Walmart has agreed to improve safety conditions at more than 2,800 stores in 28 US states after inspectors discovered "repeat and serious" health and safety violations at a store in Rochester, New York.
The agreement, which included a $190,000 fine, was negotiated by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), after it uncovered "unacceptable" safety hazards to employees at the Rochester store that were similar to those in Walmart locations in nine other states.
The US multinational, which is the largest private employer in the world, has been cited in more than 100 OSHA reports of health and safety violations over the last five years, according to the government body's website. The company has faced a series of work stoppages, amid increased scrutiny over labor conditions of sub-contracted workers in its supply chain, both within the United States and abroad.
In the Rochester case, OSHA cited Walmart for hazards including a lack of training on hazardous materials, blocked exits and unsafe trash compactor procedures, some of which were similar to those discovered at other stores in nine states between 2008 and 2010.
The fine was almost half of the $365,500 initially proposed, in a settlement which reflected the firm's agreement to improve conditions across all stores under federal jurisdiction.
Dr David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said: "This settlement will help to keep thousands of exposed Walmart workers safe and healthy on the job. We hope this sends a strong message that the law requires employers to provide safe working conditions, and OSHA will use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that all employers follow the law."
The agreement, which affects employees using trash compacters and cleaning chemicals, covers 2,857 Walmart and Sam's Club stores in states that follow federal OSHA standards. The 22 states that operate their own OSHA inspection programs could negotiate similar agreements. Under the federal settlement, Walmart has agreed to improve worker training programs for operating hazardous equipment.
OUR Walmart, a group of several thousand Walmart workers affiliated to United Food and Commercial Workers, the retail and grocery union, welcomed the settlement but accused the company of "malfeasance throughout the supply chain" and said it must go beyond its terms and investigate other safety problems they have identified. A statement posted on the "OUR Walmart" section of the UFCW website said: "The problems detailed in the settlement are issues we have been raising for years, but it's clear that the company has consistently failed to listen to our concerns, let alone address them."
Listing hazards faced by workers, from inadequate fire safety measures to poorly maintained equipment, the statement said: "This is just the latest indication of Walmart's malfeasance throughout the supply chain, and these serious problems represent a major danger to workers, the environment, and the company's future.
"We like our jobs and want what's best for the company. We hope that today's settlement sends a message to Walmart that cutting corners on safety comes at great costs, not just to employees, but also to the company."
Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance, said: "Walmart's negligence in managing hazardous chemicals is yet another illustration of its disregard for the environment and the health of workers and communities. "
In July, warehouse workers moving Walmart goods in California announced a two-day strike in protest at alleged retaliation for exposing safety risks. They had filed an official complaint with labour authorities, over what they claimed was inadequate safety protection, not enough access to drinking water in warehouses that can reach 125F on a hot day, and a management culture that bullies them. The transport firm NFI, which runs the warehouse, contested the complaint.
Walmart is not unionised and UFCW, which helped co-ordinate picketing and protesting at stores over wages and working conditions, has formally pledged not to try to unionise the company's workers, so that it cannot be accused of illegal picketing during strikes protesting working conditions.
Randy Hargrove, Walmart's director of media relations, said: "We have long-standing policies and training requirements in our stores designed to ensure the safety of our associates. When we learned of concerns raised by OSHA at our Rochester, NY store in 2011, we immediately addressed them and reinforced the company's guidelines.
"We will continue providing training to our associates nationwide, including addressing the areas outlined in the settlement. We are pleased this resolves the issues that were raised."
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