Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy are among the officials who support stricter enforcement of workplace safety regulations, it was revealed today at a Senate hearing prompted partly by repeated violations at Cintas facilities nationwide.
Mason-based Cintas was criticized at the hearing for having a dangerous pattern of disregarding worker safety.
The hearing, held by a subcommittee of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, examined alleged failures by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to investigate and remedy corporate-wide health and safety violations as a result of ineffective enforcement tools and inadequate resources at various companies, including Cintas.
“Industry-backed appointees have weakened OSHA enforcement, eviscerated regulatory standards programs, and ignored emerging workplace hazards,” wrote Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) in statement given to the subcommittee.
Kennedy, who chairs the committee, was harshly critical of OSHA.
“To prevent accidents, instead of only assigning blame afterward, OSHA needs to root out the source of these problems,” said Kennedy (D-Mass.). “A broad-based approach to enforcement has the power to transform workplace accidents from senseless losses to catalysts for changes that save lives.”
Employees who testified at the hearing suggested several reforms to OSHA including passage of the Protecting America’s Workers Act. The bill would expand the protection of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, strengthen the agency’s ability to enforce the law and increase criminal penalties for the most egregious safety violations, supporters said.
During the past year, Cintas has faced more than $3 million in new OSHA citations for violations at various facilities including a March 2007 incident in which a worker, Eleazar Torres-Gomez, was killed in an industrial dryer at the company’s Tulsa, Okla., laundry.
After the Tulsa incident, Cintas CEO Scott Farmer blamed Gomez for his own death by not following proper safety procedures and the company tried to prevent Gomez’ family from collecting worker compensation benefits.
Also, workers at a Cintas facility in Boucherville, a Montreal suburb, became the first in the company’s history to successfully form a union. The same group, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), is trying to organize workers at the firm's U.S. sites.
In early February, Cintas settled charges with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that alleged the firm illegally fired a California worker and that management threatened to “kick driver-employees with steel toed boots” to show it wasn’t afraid of workers’ organizing efforts. Cintas agreed to pay the fired worker nearly $30,000 in back wages and post a notice in its Vista, Calif., laundry describing workers’ legal right to organize. As part of the settlement, Cintas didn't admit wrongdoing.
Since 2003 Cintas has been cited for more than 170 OSHA violations in its facilities nationwide. Of that number, more than 70 citations were violations that OSHA determined could cause “death or serious physical harm.”
Overall, Cintas has paid nearly $200,000 in initial penalties, including more than $30,000 in penalties for “repeated” violations of the same identical standards in multiple company locations.
Pam Lowe, a Cintas vice president, has said the firm is committed to measures that help ensure workplace safety.
“That commitment is reflected in our safety program which includes an Executive Safety Council comprised of three national safety experts, OSHA-certified safety trainers, stringent compliance processes, safe-driving programs and ergonomic workstations throughout our facilities,” Lowe has said.
Richard T. Farmer, chair of the Cintas board, and his family have given more than $1.9 million in political contributions during the past decade to Republican candidates and groups. Farmer was the 15th largest fund-raiser for George W. Bush’s 2000 election and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the national Republican Party.
— Kevin Osborne