Teamsters Take Aim at Trash-Hauling Industry; WMI Responds

Companies with a history of serious, ongoing safety violations -- including the Houston-based waste-hauling giant Waste Management Inc. -- should receive greater oversight by OSHA, unions in the Change to Win partnership told the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety today in a hearing in Washington, D.C., that followed the death in January of Raul Figueroa, a Florida WMI mechanic killed by the hydraulic arm of the garbage truck he was repairing. Leaders of the Teamsters, one of the Change to Win partners, say Figueroa's death is spurring their push for safety reforms throughout the sanitation industry.

Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator for Change to Win, testified about dangerous working conditions in several industries, noting that sanitation workers are more likely to die on the job than firefighters or police. He discussed the conclusions of a report released last week, "In Harm's Way," that is critical of WMI and its "antiquated" safety program. Issued by the National Commission of Inquiry into the Worker Health and Safety Crisis in the Solid Waste Industry, the report characterizes WMI as "playing a risky game with workers' lives and public safety," saying the company neglects modern safety engineering principles.

The unions say WMI's OSHA violations rose by 28 percent between 2003 and 2007, a charge WMI flatly refuted today. "When I saw this press release [announcing last week's report], we looked at the OSHA Web site. And the number of violations in 2003; when you compare that to the number of violations in 2007, it actually decreased more than 26 percent, so I have no idea where they're getting even the Waste Management data," said WMI's VP of Corporate Communications Lynn Brown. "If you look at our safety data, it's below the industry average, and it's continually improving. We make a very strong investment in safety." Brown added that WMI has invested $1.1 billion in maintenance and repair costs in the past three and a half years.

"Sanitation work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, but it doesn't have to be," said Jim Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters, which represents some 8,700 waste management workers across the country. "No one should have to die the way Raul Figueroa did. We are calling on the Senate today to strengthen OSHA's enforcement powers. OSHA needs the clout to reform bad-actor companies such as WMI, where an entrenched disregard for workers' safety is part of the corporate culture. Slap-on-the wrist OSHA fines mean nothing to these wealthy companies."

In response, Brown said, "I think our corporate culture speaks for itself. We've got a strong corporate culture and a Mission to Zero safety program -- a program that started in 2001 -- and that means we're on a mission to zero accidents. Our OSHA violations have decreased more than 26 percent from 2003 to 2007, and I think that's due to our strong focus on safety. Our OSHA recordable injury rate has improved almost 80 percent since 2001; for the fourth quarter of 2007, the rate was 3.79, and that's 30 percent below the industry average."

WMI says Figueroa's death happened as a result of his violation of company policy requiring him to lock out and tag equipment before working on it -- a procedure in which he was fully trained.

The "In Harm's Way" report, based on an anonymous questionnaire designed to be completed by hundreds of WMI workers nationwide, describes risks that sanitation workers face daily, including long hours that force workers to drive while dangerously fatigued; exposure to hazardous materials such as used syringes and asbestos; and out-of-repair trucks. "We've all seen the commercials where those gleaming WMI trucks drive through green landscapes. But the truth belies WMI's marketing. Nearly 60 percent of the WMI workers surveyed rated WMI's truck maintenance as fair, poor, or a failure," Hoffa said. "So how safe are workers in these trucks, and how safe are the other drivers on the road with these trucks?" He noted that garbage trucks have a 41 percent higher rate of fatal crashes than does the average work-related truck.

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