Occupational Safety & Health Reporter℠

UPS Egress Citations, Settlement Could Put Logistics Firms on Notice

Jan. 10, 2019, 11:21 AM

What becomes of a set of repeat safety citations issued to United Parcel Service Inc. over a common logistics hazard could send ripples through the warehousing and package handling industry, safety experts say.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration accused Atlanta-based UPS of repeatedly obstructing exit routes at its Sharonville, Ohio, distribution center and issued two repeat egress citations. The company faces $208,603 in proposed penalties for the citations issued Dec.17.

This isn’t the first time the company has been accused of putting workers’ lives in danger for the very same issue at the very same location.

UPS came to a corporatewide settlement with OSHA in 2009 after agency officials discovered exit and entry egress violations in Sharonville. Since then, distribution centers in Illinois, Georgia, and New Jersey also were observed to have similar violations, according to OSHA documents. The settlement agreement is still in effect, an OSHA official confirmed.

Exit egress citations are the fourth most-cited danger in transportation and warehousing for employers with more than 250 employees, according to OSHA. If OSHA decides to pursue further action against UPS, or even take the company to federal court, U.S. logistics firms may be on notice that the agency takes egress violations seriously, one safety attorney told Bloomberg Law.

“The process of keeping ingress and egress clear is a constant issue” for logistics companies, said Jeffrey Tanenbaum, a chair of Nixon Peabody’s Occupational Safety & Health practice in San Francisco. Tanenbaum represents employers in safety-related claims.

A UPS spokesman told Bloomberg Law the company is “investigating the situation and will take appropriate action.”

OSHA developed corporate settlement agreements to address longstanding issues at large companies with dozens or hundreds of locations that may have similar safety issues at each location.

The problem is OSHA has limited resources, said David Michaels, a former agency administrator under President Barack Obama. “OSHA has a tiny group of attorneys, and any major company can now out-lawyer OSHA. OSHA has to settle.”

If OSHA believes a company isn’t living up to its commitment, the agency can seek an order in federal court compelling the company to meet its settlement obligations, said Eric J. Conn, an attorney with Conn Maciel Carey LLP in Washington, D.C.

Agency Trying to Keep Up

OSHA’s Dec. 17 report states management allowed packages to accumulate in aisles and some access routes were reduced to just 7 inches.

“Failing to maintain required access routes is a serious hazard that can put workers’ safety at risk, especially in an emergency evacuation situation,” OSHA Area Office Director Ken Montgomery in Cincinnati said in a statement.

In June 2017, an armed employee shot and killed three workers at a San Francisco UPS distribution center. Three other people were injured trying to escape. Last May, an explosion rocked a UPS freight facility in Kentucky, where two workers were hurt. The events demonstrate workers need safe access to exits, Sharonville UPS driver Bill Davis told Bloomberg Law.

Congestion at egress and exits could become worse, though, according to a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst who follows e-commerce and warehousing.

“In general, e-commerce has increased the number of shipments, and therefore retailers would like to be at least two days away from the final delivery, that has increased the flow of freight,” analyst Lee Kaslow told Bloomberg Law.

He added that warehousing space is tighter and therefore comes at a premium for companies looking to construct large buildings.

OSHA has inspected UPS facilities across the country 1,275 times since the settlement was forged in January 2009, according to a search of the agency’s website.

The company is contesting the citations with the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. An OSHA official declined to comment on pending litigation but said the matter had been referred to the review commission. Donald Shalhoub, chief counsel to the chairman of OSHRC, declined to comment.

A representative of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, of which many Sharonville workers are members, said the egress issue is one “the union is concerned about and is continuing to pursue to address and resolve.”

“UPS’s first priority is the safety of our employees, who receive regular training on the company’s methods and procedures to safely operate our facilities,” said Matthew O’Connor, a spokesman for UPS. “This includes how to safely exit the workplace in the event of an emergency. UPS also maintains regular correspondence with OSHA about the safety of our employees.”

Tanenbaum told Bloomberg Law that “it’s always true that when OSHA issues citations to a company within an industry, it serves as a reminder to them that these issues are out there.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com