Worker center success: Houston workers organize for safer conditions at insulation plant

When Mirella Nava began her new job at Rock Wool Manufacturing Company in Houston, Texas, she had no intentions of becoming an advocate for worker safety. But when she witnessed how fellow workers were being treated and the dangerous work conditions they faced on a daily basis, she felt compelled to speak up.

Eventually, Nava and a group of Rock Wool workers — with the help of the Houston-based Fe y Justicia Worker Center — got the attention of local OSHA officials, who earlier this year cited Rock Wool Manufacturing for seven serious and two repeat violations for exposing workers to a variety of workplace hazards, including amputation risks. OSHA also cited staffing agency C & C Personnel, which provided the company with more than 50 temporary workers a day, with four serious safety violations. The case is a near perfect example of how worker centers are empowering some of the country’s most vulnerable laborers with the knowledge and means to fight for and secure safer working conditions.

“These workers were just too vulnerable to stand up by themselves,” Nava told me. “But once they see that they have support, that they’re not standing alone — it just made a huge difference.”

Hired through a staffing agency, Nava began working at Rock Wool Manufacturing in February 2014. The company, which is headquartered in Leeds, Alabama, manufactures industrial insulation — the insulation is manufactured in Alabama and sent in bulk to the Houston plant, where workers cut and ready the insulation to ship to clients. At Rock Wool, Nava was responsible for various administrative, scheduling and shipping logistics as well as taking client orders and relaying specifications to workers in the warehouse. As such, Nava was regularly in the warehouse where workers were doing the actual insulation cutting. And that’s where she said she began to notice that workers were consistently being exposed to serious safety risks and working in dangerous conditions.

During our lengthy phone interview, Nava gave me numerous examples of the conditions and incidents she witnessed at Rock Wool. Table saws with no protection guards, freezing temperatures in the winter and “hotter than hell” temperatures in the summer, broken drinking water stations, and machinery that was “always breaking down and never given proper maintenance.” She said workers often had to bring in their own water and would get yelled at if they stopped to drink water and weren’t on an official break.

One warehouse worker’s finger was cut so severely on the table saw he had to have it sewn back on. On more than one occasion, the chemical paint thinner workers used to clean off industrial glue got into a worker’s eyes. There was no eyewash station and so Nava would bring the worker to the bathroom and help him wash it out in the sink. Another worker was looking inside a machine to see why the blades had stopped moving when the door to the machine’s insides, which she said didn’t have proper latches or locks, fell on his head. He had to get stitches, she said, but he wasn’t allowed to leave work until he got the machine working again.

“It just broke my heart to see things like that,” Nava said.

Nava said she never witnessed anyone receiving safety training — “employees would come in sent by the staffing agency and thrown on the line and that was it.” Nava couldn’t stand by and say nothing. So, she spoke with the manager numerous times about the dangerous conditions.

“He said he didn’t have the money (to make the warehouse safer) and that plenty of people would be happy to do this work,” she told me.

In one instance, officials from the Alabama headquarters came to visit the plant. Nava took her chance to point out dangerous conditions in the warehouse, such as unsafe stacking practices. Just as they were talking, a forklift incident caused a pile of boxes and a palette to topple to the ground right behind her. Still, management did nothing.

Speaking up for the workers in the warehouse was creating a lot of tension between Nava and her manager. Things were getting tense, but she said the workers in the warehouse begged her not to leave. But eventually in March 2015, she lost her job at Rock Wool. After falling in the warehouse and injuring her hand, her manager said she was spending too much time out of the office going to medical appointments. He fired her.

Organizing for change: ‘Workers were ready to take every step to accomplish justice’

Immediately after being fired, Nava filed a Department of Labor complaint for unpaid wages (she eventually received the wages she had earned). And then she began searching for a way to help the workers she had been forced to leave behind. She called her local Univision station and they gave her the number to the Fe y Justicia Worker Center. Soon after, she and a group of Rock Wool workers began attending the worker center’s Monday night labor law workshops. They began learning about proper and lawful occupational health and safety standards. Working with one of the center’s trainers, Nava and the Rock Wool workers mapped out all the hazards they could remember from the warehouse.

“The workshop was a big eye-opener for all of us,” she told me. “The (trainers) pointed out all these (workplace) hazards to us that had previously seemed like normal, everyday things.”

Fe y Justicia helped the group of workers — nearly a dozen — build a formal OSHA complaint and connected them with a Spanish-speaking OSHA inspector, who met with and interviewed former Rock Wool employees as well. After an inspection at the Rock Wool plant in April 2015, the OSHA official issued the company a list of safety recommendations. (Following that inspection, workers said that management threatened them for going to OSHA. The workers filed a retaliation complaint with the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)

Still, workers were worried the company wouldn’t take any action on the OSHA recommendations, said Martha Ojeda, executive director at Fe y Justicia. So that’s when the worker center rallied its supporters and drove its Justice Bus to the plant site to demand safer conditions in person. About 60 people came out in support.

“The workers were ready to take every step to accomplish justice,” Ojeda told me. “Everyone was committed.”

A few months later in August, OSHA officially cited Rock Wool for seven serious and two repeat violations, and cited staffing agency C & C Personnel for four serious violations, including failing to establish an energy control program to disable potentially hazardous machinery. (Serious violations are those in which the working conditions could have resulted in serious injury or death.) The agency proposed penalties of $64,350 for Rock Wool and $21,600 for C & C Personnel. Among the serious violations against Rock Wool include not providing adequate employee training on energy control programs, lack of proper machine guarding, and having equipment in damp and wet locations. According to an informal settlement agreement with OSHA, Rock Wool and C & C Personnel have agreed to the proposed penalties.

Joann Figueroa, OSHA’s area director in the Houston North office, told me the agency also looked into the allegations of dust exposure. In this case, cutting rock wool insulation generally results in mineral fiber dust. However, OSHA has no specific permissible exposure limit for this type of dust, relying on its general particulate exposure standard instead. Figueroa said the agency did take samples to test for respirable dust and did not get an overexposure result. (It’s important to note here than on many occasions, federal OSHA Administrator David Michaels has said OSHA chemical exposure standards are outdated and so employers should not necessarily rely on the standards to keep workers safe.)

In regard to citing the temporary staffing agency in this case, Figueroa said OSHA considers worker safety a “joint responsibility” between both the staffing agency and the host employer. With temporary staffing arrangements becoming much more common in the workplace, she said OSHA is hoping to communicate the message that all of the employers involved need to ensure compliance with OSHA standards.

“A temp worker, at times, is not treated or viewed as being the same as a permanent employee in the same workplace, although OSHA strongly believes they should be treated the same way,” she told me. “Depending on the circumstances…they could be more vulnerable and potentially not as well trained.”

Figueroa also noted how important worker centers are in helping OSHA connect with hard-to-reach workers.

“It’s a beneficial relationship,” she said. “We’re able to reach workers we might not have been able to reach in the past and educate them on their rights.”

Back at Fe y Justicia, Ojeda said the worker center will continue to track and monitor safety conditions at Rock Wool Manufacturing. She noted that in Texas, where employers aren’t required to have workers’ compensation insurance and there is no state occupational health and safety agency, worker centers are critical to protecting the most vulnerable workers.

“This was a big victory,” Ojeda told me. “It gave workers the confidence that they have rights and they can help enforce them.”

For Nava, the experience has turned her into a devoted volunteer at Fe y Justicia, where she hopes to soon become a certified health and safety trainer.

“We just need to stop being afraid,” she said. “We need to start speaking up and we need to let the community know that there are centers that exist that will help you and hold your hand step by step. There’s nothing wrong with looking for that help or seeking that support.”

Visit Fe y Justicia to learn more about their mission, work and success.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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