Health and safety conditions at B&H Photo Video‘s two warehouses in Brooklyn do not meet federal labor standards, investigators with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) have determined, confirming a number of worker allegations against the national electronics retailer. On February 2, the agency issued a letter to a B&H warehouse supervisor outlining several hazardous violations found at the company’s main warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and at the one on Evergreen Avenue in Bushwick; it also handed the company a penalty of $32,000. The fine is relatively small for an OSHA charge, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it’s a small price for a company like B&H to pay — essentially equivalent to one worker’s annual wage. But the notification of violations is a major victory for the over 200 majority Hispanic workers who have for months been protesting dangerous conditions, in addition to discriminatory labor practices, in their workplaces. The citations place further pressure on B&H to examine its internal policies as the company enters into collective bargaining to negotiate a contract, after warehouse workers voted overwhelmingly in favor of forming a union last November.
“It’s not hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, but what seems like small changes on paper is absolutely a huge victory for workers,” Kristina Mazzocchi, a lawyer advocating for the B&H employees, told Hyperallergic. “We — the workers, the United Steelworkers, the Laundry Workers Center — all think it’s a victory. To have $32,000 in fines, that’s nothing to laugh at.”
B&H was given 15 business days from when it received the letter in the mail to either correct and pay the penalties, discuss the citations with an OSHA representative to possibly amend some details, or outrightly contest the citations. The company has not yet settled or contested the case, Ted Fitzgerald, an OSHA representative, told Hyperallergic.
B&H Director of Corporate Communications Henry Posner confirmed that the photo giant has received the citations and is currently reviewing them.
“We reserve the right to exercise our rights afforded under the statute to consider all our options, including contesting the citations,” he told Hyperallergic, stating that the company “is, and has always been, committed to worker safety, to a cordial, clean, safe, professionally run work environment. We conform to all local, state, and federal rules and regulations regarding recruitment, hiring, and employment.”
According to the inspection details obtained by Hyperallergic, both warehouses face three “serious” violations — a classification referring to workplace hazards that “could cause an accident or illness that would most likely result in death or serious physical harm, unless the employer did not know or could not have known of the violation.” (It’s one step below “willful,” the highest type of violation, which implies an employer’s purposeful disregard of or indifference to worker safety.) At both sites, OSHA investigators found that certain platforms rising at least four feet above ground did not have guardrails — leaving workers unprotected as they piled merchandise in these areas — and that boxes were stacked without proper stabilization at dangerous heights. Some stored merchandise at the Navy Yard warehouse, the report notes, was stacked approximately 25 feet high. Neither warehouse adhered to proper fire safety codes: at the Navy Yard, investigators noted that portable fire extinguishers were not mounted on walls for easy access but were instead blocked by debris and boxes; at the Evergreen site, they found that exits were not properly marked with exit signs.
Some hazards were deemed “other-than-serious,” OSHA’s lowest classification for a violation with “a direct relationship to job safety and health, but is not serious in nature.” The investigation found that workers at both warehouses did not receive training on hazardous chemicals such as sodium selenite, which is used to manufacture glass, and ammonium bromide, a compound found in film. Workers at the Evergreen building were also not formally given personal protective equipment such as gloves, leaving them exposed to cuts from machinery with sharp edges and burns from equipment such as a plastic shrink-wrap machine.
The findings are the results of four OSHA inspections, two at each site, that began in early August, nearly a year after warehouse workers began receiving training from the Laundry Workers Center to fight for their rights. A typical procedural investigation includes an unannounced workplace walk-through accompanied by an employer representative, as well as the collection of evidence from both parties. Twenty-nine-year-old Isaias Rojas, who has worked at the Navy Yard warehouse for six years, told Hyperallergic that compliance officers interviewed many workers on multiple occasions, usually from 8am through 7pm, to thoroughly discuss company treatment and working conditions.
“It was a long process, and we didn’t really know if it was going to work,” he said. “I feel proud and [that I have] more energy and power. A lot of work has gone into this. A lot of my co-workers that have worked there longer than me have been through a lot worse.”
The workers and their supporters see the OSHA charges as especially victorious because they represent official recognition of investigations launched by those who initially felt voiceless and powerless in their work environments. Although the concerns largely went unaddressed for years, a long process of training with the Laundry Workers Center and collecting their own evidence of workplace conditions has grown into a loud and confident campaign that’s now showing very real results.
“For all workers centers and unions across the country, the fact that workers were able to gain access to a federal agency that they probably felt didn’t recognize them or support them — I think it shows that when workers are able to learn about their unsafe conditions, identify and articulate those hazards to people who are there to help them address those concerns, real changes can happen,” Mazzocchi said. “The immigrant workers were able to have this victory for themselves, and they kind of reclaimed their workplace.”
Still, the violations confirm only a sampling of the complaints that B&H workers continue to share; none of the discriminatory practices they allege fall under OSHA’s jurisdiction. And Mazzocchi says the safety and health act needs to be upgraded to consider smaller, more day-to-day hazards introduced in a warehouse.
“I think that, across the board, B&H’s business model is to exploit-pay, exploit-pay, exploit-pay,” Mazzocchi said. “It’s imperative that the workers organize for a union. We can’t rely on agencies. We can’t rely on outdated acts to completely protect the workers. We know employers like B&H have the money to pay the fine and will continue to exploit.”
Mazzocchi expects that B&H will pay the fee, but she’s still meeting with workers every evening to continue strengthening their campaign. At the start of this month, employees stationed in the basement of the company’s flagship store in Manhattan joined their Brooklyn coworkers’ protest efforts, an action that made the workers even more confident in their demands for dignity and respect, in addition to improved health and safety conditions. As Rojas told Hyperallergic, “Entre mas somos mejor — numbers make us stronger.”