July 26, 2006
(Washington, DC) —On July 26, 2006, two affiliate unions of the Change to Win federation — the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — began petitioning the Department of Labor (DOL) to immediately issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to stop the continued risk of diacetyl exposure to workers. In 2002 and 2003, OSHA’s own scientists studying diacetyl unsuccessfully urged their leaders to take broader action to protect workers. There are currently no OSHA standards requiring exposures to be controlled.
Diacetyl is a hazardous chemical that has been connected to a potentially fatal lung disease that has been experienced by food industry workers across the nation. There have been dozens of cases of what has become known as “popcorn workers lung,” or bronchiolitis obliterans—a severe, disabling, and often-fatal lung disease experienced by factory workers who produce or handle diacetyl.
“Three workers have died and hundreds of others seriously injured,” said Jackie Nowell, UFCW Safety & Health Director. “It’s time for action. We will not let food processing workers continue to be the canaries in the coal mine while waiting for the industry to regulate itself.”
More than 8,000 workers are employed in the flavorings production industry and may be exposed to the dangers of diacetyl and other similar chemicals. Tens of thousands of food processing workers are involved in the production of popcorn, pastries, frozen foods, candies and even dog food that use these chemicals. It is not clear whether consumers are at risk from exposure to diacetyl but certainly the workers who deal with high concentrations of the flavoring chemical are at risk of developing serious and irreversible lung damage.
The unions’ petition is accompanied by a letter from forty-two of the nation’s leading occupational safety scientists, including a former OSHA director, five former top officials from OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services, who all agree that there is more than enough evidence for OSHA to regulate.
“”Study after study have shown that breathing artificial butter flavor destroys workers lungs. We know how to prevent this terrible disease but OSHA refuses to act”” said Dr. David Michaels of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington University School of Public Health.
The UFCW and Teamsters filed the petition for an Emergency Temporary Standard with the DOL to require employers to control airborne exposure to diacetyl and ensure that all employees who are exposed to a certain airborne level of the chemical are provided with air purifying respirators. The safety of these workers would be additionally monitored through medical surveillance and regular consultations.
The petition also demands that OSHA immediately issue a bulletin to all employers and employees potentially exposed to diacetyl outlining the dangers of the chemical. OSHA is being asked to conduct inspections and begin rule-making proceedings to establish a permanent standard that will put an end to this tragic epidemic and protect workers from exposure to all flavorings.
“The science is clear. Now it is time for the Department of Labor to employ their regulatory mandate and protect the public,” said Lamont Byrd, Teamster Safety & Health Director. “Such illnesses and fatalities are avoidable and therefore, inexcusable. An Emergency Standard is necessary to prevent the suffering and death of the additional workers who will get sick during the time it would take for OSHA to set a Permanent Standard.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s 1.4 million members work in America’s supermarkets, meatpacking and food processing plants. Founded in 1903, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents more than 1.4 million hardworking men and women throughout the United States and Canada. Both unions are founding members of the Change to Win federation. www.changetowin.org
For more information and studies about Popcorn Workers Lung Disease, go to www.DefendingScience.org
November 29, 2005
If a bird flu pandemic were to break out in the United States, workers in America’s poultry industry would be the first to notice sick birds, the first to risk exposure to the deadly virus, and the first to sound the alarm. That’s why the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) has sent a letter to President Bush urging him to initiate coordinated protection for poultry workers on the front lines by initiating a Cabinet-level meeting to discuss worker issues and the potential pandemic.
The poultry industry is a major force in the U.S. economy, generating more than $35 billion per year in revenue. The nation’s 200,000 poultry workers produce 500 million pounds of chicken every week. We must have a plan to protect these workers-the chicken catchers and those that slaughter, process, and package the millions of chickens and turkeys that Americans eat each year.
The Bush administration has taken the first, important steps in containing a potential outbreak of bird flu by discussing and planning the control of the virus at its source-in animals.
However, if we are to avoid a pandemic, America’s plan to contain the bird flu must have a worker component. The Bush administration should consider:
–Direct contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces and objects is considered the main route of human infection. This kind of direct contact is the norm for workers in the poultry industry. A poultry worker immunization program will prevent the spread of the disease and assure the public that a meaningful step has been taken to contain the disease at its source.
–Poultry workers are in the best position to visually identify sick birds and report suspected cases of bird flu. These front line workers are the nation’s best defense against a pandemic, but they will need whistleblower protections in order to avoid discrimination and to assure that profit doesn’t override health and safety.
–Many immigrant, undocumented, or Spanish-speaking poultry workers are unaware of workplace safety regulations. This population is unlikely to ask for safety and health protections such as respirators or flu shots. Unfortunately, a recent sting operation where ICE agents posed as OSHA officials has hurt the credibility of government safety programs and further increased immigrants’ mistrust of government. We must reach out to these workers with health and safety information and we must strictly enforce a policy that prohibits sting operations that undermine OSHA credibility.
These worker issues are of paramount importance. Worker organizations, like unions, should be consulted and integrated into the effort. The UFCW stands ready to work with all interested stakeholders, including worker representatives, government agencies, and poultry companies.
October 21, 2005
Strikers Hospitalized from Brutal Attacks
(Washington, DC) – As the temperature begins to cool here in the United States, a bitter and brutal cold has crept into the air surrounding the Tyson beef plant in Brooks, Alberta, Canada. More than 2,300 workers, many of them workers who are refugees from the Sudan, have been forced onto the streets and onto picket lines in a battle to preserve a decent standard of living. Tyson is leaving workers and their families out in the cold, again.
Workers at the Brooks plant stood up for a voice with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 in August, 2004, eager for basic workplace protections such as an end to harassment, improved safety training, and better handling of biological hazards. More than 600 Sudanese immigrant workers were lured to Alberta with the promise of a good job and bright future. Tyson’s disregard for the basic safety needs of its workforce, immigrant and native, is reprehensible. Picket lines went up on October 12, 2005 after Tyson Foods threw out a proposal by a mediator appointed by the Alberta government to facilitate a first-contract agreement.
“UFCW members and Tyson workers in the United States stand firmly in support of our Canadian brothers and sisters as they stand up against Tyson’s greed,” said Joseph T. Hansen, UFCW International President. “We are committing every resource available to support our striking workers in Alberta on the frontlines against Tyson’s inexcusable greed.”
Provincial law enforcement officers stood by yesterday as replacement workers and management verbally and physically assaulted Sudanese workers with racially-motivated jeers and anti-immigrant insults. Several strikers were reportedly beaten with metal pipes, left injured in a ditch before being transported to the hospital.
“Tyson recruits workers from all over the world to bring them to work in their North American operations in a race to the bottom. Exploitation of a vulnerable immigrant workforce is part of their business plan. Now, it is particularly galling to see that the Tyson is allowing racially-motivated violence to take place on the picket line,” continued Hansen.
Tyson’s behavior in Alberta follows a pattern it sets in the United States – doing everything in its power to lower wages, cut benefits and reduce workplace standards for employees, particularly immigrant workers. In 2003, Tyson forced long-time meat processing workers in Jefferson, Wisconsin onto picket lines for nearly one year in order to lower wage and benefit levels for unionized workers in the United States. In this instance, Tyson’s message to the black immigrant workforce is clear: we brought you to this continent so that we can pay you less than native workers.
Tyson Foods is the Wal-Mart of the meat industry – dominating 27 percent of all beef, pork and chicken sales in the U.S. But size doesn’t give it the excuse to drag workers’ wages, health care benefits, and workplace standards to the even lower levels. The company carries very little debt and share prices have increased by 25% in the last year. Tyson has no financial need to demand sub-standard wage and benefit levels for workers in the U.S. or Canada.
The Brooks facility handles 40% of all beef slaughter in Canada. It operates under the name “Lakeside Packers.” Tyson has owned the plant for ten years.
UFCW members in the U.S. will be marching and leafletting in support of the strikers at the Millions More Movement on the National Mall in Washington, DC tomorrow.
July 24, 2005
Washington, D.C. — The segment of the American workforce most likely to suffer injury or death on the job was targeted in a scam operation by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. ICE officers masqueraded as safety instructors to round up documented and undocumented construction workers in North Carolina with a flier announcing a mandatory Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) meeting, earlier this month, then arrested 48 undocumented workers who attended the meeting.
“OSHA is responsible for worker safety and health,” said UFCW International President Joe Hansen. “For ICE to stage a sham OSHA meeting in order to round up and arrest people undermines OSHA’s mission, and is a step backwards for state and federal efforts to reduce worker injuries and deaths. The word being brought back to worksites, after a scam like this, is that OSHA can’t be trusted. That kind of perception diminishes OSHA’s ability to do the critical work of protecting America’s labor force.”
There are more than 10 million foreign-born workers in the US, making up about 15% of the workforce. Immigrant workers have the highest rates of on-the-job injuries and fatalities. Hispanic workers suffer 69% of all on-the-job injuries/deaths. In the meatpacking industry, more than half of the workers are foreign-born, and in some plants, up to 80% of the workers are immigrants.
“This unscrupulous action has shattered the trust between OSHA and the workers who depend on the agency the most,” said Hansen. “More and more often, it is immigrants who work in the most dangerous industries such as construction or meatpacking. How can OSHA reach these at-risk workers with safety information now? To these workers, OSHA no longer means safety, but betrayal. The Bush administration must denounce the kind of trickery that undermines safety.””
April 28, 2004
Today, we mourn for workers who needlessly lost their lives on the job this year. We also mourn for the loss of workplace protections and safety regulations killed by the anti-worker Bush Administration.
This is an administration that goes out of its way to hurt workers. President Bush’s first major legislative action upon taking office was to sign legislation repealing OSHA’s ergonomics standard. This important worker safeguard, issued in November 2000, was ten years in the making and would have prevented hundreds of thousands of workplace injuries a year.
Today we also honor the workers who have been killed and injured on the job and their families. Last week, a UFCW member—a young worker from Guatemala—was killed working in a poultry plant. Thousands of workers, particularly immigrant workers, risk serious and sometimes fatal injury at work in workplaces such as poultry and meatpacking plants. No worker should be forced to risk their life to put food on the table for America’s families.
The UFCW is encouraged by actions such as those by Senator Edward Kennedy who is working to strengthen worker safety by introducing a bill this week that will expand protections for workers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Senator Kennedy’s bill includes a mandate that employers pay for safety gear they require workers to wear. The Bush Administration has so far refused to complete and issue this standard. It will also strengthen penalties against employers who kill or seriously injure workers by willfully violating OSHA standards.
The Bush Administration has joined with business supporters to roll back, block, or stall needed worker protections. This Worker’s Memorial Day, the UFCW reiterates its commitment to electing a President that will put worker need before corporate greed.
August 4, 2003
(Washington, DC)–America’s most dangerous industries will most likely stay that way if OSHA continues to stall. The low-wage, predominantly Hispanic immigrant, workforce in meatpacking and poultry plants suffer the highest injury rates in the nation. Forced by their employers to pay for their own safety gear, such as mesh gloves, boots and even ear plugs, workers end up wearing it beyond its useful life, putting them at risk for serious injury.
The labor movement, in conjunction with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is calling for the Secretary of Labor to act on the rule that mandates employer payment for personal protective equipment. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW)– joined by eight additional labor organizations–today, filed a petition with the Secretary of Labor to demand action within 60 days. This standard has been stalled at the agency for three years.
“”Many workers in these industries rely on personal protective equipment as virtually their only measure of protection. Workers should not be required to bear the cost of this basic protection.”” said Jackie Nowell, Director, Occupational Safety and Health Office, UFCW.
Nowell points out that workers in meat and poultry industries, for example, wear metal mesh gloves, which cost as much as $65, to prevent knife cuts and rubber boots to prevent falling on slippery floors.
In 1999, members of the UFCW and other unions offered real world testimony that without a requirement for employer payment, equipment was often improperly selected, poorly maintained and used beyond its useful life, putting workers at risk of injury.
“”Low-wage workers are most acutely in need of the protection offered by the rule. In the higher wage industries, most employers routinely supply all required safety gear free of charge.”” said Nowell.
Despite the clear demonstrated need and support for this requirement, the rule was not finalized and has lain dormant for three years. The rule has repeatedly slipped off OSHA’s Regulatory Agenda, and most recently was listed as a long-term action with the notation “”Next Action Undetermined.””
“”It is shocking and irresponsible that the Department can move so fast to cut overtime pay for workers through regulations, but won’t move a simple job safety regulation that has been waiting for years,”” said Patricia Scarcelli, International Vice President and Director of the Legislative and Political Affairs Department. “”This simple rule can help to improve the day-to-day lives of thousands of immigrant workers. And it is sitting there waiting for Secretary Chao to give the word.””