For essential workers, occupational safety is more important than ever
Hazard pay and essential workers are words and phrases that have been more in the news lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is a cascade of work-related hazards that are adversely affecting people’s physical and mental health,” said Dr. Celeste Monforton, Texas State University lecturer in the Department of Health and Human Performance. Monforton is an expert in the field of occupational health and safety. Her research looks into eliminating workplace hazards and improving the workplace environment.
She explained that when most people think about hazard pay, they probably think about coal miners, workers who build skyscrapers, or members of the military. Hazard pay is defined as a form of compensation for “staff members who have been requested to remain and report for work in duty stations where very hazardous conditions, such as war or active hostilities prevail.”
Now it is for a cashier at a store, or a barista in a coffee shop. The current industry standard is an extra $2 to $3 an hour, and is called “coronavirus hazard pay.”
Wages and benefits also affect health, Monforton said. “No paid sick leave – that’s a real consequence for workers now.” There is the mental stress – being out of work and not being able to provide or having to choose between going to work or sheltering at home.
The list of essential workers is long and the kind of workers most needed at this time are grocery store employees. By installing plexiglass “sneeze guards” between the cashier and the customer, companies like H-E-B are providing their employees a small measure of safety and security, Monforton said.
Monforton also studies the working conditions at poultry processing plants, where safety is a huge issue. There are slippery floors and fast-moving lines where workers stand shoulder to shoulder with sharp blades cutting chicken parts. Poultry plants use peracetic acid, a disinfectant that kills pathogens such as salmonella. “This disinfectant is effective for food safety. But it irritates mucous membranes and the respiratory system, so it causes workers to have a dry cough,” Monforton said, and added that a dry cough is also one of the symptoms of COVID-19. “It’s unsettling to workers because they don’t know whether their cough is from the virus or from the peracetic acid.”
On March 23, 50 workers in a poultry plant in Georgia walked off the job to protest working conditions. They cited possible exposure to the coronavirus and unsanitary conditions.
Workplace violence is also more prevalent, Monforton said, and people not keeping their distance is a form of aggression. She said that nurses experience the highest rate of violence in the workplace.
“If you have a job with encounters with the public, what protections are you given? Employees should not have to deal with a violent customer,” Monforton said.
Her advice for essential workers includes the basic tips: wash hands, keep the distance rules. She also suggests keeping open lines of communication on the job. “Talk with your supervisor, take a breath and consider this as a new day. Respectfully and with confidence, talk about your needs. This is really appropriate now.”