Roby refutes OSHA's claim
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said Wednesday that Alabama companies that make car parts are being targeted with extra federal safety inspections because they have a higher rate of workplace injuries than the industry nationwide.
“There is a problem in Alabama,” Perez said in response to questions from Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, at a House committee hearing.
He said Alabama factories making automotive parts reported 4.6 injuries per 100 workers, compared to three injuries per 100 workers in the industry overall.
A labor department spokesman said Perez's figures for Alabama were from 2010.
“If there is a problem in a particular state, regardless of what state it is, we have a very important need to protect workers in that state,” Perez told the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees his agency’s budget.
But Roby disputed Perez’s statistics and said her review of Labor Department data doesn’t show the industry is less safe in the South than anywhere else in the country.
She said she suspects the agency is singling out the region because of its right-to-work laws and largely non-union auto workforce.
“If you treat similar businesses differently in different parts of our country ... there should be a really high expectation of justification for doing so,” Roby said.
A Labor Department spokesman last week denied the region was targeted because of its right-to-work status, and Perez said Wednesday the agency only “follows the data.”
Roby first alerted Perez to her concerns in a March 27 letter, and her questions to him Wednesday didn’t settle the matter.
Nationally, the motor vehicle parts manufacturing sector experienced a total injury rate of 5.3 injuries per 100 workers in 2012, compared to 3.4 per 100 in all of private industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The bureau said the industry’s national rate is 2.8 cases per 100 workers in terms of injuries that necessitated days away from work, transfer or work restriction.
The bureau has not published state-specific data for the auto parts industry since 2010.
However, in the broader sector of all transportation equipment manufacturing, which includes car parts, Alabama’s injury rate of 4.8 cases per 100 workers in 2012 was below the national rate of 5.2 cases per 100 workers, according to the agency’s data.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) this year started an intensive two-year inspection process for all auto parts makers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Safety violations found during the multi-day, on-site inspections can lead to fines of thousands of dollars.
The inspections focus on protection from moving machine parts, electrical hazards and hazardous releases of energy that can occur, for example, when a jammed conveyor system suddenly frees up and hurts a worker trying to clear the jam.
The written announcement of the inspections process said OSHA is an attempt to prevent amputations and deaths, but it did not cite injury rate statistics for any of the three states.
“Workers in this industry are exposed to caught-in, crushing, struck-by and electrical hazards due to the machinery utilized in the making of these parts,” according to an OSHA directive.
There are 140 companies in Alabama manufacturing car parts, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. They employ more than 17,000 people statewide.
Roby said she is worried that OSHA will use the inspections to allow union representatives to gain access to the work sites. OSHA said in a February 2013 letter that a third-party representative is allowed to accompany federal safety inspectors if employees at a company authorize it. The agency said the third party can be a union representative.
Perez has said the policy was identical in previous administrations, but Roby disagreed. She said the third-party representative must be an employee of the company being inspected.
Roby said she has not received any complaints from auto parts makers in Alabama about the OSHA inspections and is not aware of union organizers taking part.
“We’re about to have (inspections) in Alabama where we have a lot of auto parts manufacturers, and I want to ensure there are protections against union infiltration in non-unionized industries, when the law doesn’t provide that they can just show up,” Roby said. “This is all preventative.”
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