Archive for November, 2015

Violation Tracker and Toy Safety

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

The holidays are nearly upon us, and that means that millions of parents are facing the annual ordeal of shopping for toys. Along with designating children as naughty or nice, shoppers may want to pay attention to the track record of the companies producing and selling the items that show up on wish lists.

Violation Tracker, the new database of corporate misconduct, can help identify which companies have the worst safety records when it comes to toys and other items for children. Among the agencies from which the database has collected environmental, health and safety enforcement data is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which pays close attention to hazards in items used by young people.

The CPSC maintains a database of voluntary recalls and sends letters to companies asking for corrective action, but it also imposes civil penalties in cases of egregious violations. The following list, taken from Violation Tracker, shows the companies with the largest CPSC penalties since the beginning of 2010.

Techtronic Industries, headquartered in Hong Kong, was, via its subsidiary One World Technologies, fined $4.3 million for violating CPSC reporting rules in connection with its Baja Motorsports mini-bikes and go-carts. The CPSC said that gas caps on the vehicle could leak or detach from the fuel tank, posing fire and burn hazards, and that sticky throttles could result in sudden acceleration.

Discount clothing retailer Ross Stores was fined $3.9 million in connection with the sale of thousands of children’s garments with neck or waist drawstrings that posed a strangulation risk. The CPSC had previously determined that such garments created a “substantial product hazard.”

Phil & Teds, a manufacturer of strollers and related baby gear, was fined $3.5 million for failing to report that its MeToo clip-on high chair could detach from a table and cause an infant to fall to the ground.  If only one side of the high chair detached, a child’s fingers could become crushed between the bar and the clamping mechanism, resulting in amputation. The company had received multiple reports of such accidents, including two amputation cases, but did not report them to the CPSC in a timely manner.

The American subsidiary of Japan’s Daiso Industries was fined $2.05 million and had to stop importing children’s products and toys into the United States. The CPSC had determined that the company was distributing and selling toys with illegal levels of lead content, lead paint and phthalates; toys intended for young children containing small parts that posed choking hazards; and products that lacked required warning labels.

Michigan-based retailer Meijer was fined $2 million for selling a dozen different recalled consumer products, most of which were for children. Among these were SlingRider Baby Slings (risk of suffocation), Refreshing Rings Infant Teethers/Rattles imported by Sassy (ingestion hazard), and the Harmony High Chair manufactured by Graco Children’s Products (fall hazard).

Burlington Coat Factory, owned by Bain Capital, was fined $1.5 million for the same violation as Ross Stores: selling children’s clothing with drawstrings deemed to be a strangulation hazard. Among the garments were hooded jackets and sweatshirts involved in a 2010 recall announced by the CPSC in cooperation with the company. Macy’s was fined $750,000 in another drawstring case.

Spin Master Inc. was fined $1.3 million for failing to reports hazards associated with its product called Aqua Dots, a children’s craft kit and toy that consisted of tiny beads of different colors that stuck together when sprayed with water. According to the CPSC, Spin Master had received reports that children (and a dog) had become ill and received emergency medical treatment after ingesting Aqua Dots, which contained a substance that could damage kidneys and the central nervous system.

Henry Gordy International, a subsidiary of Exx Inc., was fined $1.1 million for failing to report that its toy dart gun sets contained parts that could be inhaled into a child’s throat and cause suffocation. The CPSC also alleged that the company made a material misrepresentation to agency staffers during their investigation.

Violation Tracker data currently goes back only to the beginning of 2010, but toy safety problems began well before that. One perennial problem was the sale of items containing lead or lead paint, especially by the dollar store chains. In 2009 Dollar General was fined $100,00 and Family Dollar (now owned by Dollar Tree) $75,000 as part of a CPSC crackdown on the dangerous practice.

Santa Claus may put lumps of coal in some children’s stockings, but unscrupulous corporations can do a lot worse.

Using Violation Tracker to Research Oil Transport Hazards

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

ViolationTracker_Logo_Development_R3In their disappointed responses to President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL project, proponents argued that the decision would do nothing more than force tar sands oil producers to use more dangerous forms of transport such as rail.

It’s true that freight railroads have had their share of accidents, but pipelines are hardly risk-free. The new Violation Tracker database provides documentation on the hazards of both modes of moving dirty oil.

Pipeline regulation is under the purview of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Violation Tracker has collected data on more than 200 significant enforcement cases brought by the agency since the beginning of 2010. These cases have resulted in total penalties of $28 million.

The largest share of that total comes from Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline giant with extensive operations in the United States. It has had five PHMSA cases with total penalties of $6.3 million. These include a $3.7 million penalty linked to a 2010 accident that spewed more than 800,000 gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, a major waterway that flows into Lake Michigan. The agency followed the penalty announcement with a statement that there was a “lack of a safety culture” at Enbridge, which had previously been fined $2.4 million for an accident in Minnesota in which two workers were killed when the oil in a leaking pipeline ignited. (For more on Enbridge’s dubious track record, see its Corporate Rap Sheet.)

Second among the top PHMSA violators is BP with $4.6 million in penalties, most of which came from a provision of a larger settlement also involving the Justice Department and the EPA concerning a spill on the North Slope of Alaska. Third is Buckeye Partners with 18 cases involving just under $2 million in PHMSA penalties. Four other companies have been penalized in excess of $1 million by the agency since 2010: Kinder Morgan, Enterprise Products Partners, Exxon Mobil and Marathon Petroleum.

The biggest single penalty from this group was the $1,045,000 fine imposed on Exxon Mobil in connection with a 2011 rupture of a pipeline in Montana that sent more than 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

This is the track record that Keystone XL advocates seem to think argues in favor of pipelines. As noted, they are on stronger ground when criticizing railroads. They can point to incidents such as the derailment of a CSX oil train in West Virginia that caused a fire that burned for days and forced the evacuations of hundreds of people.

The Federal Railroad Administration tends to impose modest penalties but Violation Tracker shows that half a dozen lines have managed to accumulate $1 million or more in safety fines since 2010. In the lead is Union Pacific, with $11.1 million in penalties, including the agency’s single largest fine of $565,000. Second is Berkshire Hathaway (parent of BNSF) with $7.4 million, followed by CSX with $2.7 million and Norfolk Southern with $3.4 million. All of the Class I railroads are well represented on the penalty list.

The debate between pipelines and supposedly safer railroads is a false one. The major companies in both industries have track records that make oil transport a hazardous proposition.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Dollar Tree, now leading the retail sector targeting those too poor to shop at Walmart.

Also note: POGO’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, one of the inspirations for Violation Tracker, has been revamped.

Using Violation Tracker to Analyze Workplace Safety and Labor Relations

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

ViolationTracker_Logo_Development_R3It’s widely known that BP has a terrible workplace safety record, especially at its Texas City refinery, where 15 workers were killed in a 2005 explosion blamed in large part on management. In 2010 BP had to pay a record $50 million to settle OSHA allegations relating to the incident and the serious deficiencies in its subsequent remediation efforts.

Figuring out which other companies have created the greatest hazards for their workers has been more difficult — until now, that is. Violation Tracker, a new database on corporate misconduct, brings together information on some 100,000 environmental, health and safety cases filed by OSHA and a dozen other federal regulatory agencies since 2010. The database links the companies involved in the individual cases to their corporate parents, and the penalties are aggregated. Here I look at the largest OSHA violators identified by Violation Tracker and discuss a key characteristic they tend to have in common.

Companies with the most OSHA penalties, 2010-August 2015

  • BP: $63,860,860
  • Louis Dreyfus (parent of Imperial Sugar): $6,063,600
  • Republic Steel: $2,635,000
  • Tesoro: $2,532,355
  • Olivet Management: $2,359,000
  • Dollar Tree: $2,153,585
  • Ashley Furniture: $1,869,745
  • Kehrer Brothers Construction: $1,822,800
  • Renco: $1,535,475
  • Black Mag LLC: $1,218,500

(Source: Violation Tracker. Amounts are totals of “current penalties” for serious, willful or repeated violations of $5,000 or more after any negotiated reductions in OSHA’s initial proposed fines.)

Last February, members of the United Steelworkers union walked off the job at BP refineries in Ohio and Indiana as part of a strike focusing on safety problems in the industry. USW president Leo Girard stated at the time: “Management cannot continue to resist allowing workers a stronger voice on issues that could very well make the difference between life and death for too many of them.” BP’s $63 million in OSHA fines and settlements since 2010, far more than any other company, have put it at the forefront of that deadly resistance.

Tesoro, another unionized oil refiner criticized by the USW for its safety shortcomings, has the fourth highest OSHA penalty total ($2.5 million) among the companies in Violation Tracker. In 2014 the union called on the company to develop a “comprehensive, cohesive safety program” after an accident at a California refinery in which two workers were seriously injured. The USW also took the company to task for disputing a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board citing “safety culture deficiencies” among the causes of a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers.

Kehrer Brothers Construction, on the top-ten list of OSHA violators with $1.8 million in penalties, is nominally a union contractor, but it was the subject of a 2010 lawsuit by the Roofers union complaining about wage theft. Earlier this year, OSHA accused the company of bringing in non-English speaking workers under H-2B visas and knowingly exposing them to asbestos on the job.

Not all of the largest OSHA violators are rogue unionized employers. Some are firms that have managed to keep unions out. Chief among those is Imperial Sugar, which in 2010 had to pay $6 million to settle more than 120 violations linked to a 2008 explosion at its non-union plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia that killed 14 people and seriously injured dozens of others. (Imperial, acquired by Louis Dreyfus in 2012, had unions at some of its other facilities.)

Dollar Tree, which has racked up more than $2 million in OSHA fines since 2010, is one of the large deep-discount retailers that target the portion of the population that cannot afford to shop at Walmart. The non-union chain has been cited repeatedly for piling boxes in storage areas of its stores to dangerous heights and blocking emergency exits.

Ashley Furniture was fined $1.8 million by OSHA earlier this year at its non-union plant in Arcadia, Wisconsin for 38 willful, serious or repeated violations stemming from the company’s failure to protect workers from moving equipment parts. One worker lost three fingers while operating a woodworking machine lacking required safety protections. OSHA recently proposed another $431,000 in fines for similar problems at another Ashley facility in Wisconsin.

A more obscure company in the OSHA top ten is Olivet Management, a real estate developer fined more than $2.3 million for exposing its own workers and contractor employees to asbestos and lead during clean-up activities at the site of the former Hudson Valley Psychiatric Center in Dover Plains, New York. The company was created by Olivet University, which calls itself “a private Christian institution of biblical higher education.”

There’s a smaller third category of top OSHA violators, represented by Republic Steel: a company with decent union relations that appears to have gotten sloppy in its safety practices. In 2014 Republic agreed to pay $2.4 million as part of a settlement with OSHA resolving violations at its facilities in Ohio and New York. The settlement, which also involved the creation of a comprehensive illness and injury prevention program, was praised by the USW. Yet this year Republic was fined another $162,400 for repeated and serious violations at its plant in Lorain, Ohio.

The lesson of all this seems to be that workers face the greatest hazards in non-union companies and rogue unionized firms, but they also need to be vigilant in workplaces with decent labor-management relations.

Note: This is the first in a series of posts using information from the new Violation Tracker database. For more on Violation Tracker, see the Huffington Post.