Occupational Safety

It’s a workplace truism employers don’t want to hear, especially today when trying to make up lost production time from pandemic lockdowns by raising shifts to 10 to 16 hours. Yet employee fatigue has always been known to be counterproductive, expensive, and can either result in lifetime job-related injuries or death.

The worst of such long-hour, fatigue-related global accidents to date, according to OSHA  (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has to be the nuclear explosion of Chernobyl  in Ukraine on April 26, 1986. Russian trials indicated it was caused by two exhausted plant officials—Anatoly Dyatlov  and Leonid Toptunov . Fatigue also has been cited by OSHA as a key causal factor in other major U.S. catastrophes : the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979, the explosion of space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the Texas City BP refinery explosion in 2005, and the Colgan airline’s domestic crash in 2009.

Most employers of physically demanding jobs in this country up to the 1930s—and recently —have ignored negative studies about time-efficiency results or its cost-benefits, in those occupations. The message still is that “Productivity per hour falls after a person works more than 50 hours a week.” From the employers’ perspective, this would require hiring, training, and paying benefits to a second employee. Most also ignored that fatigue could endanger not only co-workers, but equipment, factory buildings, or construction operations.

Legal relief from those long-hour shifts in the U.S. finally came in the Great Depression when president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act  (FLSA) mandating overtime payments at 1 ½ of wages after a 40-hour week. It was an adroit and successful move, and forced employers to agree to an eight-hour day. But it did not remove the dangers of overtime to workers or workplaces from exhaustion’s inattention to precision operations or impaired decision-making.

The reality today about job fatigue may even be worse at thousands of job sites stemming from industry’s monumental push since last summer to make up for lost profits by fewer goods and services because of COVID’s spring lockdowns. One labor historian  reported last year that many physically demanding jobs, particularly in high-unemployment regions, are throwbacks to the killing hours of the early Industrial Revolution.

OSHA , the Department of Labor’s watchdog enforcer about work conditions, has warned employers that extended or irregular shifts can prove costly in originating accidents whether in factories, at construction sites, or in driving trucks:

“Worker fatigue increases the risk for illnesses and injuries. Accident and injury rates are 18% greater during evening shifts and 30% greater during night shifts when compared to day shifts. Research indicates that working 12 hours per day is associated with a 37% increased risk of injury.”

The Amazon corporation has been the poster child illustrating those statistics withemphasis on speed  for its two-day deliveries. Its four-day, 10-hour shifts meant warehouse injuries  were 80 percent higher in 2020  than competitors like Walmart. But its delivery drivers were at even greater risk (9.5 injuries per 100 workers vs. 6.3 per 100 ) within the same shift schedule — according to a three-year study (2017-20) issued in June by the Strategic Organizing Center , a union coalition of four million members.

Compounding these dangerous work conditions in recent years have been employees taking pep pills (amphetamines) to finish shifts. PBS  reported such medications came from the Pentagon’s widespread distribution during World War II for the Armed Forces to handle long hours without sleep, to “combat fatigue and improve both mood and endurance.” Another long-popular “alertness aid” still sold over the counter has always been the caffeine-packed NoDoze  pills favored by truckers, athletes, students, and medical residents to stay awake and alert.

These 12- to 16-hour shifts encourage addictive drug use for millions to survive today’s “enhanced” work schedules. That’s a set-up for accidents and deaths. In the last few days, two workers died  of drug overdoses at Stellantis’ Detroit plants.

Some 16 percent  of emergency room patients injured on the job reportedly have had alcohol detected in their bodies. Unfortunately, alcohol, pot, and cocaine—the most used in the workplace—don’t carry that vital warning : “Do not operate heavy machinery while taking this medication,” as do many prescription drugs such as antihistamines and decongestants .

At a Michigan auto-parts company  the 84-hour week it launched last summer felled at least two employees from heart attacks, as well as job-related COVID infections from co-workers even if they died or were killed on plant property.

Now, the federal government stipulates only eight-hour days for most civil servants, but the rest of American workers are at the mercy of private  employers. Though the revised FLSA of 2008 stipulates a 40-hour work week with 1 ½ times regular pay for overtime, the back-to-work push has enabled many employers to make overtime now part of regular hours. They’re using something called the Alternative Work Schedules  (AWS), for which no legal standard exists  to regulate overtime in whatever is deemed “extended and unusual shifts.” Previously, that has meant either those “on the clock” in the health professions or “on-call” emergencies for firefighters, police, teachers, or health-care providers.

Stopping these life-threatening, long shifts is certainly not likely to come from most employers, even the humane. Nor union leaders. Most have drafted contracts in collusion with management containing these AWS hourly and overtime provisions. Many of those officials know how to curtail and derail wildcat strikes, especially in the auto industry because they hold the purse-strings to strike benefits of $250 per week  .

And don’t look for much help from the shorthanded, underfunded, and overwhelmed OSHA  . Its officials have argued that inspection and enforcement on every complaint is now impossible. Current operations  involve a meager $591.8 million appropriation for only 1,850 inspectors to protect 130 million employees at eight million workplaces. Because they could only inspect fewer than 45,000 sites in 2019, many company owners undoubtedly are gambling they won’t be targeted for safety violations leading to workplace deaths and injuries because of employee fatigue in extending “regular” hours far beyond eight. However, they can’t silence every employee from filing complaints to OSHA. Or stop investigative reporters.

In early April, the UAW (United Auto Workers) forced a Detroit-area local to agree to such a contract at  Stellantis ’  (formerly Fiat-Chrysler) Sterling Heights stamping assembly plant, the world’s largest. It slipped in an AWS  provision that meant a 12-hour/seven-day week/no overtime pay would be in place for alternative work weeks. So would new and multiple tasks for skilled-trades employees. By April 28, the plant was reported to be operating at a “breakneck pace .”

The first casualty from that murderous schedule came that day to 57-year-old Terry Garr , a veteran crane operator. Nearing his shift’s end, he was under a heavy die, maneuvering the crane to align and set it onto locating pins so that stamping operations could begin on layers of materials for vehicle parts. But a mistake in correcting alignment “caused the die to swing [downward] to the home position,” and crushed him to death, according to the Michigan Occupational and Health Administration .

Nor is it likely president Joe Biden will step in and issue an Executive Order limiting work hours to eight and banning overtime. Once proud to be called Lunch-Bucket Joe ,” champion of the rank and file, he, too, now seems to be supporting both union leaders and employers in speeding production and hiking profits.

Too, forget legislation by Congress or state legislatures. Pro-labor bills take years to become law. As Jon Bekken , former editor of the IWW’s  Industrial Worker, explains this non-starter:

“From time to time, legislators have proposed new laws to cut the work week or increase penalties on overtime work. Substantial energies and funds have been invested in such legislation for more than a hundred years, but those laws which have been passed have been almost wholly ineffective. Indeed, the U.S. government has never adopted enforceable legislation cutting the work week below that already won by the vast majority of workers except under threat of a general strike (as in the case of the 1915 Railway Act declared constitutional by the Supreme Court on March 15, 1917, under threat of national strike action).”

Nor will a consumer boycott succeed against AWS-produced products, including companies making their parts for finished. Boycotts would scarcely match the successes  of the British Stamp Act, the Montgomery AL bus system, South Africa’s apartheid policies, or the Delano CA Grape Strike.

How many shoppers know that fabrics for those bargain-priced clothes sold at U.S. big-box stores involve 12-to 18-hour shifts for women in spinning mills at India’s Tamil Nadu district? How many American transport companies are likely to quir buying Volvo trucks even at prices of $119,950 ? And how many car buyers will ever know that parts for Fiat Chryslers, Opals, or Jeeps are made by Stellantis’ ten-hour shifts? Indeed, auto companies have just reported increased and significant second-quarter sales on cars and small trucks—1.6 million  in May alone—according to Wards Intelligence tracking reports.

Only one possible solution seems possible to immediately stop these “killing hours:” Insurance companies selected by such employers and approved by each state’s workers’ comprehensive insurance department.

Think about it for a moment.

When car or truck owners have accidents costing their insurers thousands in damage claims, they are transferred to the high-risk category. Legally, that permits insurers to increase premium rates literally to whatever the traffic will bear. Or it can be policy cancellations, especially in states mandating coverage. That’s why many frantic, at-fault drivers beg victims for on-street settlements, preventing a claims report and possible policy cancellation.

Workers’ compensation insurance works on the same principle. Insurers and their stockholders will  take action to stop a ruinous drain on reserves. Backup of policy denial can come from the NCCI  (National Council on Compensation), which does all the actuarial calculations for carriers’ base rates in 37 states .

For companies, it is equally ruinous because any firm with more than four employees is required  by state laws to carry workers’ comprehensive coverage. Cancellation means finding another insurer probably aware of a company’s high “claims experience” involving significant fatigue-caused injuries or deaths from excessive hours. Blacklisting is a possibility.

To escape, many claims-heavy employers have gritted their teeth and surrendered to their carrier’s mandates for drastic changes in working conditions. One is a return to an eight-hour day and no overtime so the employer will have to hire another employee to pick up the slack. But so will removal of dangers from work environments, worn-out equipment, and campus parking hazards. They also may have to agree to the insurer’s surveillance on compliance.

In short, the insurance industry right now seems to be the best and only protection for the American work force whether eight-hour days or safe surroundings. But it also can save employers thousands in premium expenses, as well as preventing a public and investment black eye that Amazon  is currently earning because of a major report  exposing its terrible safety and health working conditions.

Barbara G. Ellis, Ph.D., is the principal of a Portland (OR) writing/pr firm. A veteran professional writer and editor (LIFE magazine, Beirut Daily Star, Mideast Magazine), Ellis also has been a journalism professor (Oregon State University/Louisiana’s McNeese State University). A nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in history for the great Civil War run of The Memphis Daily Appeal (The Moving Appeal), today, it’s contributions to progressive websites and political and environmental activism.


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