UPS Workers Demand New Approach to Safety

Joe Korziuk has spent 23 years working for UPS washing trucks, delivering packages and driving tractor-trailers. Though he loves the job, it has a dark side. At age 45, he has had surgery on both knees and his shoulder, developed bulging disks in his back and suffered a concussion when boxes fell on him. His wrists, injured when a car plowed into his truck 15 years ago, still ache in cold weather.‬‪​

“It’s a direct result of the job,” said Korziuk. “They’re always harping on you and pushing you to go faster and faster.”‬‪​

Korziuk is among about 1,200 members of Teamsters Local 705 representing several Chicago-area hubs who last week began a campaign demanding that UPS reduce workloads and change what the union calls a “blame the worker” approach to health and safety.

Nationwide last Thursday Teamster workers wore stickers reading “Unfair Production Standards,” a play on the name UPS. Employees say they are pressured to increase productivity while at the same time they are called on to reduce injuries, a combination that workers claim leads many of them to avoid reporting injuries. ‬‪​

UPS officials say safety is a top priority, noting that their latest reported injury statistics are lower than national averages for the courier and messenger industry – 1.6 injuries per 200,000 work hours for employees at the Addison hub and 3.6 for UPS workers nationwide this January through March. That compares to an industry average of 4.7 injuries per 200,000 hours. Teamsters Local 705 attorney Anthony Prince said UPS does not report many injuries to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which compiles these statistics.

‬‪​‬‪​UPS workers are required to memorize and frequently recite a list of more than 20 safety standards, and they can be fired if they fail the recitation multiple times, according to workers’ accounts and a disciplinary report reviewed by the Chicago News Cooperative. Supervisors regularly observe workers and document any safety lapses. After employees report injuries, they are required to meet with UPS health and safety specialists and get extra training. ‬‪​

Workers with multiple injuries are identified as “injury repeaters” according to workers and internal UPS documents. They are more frequently monitored by supervisors and required to complete extra training. ‬‪​‬‪​(Read more about workers’ compensation at UPS)

An internal management document from the Jefferson Street UPS hub in the South Loop advised supervisors to identify workers with more than one injury, enroll them in an “Adopt a Repeater” mentoring program, and examine their “risk behavior.” The document said nothing about analyzing other factors beyond the worker’s control that could contribute to injuries.

Some employees said it’s as though UPS safety programs are based on the premise that workers would not get hurt if they followed proper procedures. They said workers frequently do not report injuries to avoid angering supervisors or being subject to extra training and scrutiny — hence official numbers do not reflect the true incidence of injuries, workers said. ‬‪​

“When a truck breaks down you can get a new one, but I only have one body,” said a female 49-year-old package driver who is fighting for workers’ compensation benefits related to a shoulder injury that required surgery. The worker, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation, said she also broke her hand in 2009 when it was caught in a closing truck door, and she has had surgery on her elbow and twice on her back.

“You get older but they still want you to be light and fast,” she said.‬‪​

UPS officials said additional monitoring and other procedures are important to make sure workers understand safety protocol.‬‪​

“If you have a strain, sprain or rupture to your knee, back or shoulder, no matter how minor it is, we’re going to do a few things with that person,” said Steve Vaughn, manager for the Addison facility’s corporate Comprehensive Health and Safety Process. “We have online assessments to re-educate them on safe work methods. If I strain my shoulder there will be occupational health education on how your shoulder works, on how to eliminate the risk from being injured again.”‬‪​

The Teamsters scheduled the work-safety campaign to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the founding of the OSHA, the federal agency that sets and enforces standards for workplace health and safety. Labor unions also have dubbed it Workers Memorial Day in reference to those sickened, hurt and killed on the job.‬‪​

UPS package delivery drivers usually pick up or deliver about 500 packages a day and make up to 20 stops an hour, workers said. They are supposed to handle packages, often several at a time, of up to 70 pounds without assistance. ‬‪​

Employees who drive tractor-trailers from one UPS facility to another are expected to take 36.57 minutes to perform a list of more than 100 tasks, including inspecting and testing brakes and lights and checking the connections between tractors and the trailers they haul. ‬‪​

“It’s not only doable, but it’s doable with ease,” said Vaughn.‬‪​

But many tractor-trailer drivers disagree. They said they find it nearly impossible to complete the checklist in the allotted time, and they add their bosses often look the other way as the safety checklists are ignored. ‬‪​

“Sometimes the supervisor just slaps your door closed and says go, you don’t even get to eyeball your load” to make sure the weight is distributed safely, said tractor-trailer driver Bernie Jayne, 57. “So you’re driving down the road with a mud flap dangling or a lug nut loose. They turn a blind eye until something happens.”‬‪​

Korziuk said that in March he was ordered to drive a tractor-trailer 20 miles from the suburban Willow Springs sorting facility to the Addison hub, even though the rig had a red tag on it that meant it was not to be driven. One of the untended problems was loose rollers on the rear sliding door.‬‪​

“With the rollers missing the back door was swinging and more rollers could have come flying off on the road,” he said. “It was dangerous.”‬‪​

Korziuk said a clerk took the red tag off as he left Willow Springs, “and then I had to re-tag it when I got to Addison. That’s against the policy, but I just worked as directed. If I didn’t, he would have given me a lot of grief.”‬‪​

Erin Elliott, health and safety manager of the UPS Illinois district, said it is the drivers’ responsibility to refuse to operate a truck with a red tag and to report a supervisor who pressured them to do so.‬‪​

Workers said they are afraid of being disciplined or fired if they disobey supervisors’ orders. Last spring, OSHA ordered UPS to pay more than $100,000 to a Missouri driver who had been fired for refusing orders to drive a vehicle without working lights.‬‪​

Tractor-trailer driver Kevin Sims said he received a written warning that he could be fired for disobeying the orders of a supervisor who was riding in the passenger seat, observing his work in the early morning hours of Feb. 17. As Sims pulled the 28-foot tractor-trailer onto Interstate 290 en route to a transfer facility in Indiana, he said he could tell the surface was becoming icy. The supervisor told him to go the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour, Sims said, but he refused because he thought it would be unsafe. After arguing with the supervisor he relented and sped up to 54 miles per hour. A month later, the supervisor cited him for “failing to work as instructed” twice and then “finally complying when instructed a third time.”‬‪​

Workers inside UPS hubs said they also deal with hazards, including falling packages and dangerous machinery. In November 2009, OSHA cited the UPS Palatine facility for a number of safety violations including missing guardrails, unsafe ladders and the lack of emergency shut-off mechanisms for conveyor belts. A UPS spokesman said the company is negotiating with OSHA over those citations and has contested some of them.‬‪​

Many drivers say they enjoy relatively good wages and benefits, and do not want to risk being fired for disobeying orders, complaining about company procedures or getting injured.‬‪​

But Dan McMackin, a UPS spokesman who used to work as a package driver, said he finds it “ludicrous” that workers would fear retaliation for reporting injuries.

“Our whole system is set up to report injuries, we do it better than anyone,” he said. “That’s what the goal is, to get people to report injuries. And one of the main reasons is so it avoids injuries down the line.”‬‪​

UPS’s approach is an example of “behavior-based safety programs” that have become increasingly popular among employers since the 1980s. The chemical company DuPont was among the pioneers of the strategy, and has advised other companies on implementing it.‬‪​

“It’s the idea that danger does not exist structurally in the work itself, that danger is a choice generated by individual behavior,” said Robert Bruno, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who spent time in the Willow Springs UPS hub while researching a 2003 book on the Teamsters. ‬‪​“It’s an attempt to persuade workers that regardless of how your body is physically distorted, how many times you bend over or unpack a truck, that none of that really has any kind of a detrimental effect on the body – it’s all in their mind and attitude. It’s like saying a coal mine is safe if you are just attentive to the risk.”‬‪​

McMackin defended the UPS policy, arguing that the company’s programs are intended to improve employees’ attitudes toward safety and used frequent observation to see if they are following safety rules.

“You make four positive comments for every negative critique,” he said. “You increase good behavior by giving positive feedback – like you do with your kids – instead of beating them over the head you say, ‘Hey you did a great job.’ ”‬‪​

Several workers at Chicago-area facilities said they found the safety programs humiliating and punitive, and that group rewards for low injury rates mean workers are under peer pressure not to report injuries. ‬‪​

“It’s fear and shame, it’s like third grade,” said Prince. “It’s like, ‘We would have had a pizza party but Tommy didn’t put his crayons away.’ ”‬‪​

Some workers at the Addison facility said that while assigned to lighter duty after an injury, they are ordered to write down the safety procedures numerous times. At one point, they said, managers at the Addison facility decorated a wall with miniature foam UPS trucks bearing each driver’s name, and made a show during employee meetings of removing the trucks of drivers who reported injuries. The practice was discontinued after the union complained, according to union trustee Kenny Emanuelson.‬‪​

UPS workers injured on the job are directed to visit clinics run by health care providers with whom the company works, according to UPS officials, though they have the right to visit any doctor they choose. ‬‪​

In the Chicago area workers are referred to clinics run by the Texas company Concentra Inc., which is a defendant in a class-action lawsuit filed last summer by about 7,000 Wal-Mart employees in Colorado. The lawsuit alleges that Wal-Mart managers had input into participated in Concentra doctors’ diagnoses and recommendations for workers injured on the job, in violation of labor law.

Gary Coveny, a retired UPS driver, said that In his 28 years with the company he had surgery on his shoulder, wrist and twice on his ankle.

“I was in trouble because I was always getting injured, I was a bad example for other people,” he said. “I was getting so torn up but I just kept hanging in there, I had so much invested. There are a lot of injuries because they push you so hard. If they gave you the right amount of time, people wouldn’t have to get hurt.”