In 2015, workers employed by a janitorial services company in Austin, Texas, began to experience adverse health effects, including skin rashes, headaches, burning eyes, and throat and nose irritation, when using cleaning products provided by the company. They were unaware of the chemicals in the cleaning products, did not receive proper training on the chemicals, lacked eye protection, and were provided with gloves that tore easily, resulting in direct exposure to the cleaning products. At one site, a worker who was suffering from nose bleeds brought concerns to her supervisor and asked for a dust mask, but was told that none were available. A worker at another site told her supervisor she needed gloves but was turned down, prompting her to purchase gloves herself. At a third site, a worker asked for training about the chemicals but was told by her supervisor that she would have to come in before her shift and would not be paid for time spent in training. At a fourth site, workers were concerned that they had not received training on the chemicals they were using. Workers from all four sites decided to file a joint complaint with OSHA in hopes that the agency would address their concerns. Although the workers were not unionized, they worked with a national union representative and a public health professor to draft the complaint.
The complaint laid out all of the concerns listed above and identified the four separate worksites of concern. It provided the employer’s name and mailing address, and the address for each of the four worksites, as well as the supervisor’s name, when that information was available. The complaint also included a one- to two-paragraph statement describing the hazards at each worksite, the number of workers at risk, the time and place OSHA would be most likely to witness the hazards, and a brief note about whether the workers had raised the concern with management prior to filing the complaint.
The complaint prompted inspections at each of the four worksites. OSHA issued serious citations at all four facilities for failure to ensure each employee had proper eye and face protection when exposed to corrosive chemical splashes to the eyes, failure to provide emergency eye wash stations within the work area, failure to provide appropriate hand protection (i.e., gloves) for the chemicals being used, and failure to provide effective information and training on the hazards of chemicals to which workers were exposed. OSHA initially imposed $8,400 fines on each worksite for the violations and required the employer to abate all violations. As part of a formal settlement with the company, OSHA reduced the violations from “serious” to “other,” and dropped all but one of the fines, which it reduced to $5,000. Despite this fairly light punishment for the violations, the employees have now made clear that they expect healthy and safe working conditions, and the employer is on notice that it will be held to account if it fails to provide gloves and eye protection, and if it neglects to train workers on the safe use of the chemicals to which they are being exposed.