Saturday, September 24, 2005

Sewage House of Horror

One of my first workplace inspections at AFSCME was a wastewater treatment plant following a confined space fatality. In subsequent years, I inspected a number of plants, some terrible and some, well, less terrible. But I don't think I ever came across one as bad as this:
Makeshift catch basins direct flowing rainwater through battered, crumbling ceilings. Workers trudge through moats of raw and semi-treated sewage to repair damaged equipment. Water rises around high-voltage electrical boxes. There's mold. Disease. Flooded tunnels. Open manholes. Chemical spills. Exposed wiring. Human waste.
Unfortunately, the only way to make the public (and public officials) pay attention was for the workers to secretly video conditions at the plant and release them to the media, despite previous complaints to the state's public employee OSHA office.

And, as usual in these cases, harassment of workers accompanies serious health and safety problems:
As early as next week, the union could file health and safety grievances against the county. He also promises to examine the alleged intimidation tactics employed by management to keep workers quiet.

"I'm being told that our employees are being stifled from showing these violations and reporting these violations, and they're being intimidated, coerced and threatened by the superintendent," says [Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 830 of Nassau County]. "Whatever legal resources or whatever we have in our power, we're going to use against that kind of bully management."

[Tim Corr, a CSEA administrative assistant in charge of member health and safety] urges members who witness specific violations but are afraid to report them to OSHA for fear of retribution to file their complaint through the union. Union leaders will put their own names on the form instead of the employees'.

[Peter Gerbasi, Nassau's deputy county executive of parks and public works] says this shows the union "reacting to a small group of disgruntled employees who rather than working to make things better would rather create crises that don't exist."
Damn troublemakers. Grrr!

Actually, if a worker requests it, OSHA complaints are supposed to be kept confidential. Nevertheless,workers are often still intimidated, figuring (often accurately) that management has ways to figure out who filed the complaint. And althouth the Occupational Safety and Health Act(OSHAct) technically protects workers against retaliation for exercising their right, justice is often slow and ineffective.

One of the good things about the OSHAct is that it gives "worker representatives" (unions) certain rights to represent workers -- filing complaints, walking around with OSHA inspectors on inspections, and (limited) participation in any settlement negotiations after the employer is cited.