Winning Safer Workplaces: Watchdogging State Agencies

Matt Shudtz

Feb. 19, 2015

Our intrepid colleague Celeste Monforton, who writes at the Pump Handle blog, recently passed along a neat example of a tool that we wrote about in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual. Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on the state’s regulatory protections for meatpacking workers. As we noted in the Winning Safer Workplaces manual, state-level oversight of government regulation can be a valuable tool for advocates who are fighting for stronger workplace protections. The results of new audits can clarify what is working—and what is not working—about the regulatory system, giving advocates critical information that they might use in new campaigns. The audit process itself, by focusing outside attention on programs that may be insulated from regular or public oversight, can also have positive effects for the programs’ intended beneficiaries (here, workers).

The Minnesota auditors started this project with three basic questions:

  • What conditions do meatpacking workers encounter on the job?

  • How effective are the Department of Labor and Industry’s efforts to protect the rights and safety of meatpacking workers?

  • To what extent are Minnesota’s laws, particularly the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights, sufficient to protect workers?

They ended with a report that tells the story of a dangerous industry that churns through workers in a frightful way.

More than 12,000 Minnesota workers toil in the industry at any given time. Many are immigrants, few have higher-level education, and for all, the pay is low. These socioeconomic factors combine with grueling schedules and job duties to produce employee turnover rates as high as 70 percent. Employers in the industry also frequently hire workers on a contingent or temporary basis. With so much flux in a workforce that does dangerous work, injury and illness prevention and worker training are important concerns.

In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law that was designed to address those concerns and others. The Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights requires employers to inform their employees about job duties, health and safety protections, wages and benefits, and their rights to organize. It mimics in many ways the Meatpacking Worker Bill of Rights that was instituted in Nebraska in 2000.

The Minnesota law imposed some responsibilities on the state-plan agency that operates there. As we explained in the Winning Safer Workplaces manual, federal oversight of state-plan agencies is limited in scope, especially when a state agency operates under laws that go beyond the basic parameters of the OSH Act. The advocates who worked so hard to get the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights passed cannot rest assured that annual Fed-OSHA audits will ensure that the Minnesota legislation is fully implemented. The state auditor’s report is critical to its success.

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