Occupational Health News Roundup

If you haven't already seen Spencer Scoper's in-depth story on working conditions at Amazon.com's Lehigh Valley warehouse, it's well worth a read. The Morning Call's investigation into the warehouse involved interviews with 20 current and former warehouse workers, and most of them were temporary employees hired by Integrity Staffing Solutions rather than Amazon itself. Workers reported that they were expected to maintain a demanding units-per-minute rate -- and it became especially hard to keep up the pace when summer temperatures inside the warehouse soared above 100 degrees. Scoper writes:

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn't quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an "unsafe environment" after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor's report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

In a better economy, not as many people would line up for jobs that pay $11 or $12 an hour moving inventory through a hot warehouse. But with job openings scarce, Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temporary employment firm that is hiring workers for Amazon, have found eager applicants in the swollen ranks of the unemployed.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, The Morning Call obtained documents showing that OSHA received multiple complaints from warehouse workers. OSHA initially contacted warehouse managers to let them know complaints had been filed; later, the agency decided to inspect the warehouse, and did so on June 9th. Amazon's safety manager informed OSHA in a letter that the company had installed additional cooling fans, hired emergency medical personnel to work on site temporarily, and distributed cooling bandanas to all employees. OSHA received a complaint on July 25th reporting that the temperature exceeded 110 degrees, and issued additional recommendations to Amazon in August about improving its heat-stress management plan.

Four days after Scoper's story was published, Amazon posted a message on its website stating that it had installed industrial air conditioners in four of its facilities, including the one that was the subject of the coverage. The message concludes by saying "those who know us well don't doubt our intent or our focus on employee safety." If you read Scoper's whole story, though, you'll hear from several employees whose experience suggests a less than complete focus on worker safety.

In other news:

CIDRAP: Seattle has joined Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Connecticut in requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to workers (starting in 2012, in Seattle's case).

EHS Today: Two workers were killed by hydrogen sulfide gas, which is produced by bacteria in sewage, after they entered a pump storage tank to repair a submersible pump in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Washington Post: Baghdad radio talk show host Hadi al-Mahdhi was found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head, making him the seventh Iraqi journalist killed in Iraq this year.

OSHA: The Occupational Safety & Health Administration has cited four Florida companies the manufacture or distribute formaldehyde-containing hair products for failing to protect workers from formaldehyde exposures and communicate about the hazards to the products' users. (Related: FDA has warned the makers of Brazilian Blowout, one of the formaldehyde-containing products, that its product is adulterated and misbranded, and that it must address the violations to avoid having its product seized.)

NIOSH Science Blog: A new "Prevention Through Design" standard from the American National Standards Institute focuses on designing and constructing buildings and equipment with worker health and safety in mind. For instance, skylights designed with proper guarding can help prevent workers from falling through skylights during construction and maintenance.

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