On Workers' Memorial Day, a coalition of local worker advocates applauded the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Tuesday morning for recently addressing "serious" safety and health hazards at Nippon Sharyo's passenger train factory in Rochelle, Illinois.
Standing outside Chicago's John C. Kluczynski Federal Building, the location of OSHA's Region 5 office, members of the Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition observed a moment of silence in honor of workers across the nation who have been injured or killed on the job and also called attention to problems at Nippon Sharyo's Rochelle facility. The Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition is comprised of community, faith, environmental and labor leaders, among others.
"The job of an assembly technician at a Ford assembly plant in Chicago shouldn't be so different than a job of [an] assembly technician at Nippon Sharyo['s] factory in Rochelle," Tony Garcia, Illinois legislative director from United Automobile Workers (UAW) Region 4, said. "But based on Nippon's OSHA violations, they are worlds apart ... Irresponsible non-union employers like Nippon Sharyo take a different approach, often cutting corners, doing training on the fly -- or not at all -- and using the cheapest inadequate equipment ... It's time for Nippon Sharyo to fix the hazardous conditions in its factory, and tell the public how they're going to do it."
As Progress Illinois has previously reported, current and former employees at Nippon Sharyo's Rochelle plant filed a complaint in October with OSHA of the U.S. Labor Department, alleging that workers "are exposed to serious, unsafe conditions on an ongoing basis."
Among other hazards, the workers alleged in their complaint that the railcar assembly plant lacks basic safety equipment; adequate respiratory protection for welders exposed to potential chromium poisoning; ventilation for flammable materials; and fall protections for employees working atop rail cars.
OSHA investigated the allegations and, in response to its findings, issued $34,550 in proposed fines this year against Nippon Sharyo for "serious" safety and health violations.
First, OSHA cited the company in February, for failing to "put in place welding shields/screens to protect employees ... adjacent to the welding area from health hazards such as arc eye and welder's flash." That violation came with a $2,550 proposed fine. The case was closed on March 24, following a settlement agreement in which the company paid a reduced penalty of $1,550.
As part of a separate inspection, OSHA also found several instances in which workers were exposed to various slip, trip, fall and electrical hazards. One of the violations, according to OSHA, involved Nippon Sharyo employees being "exposed to fall hazards up to 17 feet when walking and standing on plywood boards that were temporarily placed on top of the railcar's roof that did not overlap a minimum of 12 inches on each side." For these particular violations, OSHA levied $32,000 in proposed fines against the company late last month. Those fines have since been reduced to $18,000. According to OSHA, the case status is: "Pending abatement of violations, penalty payment plan in place."
This is not the first time Nippon Sharyo has been hit with OSHA violations. In March of 2014, OSHA fined Nippon Sharyo for a "serious" safety violation after inspectors found the plant lacked adequate ventilation to remove flammable vapors, mists or powders in spraying areas. OSHA initially fined the company $4,000, but later reduced the penalty to $2,000. The case has since been settled and is now closed.
The latest OSHA fines imposed on Nippon Sharyo this year serve "as validation that what the workers have spoken out about is real," said Chicago Jobs with Justice's Executive Director Susan Hurley.
"Nippon Sharyo's disregard for safety and the well-being of its workforce is absolutely appalling," she added.
Hurley noted that workers at Nippon Sharyo's Rochelle facility are also "experiencing a climate of fear and intimidation," adding that, "That is also totally and completely unacceptable for a company that has a contract with the state of Illinois."
Nippon Sharyo has landed $1.3 billion in contracts with U.S. public transit agencies, including Metra, in the past six years, according to the Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition. The company has also received $4.7 million in state support to open its Rochelle factory, according to the group.
Meanwhile, this year's Workers' Memorial Day marks the 45th anniversary of the federal legislation that created OSHA.
Nancy Hauter, OSHA's deputy regional administrator for Region 5, spoke at today's event. Approximately 4,500 U.S. workers die each year while on the job, Hauter said.
Last year in Illinois, there were 40 worker fatalities, she said.
"As a nation, we have made great progress in saving the lives of American workers, but there is still much more we need to do," added Hauter, who noted that OSHA strengthened its reporting procedures this year, specifically by expanding the list of severe injuries that employers must report to the agency.
Here's more from today's Workers' Memorial Day observance in Chicago, including comments from Hurley and Nora Cay Ryan with the Chicago Federation of Labor:
"We are going to hold Nippon Sharyo to a higher standard," Hurley said. "We're going to demand that they create good-quality, good-paying, and, yes, safe jobs while they're operating here in the state of Illinois in building cars for Metra."
A spokeswoman for Nippon Sharyo did not have an immediate comment regarding the OSHA violations and concerns raised by the Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition.