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Federal complaint alleges state regulators are not adequately protecting workers

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WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL)- A complaint filed by eight Iowa labor and civil rights groups alleges Iowa OSHA has been negligent in protecting workers in meatpacking, construction, health care and other industries throughout the Hawkeye state.

The groups accuse Iowa OSHA, the state chapter of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, of being understaffed and not following through on investigations.

The complaint was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa on Friday. They were joined by American Friends Service Committee Iowa, Forward Latino, the Iowa AFL-CIO, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors, the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens, the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council, and the Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting.

It cites several examples of what the groups argue are failures by Iowa OSHA to conduct on-site inspections or investigate unsafe conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Workers are dying, and Iowa OSHA is doing very little to prevent that," Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said. "We’re asking federal OSHA to step in and force change to protect Iowans where the state has failed to do so."

The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa said there were a total of 148 COVID-19 related complaints filed so far this year, but 97% of them were closed out without any inspection at all.

“When Iowa OSHA doesn’t do its job, it impacts all Iowans,” LULAC Iowa Political Director Joe Enriquez Henry said. "Instead of being treated as essential, these workers are being treated as expendable.”

LULAC said it filed complaints on behalf of workers in several meatpacking plants such as JBS in Marshalltown, Smithfield in Dennison, and Tyson in Columbus Junction and Perry, Iowa.

The complaint against JBS said workers had limited PPE and worked shoulder to shoulder next to one another.

Henry called OSHA's efforts to keep workers safe too little, too late.

"We filed a complaint early this year at the beginning of April at the JBS facility in Marshalltown. Shortly afterward, a meatpacking worker did die," he said. "Three days ago, another meatpacking worker died."

Henry said 10 workers at Iowa meatpacking plants have died of COVID-19.

Both of Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz's parents work in meatpacking plants and contracted the COVID-19 virus. He said workers are often hesitant to come forward with safety concerns because they fear retaliation from their bosses.

"Workers have limited avenues where they feel confident that their concerns will be heard and addressed," Murguia-Ortiz, who is also a community organizer at American Friends Service Committee Iowa and Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors said. "Iowa OSHA should be one of those avenues, but they've decided not to play that role."

In the cases where Iowa OSHA did conduct in-person, on-site inspections, the groups said it has not issued a single safety citation. They said state regulators only issued one citation for a record-keeping violation. 

In a statement Friday, Iowa OSHA administrator Russell Perry said he would welcome an investigation.

"Iowa OSHA has been made aware of the complaint filed by the ACLU regarding Iowa OSHA’s responsibility to assure safe and healthy working conditions for Iowa’s workers.  We would welcome the Federal OSHA investigation, which will address the complaint items.  Iowa OSHA will fully cooperate with federal investigative authorities, and will respond to any findings and/or recommendations at the proper time."

Russell Perry, Iowa OSHA Administrator

The complaint is similar to one filed by several Waterloo area lawmakers after the outbreak at the Tyson plant in Waterloo.

In addition to JBS and the Tyson plant in Perry, the complaint specifically mentions how Iowa OSHA handled complaints at the Agri Star Processing Plant in Postville and Good Shepherd Health Center in Mason City.

Beyond the coronavirus pandemic, the complaint alleges Iowa OSHA of not adequately protected workers as far back as 2017.

The Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, referred to as the IIIFFC, said Iowa OSHA failed to follow up on several complaints of unsafe working conditions at construction sites.

The complaint said the agency did not conduct federally mandated on-site inspections for certain safety violations. IIIFFC cited several cases of construction companies not following proper procedures when digging trenches or dealing with respirable crystalline silica, which comes from grinding or crushing stone.

According to OSHA's website, exposure to these particles could lead to lung cancer kidney disease or heart disease.

"It is part of a pattern we've seen for years where they will not follow up with an inspection or penalty, even with the most egregious violations that clearly could result in a construction worker death," IIIFFC construction analyst Dylan Parker said.

The groups hope to see a federal investigation of the Iowa OSHA office. The complaint was filed with the federal OSHA regional office in Kansas City, which has oversight over Iowa.

You can read the full complaint here.

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