The Charlotte Observer Investigates the Poultry Business

[Jordan Barab may have abandoned his outstanding blog, Confined Spaces, to take a position on Rep George Miller’s House Committee on Education and Labor but he hasn’t used that as an excuse to abandon his faithful readers. Once a month or so he sends out an email to his Confined Spaces Google Group on what the committee is doing or the media is reporting. This week he sent out 3 emails linking to a groundbreaking series in the Charlotte Observer on the way workers in the poultry industry in the South – many of them illegals – are being mistreated. Below are the emails, complete with links to the entire series. I urge you to read them. – MA]

1) Attached are excerpts and links to the first of an amazing six part Charlotte Observer series on health and safety hazards in the poultry industry

The cover page is here: http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/ (Note: you may have to disable your popup protector.

Individual articles:

The cruelest cuts

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487187.html

 

In an industry rife with danger, House of Raeford Farms depicts itself as a safe place to work. Company records suggest relatively few workers are injured each year as they kill, cut and package millions of chickens and turkeys.

But an Observer investigation shows the N.C. poultry giant has masked the extent of injuries behind its plant walls.

The company has compiled misleading injury reports and has defied regulators as it satisfies a growing appetite for America’s most popular meat. And employees say the company has ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job.

An epidemic of pain

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487186.html

Like black lung in the coal industry and brown lung in textiles, the hands of the poultry industry suffer a long-neglected threat. Two decades ago, musculoskeletal disorders at poultry and meatpacking plants prompted a public outcry. Legislators and government officials vowed change.

Now, an Observer investigation shows, the hands of poultry workers are more threatened than ever.

He says his agency is at fault

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487188.html

Bob Whitmore is doing what few career government employees dare — publicly criticizing his own agency.

Whitmore, an expert in record-keeping requirements for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said OSHA is allowing employers to vastly underreport the number of injuries and illnesses their workers suffer.

The true rate for some industries — including poultry processors — is likely two to three times higher than government numbers suggest, he said.

The perils of processing

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487189.html

About 100 U.S. poultry workers have died on the job during the past decade, and more than 300,000 have been injured. The industry’s death and injury rates are higher than those for manufacturing as a whole. For many workers — including those who suffer amputations, chemical burns and debilitating hand or wrist ailments — on-the-job injuries have left a lasting mark. Poultry plants are typically divided into two functions. At one end, birds are slaughtered, scalded and plucked. At the other end, tightly clustered workers cut and package meat.

From the Editor: Poultry series exposes a new, silent subclass

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487184.html

Today we ask you to join us for a six-day series on the plight of Carolinas workers who put America’s most popular meat on the table.

These workers — about 28,000 of them in the Carolinas — process chicken and turkey in all its forms. Whole birds, fillets, nuggets, slices, cubes, sausage and even hot dogs.

It may surprise you to learn that most of the workers speak Spanish. Many of them entered the country illegally.

Should that matter as you consider the working conditions you will read about?

I say yes, but maybe not for the most obvious reason.

It should matter because the neglect of these workers exposes an ugly dimension to a new subclass in our society. A disturbing subclass of compliant workers with few, if any, rights.

Editorial: Spoiled meat

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487185.html

What happened to Karina Zorita just isn’t decent. Yet it’s commonplace in pain factories such as the ones in the Carolinas where thousands of poultry workers clean and debone America’s best-selling meat.

Ms. Zorita, 32, is a former line worker for House of Raeford, a poultry processor in Eastern North Carolina. Her painful, crippled hands don’t show up on any government injury report. But an Observer investigation has documented her plight — and the injuries suffered by other workers like her.

The shameful truth? Feeble rules and lax oversight have made it easy for a dangerous industry to exploit illegal workers, underreport injuries and manipulate a regulatory system that essentially lets companies police themselves.

The Observer’s report begins today, and continues for six days. It focuses heavily on Ms. Zorita’s former employer

House of Raeford responds

Excerpts from a Jan. 14 letter to the Observer

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/484515.html

2) On September 3, 1991, a fire broke out at the Imperial Poultry Processing plant in Hamlet, NC. Workers tried to escape, but managers had locked the fire doors to prevent workers from stealing chicken nuggets 25 worker died. This powerful video is part of the Charlotte Observer’s series on the poultry processing industry which continues today: http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/poultry_video2/

Misery on the line

Illegal immigrants say it’s easy to get a job at House of Raeford Farms.

Of 52 current and former Latino workers at House of Raeford who spoke to the Observer about their legal status, 42 said they were in the country illegally.

Company officials say they hire mostly Latino workers but don’t knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

But five current and former House of Raeford supervisors and human resource administrators, including two who were involved in hiring, said some of the company’s managers know they employ undocumented workers.

“If immigration came and looked at our files, they’d take half the plant,” said Caitlyn Davis, a former Greenville, S.C., plant human resources employee.

Former Greenville supervisors said the plant prefers undocumented workers because they are less likely to question working conditions for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.

.

A boss’s view: Keep them working

The production lines rarely stopped.

An endless stream of raw chickens — thousands an hour — had to be sliced and cut into pieces for family dinner tables.

It was Enrique Pagan’s job to keep his part of the line running.

He paced and often screamed at Mexicans and Guatemalans cutting chicken thighs. He demanded they move faster and scolded them when they left too much meat on the bone.

Pagan said most of his 90 workers in 2002 suffered hand and wrist pains. But he had production goals to meet. And he knew that workers wouldn’t complain because many were in the country illegally.

Editorial: Throwaway workers

You may not like the fact illegal immigrants break the law to come to this country for jobs. Yet they do come, and Americans want the low-priced products and services their cheap labor provides. But we should be appalled by what’s happening to thousands of immigrant workers who do dangerous, dirty work in pain factories in the Carolinas.

They are being exploited, abused, then thrown away when they are injured or when they speak up. Companies can get away with it, in part, because politicians in Washington don’t have the conscience or will to fix failed immigration policies.

3) Yet another stomach churning read from today’s Charlotte Observer:

Workers say they’re denied proper medical care

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/490858.html

Mike Flowers is a powerful gatekeeper. He often decides whether to send poultry workers to a doctor when they get hurt on the job or complain of chronic pain.

“I think we do a pretty good job of taking care of these folks,” said Flowers, who treats workers at the House of Raeford Farms plant in West Columbia, S.C.

Ernestina Ruiz thinks otherwise.

In 2006, after months of de-boning thousands of chicken breasts each day, her hands and wrists began to hurt. She complained to Flowers at least three times, she said, but each time he gave her pain relievers or a bandage and sent her back to work.

” `You’re going to be fine,’ ” she recalled him saying.

A large lump grew on her left wrist. The pain got so bad, she said, she went to a private doctor and had surgery.

Day after day, poultry workers are cut by knives, burned by chemicals or hurt by repetitive work, according to dozens of injury logs compiled by plants across the South.

Because many workers are illegal immigrants and can’t afford private care, their health rests largely with company medical workers.

Those in-house attendants are supposed to help workers heal. Instead, some have prevented workers from receiving medical care that would cost the company money, an Observer investigation has found. And in some instances, the treatments they provide can do more harm than good.

Judge criticized Tyson guidelines

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/490859.html

A judge sharply criticized policies at one large poultry company that encouraged nurses to delay medical treatment for some injured workers.

Tyson Foods, in a manual once issued to company nurses, provided the following guidance on how to handle workers with symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful hand ailment: Treat them in-house and “if not improving after 4 weeks, refer to a physician.”

Administrative Law Judge Murphy Miller concluded in 2002 the policy left Georgia worker Carolyn Johnson with permanent injuries.

“An employer that … requires four weeks of in-house treatment before a physician referral charts a collision course with medical disaster,” the judge wrote. “The employee’s permanent nerve damage is the foreseeable result.”

A worker’s grueling day

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/490857.html

Celia Lopez felt lucky when she was hired at the House of Raeford Farms turkey plant in Raeford. But after six years, the 44-year-old mother of three said she feared the “hands that take care of my family” are ruined. Last February, Fayetteville Dr. Stanley Gilbert performed carpal tunnel surgery on her left hand. In June, he performed surgery on her right hand. At the Observer’s request, Lopez recounted a typical day:

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The New Bedford Raid and Its Aftermath

Back in March, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials pulled off the biggest raid New England has ever seen, bursting into a leather factory in New Bedford to arrest 360 illegal aliens who had been working for Michael Bianco, Inc, a company with contracts to “produce safety vests and backpacks for the US military”. The owner, one Francesco Insolia, was charged with “conspiring to encourage or induce illegal immigrants to live in the United States, and conspiring to hire illegal immigrants.” Why would they risk jail to hire illegals? Because those illegals were desperate enough to work in the intolerable conditions which were all Insolia was willing to furnish.

According to affidavits unsealed yesterday, Insolia hired illegal immigrants instead of legal workers because the immigrants were desperate for jobs and more willing to put up with working conditions in his factory. Federal investigators allege workers were denied overtime, docked 15 minutes for every minute they were late, and fined for talking on the job, or for spending more than two minutes in the plant’s squalid bathrooms.

“Insolia and others knowingly and intentionally exploited the government by recruiting and hiring illegal aliens without authorization to work,” said US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, announcing the arrests yesterday. “They exploited the workforce with low-paying jobs and horrible working conditions, exploited the taxpayers by securing lucrative contracts funded by our legal workforce, and exploited the legal workforce by hiring illegal aliens.”

A month later the Boston Globe reported that Insolia had actually had the gall to apply for – and receive – grant money from the state of Massachusetts to “train” the workers he was already abusing.

The New Bedford manufacturer raided by federal agents last month for allegedly employing illegal immigrants won approval for $111,150 in state grants over the last four years to hire and train employees, as part of the company’s expansion.

The Massachusetts Department of Workforce Development approved two grants for Michael Bianco Inc. after the owner of the company, Francesco Insolia, appealed for help in winning new contracts from the US Department of Defense and building its share of the commercial textile market.

In early 2003, Michael Bianco, which then employed 87 people, was awarded a $66,250 grant to hire and train 80 new stitchers and machine operators, and to develop an in-house training program for entry-level workers. The state approved another $44,900 for the company this January, but the March 6 immigration raid put that grant on hold.

I probably don’t need to tell you that there is no evidence whatever that the “training sessions” actually took place. Insolia simply pocketed the money. Or perhaps he used it to pay Luis Torres for the fake ID’s Torres got for Insolia’s workers. But here’s the neat part: city officials, Republican and pro-business all, actually visited the factory and, rather than being appalled by the conditions, offered to help Insolia with the grant money and tax breaks.

Continue reading

A Daring Approach to Lowering Employee Health Care Costs: Do It Right

Here’s something you don’t see every day–and may never see again: in response to the prodding of a dedicated and persuasive doctor–and their own terror that their workers might join a union *gasp*–a coal company in Wyoming has developed a health care system that is concentrated more on effectiveness than efficiency–and it’s working. Sound implausible? Read on.

Maverick Health Plan Ups Quality to Cut Cost
Wyoming mining firms save by getting workers top care from the start, rewarding providers.

By Vicki Kemper, LA Times Staff Writer

GILLETTE, Wyo. — In the open-pit mines of the Powder River Basin, trucks and shovels the size of buildings work around the clock in a computer-choreographed ballet to move the coal that generates one-third of America’s electricity. It’s a grueling, hard-nosed business, with little room for dreamers.

Yet in this unlikely environment, retired surgeon David Crowder launched a small revolution about a year ago that could stand some conventional healthcare wisdom on its head.

His prescription for skyrocketing health insurance costs: Instead of focusing primarily on belt-tightening and gate-keeping, give employees the highest-quality medical treatment right from the start — and reward providers for doing a superior job.

A droll, self-taught consultant operating in a world of MBAs, policy experts and national human-resources firms, Crowder, 59, says his approach can deliver better care at lower prices for employers and employees alike. What’s more, he believes that giving hospitals and doctors a financial incentive to get more effective as well as more efficient can help stem the rising tide of Americans priced out of health insurance.

So far, his strategy appears to be working for the two mining companies — Foundation Coal West Inc. (until recently a subsidiary of RAG American Coal Holding Inc.) and Powder River Coal Co. — that hired him to lower their health insurance costs and keep workers satisfied enough that they would not join a labor union.

Crowder’s focus on quality as a means to achieve savings is not entirely new. About 150 large corporations that make up the Leapfrog Group, for example, have been working almost four years to establish a system of objective standards and rewards that would improve the quality and affordability of healthcare.

But what Crowder and the coal companies are doing goes beyond such efforts, health policy experts say.

“How unique is this?” asks Len Nichols, vice president of the private, nonpartisan Center for Studying Health System Change. “Pretty darn.”

It’s a multilayered approach. Crowder and the mines give doctors and hospitals incentives to release information about their performance. Then they use the information to objectively identify the highest-quality healthcare providers. Following that, they give workers a financial incentive to use those providers. “This is critical,” Nichols says.

“That’s clearly 21st century, and most of the country is still in the 20th, if not the 19th,” says Nichols, who met Crowder this year at a health-policy conference in Washington, D.C.


Granted, the program is barely a year old and relatively small, covering 1,700 Wyoming miners who work for Foundation Coal and Powder River Coal, their 4,600 family members and about 600 retired miners and spouses in Utah, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania.Still, Nichols and others believe it has valuable lessons to offer as insurance costs put coverage out of the reach of increasing numbers of Americans and their employers.

The number of uninsured Americans has risen steadily to 43.6 million, while the proportion of Americans younger than 65 who have employer-provided health insurance has slipped from 67% in 2001 to 63% last year, according to a new report by the Center for Studying Health System Change.

Last year, American employers saw their health insurance costs per worker increase by about 10%. And that was after they tried to control spending by reducing benefits and requiring employees to share more of the costs.

Crowder’s clients tried the same things before bringing him on board. Foundation reduced its payment for employees’ healthcare premiums and bills from 100% to 80%. Later, it raised the family deductible on its basic health insurance plan, increased co-payments for prescription drugs and began promoting a catastrophic plan with a $6,000 family deductible.

Health costs climbed anyway. Last year, before Foundation Coal hired Crowder to work on a monthly retainer of $4,300 and fully implemented his strategy, the company’s per-employee health benefits costs rose 31% — to $10,749.

This year, things have begun to turn around. Foundation has not pushed new increases in workers’ costs or trimmed its benefits, which are well above the national average.

It has increased the share it pays for miners and their families if they use hospitals designated as “centers of excellence,” yet its per-worker costs have inched down 2.5%.

Meanwhile, costs continue to rise nationwide by nearly 10% annually.

Powder River Coal declined to give details on its experience, but Crowder says it is following the same strategy as Foundation Coal and seeing similar results.

(emphasis added by me)

Startling, isn’t it? Advocates of real health care reform–not the ones whose idea of ‘reform’ is lowering costs without regard to its effect on workers’ health but the ones who can see further than the ends of their noses–have been saying for years that ‘effective’ health care is cheaper than ‘efficient’ health care, which often sacrifices health by refusing to intervene early enough or heavy enough. The HMO system took over from the old on-demand system largely because a few huge non-profit HMO’s (notably one in Oregon) demonstrated that early intervention and focused treatment was a lot more cost-effective than emergency treatment at a late stage when intervention modalities had to be extreme (and extremely expensive) as well as scattershot.

‘Prevention’ was an idea whose time had come, and the HMO system took over the American health care industry. Experienced HMO providers, however, warned at the time that Health Maintenance depended on providing services that were, by their very nature, not conducive to huge profits: early intervention meant using simpler and less expensive treatment modalities with low profit margins. A couple of for-profit HMO’s of that pioneering time had done well but only because they had down-shifted their definition of what ‘doing well’ meant–they went back to the primordial benchmark from the less greedy pre-Reagan days and defined a 7-10% return as an acceptable profit margin.

As the new batch of strictly-for-as-much-profit-as-they-could-squeeze-out-of-cutting-services HMO’s took control, those warnings weren’t just ignored, they were actively undermined when HMO ‘entrepreneurs’ made outrageous promises to their investors of 20-30% profit margins and sky-high dividends. The only way they could hope to redeem even a fraction of those promises was to ruthlessly cut needed services in the name of ‘efficiency’ while at the same time extorting or defrauding health insurance providers, especially Medicare and Medicaid, by upping hidden charges and raising prices. It’s no accident that at the same time HMO’s began taking over hospitals, those hospitals started charging $50 for 20 cents worth of aspirin, or that emergency care stats rose alarmingly due both to the number of uninsured who had to use emergency rooms as their primary care provider and the number of insured whose condition was allowed to worsen to the point of breakdown because their HMO had refused to pay for tests that would have picked up their ailment earlier or refused to pay for earlier treatment because their ‘intervention guidelines’ were focused on late treatments like surgery.

Essentially, what Crowder has done with the two coal companies is return to the original methods the early HMO’s proved were successful: do it right to start with. Intervene early, offer the best possible care, reward providers for keeping your employees healthy rather than for refusing them treatment. One doesn’t dare to assume in the Bush Age, when everything from war to disease is defined by its potential to generate corporate profits, that the message of this success story will penetrate the wall of greed that has built up around health in this country, but one can always hope that some sliver of it might affect decision-making at some point. Dreams don’t cost anything, after all. Yet….

Worker Wages and Health Insurance Should Be Center of Trade Debate

In an Op-Ed in today’s NYT, Wiiliam Gould, chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under Clinton, makes the case that no matter who is elected in November, national governments can have little impact on slowing globalization. They can, he argues, have a significant effect on the impact of those changes domestically.

Stanford, Calif. — Wages declined and unemployment held steady last month. So at this week’s convention and for the rest of the campaign, John Kerry is likely to make an issue of Americans’ anxiety about jobs – and his promised insistence upon labor standards as part of future trade agreements is an astute political stance.

But from a practical standpoint, it will have almost no effect. The adoption of labor and environmental standards, while symbolically significant, will not slow America’s job and income losses, and the prospect for significant international negotiations on such matters is remote.

One problem is that global wage disparities are enormous. No serious person argues that wages, economic benefits and other aspects of employment should be equal or even comparable in the industrialized and developing worlds. That is because such a policy would lead to economic devastation for the developing world, disrupting international trade and enhancing prospects for worldwide conflict.

An international minimum wage, for example, would also require that any trading partner with the United States have some form of acceptable wage. But what would the wage be, and how would it be enforced? If the United States determines such matters for itself, it risks international opprobrium for a unilateralist approach, a claim with which the Bush administration is familiar.

But while international standards for economic matters like wages are not practical, the same cannot be said for so-called core standards that have been adopted by the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations. These standards, intended to promote fair treatment of workers, are not binding. But the president and Congress could include them in future trade agreements – and even insist upon their inclusion in Nafta itself and legislation promoting trade with China.


To improve the prospects of workers in the third world, the United States could provide more foreign aid, which could then be spent on education. Yet the United States now ranks dead last among developed nations in percentage of gross domestic product devoted to foreign aid, and the political wherewithal to increase foreign aid is thus far not forthcoming.In many ways international trade is a domestic issue: trade brings change, and change frequently means painful dislocation that can be assuaged only by social programs. In this context national health insurance makes sense, as does a wage insurance program like the one Bill Bradley advocated in 2000. What laid-off auto and steel workers need is the same as what their outsourced service and professional counterparts need: not a new trade war, but domestic legislation on health benefits and wages. That should be the focus of the trade debate in 2004.

Court Rejects DOT Rules for Truckers

The US Court of Appeals yesterday overwhelmingly rejected The Department of Transportation’s new rules allowing companies to demand more road-time from their drivers.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday threw out new U.S. government regulations allowing commercial truck drivers to spend more time on the road without taking a break.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found the first major rewrite of the hours of service rule in more than 60 years was “arbitrary and capricious” because the Transportation Department failed to consider driver health.

SOP for the Bush Administration. For them, sacrificing employees’ health to boost corporate profits is a no-brainer.

“Its failure to do so, standing alone, requires us to vacate the entire rule,” the three-judge panel said in unanimously ordering the Transportation Department to rewrite the regulation.

“It means back to the drawing board,” said Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, the lead attorney for Public Citizen in the legal challenge by consumer and safety groups. “We got what we asked for.”

The court also questioned whether key provisions, like driving time and rest guidelines, would pass legal muster.

The rule took shape slowly and was one of the most sweeping and most anticipated regulatory actions undertaken by the Transportation Department in years. But critics complained the Bush administration weakened key aspects, including minimum rest periods, when it was approved in April 2003.

Likewise the Orwellian rationale for the rule.

But regulators stood by the initiative that took effect in January. “We believe it is an important safety tool, but we’ll have to look further into the court’s decision to see where we go from here,” Transportation Department spokesman Robert Johnson said.

The government has 45 days to weigh any legal challenge of its own. During that time, the new rule remains in effect.

The new rule cut two hours off a trucker’s allowable work day, including unloading and breaks, to 14 hours but permitted drivers to be on the road for 11 consecutive hours, up one hour. It also permitted truckers to work up to 77 hours in seven days, or 88 hours in eight days – a more than 25 percent increase over the old rule.

It was aimed at increasing productivity and reducing fatigue, which can cause accidents. Regulators estimated the rule would save up to 75 lives and prevent up to 1,300 fatigue-related crashes annually.

Regulators–ex-lobbyists from the trucking industry–are nuts. See below.

Deaths in large truck crashes, most involving other vehicles, were virtually unchanged in 2003 at 3,849, according to U.S. safety statistics. Truck drivers and their passengers accounted for roughly 20 percent of those fatalities.

Consumer, labor and safety groups argued that extending allowable driving time, even though a driver’s overall day was shorter, would not improve safety.

“The more you work these drivers with longer hours, (the more) it increases the risk,” said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “If a trucker loses control on the highway it’s like a giant bowling ball taking out everything in its path.”

NPR reported last night that the single most decisive factor in fatigue-related accidents involving truckers was the number of consecutive hours they had been on the road: more than eight and accidents increased by some 10%, but nearly 2/3 of such accidents took place when drivers had been on the road more than 10 hours, which is why the original rule used that cut-off. It’s a mite baffling how the DOT can justify an 11-hr shift in the face of those numbers. And, in fact, they didn’t try, relying instead on the old Bush Administration stand-by: bald assertion backed up by zero evidence and spun into its opposite; this wasn’t about ‘safety’.

A trucker at work who just moved back to New England from North Carolina where he was working for JB Hunt, one of the largest trucking firms in the country, told me last night that Hunt–which is proud of its safety record–had ignored the rule change and maintained the old standard because it believed that in the long run the new rules were counter-productive and would lead to more accidents rather than fewer.

NPR also reported in a separate piece that Hunt and several other big trucking firms were booming and were having problems finding enough truckers to fill their contracts. Hunt may have decided that prudence was more important than profits but I think it’s fair to conclude that the pressure for the DOT rule change was most likely coming from trucking industry lobbyists communicating this difficulty to their donees. The Bush Administration, rather than do something creative and positive like proposing a financial aid program for people who want to attend trucker training schools but can’t afford the tuition (around $5K for most schools), promptly used the rule change to allow trucking companies to push their employees harder in the name of ‘efficiency’ instead.

It would seem the Bush Administration deliberately rejected a golden opportunity to help create new jobs in an area of the economy that’s actually growing in order to once again opt for a more oppressive and dangerous option that would be less expensive, though marginally, for trucking corporations. If there was any doubt whose side they’re on, this pretty much erases it.

Note: If what that trucker told me is true, then major kudos go to JB Hunt for refusing to endanger their drivers for the sake of a few dollars extra in profits even though the Bush Administration told them they could. And bear in mind, this is yet another extremely profitable and stable company that isn’t cutting corners on safety because ‘it’s too expensive’. You rock, guys.

(Thanks to Island Dave for the tip.)

IBM settles 50 lawsuits by former San Jose plant workers

One of the biggest dangers that almost all workers face at one time or another is the workplace itself. Whether it’s RMS (Repetitive Motion Syndrome) or toxic chemicals and pollutants or SBS (Sick Building Syndrome), we are all exposed to debilitating workplace hazards that can–and do–make us ill or even kill us, often years after that exposure.

Corporate history on this issue is abysmal when it isn’t criminal (remember Erin Brockovich? That’s standard behaviour): denial, unconscionable personal attacks on the victims involving innuendo and outright lies, bald-face lying to investigating authorities, cover-ups, destruction of evidence, the list goes on and on. The one thing not on that list is: they never agree to clean up their mess until they’re forced to, either by govt or the courts.

Which makes me wonder about this item:

NO TERMS WERE DISCLOSED IN TOXIC CHEMICALS CASES

By Therese Poletti

San Jose Mercury News

IBM has settled 50 toxic chemical lawsuits brought by former employees at its San Jose manufacturing plant.

The terms of the confidential settlement in the closely watched litigation were not disclosed.

Chris Andrews, a spokesman for the Armonk, N.Y., computer giant, said Wednesday that a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge dismissed the cases following a settlement between the company and the plaintiffs.

Richard Alexander, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in San Jose, did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.

In February, a Santa Clara County Superior Court jury rejected two former IBM workers’ claims that they suffered systemic chemical poisoning as a result of their work at IBM’s Cottle Road disk drive manufacturing plant between the 1960s and 1980s.

Alida Hernandez, 73, and James Moore, 62, contended that exposure to acetone, benzene, trichloroethylene and other chemicals used in manufacturing clean rooms caused them to develop cancer. Hernandez suffered from breast cancer, and Moore has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The former IBM workers alleged that IBM knew they were ill and concealed that information from them. Their case, in which they were seeking millions of dollars in punitive damages, was the first of the some 50 similar cases to go to trial. The jury verdict in favor of IBM was unanimous.

In March, Judge Robert Baines put the remaining cases on hold and ordered both parties to meet with a mediator.

As far as I know, this is unprecedented. Oddities:

1) It’s not unusual for a judge to order the remaining parties in a large lawsuit like this into mediation after a verdict is either split or goes to the plaintiffs; it’s very unusual for a judge to do so when the verdict is unanimous and in favor of the defendant;

2) The company went into mediation; standard form is to appeal the judge’s ruling, and given the jury’s decision, IBM would have grounds for it to be set aside;

3) IBM has been involved in a number of suits resulting from unsafe working conditions and toxic poisoning; their history is to settle before the trial begins or after they’ve lost:

IBM previously settled two birth-defects cases in New York. In March, IBM settled a birth-defects lawsuit with the daughter of a former semiconductor plant worker in East Fishkill, N.Y., just before jury selection was to begin. Terms of that settlement were not disclosed. The plaintiff, Candace Curtis, was seeking $100 million in damages.

In January 2001, IBM settled another birth-defects lawsuit with the family of Zachary Ruffing, who was born blind. Both his parents worked at the East Fishkill plant in the 1980s.

Why agree to a settlement after an outright win? The PR pounding, maybe; sometimes it’s more harmful for a company to have its workplace practices exposed in print even if it wins its case than if it just pays everybody to go away and keep it out of the media. But why did the judge order it? After the defendant loses, it’s in everybody’s interest to settle and get the suit out of the courts, but when the defendant wins it’s only in the interest of the plaintiffs. And I’m not the only one who thinks this is odd.

“It is difficult to draw conclusions” from confidential settlements, said John Kalin, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in toxic tort cases. “Usually, when it’s a confidential settlement, it’s requested by the corporation.”

Kalin said companies typically try to reach confidential settlements so the settlement cannot be used against them in future litigation. But he also noted that in the San Jose case the plaintiffs might not have had a lot of influence. “If you don’t have a favorable jury verdict, you don’t have the kind of leverage you would have if you had gotten a multimillion-dollar verdict.”

(emphasis added)

The only time I’ve ever seen judges do that is when they thought there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the jury–which it’s allowed to do–had ignored the law in reaching their verdict to such an extent that the equivalent of legal violence had been done. I think that’s what may have happened here.

Who knows why the jury did what it did? I wasn’t sitting in the courtroom and I don’t. What does seem clear is that, for whatever reason, IBM, as corporations do far too often, has once again dodged an accountability bullet by buying its way out of mistakes and/or policies that harmed its workers.

We were not, we are not, a priority for them, no matter what they say when they want to cut our pay. Or abandon our suit against them.

Garment Workers Force Changes

A group of garment workers and their teenage daughters forced the garment industry in Oakland, CA’s Chinatown to improve their working conditions.

By Lee Romney, LA Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — For nearly a decade, Kwei Fong Lin tolerated numbness in her forearms. Like a great many Chinese immigrants who work in this city’s cramped and poorly equipped garment factories, her neck and back ached from long days spent hunched over a sewing machine while perched on rickety folding chairs, stools or even crates.

“We just took the pain as it came,” the 52-year-old Hong Kong native said in Cantonese.

But an unlikely revolution has taken root here. Today, dozens of women work in relative comfort while seated on customized ergonomic chairs. Simple table extensions relieve their tired shoulders. Wooden footrests keep their legs from dangling. Padded sleeves cushion the metal rods they must press hundreds of times a day with their knees to clamp and release fabric.

A city grant will soon bring the ergonomic equipment to other garment shops that dot Oakland’s Chinatown and other commercial strips. And the project has spawned a much larger study now underway in Los Angeles County — the heart of California’s rag trade.

Most surprising in an industry synonymous with powerless and mistreated workers: The women made it happen. They did it with the help of a group of teenage girls tired of seeing their seamstress mothers suffer, and a team of medical professionals, ergonomics experts, state health officials and product designers.

(It’s an inspiring story and an example of what govt and industry can do together when they try.)