CAL-OSHA Reporter

A union organizing campaign has filed a new complaint against an Inland Empire warehousing employer, charging that the grueling lifting conditions at the facility are causing repetitive motion injuries among workers there.

The complaint by Warehouse Workers United (WWU) on behalf of two non-union workers comes after a summer of discontent by workers in Southern California’s important distribution industry, including a 50-mile march to downtown Los Angeles to raise awareness about their working conditions and a strike by a number of workers, without benefit of a union.

WWU complaints have triggered Cal/OSHA investigations into warehousing and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) cited a number of employers earlier this year in the first concerted enforcement effort by the agency aimed at the industry.

The latest complaint asks DOSH to investigate NFI Crossdock in Eastvale. It names National Distribution Centers, NFI’s parent company, Walmart Stores, which has an onsite manager at the facility, Warestaff, LLC, the onsite staffing agency, SCI Companies, a personnel management firm jointly operating with Warestaff, and Select Staffing, which sends workers from offsite offices and “has leads who take orders from NFI,” according to WWU.

The campaign alleges, on behalf of the two workers, both “lumpers,” that the employers failed to comply with General Industry Safety Orders §5110(b) by failing to implement the critical elements of a repetitive-motion injury (RMI) program, including worksite evaluation, exposure control and training.

“On the contrary, these joint employers have instead aggressively created and maintained conditions which pose [a] high risk of low back injury,” the complaint states. And workers have “repeatedly” suffered such injuries in the past year.

Section 5110 applies where RMIs have occurred to two or more employees predominantly caused (50%) by a repetitive job, process or operation, the injured workers were performing identical tasks, the RMIs were “objectively identified and diagnosed” by a licensed physician and were reported to the employer withing the preceding 12 months.

The Crossdock facility has 250 workers who unload boxes weighing up to 100 pounds from shipping containers. They place them on carts or pallets and then reload them in containers or trailers for further distribution. WWU says each worker must move between 200 and 250 boxes per hour and often have to work at a faster pace because the 5-10 minutes it takes to move the pallets or forklifts to the next stop don’t count against their quota.

“The workers who do this work are required to perform this rate under the pressure of managers who aggressively pressure workers to meet these quotas with threats, harassment and, eventually, firing of less-productive workers,” says WWU Research and Policy Coordinator Sheheryar Kaoosji, who wrote the complaint. “Workers load for up to 60 minutes without stopping.”

WWU says Cal/OSHA 300 logs provided to the organization by Warestaff show four workers with back injuries in the first seven months of 2012. “We believe that these injuries are related, connected by the extremely rapid, repetitive activity required by this job,” Kaoosji wrote.

He tells Cal-OSHA Reporter that the RMI injuries are specific to crossdock facilities, which don’t store goods, but move them constantly. “All they do all day is this rapid motion,” he says of the workers. “There were a lot of workers with back injuries that came to us.”

Walmart is the focus of the safety campaign because it is the country’s and the world’s largest retailer and dominates the industry. The crossdock facilities “fit into Walmart’s system of ‘just-in-time’ delivery,” Kaoosji says. Staffing agencies “burn through people,” he adds. Some workers quit after one day because of the grueling work. “The core of it is these production quotas. You’re on the bubble beause you’re a temp.”

The campaign also alleges that Warestaff has maintained “improper recordkeeping practices,” stating that the log it was provided did not contain any of the statistical data required by Cal/OSHA. “We believe that it was prepared solely because of our request of July 2012, and that Warestaff failed to keep both the 2012 Log and prior versions in a timely fashion,” the complaint alleges.

The six-day, 50-mile march from the Inland Empire to the steps of Los Angeles City Hall was intended to draw attention to what workers say are “deplorable” conditions in warehouses. They are demanding fans to combat often 100°F temperatures inside the facilities, “functioning equipment,” clean water, rest breaks, and an end to what they call “inhumane” quotas and retaliation for complaining about safety conditions.

Before the march, workers at NFI warehouses in Mira Loma walked off the job — even though they don’t have a recognized union — because of what they say are terrible working conditions and retaliation for speaking up about it.

The strking workers have not been fired because under the National Labor Relations Act, they are protected for filing unfair labor practice claims. If they make an unconditional offer to return, the company has to take them back, Kaoosji says.

The workers also have called on Walmart to get involved, meet with the workers and enforce its suppliers’ standards. Kaoosji says the companies are watching the situation and some of the hazards identified in the Cal/OSHA citations have been addressed. “Some things have gotten better,” Kaoosji says. “We know that Walmart is paying attention.”