U.S. Postal Service faces nationwide complaint for electrical safety violations
As of the end of last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued fines totaling more than $6.2 million for what it describes as “willful and serious” electrical safety violations at 30 U.S. Postal Service (USPS) processing and distribution and bulk mail facilities across the country (Safety Citations Time Line). Throughout 2010, OSHA inspectors allege to have uncovered violations of the OSHA industry standard, “Electrical Safety-Related Work Practices — Inspection Procedures and Interpretation Guidelines,” such as testing performed on live electrical equipment, untrained or unqualified workers performing tests, and inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and warning signs. In addition, OSHA cited USPS for failing to instruct workers on the proper procedures for lockout/tagout of machines.
Violations at the Providence, R.I.-based USPS Processing and Delivery Center resulted in more than half a million dollars in proposed fines alone. From Nov. 2, 2009 to April 28, 2010, OSHA’s inspectors found untrained or unqualified workers performing tests on live electrical equipment, and doing so without PPE, safety-related work practices, and warning signs. In addition, inspections of hazardous energy control procedures revealed they were being conducted by employees who lacked the knowledge and training to determine if those procedures were performed correctly. “The Postal Service exposed workers at the Providence, R.I., facility to the serious and potentially fatal hazards of shock, electrocution, and arc flash,” says David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “That is unacceptable, and needlessly placed the health of these workers at risk.”
Consequently, OSHA issued eight willful citations — violations committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health — that totaled $530,000 in proposed fines. In addition, four serious citations, which are warranted when death or serious physical harm is likely to result from hazards about which the employer knew or should have known, were issued for failure to develop procedures and provide training for locking out machines’ power sources to prevent their unexpected startup during servicing and other related hazards. The proposed fines for these citations total $28,000. “These sizable fines reflect the severity and ongoing nature of these hazards,” says Michaels. “USPS ignored long-established safety standards and knowingly put its workers in harm’s way.”
As a result of the violations discovered at the Providence facility in July, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) filed an unprecedented “enterprise-wide” complaint against USPS. The complaint — which asks the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission to order USPS to correct electrical violations at all of its facilities; uphold the fines and penalties; conduct training on safe electrical work practices; provide PPE to affected employees; and withdraw flawed management orders and instructions regarding safe electrical work practices — marked the first time the department sought enterprise-wide relief as a remedy. “When the same safety violation is discovered in multiple locations of an organization, we need an enterprise-wide remedy to protect workers from the hazard,” says M. Patricia Smith, DOL solicitor.
USPS failed to adequately train workers in recognizing electrical hazards and how to work safely around such hazards, says the complaint, and did not provide workers with the appropriate tools and PPE to avoid injury or death while working around and on electrical equipment. Furthermore, according to the complaint, USPS has known “for many years” of its failure to comply with OSHA’s electrical safety-related work practices standards. Over the last 10 years, at least eight USPS employees have sustained injuries in electrical arc flash/blast accidents. Between 1999 and 2009, OSHA issued 29 citations against USPS for violations of electrical safety-related work practice standards, including one that caused a fatality.
“Even though it was aware of the hazards, USPS failed to institute the necessary measures to protect its workers,” says Michaels. “This complaint seeks to put a stop to this irresponsible behavior.”
However, in anticipation of USPS contesting the numerous citations, in August 2010, DOL sought to consolidate the complaints and initiated settlement discussions with USPS. “Given the common issues and parties and the number of citations to be issued in total, which may exceed 30 to 40, a consolidation of all these cases would conserve judicial and litigation resources,” reads the letter from the DOL solicitor’s office.
Also, the motion requested a minimum 90-day stay, which holds proceedings in abeyance to allow the parties to pursue negotiations at the national level without being hampered by discovery issues or mandatory settlement proceedings. The stay does not affect OSHA’s ongoing inspections or prevent the agency from filing additional complaints. So far, safety citations have been issued at a total of 30 processing and distribution centers and bulk mail centers, with even more citations expected in the coming months. It is estimated the total in proposed fines could exceed $10 million.
Yet, the consolidation covers only 260 of the organization’s 350 mail processing and distribution and bulk mail centers across the country with similar hazards.
This dismays the leadership of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). “The APWU is adamant that any settlement must be applied to all postal facilities that have deficient electrical safety work practices,” says Greg Bell, APWU director of industrial relations.
DOL has invited the APWU to participate in the negotiations with USPS. “Throughout this process, the APWU will continue to insist that these outrageous hazards are corrected and that union members are protected,” says Bell.
According to the APWU, it made many attempts to contact postal management about correcting the violations. In 2007 and 2008, after OSHA conducted inspections of postal facilities and found violations of various electrical safety standards, USPS agreed that the hazards existed and entered into informal settlements, but has so far failed to correct the problems. “This is an issue that the union has been fighting with management about literally for years,” says Sally Davidow, senior manager, APWU Communications Department, Washington, D.C. “The APWU has called this problem to management’s attention, sought repeated meetings, and tried to get management to correct the problem, to no avail. Why they choose to ignore a hazard, I can’t explain. This is a potential fatality.”
USPS operates around 350 processing and distribution centers throughout the country, which fall under the control of the USPS’ national office in Washington, D.C. As such, they employ identical or similar equipment under the direction of the national office, and also under the governance of OSHA’s electrical safety-related work practices standards. The equipment includes package parcel sorters, carrier sequence bar code sorters, and delivery bar code sorters.
In 2004, USPS conceived of a Management Maintenance Order (MMO) and Management Instruction (MI), which were to achieve compliance with the OSHA standards. The team of employees finished a draft of the document in 2006, but USPS did not distribute or put into practice the MI until Dec. 24, 2009 — and did not release or use the MMO until Feb. 1, 2010.
After the release of the MMO, the union, believing the instructions still violated OSHA’s standard for electrical safety, initiated a national-level dispute protesting the instructions. The APWU went on record saying that management published the instructions prior to the completion of discussions with the union on the topic, despite management’s commitment to postpone implementation until after it provided the union with requested documentation. In addition, in view of the potential for serious injury, APWU maintenance craft officers encouraged locals to take action as well.
As a result, the national union’s Industrial Relations Department developed guidelines and urged locals across the country to file complaints with OSHA. The inspections have been conducted at numerous postal facilities arising from locally filed complaints. “The USPS stubbornly refused to address the problems,” says Bell. “As a result, we advised locals to file formal complaints with OSHA.”
The inspections at the Providence, R.I., facility were the result of a complaint filed by the local chapter. “We did what we were supposed to do,” says Ronald Mathieu, president of the local. “It’s our job to make sure people go home the same way they came to work.”
According to Davidow, the union members had no other choice than to file complaints. “It got to the point where eventually the union was forced to send letters to our local presidents asking them to investigate their local situation, and if appropriate, file complaints,” she says. “And that’s why we have the situation now — where there are multiple places where fines and citations have been issued and where millions of dollars will be spent in fines, putting aside the issue of correcting the problem.”
Furthermore, in March 2006, the USPS national office issued a memorandum to all USPS district managers and senior plant managers regarding safe electrical work practices but did not provide information on interim protective measures for employees. In fact, the memorandum instructed its recipients not to “expend funds on any National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) training or consulting activities.”
According to an anonymous USPS electronic technician, individual post office managers have their own ideas regarding the necessary safety equipment, especially regarding arc flash protection. “I have looked at some of the codes and am sure we are not compliant at our facility,” says the technician, who cites the code requiring rubber gloves when checking panels rated above 50V. USPS has issued carbon-X gloves, safety glasses, and a Category 2 arc flash jacket. “I have asked about the rubber gloves and have not heard back from management. They said the carbon-X gloves were sufficient, but we have 208V, 3-phase circuits (100A) powering most of our machines, and some use 120VAC for the emergency stop line. So there’s some confusion about the NFPA 70E rules.”
Correcting the problem
In 2005, USPS was admitted into OSHA’s corporate Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), which recognizes employers and workers in the private industry and federal agencies that have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) averages for their respective industries. Twenty-nine USPS processing and distribution facilities remain designated as OSHA VPP sites.
In January 2010, USPS began implementing an electrical work plan to enhance its safe electrical work practices for employees, and USPS believes this plan meets OSHA standards, says Mark Saunders, USPS spokesman. The plan provides for electrical risk assessments, training, PPE, enhanced safe electrical work practices, and insulated tools. As a result of the plan, USPS has already invested more than $5 million in 123,000 hours of training for nearly 20,000 maintenance employees.
“We are in the process of distributing more than $2 million in protective safety gear to them,” says Saunders. “In situations where items are on back order from our national suppliers, local management is in the process of purchasing items locally.”
A sampling of the nearly $2 million in protective gear includes safety glasses, face shields, voltage-rated gloves, fire-resistant (FR) lab coats, and fire-resistant (FR) coveralls.
“USPS places the safety and well-being of its employees as a top priority,” says Saunders, citing that the BLS validates that USPS works twice as safely as other delivery organizations. “Regardless, one accident, or the potential for one accident — on the road, in a post office, or a mail processing plant — is one too many,” says Saudners. “We will review OSHA’s concerns and make necessary adjustments to continue to ensure a safe working environment for our employees.”
Safety Citations Time Line
Within the past five years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has conducted more than 900 inspections at U.S. Postal Service (USPS) facilities across the country and issued more than 600 citations. However, the latest round of inspections, which began in October 2009, prompted the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to file suit against the USPS with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. In anticipation of USPS contesting the citations, a motion was filed to consolidate the cases. Currently, the citations are being negotiated among DOL, USPS, and the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) to find a remedy to correct the violations and bring the safety practices for electrical work at the processing and distribution and bulk mail centers into compliance with OSHA’s standard for electrical work, “Electrical Safety-Related Work Practices — Inspection Procedures and Interpretation Guidelines.” As of press time, the citations total more than $6 million in proposed fines, which could reach as much as $10 million when all inspections are complete.
Following is a list of facilities and the record of their electrical safety violations:
• Jan. 27, 2010 — Des Moines, Iowa: OSHA initiated an investigation in October and cited USPS for two alleged serious and one alleged repeat violation of federal workplace safety standards. Proposed fines total $46,200.
• April 29, 2010 — Providence, R.I.: OSHA cited USPS for alleged willful and serious violations of safety standards. Proposed fines, chiefly for electrical and lockout/tagout of energy startup hazards, total $558,000.
• April 30, 2010 — Denver: OSHA’s inspection found that employees were performing testing on live electrical equipment and doing so without adequate training, personal protective equipment (PPE), and safety-related work practices. OSHA issued three willful citations. In addition, one serious citation ($7,000 in fines) was issued for failure to post warning signs to alert employees of electrical hazards. “USPS was aware of the hazardous electrical conditions but did not correct them in a timely manner to prevent potential serious injuries,” says Greg Baxter, OSHA regional administrator in Denver. The violations total $210,000 in proposed fines.
• May 5, 2010 — Bedford Park, Ill.: OSHA’s inspection, which began in November 2009, found that USPS failed to provide required electrical safety training for its workers; to ensure they used safety-related work practices while working on electrical equipment; and to provide workers with appropriate PPE while working on energized equipment. OSHA cited USPS with three alleged willful violations, which total $210,000 in proposed fines.
• May 24, 2010 — Anaheim, Calif.: Proposed fines total $11,050.
• May 24, 2010 — Las Vegas: Proposed fines total $10,625.
• May 24, 2010 — Bell, Calif.: Proposed fines total $18,425.
• June 3, 2010 — Philadelphia: OSHA cited USPS for workplace safety violations related to electrical hazards found at two Philadelphia facilities. OSHA’s inspections found inadequately trained employees performing work without the proper PPE while being exposed to live parts. OSHA cited the network distribution center with four willful violations with a proposed penalty of $280,000. The processing and distribution center was cited for three willful violations with a penalty of $210,000 and one serious violation with a penalty of $7,000. “The Postal Service’s disregard for workplace safety standards has left workers at these facilities exposed to unnecessary dangers, including electric shock, electrocution, fires, and explosions,” says Al D’Imperio, director of OSHA’s Philadelphia Area Office. Combined proposed penalties total $497,000.
• June 7, 2010 — Baton Rouge, La.: Postal employees were found working on energized equipment without protective gear and were exposed to potential electrocution from live machinery. Proposed fines total $97,500.
• June 8, 2010 — Pittsburgh: OSHA initiated an inspection in October 2009 and discovered four willful violations carrying a penalty of $265,000; one repeat violation, with a penalty of $25,000; and two serious violations with a penalty of $9,500. The willful violations include inadequate training for employees exposed to electrical hazards, failure to provide electrical protective equipment to protect employees from arc flash hazards and electrical current, and failure to use appropriate safety signs, safety symbols, or accident prevention tags to warn employees about electrical hazards. The repeat violation is due to the facility’s failure to use approved covers for electrical junction boxes. The serious violations include the use of an unapproved junction box in a wet and damp location and a failure to provide voltage-rated tools. Proposed penalties total $299,500.
• June 16, 2010 — Portland, Ore.: OSHA’s inspection found workers were performing tests on live electrical equipment and doing so without adequate PPE, safety-related work practices and warning signs, as well as working on equipment that had not first been de-energized. As a result of these conditions, OSHA issued one willful citation with a proposed fine of $70,000. In addition, two serious citations with $7,500 in fines have been issued for failure to adequately lock out machines’ power sources to prevent unexpected startup during servicing and for inadequate insulation on electric cables. “The Postal Service disregarded basic electrical safety practices, which left workers at this facility exposed to unnecessary risk of serious injury,” says Richard S. Terrill, OSHA regional administrator in Seattle. Proposed fines total $77,500.
• June 23, 2010 — Belleville, Ill.: Proposed fines total $2,925.
• June 25, 2010 — Scarborough, Me.: An inspection, which began in December 2009, uncovered employees working with or near live electrical equipment without adequate training or qualifications, PPE, safety-related work practices, and warning signs. In addition, OSHA found that access to electrical panels was blocked in several instances by materials being stored adjacent to them. Proposed fines total $430,000.
• June 25, 2010 — St. Paul, Minn.: Inspectors found employees working on live machinery without proper equipment or training, exposing them to the risk of electric shock. Proposed fines total $210,000.
• July, 1, 2010 — Capitol Heights, Md.: OSHA initiated an inspection in January 2010 in response to a complaint alleging the hazards. Inspectors cited four willful violations and one serious violation. The willful violations include inadequate training for workers exposed to electrical hazards, failing to provide electrical protective equipment to protect workers from arc flash hazards and electrical current, and failing to use appropriate safety signs, safety symbols, or accident prevention tags to warn employees about electrical hazards. Proposed penalties total $272,000.
• July 9, 2010 — Simi Valley, Calif.: Proposed fines total $13,175.
• July 22, 2010 — White River Junction, Vt.: OSHA’s inspection, which began in January 2010, found untrained or unqualified employees routinely performing troubleshooting, servicing, voltage testing, and maintenance on or near live electrical equipment, such as mail sorting and canceling machines. The machines had not first been de-energized, the workers lacked PPE, and insulated tools were not provided to perform electrical lockout/tagout procedures. OSHA cited six alleged willful violations of safety standards. Proposed fines total $420,000, chiefly for exposing workers to electrical hazards.
• July 26, 2010 — Boston: OSHA’s inspection, which began Jan. 28, 2010, found that employees, including mechanics and technicians working with or near live electrical equipment or parts, such as bar code readers and elevator control panels, were not provided with adequate training, safe electrical work practices, required PPE, or insulated tools. These conditions exposed the workers to the hazards of electric shock, arc flashes, and arc blasts — and resulted in OSHA issuing five willful citations. OSHA also found that the Boston facility failed to have an authorized person conduct periodic inspections of its energy control procedures to prevent the unexpected startup of machinery during maintenance. This situation resulted in one serious citation ($7,000 fine). “These citations and sizable fines reflect both the gravity of the hazards identified during this inspection and USPS’ knowledge of and systemic failure to address these hazards,” says Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels. “The dangers of electric shock, burns and explosions were real, present, and ongoing. USPS must take comprehensive and aggressive action to correct these conditions once and for all.” Total proposed fines reached $357,000.
• Sept. 2, 2010 — Binghamton, N.Y.: OSHA issued citations for several serious safety violations, including lack of sufficient access and working space in front of some circuit breaker panels to permit ready/safe operation and maintenance of the equipment, as well as employees performing troubleshooting on or near energized circuits who were not provided with proper protective equipment. Proposed fines total $8,000.
• Aug. 11, 2010 — Dayton, Ohio: OSHA’s inspection, which began in April 2010, found that USPS failed to provide adequate electrical safety training, ensure that workers followed safety-related work practices while working on electrical equipment, provide workers with appropriate PPE while working on energized electrical equipment, address machine lockout procedures and hazards, and provide proper lockout/tagout training. OSHA issued citations for three alleged willful and six alleged serious violations. Proposed fines total $225,000.
• Aug. 19, 2010 — Portsmouth, N.H.: OSHA inspectors issued five alleged willful violations of safety standards following an inspection that found untrained or inadequately trained employees performing troubleshooting and voltage testing on or near live electrical equipment and wiring that had not first been de-energized. The workers also lacked PPE and were not instructed on proper electrical lockout/tagout procedures. USPS faces a total of $350,000 in proposed fines, chiefly for exposing workers to electrical hazards.
• Sept. 19, 2010 — Sharonville, Ohio: OSHA issued the three citations after inspectors found that USPS failed to provide employees working on electrically energized equipment with adequate training and protective equipment, exposing them to the risk of electric shock. Proposed fines total $210,000.
• August 27, 2010 — Kansas City, Kan.: The inspection revealed seven alleged repeat and 21 alleged serious violations. “There is no excuse for the lack of attention to the work environment that resulted in a multitude of violations, including seven repeat violations,” says Charles Adkins, OSHA’s regional administrator in Kansas City, Mo. “It is imperative that employers take the necessary steps to eliminate hazards and provide a safe working environment for all of their employees to prevent accidents from occurring.” OSHA has proposed $191,000 in penalties against the facility.
• Oct. 12, 2010 — Columbus, Ohio: OSHA inspectors issued five citations, after they found USPS failed to properly train employees on safe electrical work practices and provide them with proper protective equipment when working on live machinery. USPS also failed to use proper procedures to prevent electrical parts from being inadvertently energized. Proposed fines total $210,000.
• Oct. 12, 2010 — Huntington, W.Va.: OSHA issued citations for failure to properly train employees assigned to work on electrical equipment and failure to provide workers with protective equipment. USPS also failed to use lockout procedures on machinery to prevent electrical parts from being inadvertently energized. USPS faces proposed fines totaling $212,500 for willfully exposing employees to electrical safety hazards.
• Nov. 17, 2010 — Bluefield, W.Va.: OSHA inspectors issued four citations after finding USPS failed to label electrical cabinets, properly train postal employees, use proper safety practices when exposing employees to live machinery, and provide adequate PPE. An additional serious violation was issued for allowing an unauthorized employee to perform inspections at the facility. Proposed fines total $287,000.
• Nov. 18, 2010 — Los Angeles: OSHA inspectors issued the USPS 18 citations after finding that USPS failed to properly train postal employees or provide them with adequate safety equipment, and live machinery was not properly de-energized, exposing employees to the risk of electric shock. Other violations included failure to maintain clean and orderly working conditions, maintain fixed metal ladders and guardrails, keep aisles and passageways clear, and properly mark circuit breakers. Proposed fines total $220,000.
• Dec. 29, 2010 — Shrewsbury, Mass.: OSHA inspectors found that the USPS failed to properly train postal employees or provide them with adequate safety equipment, and live machinery was not properly de-energized, exposing employees to the risk of electric shock. The facility also lacked proper voltage meters, and the USPS failed to perform periodic checks on energy control procedures. Proposed fines total $238,000.
• Dec. 29, 2010 — Duluth, Ga.: OSHA inspectors found no safeguards to prevent accidental startup of machinery, material was stored in front of electrical and circuit breaker panels, electrical boxes had unused openings, and there was exposed electrical wiring. Proposed fines total $80,000.