On Wal-Mart's Watch: A Seemingly Endless Health and Safety Catastrophe

It's been nearly seven years since a security guard, Jdimytai Damour died from being trampled to death by over-eager New Yorkers desperate to access the Wal-Mart's Black Friday shopping deals. Finding Wal-Mart at fault, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a $7,000 citation to the company for failing to provide Mr. Damour with a safe workplace. Instead of taking the seven years to reflect on their safety and health practices, Wal-Mart instead spent over one million dollars refusing to acknowledge the contributing role the company played in this incident, and refusing to pay the fine. Finally, on March 19, 2015, Wal-Mart decided to withdraw their appeal and pay up, not because they admitted wrongdoing, but because of a desire to put the matter to rest.

In the past seven years, Wal-Mart has been affiliated with a number of health and safety catastrophes throughout their supply chain, not just the death of Mr. Damour. In 2013, in the worst garment factory disaster ever, Wal-Mart was shown to purchase clothing from one of the companies within the collapsed factory that killed over 1,000 people. An activist campaign aimed at improving fire and building safety in Bangladesh directed its attention to Wal-Mart and dozens of other multi-national corporations to get them to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Denying their role as an "authorized" supplier (though not denying that they did purchase from one of the company's in the collapsed building after the release of a New York Times expose), Wal-Mart refused to sign on.

The U.S.-based, Wal-Mart-affiliated warehouse distributors have also been suspect to health and safety violations, where workers in one shop in Eastvale, Calif., reported being forced to work faster while lifting heavy boxes with no time to fill up water bottles in hot temperatures of over 100 degrees. The Wal-Mart distributor, National Distribution Centers of Delaware, Inc., was then issued serious health and safety violations by Cal/OSHA totaling $256,000. Workers at the Eastvale warehouse--and later at another Wal-Mart affiliated warehouse in Elwood, Illinois--went on strike, also claiming health and safety violations were a reason for their refusal to work.

Closer to the consumer in the supply chain, the Wal-Mart stores themselves were issued a total of $365,500 in proposed fines following inspections conducted by OSHA's Buffalo Area Office at a Rochester store. Fines included a number of repeat violations, including failure to provide a railing on a platform over four feet from the ground and blocking exit routes. The company was also cited several serious violations for not immediately providing employees with adequate personal protective equipment and never offering a Hepatitis B shot after they cleaned up blood on the job, along with a number of other violations of OSHA's bloodborne pathogen standard. OSHA's Buffalo area director was quoted in saying that the many hazards in the Rochester location were "substantially similar to hazards identified at nine other Wal-Mart locations in New York and eight other states."

Wal-Mart's public relation stunts to remediate their health and safety catastrophes, including releasing its own non-legally binding safety plan at its Bangladesh factories, agreeing to the demands of some (but not all) of their striking workers, and making vague plans to improve safety conditions in its 2,857 stores, are a far reach from actually ensuring the health and safety of workers down the company's supply chain.

While finally agreeing to stop appealing a $7,000 fine after a worker died on Wal-Mart's watch is a step in the right direction, it is a puny step down a prolonged path towards creating healthier, safer and more just jobs at Wal-Mart. They have a long way to go.