucson UPS workers - including a manager who eventually died - and caused delivery delays throughout southern Arizona, according to interviews with six Tucson UPS workers and local union officials of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

 

Cabezola's complaint to the regulator, along with that of another worker in May, had "zero effect," said Karla Schumann, head of the local Teamsters union representing UPS workers. Asked about the outbreak, UPS expressed regret about the manager's death and said it has strengthened protocols requiring social distancing and sanitation since the early days of the pandemic.

 

The UPS outbreak is among dozens of cases identified by Reuters where OSHA largely disregarded workers who reported lax pandemic safety practices, according to agency records.

 

Reuters identified the workplace outbreaks through federal, state and local government data and news accounts detailing infections and deaths. The news agency examined the regulatory response through OSHA data on complaints filed by workers and records of resulting inspections.

 

Reuters identified 106 U.S. workplaces where employees complained of slipshod pandemic safety practices around the time of outbreaks - and regulators either never inspected the facilities or, in some cases, waited months to do so, according to the OSHA records. The agency never inspected 70 of those workplaces, where at least 4,500 workers were infected by the coronavirus and 26 died after contracting COVID-19, according to the Reuters analysis.

 

The workers' regulatory complaints came from a cross-section of companies that included some of America's best-known firms, including Tesla Inc and Tyson Foods Inc .

 

As of mid-December, just 12 of the 106 facilities have been penalized in response to workers' complaints. The complaints came from a wide range of workplaces, from meatpacking plants and factories to e-commerce warehouses and nursing homes. Their employees alleged failures to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing; managers pressuring sick employees to work; and a lack of notification to employees about co-workers' infections.

 

The 106 cases represent a sample of how OSHA has responded to the public health crisis. Reuters was unable to conduct a comprehensive examination of how the agency responded to safety complaints, infections and deaths because most state and local governments do not track or publicize data on workplace outbreaks.

 

UPS spokesman Matt O'Connor said the company's safety practices have evolved over time as health authorities updated public guidance about COVID-19 and as personal protective equipment became more available after early shortages. The company, he said, had appropriate infection-control protocols in place at the time the manager died. He said UPS takes "swift action" in response to workers' reports of lax safety practices.

 

The federal agency's acting leader, Loren Sweatt, said in a statement that the allegations in the cases the news organization cited do not reflect the totality of OSHA's efforts to keep workers safe and "unfairly disparage dedicated OSHA inspectors across the country."

 

Trevor Laky, a spokesman for Arizona's OSHA affiliate, said the agency was not aware of the Tucson UPS manager's death until Reuters inquired about it in December.

 

All companies are required to report work-related deaths to OSHA. O'Connor, of UPS, said the firm did not report the manager's death from COVID-19 - amid a workplace outbreak - because its own contact tracing determined that the manager had not been in close contact with infected employees.

 

Laky, of Arizona OSHA, said the agency has no plans to investigate the matter further after UPS told regulators that the death was not work-related.

 

OSHA is the nation's workplace safety watchdog, tasked with preventing on-the-job injuries and illnesses. Federal OSHA enforces workplace safety in about half of the states, while OSHA-affiliated state agencies carry out those duties in the rest of the country. State OSHA agencies are overseen by state governors and the federal agency and must, at a minimum, enforce federal workplace safety regulations.

 

When OSHA agencies receive worker complaints, officials decide whether to conduct inspections that can lead to fines and requirements to address dangerous working conditions. But regulators never inspected nearly two-thirds of the 106 workplaces where Reuters identified outbreaks, according to the OSHA data on worker complaints and agency workplace inspections.

 

Some of the remaining workplaces received an inspection months after the disease struck, often following negative publicity over outbreaks that sometimes included deaths. Of the 106 workplaces examined by Reuters, 27 had workers who died from COVID-19. OSHA inspected fewer than half of those 27 workplaces - despite agency guidelines saying COVID-19 fatalities should receive top priority.

 

Overall, federal and state OSHA agencies have conducted 44% fewer workplace inspections between March - when coronavirus started to spread widely in the United States - and the end of December, compared to the same period in 2019. The declining inspections came despite what one OSHA official, during congressional testimony in May, called a big increase in worker complaints because of the pandemic.

 

Even in workplaces that OSHA has designated as "high exposure risk" for COVID-19 infection - mostly healthcare facilities - few complaints lead to inspections. OSHA has closed out complaints from about 1,800 hospitals and nursing homes nationwide, but only about 15% of them have been inspected so far during the pandemic, the Reuters review of OSHA data shows. OSHA fined about one in five of those inspected facilities.

 

In a written statement, federal OSHA said...

 

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https://kfgo.com/2021/01/06/special-report-u-s-regulators-ignored-workers-covid-19-safety-complaints-amid-deadly-outbreaks/

 

 

Brazilian workers exposed to infections and death as meat-processing industry reaps record profits

 

Tomas Castanheira, World Socialist Web Site (WSWS)

Jan 5, 2021

 

Brazil entered the year 2021 surpassing the terrible milestone of 195,000 COVID-19 deaths. This death toll, exceeded only by the United States, is growing at a ferocious pace, with the highest number of deaths since mid-August being recorded on December 29, 1,224 in total.

 

Amid this spiral of deaths, workplaces and economic activities in general remain entirely open. A recent coronavirus outbreak in a meat-processing plant in Brazil’s southern region sounds the alarm over the serious dangers confronting the working class.

 

On December 19, a plant owned by Seara in Seberi, in the northern region of Rio Grande do Sul, received a court order to test all its employees after 127 of them tested positive for COVID-19. The facility employs 1,241 workers in total, all of whom have potentially been exposed to the virus.

 

A number of criminal conditions in the operation of the plant led to the mass infection of workers. Rio Grande do Sul’s Public Ministry of Labor (MPT-RS), which filed a lawsuit against the company, found: “[S]ymptomatic employees who continued working; absence of dismissals from work in 157 cases of outpatient care related to symptoms compatible with COVID-19, of which 19 were related to members of risk groups; dismissal orders for periods of less than 14 days in 43 cases, of which 32 remained less than 10 days away from work; increase in the rhythm and working hours, reaching shifts of more than 12 hours a day... .”

 

Since November, the company summoned women up to 27 months pregnant to work. The MPT’s lawsuit states that two pregnant workers were seen in the company’s outpatient clinic, presenting symptoms of COVID-19, and were advised to continue working. The same occurred with workers with comorbidities such as obesity, hypertension and heart disease.

 

Workers treated by the municipal health care system, who were on medical leave waiting for the results of their COVID-19 exams, were harassed by the company, given “rapid tests” in their own homes, and forced to return to work if the result was negative. There were cases of workers who tested negative, returned to the factory, and then had infections confirmed in the RT-PCR test, “a serious conduct that propitiates the explosion of contamination in the facility,” the MPT noted.

 

These facts reveal in a sinister way how the company’s management consciously adopted a policy that leads to the systematic contamination of workers. This policy is not restricted, however, to the Seberi plant.

 

Referring to the functioning of the meat-packing industry as a whole, the MPT’s lawsuit observes: “Despite being an activity where hygiene is essential, the focus of these sanitary measures is on the product, and the way the work is developed in these companies exposes the workers to a risk of contagion considerably higher than in other activities: It has a large number of employees, who work remarkably closely, in closed, humid and air-conditioned environments, are transported by the defendant’s vehicles, in confinement over long distances and can crowd both at the beginning and end of the workday (and at rest stops).”

 

The meat-processing plants were responsible for spreading COVID-19 not only among their own workers, but throughout municipalities and entire regions of Brazil. In Rio Grande do Sul, which concentrates an important part of this industry, these impacts are striking.

 

The World Socialist Web Site spoke to the MPT-RS prosecutor who filed the lawsuit against Seara, Priscila Dibi Schvarz, also a member of the MPT’s national project on meat industry working conditions. Schvarz said:

 

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https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/01/06/braz-j06.html