Thursday, June 19, 2008

Basha's Spotlighted in Hill Testimony on Unsafe Working Conditions

Basha's, Inc., a major Arizona grocery chain, was spotlighted today on Capitol Hill for unsafe and illegal employment practices at its distribution center.

A. C. Span, a former Basha's employee "outsourced" for focusing managers' attention on workplace accidents and hazards, was among a panel of sworn expert witnesses testifying before the House Committee on Education and Labor on governments' underreporting of workplace injuries. The hearing on "Hidden Tragedy: Underreporting of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses," viewable in Phoenix by webcast, repeatedly emphasized that US government data systematically under-report anywhere from 30% to 60% of workplace injuries.

It also highlighted the Bureau of Labor Statistics/OSHA practice of interviewing only employers, not employees, in field data collection on workplace injuries and work-related illnesses.

Today's hearing disclosed numerous methodological discrepancies among OSHA, Workers' Compensation, and BLS in how they define work-related injuries and in what sources they utilize to determine how many and what types occur each year. While Workers'Compensation data are far more extensive than OSHA's data, definitions among the 50 state workers' comp databases and OSHA's about what constitutes a reportable injury or illness and how each is defined vary widely. Further skews result because many workers--including the self-employed--are not included at all.

The hearing revealed also that there are wide descrepancies between hospital records and employer records on the same case, yet government data rely exclusively on logs and reports employers maintain at the worksite. For instance, one panelist noted that BLS missed 67% of amputations that occurred in one year in Michigan.

Committee Chairman George Miller was visibly incredulous when told that BLS investigators do not routinely also interview employees when on data-gathering site visits to the "establishments" included in its database. (An employer such as Basha's can operate numerous establishments, or worksites.)

Span's under-oath testimony was particularly relevant in offsetting one panelist's assertion that employers have no incentive to under-report because already, under current practices, US employers are likely to be investigated only once in 100 years.

Span's testimony made clear that fear of investigation is not the only reason some employers intentionally deflate worker injury counts at their establishments. Some employers, for instance, offer incentives and bonuses to company physicians, HR personnel, and others to turn in low counts. Others punish workers for injuries or related complaints. Others expect company physicians to certify workers to return to work before they are recovered, and others use worker team incentives that discourage one member from reporting an injury in order to preserve rewards for other team members.

Span stated that Basha's point system can penalize workers who report injuries, miss work because of injuries, seek ways to work with managers to minimize accidents, or attempt to organize the workplace as a way to ensure worker safety. He testified that points can be deducted for "infractions" such as reporting injuries, with consequences ranging from "light duty" to termination. An employee placed on "light duty" will almost certainly see his or her hourly rate slashed to minimum wage for the duration--regardless of cause of injury or seniority.

Span, testifing under oath, stated that when he and co-workers approached managers to institute a safety committee, office doors were literally slammed in their faces. Span is among several workers whose jobs at Basha's disappeared overnight through outsourcing when, they allege, they sought managers' cooperation in addressing worksite hazards ranging from inadequate training for operating heavy forklift equipment in high traffic areas to nails on floors. Span stated that it can take 5 to 6 months to become proficient in operating a forklift in warehouse-like conditions where other workers are in the immediate vicinity.

Span testified to toe amputations, smashed fingers, and other serious injuries at the Basha's distribution facility. He himself was injured in the immediate presence of his supervisor when debris from a truck he was unloading flew into his eye. Workers are not provided safety glasses at the Basha's facility. Span was given points for reporting his injury, and testified that it was not included on the establishment's OSHA log. He also alledged that the facility has even hired heavy equipment operators who don't have drivers' licenses.

The hearing noted that probably 90% of US employers try to provide accurate and fair workplace safety reports. Those who don't not only skew national data, but also are highly unlikely to address safety concerns. Even recording near misses and first-aid cases can help conscientious employers develop accident prevention methods. Employers who low-ball accident reports thus also low-ball national prevention strategies.

Unsafe workplace practices can also be seen as a kind of unfair "cost-savings" competition against others in the same industry.

For more on Basha's, see the "Hungry for Justice" campaign organized by Interfaith Worker Justice AZ, a coalition of people of faith to encourage safe, humane, fair, and healthy worker policies. (IWJ-AZ is not affiliated with any union.)