Roby: South's right-to-work auto industry being targeted by OSHA
Federal workplace safety officials may be unfairly singling out right-to-work states by conducting extra inspections at auto parts makers in the South, an Alabama congresswoman says.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is looking for hazards that could lead to serious injuries or deaths at companies in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia that manufacture car parts. The in-depth inspections will be conducted over the next two years.
“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.
But Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, said she is unaware of any pattern of accidents that would justify the extra inspections.
Singling out a specific industry in three states, Roby said, is suspicious. All three states, like most of the South, have right-to-work laws preventing employees from being compelled to join a union.
“Reasonable rules designed to ensure worker safety should be enforced in a manner that is fair, equitable and free from political influence,” Roby wrote in a Thursday letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.
OSHA conducts local and regional programs “to address hazards or industries that pose a particular risk to workers” in a specific area, according to the agency.
In the eight Southeastern states included in OSHA’s Region 4, for example, special inspection programs have focused on construction falls, noise hazards in sawmills, concrete manufacturing plans and poultry slaughterhouses, and fatalities in the landscaping and horticulture industries. OSHA lists 12 such special programs started in Region 4 last year.
Last year, OSHA cited an Auburn automotive parts manufacturer for a willful safety violation after a worker lost a finger. In February, an auto parts maker in Thomson, Ga., and a temporary staffing agency it used were cited for 22 safety and health violations. The agency levies fines against companies for infractions.
There are 140 companies in Alabama manufacturing car parts, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. They employ more than 17,000 people statewide.
Michael D’Aquino, a Labor Department spokesman, said the inspections focused on the three states because that’s where the industry is prominent in the Southeast. He said the agency isn’t targeting the states because of their right-to-work status.
OSHA’s Region 4 office last year reviewed several years’ worth of inspection data for the auto parts supplier industry, D’Aquino said. From 2009-2014, there were 113 inspections in Alabama and 80 resulted in violations, he said. In Georgia, there were 65 inspections and 47 resulted in violations, and in Mississippi, there were 14 inspections and 10 resulted in violations.
Under the OSHA inspection program, the affected companies will be subject to a comprehensive safety inspection unless they’ve had one in the past two years or have fewer than 10 employees. The inspections will focus on protections 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.
OSHA conducts almost 40,000 workplace inspections every year across the country, Perez told Congress last week.
The inspections “ensure compliance with safe working conditions, and rigorous evaluation of these inspections has shown that they are effective,” Perez said. “They prevent injuries and do not have an adverse impact on jobs or employer profit.”
A Washington lawyer who represents companies on OSHA enforcement and compliance issues said the auto parts makers should expect inspectors to be on site for about a week. Management will also have to spend time responding to OSHA document requests.
“It’s wall-to-wall, not just an inspection of a particular area or assembly line,” said Amanda Strainis-Walker, with the Epstein Becker Green law firm.
In her letter to Perez, Roby also questions the agency’s policy allowing a third-party representative — which can be someone affiliated with a union— to accompany inspectors during the “walk-around” portion of inspections.
“It is concerning that a federal agency may be advancing on Southeastern workers a pro-union agenda that they do not want,” Roby wrote.
OSHA said in a February 2013 letter that a third-party representative is allowed only if employees at a company authorize the person to serve as their representative during the inspection.
Perez was asked about the policy during a House hearing last week on Capitol Hill.
“The department has permitted third parties to be walk-around representatives in order to make a contribution to a thorough and effective inspection,” Perez said. “This has been OSHA policy predating me and predating this administration.”
Roby said she plans to ask Perez about the targeted inspections at a hearing April 2 when the secretary testifies before an Appropriations subcommittee about the Labor Department’s fiscal 2015 budget request.
A Labor Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
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