Questions And Anxiety Mount Over COVID-19 Workplace Safety As More Businesses Reopen Friday, May 29 2020 

Gail Fleck is a school cafeteria worker in the greater Cincinnati area and lives with her 90-year-old father. She loves her job because she gets to work with kids. But she is worried she won’t be able to keep her dad safe if her work exposes her to the coronavirus and she unknowingly brings it home. 

“I’m scared, I’m worried. I feel like, we’re talking about life and death here and this is my father,” she said. 

Fleck, who didn’t want to name her workplace, said she hasn’t been back to work since before the schools went on spring break. When she ran out of sick days, she stopped receiving a paycheck. 

“I’ve just worked very hard at keeping myself and my father at home and not going out,” she said. 

Workers like Fleck across the Ohio Valley face difficult choices now that states are gradually reopening workplaces. Many don’t feel safe going back to work, and adding to the anxiety is the uncertainty about the enforcement of safety standards for businesses that are reopening. During pointed questioning at a Congressional hearing Thursday a top official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not able to say how many workplaces are seeing cases of COVID-19.  

Who Keeps Workers Safe?

OSHA is the main federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety standards. Ohio and West Virginia are among roughly half the states where OSHA has direct oversight of most work safety regulations. Kentucky is among the states with a federally approved work safety program administered by the state. The Kentucky Labor Cabinet said it is working with businesses to ensure they are complying with Kentucky’s minimum requirements.

“Notes of Deficiency, and if necessary, orders to cease operations will be issued to businesses that demonstrate they are not making substantive efforts to comply with the reopening requirements,” Kentucky Labor Cabinet Chief of Staff Marjorie Arnold said in an email.

Some work safety advocates have criticized the federal OSHA’s lack of involvement in workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.

Safety and Health Program Director at the left-leaning nonprofit National Employment Law Project, Deborah Berkowitz, said OSHA should be taking more action to help keep workers safe. 

“The sad reality is that OSHA is failing here,” Berkowitz said. “They’ve actually just walked away from this whole pandemic and decided that though they could, they’re not going to do any enforcement. They’re not going to issue any mandates that are requirements, and instead, they’ll issue a poster or publication.”

Berkowitz was previously chief of staff and senior policy adviser for OSHA under the Obama administration. She advises if employers are not following the Centers for Disease Control guidance, the employee should file a complaint with OSHA. 

“Even though they’re not going to go out and do an inspection, I think they will call the employer and say a complaint has been filed,” Berkowitz said.  

She also said local health departments should be notified, in order for community spread to be prevented. Ultimately, Berkowitz said localities need to be smart about reopening and not sacrifice the safety of workers for the health of the economy. 

“But if you cut corners, and say that employers can do whatever they want at work, then most likely, you will see what’s happening in meatpacking plants and poultry plants right now around the country, and that is the spread of this disease will whip like wildfires around the workplace and back into the community,” she said. 

Heated Hearing

In an Education and Labor Committee House hearing Thursday witnesses with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were questioned about their role in keeping workers safe in the era of COVID-19. 

Principal Deputy Secretary of OSHA Loren Sweatt defended her agency’s decision against a new regulatory standard on coronavirus safety.

In questions from Democrats on the panel Sweatt was not able to say how many workplaces have reported cases of coronavirus. She also told the committee that a lawsuit against the agency, filed by the AFL-CIO, prevented her from answering some questions about OSHA’s actions. 

Sweatt said there have been at least 1,374 whistleblower COVID-19 complaints as of May 26. However, none of those businesses have been sanctioned for retaliation against employees. She said there’s no statute of limitations on investigations of those complaints. 

“While investigations are ongoing I can tell you in certain circumstances, we have seen resolution almost immediately when the whistleblower calls to initiate the investigation,” Sweatt said. 

Sweatt clarified that a resolution means a worker getting their job back as well as back pay after allegedly being punished by their employer for making a complaint to OSHA. 

NIOSH Director John Howard said his organization has just started tracking coronavirus cases in the workplace, about two months after the virus was declared a pandemic. 

“We have been getting better at tracking occupation and industry for COVID-19 cases,” he said. “We have a new case report form that we are hoping that the states will start using.”

Howard said NIOSH is now beginning to track coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants. Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have all seen large outbreaks in meat processing facilities as workers try to keep up with soaring demand from consumers. 

Back To Work

Ohio Valley workers are left to navigate a lot of uncertainty as many of them return to work amid health and safety concerns. And some state actions appear to limit an employees’ options. For example, in Ohio, the state’s Department of Job and Family Services now has a form online where employers can report employees who quit or refuse to work due to concerns about COVID-19. Officials in Ohio say the form has always been available online but has only changed focus so employers can report workers who use the fear of contracting the virus as a reason for not wanting to return to work. 

Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have been working to reopen their economies a few sectors at a time. The first sector to reopen was healthcare. Now restaurants are opening to in-person dining, as well as recreational activities, fitness centers, and cosmetology services. Many of the facilities aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic, with limited occupancy and increased personal protective equipment for customers and workers. 

Tom Tsai is an assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute. 

“The overall message, though is more important than the thresholds for reopening, is that this is not an on-off switch, but really a dial,” he said. “The states need to really consider having very clear metrics on what success or failure looks like.”

Tsai said there is already some “social distancing fatigue” people are feeling and that’s why it’s important to get the policy correct now.

“Because in some ways, once the floodgates open, in terms of trying to return to normal, it’s going to be very hard to reinstitute social distancing measures,” he said.

Former Workers Say Ky. State Fair’s Ride Provider Lacks Safety Training Monday, Aug 19 2019 

Amina Elahi

The 2019 Kentucky State Fair

The Fireball ride had been running for just over an hour at the 2018 Kentucky State Fair when something went wrong, and ride operator Duanne Haywood and a few other workers went underneath.

Within minutes, Haywood was pinned, his body bent in half under the weight of the ride.

Haywood was tasked with setting up and running the controversial ride by his employer, North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), last summer at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds.

“I was excited because I mean, that’s the ride that I learned on,” Haywood said. “It’s a ride that I enjoy setting up and a ride that I enjoy running.”

But soon he would be fighting to catch his breath as several of the Fireball’s other ride operators were scrambling to shut it down again and lift up one of the ride’s heaviest platforms to save Haywood’s life.

The NAME subsidiary that runs Kentucky’s fair, All-Star Amusement, was initially fined $7,000 by Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health inspectors for three serious violations after Haywood’s injury. Worker safety inspectors found employees were given deficient training and had deficient procedures for its machines, state records show.

KY OSH also found that NAME All-Star Amusement had not inspected its Fireball ride since 2015 not even after a fairgoer died in Ohio after a Fireball gondola run by a different ride company detached.

Haywood’s injury at last summer’s state fair was one of 19 the company reported last year, and one of 70 since 2014, according to the company’s injury logs provided by Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health. Records don’t show how many of those injuries occurred in Kentucky, and the subsidiary runs fairs in at least seven states.

But overall, the injuries caused 150 days of total missed work for the amusement company’s employees since 2014.

Ian Cox, a spokesperson from the Kentucky Exposition Center, said the Fair Board has been in a working relationship with NAME for 13 years but was not aware of NAME All-Star Amusement’s worker injury record.

“When we have one reported incident made to the fair board, it’s of concern and of interest in understanding what happened,” Cox said.

Lynda Franc, NAME’s corporate marketing director, touted the company’s safety measures in an emailed statement.

“NAME has always invested in being industry leaders with our safety checks, regulations and training,” Franc said. “Additionally, we are very proud to say that our safety procedures and protocols are the most comprehensive in the industry.”

But three former NAME All-Star Amusement employees told KyCIR they never received formal training.

“Training? What’s that?” Haywood said with a chuckle.

Seventy Worker Injuries In Five Years

Companies like NAME All-Star Amusement are required to maintain logs of their recordable incidents, which range from minor episodes like slipping and falling on stairs to more severe accidents like having a limb severed.

OSHA is only required to investigate claims that result in hospitalization, amputation or death.

Ken Martin, a safety analyst and consultant for the amusement ride industry, says the number of injuries by the company running Kentucky’s state fair is hard to put into context because severity matters, and the logs don’t always explain how serious an injury was.

But 70 injuries in five years suggests a trend, he said.

“You have to understand, there’s no way to keep track of their safety record,” Martin said. “There’s no system in place that requires [NAME] to report under the penalty or the authority of law. I mean, when somebody gets hurt, the only reason they talk about it is because somebody found out about it.”

Haywood’s injury made the news within a few days: reports said the Fireball was immediately removed from fairgrounds property after Haywood was taken to the hospital. A NAME spokesperson told one local TV station that Haywood was hurt during set up of the ride.

The Fireball had opened at noon on the third day of the state fair. Kentucky Department of Agriculture records show it was inspected two days before.

The ride inspectors are focused on patron safety, and those records show that inspectors were not satisfied with what they saw at the time of the inspection.

The Fireball was given three “remarks” in the “structural integrity” portion of the inspection. The inspector offered five notes on necessary fixes: properly pin/key all support beams, properly pin and secure hydraulic cylinders, properly repair cracks in tubing above hydraulic cylinder, properly repair corroded decking and properly pin and secure deck hardware.

Haywood remembers the difficulty they had setting up the ride. He took a video on his cellphone showing rusty water pouring out of one part of the ride.

“Geez, there was so much wrong on that ride,” Haywood said.

But the inspection record shows the ride was passed. Kentucky Department of Agriculture spokesperson Sean Southard said that does not mean the ride could have opened unless the issues were fixed.

“KDA inspectors pass rides when and only when those comments have been addressed,” Southard said. “Upon those remarks being addressed, KDA checks the pass box afterwards and then places a KDA inspection sticker on the ride.”

Inspectors verified that the remarks had been addressed before the ride opened on Aug. 18, Southard said.

The passed inspection is dated Aug. 16; the next inspection came with the “stop order” the Department of Agriculture issued after Haywood was hurt.

Within an hour and a half of opening the ride, problems had emerged. One of the ride’s movable platforms was not raising all the way up, and hydraulic fluid was leaking from underneath the platform. Patrons were walked off the ride while workers looked into it, state records show.

Haywood and his coworkers went under the ride, he said, and it was determined the leak was caused by a faulty O-ring.

Haywood said he asked his coworkers to bring braces to hold the platform up. But the maintenance worker began replacing the O-ring immediately.

“Before [my co-workers] could put the braces in, [the maintenance employee] just pulled the valve out,” Haywood said. “And that’s when it came down on me.”

Haywood said pulling the valve out caused the ride to lose pressure and fall. When the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health inspectors investigated later, that agency’s report deemed the reason for the platform’s drop “currently unknown.”

Haywood was pinned underneath the ride sitting up.The force of the ride began to push his head toward his feet.

Haywood said it felt like “forever,” and he was quickly losing his breath.

“If it wasn’t for those three guys that were working with me, I would not have been here today,” he said.

Only Haywood was trapped, and the others were able to lift the heavy platform up just enough to place blocks underneath. Haywood fell over and laid down on one side before he was transported to the University of Louisville Hospital.

Haywood suffered three broken vertebrae in his back and spent six days in the hospital.

Submitted

Duanne Haywood ziplining, before he says the accident at the fair prevented him from doing these types of activities.

A year removed from the incident, he still suffers from extreme back pain, can’t stand or walk around for very long and has been told he won’t be able to lift more than 20 pounds for the rest of his life.

Back in South Africa, where he’s from, Haywood can no longer fill his free time with fishing, off-road motorbiking and bungee jumping like he used to.

“My life has come to a complete halt,” he said.

The Fireball ride is not operating at this year’s fair. A company spokesperson said all their Fireballs have been sold.

Training Lacking, Former Workers Say

Two of the violations KY OSH issued to NAME were for deficient training in how to lock out the hydraulic energy sources on the Fireball ride, and for having deficient machine-specific procedures for not using blocks or jacks to block energy sources during maintenance of the ride.

Haywood and other former NAME employees said none of those violations come as a surprise to them.

Among the other 2018 injuries the company logged during its tour through the United States:

  • Three times, NAME employees were injured by the Tilt-A-Whirl.
  • In May 2018, an employee injured his back when the ride sign for the Starship fell on him while the ride was being disassembled.
  • In July 2018, employee was struck in the head by the 1001 Nights ride “while he was cleaning himself off from customer’s vomit.”

Former employees told KyCIR they felt the work environment was unsafe.

According to three former employees, training at NAME consists of learning from the ride operators who have worked on specific rides for a year or two.

“After you’ve been on a ride for a day or two and they see nobody’s gotten hurt or whatever,” Haywood says, “one of the bosses pitches up with a piece of paper and you just sign it. Then according to them, you’ve had official training.”

Ben Pieterse, a former NAME All-Star Amusement ride operator who worked with Haywood, agreed. He said he signed papers for a company inspector affirming he learned “what to do and what not to do” from coworkers.

“What they tell you to do is the training you get,” Pieterse said.

Pieterse said he hurt his back a few times lifting heavy parts of the Mega Drop ride. At 25, he said he needs a back brace every day as a result.

Martin Fourie said he started working for NAME All-Star Amusement in 2014, and his bosses really “took care” of him. But he also said no manager spent time officially teaching him how to operate the rides.

So he and his co-workers did things in the safest way they could have.

“There were some times when you had to do things that weren’t very safe,” Fourie said.

Early this year, NAME hired a new national safety director and he is very familiar with the company, as he was Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s chief ride inspector for 16 years.

Chad Halsey left the state before Haywood’s injury and did not oversee inspections at the fair last summer. He began working for NAME in January.

Halsey says he “would never have come on board” if he knew NAME had a bad safety reputation. The company is safe and always has been, he told KyCIR.

But Halsey also acknowledged the training wasn’t where it needed to be. He said he was hired in part to reduce injuries and the insurance claims that follow, and to “do all their training and get everything back where it needs to be.”

The previous safety director was “not a people person,” Halsey said.

“But they are big on safety,” Halsey said of NAME.

Halsey said he’s spent about $5,000 on new climbing harnesses this year “to get them up to speed” as well as providing employees with new gloves and safety glasses.

But he says the problem still rests with whether employees use them.

“We can’t be out there 24/7,” Halsey said. “I can make sure that they’ve got all the safety equipment they need everything from eye protection down but they gotta have some responsibility into wearing it.”

Halsey said he’s done several trainings for All-Star Amusement specifically this year, but employee training is the responsibility of each NAME affiliate’s general manager.
Rich Wyatt, NAME All-Star Amusement’s general manager, declined to comment.

Halsey said that he’s done hydraulic training with employees, the training that was lacking in Haywood’s injury, and he agreed that NAME had deficient procedures and trainings in locking out a safety procedure that ensures machinery doesn’t run and endanger workers during repairs. But he said the accident wasn’t necessarily NAME’s fault.

“I wouldn’t say we were in violation,” Halsey said.

The Kentucky State Fair’s current contract with NAME All-Star Amusement began in 2015. It ends in October, and a NAME spokesperson said the company expects to renew the contract.

Meanwhile, Haywood is home in South Africa waiting for the final resolution to his injury. He filed a worker’s compensation claim, and is waiting for his settlement from Kentucky to arrive.

The post Former Workers Say Ky. State Fair’s Ride Provider Lacks Safety Training appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

What’s The Outlook for Labor In Kentucky? Friday, Aug 16 2019 

Listen to this week’s show:

Kentucky’s unions, labor laws, worker safety and the plight of the coal industry were among topics of discussion on this week’s In Conversation.

Today’s guests were:

The AFL-CIO’s Bill Londrigan spoke about the benefits of labor union membership and the various services his union provides. Londrigan said some unions are seeing sharp gains in membership among younger workers.

“They realize their options to improve their situation at work are very limited, and their only option to improving it is through collective bargaining and organizing together,” Londrigan said.

Professor Ariana Levinson says it’s too early to make any judgements on whether Kentucky’s “right-to-work” law, enacted in 2017 is causing fewer workers to join unions.  The law prohibits companies from requiring worker to pay union fees as a condition of employment.

“But we can see that the number of people represented by unions has decreased significantly more than the ones that belong to unions,” Levinson said. “Which tends to support [the] assertion that people are not opting out of membership but what is happening is that union jobs are being lost by plant closures or moving abroad or other economic circumstances.”

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

From left to right, In Conversation host Rick Howlett, Bill Londrigan of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO and U of L labor law professor Ariana Levinson.

Eleanor Klibanoff with the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting spoke about her work investigating workers safety issues in the commonwealth. Her series, “Fatal Flaws”, found that Kentucky’s state worker safety agency failed to hold employers accountable for worker deaths. She talked about her follow-up reporting, including “a lot of promises made” by new leadership in the Labor Cabinet that changes were coming.

Sydney Boles with the Ohio Valley ReSource joined us from Whitesburg, Kentucky, where she has been reporting on the coal industry, and the recent bankruptcy of Blackjewel Coal that has left miners owed back pay and scrambling to pay bills. Some of them have blockaded a railroad line for nearly three weeks, demanding their compensation. Boles says “energy is waning a bit” at the site, but the “anger and frustration that spurred the protest remains really strong, I think.”

Join us next week for In Conversation as we discuss the pending purchase of Jewish Hospital by the University of Louisville.