Freezing workers claim dangerous, inhumane conditions

Howard Frank
Osha Today
March 06, 2015

Employees at an open, doorless Tannersville freight facility say they are forced to work in freezing temperatures for eight hours a day with just a 30-minute lunch and 10-minute break.

Not true, said Neovia Logistics Services and Management, the Texas-based company that runs the facility. The company says employees can take whatever discretionary breaks they need in the cold.

Yet accusations come from a number of employees willing to be identified by name. They describe forklifts operating over uneven surfaces, snow and ice, and say they are freezing and scared.

The 200-bay Tannersville facility is on Route 715, in the old Roadway structure.

Neovia’s only client is Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

It's not a warehouse — it's a "cross-dock" operation. Tractor-trailers unload freight while other trucks pick it up for the next leg of its journey. Neovia doesn't store or "warehouse" any goods at the facility.

And because of the constant stream of trucks going in and out, none of the bays have doors. The facility is completely open to the outside. So when it's cold outside, it's cold inside. Employees say the temperature in the building dropped as low as -15 recently. Snow even blows inside and accumulates on the dock.

Doorless bays are not unusual for this type of operation.

"The cross-docks tend to be in perpetual use, and there's a constant turn of trailers," Michael Caruso, Neovia vice president of operations said.

In the elements

The temperature in the building dropped to minus 15 at about 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26, according to Facility Operations Coordinator Dawn Ezro.

“People are going off the dock into the yard to warm up. Temperatures in the structure are usually 10 degrees colder inside than outside, because the inside is covered and never gets any sunlight. And the wind comes through the skirting on the sides of the trailers," Ezro said.

Caruso, who works in Texas, says employees can warm up in the break room anytime they want.

"When temperatures drop to a standard mark, 30 degrees or lower, employees have the discretion to take frequent breaks to warm up," Caruso said.  

But employees say that is not true.

"We are not provided with any drinks, and if the weather is below 30, they give us a 10-minute break, usually at 10 a.m," forklift operator Kevin Cooper said. "And they only give us one."

Acting facility supervisor Luis Rivera said, "There are no extended break times and no hot drinks given for people to warm up."

 "I call one break at 10 o'clock, and I had to even fight for that with (the facility manager) on the days that it was super cold," Rivera said. "Break time is only 10 minutes, and that is not enough time for you to get warm enough to really work. As soon as you leave the dock, you are frozen from the drastic temperature change. You are going from a room that is 70 degrees to below zero in a matter of seconds and are expected to work another 2½ hours with no break to get warm."

Cooper said the breaks are haphazard.

"That’s a touchy subject. It depends on the loads you get. It depends on (the manager’s) attitude that day. We don't get them on days we are hammered and short-staffed," he said of the 10-minute break.

Another forklift operator, Ismale Chonna, also described the conditions.

“For the past couple of months, it’s been freezing cold, and we get no breaks," he said. "They just began giving us a 10-minute break about two weeks ago. By the time the 10 minutes are up, you are just getting warmed, and they demand we get back out.”

Two small portable, forced air heaters were brought in about three weeks ago.

“(The cold) freezes our hands. The heaters barely warm us up. (Management) only gives us three minutes in front of them,” Chonna  said. The two heaters serve between 28 to 30 workers on the day shift, he estimated.

"I've had frozen olive oil come into my office," according to Ezro. "I said, what do you want me to do with this? The canned dog food and cat food was frozen solid."

But heating is not practical, nor is it a standard industry practice, Caruso said.

Working in the cold

Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, it says employers have a responsibility to provide workers with a place of employment  free from recognized hazards, including cold stress.

OSHA doesn't have any regulations regarding working in the cold, according to Mark Stelmack, area director for OSHA’s Wilkes-Barre area office.

“We have to evaluate the situation as we see it. We do have some guidelines such as heat. There is no absolute threshold,” he said. “But if there are situations that the cold is causing injury or illness, then something would have to be done.”

OSHA’s responsible for making sure employers provide a safe and healthy environment for workers. It advises employers to prevent harmful exposure to cold temperatures and physical exertion.

Neovia's Caruso, in Texas, would not answer questions regarding how the company monitors conditions at the local facility.

Forklift perils

The bigger concern for OSHA at the Tannersville facility would be the snow on the dock floors, especially if they are working with forklifts, OSHA’s Stelmack said.

Snow blows into the facility through the open bays and cover sections of the dock where forklifts must traverse, Erzo said. “Even when there's a trailer in there, it still blows through the bays, because the skirting that’s supposed to close up the gap is worn and ripped.”

The snow creates an uneven surface for forklift operators.

There's also an ice buildup on the ground below the trucks, according to several employees. That actually raises the height of the trailer above the dock's surface.

Steel dock plates, ramps basically, are attached to the bottom of the back of the trailer. It folds out and extends to the dock, providing a smooth transition from the dock to the trailer. But the height difference causes a steeper incline for forklift operators loading and unloading the trailers.

“Our job place is unstable, Chonna said. “The dock plates lift up on us when we go into the truck.”

The ice creates other hazards.

"The trucks are sliding out from the gate," Cooper said. "There's no dock lock, and they're not even using chocks right now because of the ice buildup." Dock locks are essentially hooks that attach the trailer to the dock.

Cooper said snow is only removed from the area where trucks park when they're not at the bays.

An informal complaint was filed with OSHA on Feb. 24 regarding the cold and the forklift/surface conditions, among other things.

“Yes, I’m scared,” Chonna said, "because the forklift can slip or fall and we could possibly get hurt."

The forklifts weigh thousands of pounds and pose an additional danger. It’s powered by liquid propane, the fuel you probably use with your barbecue. If the forklift tips over, there’s a risk of the propane, a highly combustible substance, igniting.

The dock workers are all employed by a New York-based temp agency, Corporate Resource Services, Erzo said.

The building was recently purchased by Wal-Lehi LLC, according to Michelle Bisbing, director of marketing for the Pocono Mountain Economic Development Corp. The previous owner was YRC Inc., the parent company of Yellow Freight.


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