Publix Where working can be lethal

Five workers have died in Publix's Deerfield Beach warehouse in the past eight years. Has the workplace gotten safer? Apparently not.

Prior to Brown's death, Publix workers say, there was no formal training on the specific task of operating a tugger inside the trailers. But after the accident, managers held a safety meeting with workers. Tugger operators were instructed not to back their machines into the trailers unless they were pushing birds behind them, which would protect them from contact with load bars or other protruding objects.

The focus on safe operation of tuggers, however, was soon undermined by a new instruction. A manager told them that they had to back the tuggers into trailers even when the trailers were dark inside. "You can't question it," says one worker. "They say it, and you just do it."

And they had better do it fast. Two years ago Publix installed a computerized efficiency system, which sets a production quota for each of the workers who load the trailers with grocery items ordered by stores. These workers, called selectors, cruise the vast warehouse on tuggers, pick out order items from the towering shelves, load the heavy boxes on the birds, then drive to the dock and back the full birds into the trailers.

Fred Gallart remembers his son's complaints about how dangerous the Publix job was, and still berates himself for not persuading Louis to quit
Sherri Cohen
Fred Gallart remembers his son's complaints about how dangerous the Publix job was, and still berates himself for not persuading Louis to quit
Deja Brown was crushed to death against the control panel of this Barrett tugger. His chest was pinned against the exposed reverse button, which kept the machine pressing him backward into a bar.
Deja Brown was crushed to death against the control panel of this Barrett tugger. His chest was pinned against the exposed reverse button, which kept the machine pressing him backward into a bar.

If selectors fail to meet the quota for the average number of grocery boxes they are supposed to load per hour, they suffer pay cuts and can eventually be fired. Workers blame the new EXE 2000 system for an increase in the number and severity of accidents. There have been four dozen mishaps among selectors in the warehouse's dairy unit alone in the last several months. At least nine men in the dairy and boxed-meat departments have recently suffered back injuries. No official statistic on total accidents at the warehouse is available, since OSHA does not require companies to disclose publicly the accident logs they are supposed to keep. "You don't even have time to go to the bathroom," complains one of the workers.

"It wouldn't surprise me if this productivity system exacerbated injuries and deaths," says Steven Field, an assistant professor of occupational medicine at the University of South Florida. "Any time you speed up the line, you're setting yourself up for potential accidents."

Jennifer Bush, the Publix spokesperson, refused to comment on the new system, which she classified as "proprietary information."


One thing that deeply disturbs Louis Gallart's parents is that their son's fatal accident did nothing to prevent the death of Deja Brown just ten months later. "I feel outraged that another young man died so shortly afterwards, under identical circumstances," says JoAnn Marble, who lives in Coral Springs with her second husband, Wally, in the same condo where she raised Louis and his younger sister, Gabrielle. "Too many people have died with this stupid machine."

Thirty years ago Congress created an agency to investigate accidents and to try to prevent recurrences. The logic was simple: too few companies do this on their own. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for enforcing federal job safety rules in private workplaces in Florida and 26 other states, which have opted to give the feds that authority rather than fund a state agency to do the job.

After Gallart's death OSHA had the power to order, or at least suggest, changes at the Publix warehouse. The agency chose not to do so, which may well have cost Deja Brown his life.

One possible reason for OSHA's inaction has to do with budgetary constraints. Relentless business opposition has prompted Congress to cut OSHA's funding in the past five years, which has crippled the agency. OSHA's current enforcement budget of $142.2 million is actually less than it was five years ago. The agency doesn't have nearly enough inspectors to monitor the millions of job sites around the country routinely, and is hard-pressed just to investigate serious accidents and complaints. The OSHA regional office in Plantation, for instance, currently employs ten inspectors to cover all the private employers in ten South Florida counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.

Labor experts say that staffing level is laughable. "OSHA has so few inspectors that it would take a century for the agency to visit every job site in the state," sneers Marilyn Lenard, president of the Florida AFL-CIO.

In addition to slashing the agency's funding, Congress has sharply limited the fines and other sanctions OSHA can impose on safety violators.

And OSHA isn't the only job-safety agency under fire. Prodded by business groups, the Florida legislature passed a law last year to shut down the Division of Safety of the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security on July 1, 2000. The division, which is the only state agency addressing occupational health, provides safety training to employers who request its help. "It was a waste of money," says Mary Ann Stiles, a Tampa attorney who represents the Associated Industries of Florida, the main business lobby in Tallahassee. "They were totally worthless."

Labor experts beg to differ. They say the Florida safety division's training program has been crucial in supplementing OSHA's enforcement role and in helping businesses that want to do the right thing. "Florida has an extremely high incidence of death on the job," Lenard says. "Anything done to lessen health and safety coverage would be ironic."

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