In December, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) issued a huge fine for safety violations at a Dollar General store in Mobile, Alabama. The fine itself is pretty big for any retail store — $321,827. Beyond the fine amount, OSHA issued the following statement:
At the U.S. Department of Labor, the company [Dollar General] is recognized for its long history of violations and repeated failures to protect its workers from on-the-job hazards.
Then, an OSHA officer added the following additional comment:
Dollar General has a long history of disregarding safety measures to prevent serious injury or death in the event of a fire or other emergency.
. . .
The company’s troubled history of workplace safety violations must come to an end, and OSHA will make every effort to hold them accountable for their failures.
Wow! These are very clear statements about Dollar General’s bad safety history. Through the years, I’ve represented a number of Dollar General workers injured by practices I thought were very unsafe. Unfortunately, the Alabama Workers Compensation Act does almost nothing to promote safe workplaces. That’s a topic I’ve discussed in several prior articles. Our work comp laws should promote safety but they do not. They are a one-way street that penalizes safety failures by workers while ignoring systemic failures by companies.
So, it’s good to see OSHA acting to protect worker safety. OSHA needs additional resources so it can work to keep our working men and women safe.
What Is Dollar General’s History Of OSHA Safety Violations?
I rarely write posts about a single company or worksite. Before I talk about these recent OSHA findings, a little Dollar General background is probably needed.
Let’s view a few quick facts about Dollar General. According to recent information, the company operates more than 17,500 stores. Dollar General recognized more than $33 billion dollars in sales during 2020. Clearly, Dollar General sells a lot of merchandise from a lot of locations. How many Dollar General locations have actually been inspected by OSHA?
Has OSHA seen other Dollar General safety issues? Since 2016, OSHA has issued approximately $3.3 Million in 54 Dollar General inspections nationwide. Think about that. OSHA has only inspected Dollar General stores 54 times over the last 5 years? If true, that’s only 54 inspections for over 17,000 stores. And, that’s only 10-11 inspections a year on average.
If OSHA has only inspected 54 company stores over the last five years, think about how widespread the safety issues must really be! Think about what would have been seen with consistent inspections! Can you imagine what OSHA would find with regular, periodic inspections of this company!
Now, look back at just the Alabama store cited by OSHA. For that store, OSHA found repeated violations involving trip and fall hazards, electrical hazards, and material fall hazards. In this case, OSHA issued a huge fine because these dangerous safety issues were repeated violations rather than some isolated incident. Keep that in mind — We are NOT talking about a business that just made a safety mistake. We are talking about a choice to put worker lives at risk. A choice to put raw profits over people.
What Do Employees Have To Say About Working Conditions At Dollar General?
Last year, NBC published a news article titled, Dollar General Is Thriving. But Workers Say They Pay The Price. The article contains some eye-opening stories and quotes about the dangers faced by Dollar General employees. The article starts by noting the company’s “stock price reached a record high last month. . . . But its explosive growth comes at what some say is a human cost.” Safety advocate Debbie Berkowitz with the National Employment Law Project said the following:
Dollar General is a company that has a business model based on essentially breaking the law and cutting corners when it comes to basic worker safety . . .
When I write about workplace safety, I typically write about conditions such as fall hazards, material safety, tripping hazards, electrical dangers, and similar conditions. Those dangerous issues have been frequent concerns at Dollar General stores. But, it’s more. Many Dollar General stores also sit in high crime areas but have few (largely none) security measures. This has exposed some employees to multiple assaults and robberies.
Then, you add the staffing and time pressures! Stores are way understaffed. Here is another quote from the NBC article:
The company’s tight hold on payroll means salaried managers are often pressured to work up to 90 hours a week to keep their stores afloat, according to three interviews with current and former Dollar General managers. A manager in Florida, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she says the company prohibits employees from speaking to the media, told NBC News she worked 70 to 90 hours a week for her first seven years on a $37,000 salary with no overtime pay.
She says she was at the store from 2 or 3 in the morning to clean, stock, do paperwork, manage vendors and organize products until 4 in the afternoon. While her overtime paid off for the company — she grew sales at her store from $700,000 a year to roughly $2 million — after a long tenure, she is tired.
“How do they get away with this? That is why people break,” she said.
What Have I Seen In My Alabama Work Comp Cases?
My clients report similar issues. The pressure of long hours (way too long) and serious physical duties led to the injuries in my Dollar General cases.
In a Huntsville work comp case, my client (a store manager) testified at trial she worked far beyond her 40 hour salaried week. She often arrived much earlier than her assigned shift, just to mop and clean the store. She had to arrive early and leave late simply to keep up with Dollar General’s requirments. Although she was titled as a manager her duties were very physical. She unloaded trucks, stocked shelves, operated the register and cleaned the store. Dollar General even required her to climb into the dumpster behind the store in order to pack down the trash! This requirement led to her first serious accident at the store. My client suffered a second, disabling accident when she fell from a ladder. The ladder fall further highlights the company’s safety issues. Dollar General provided the store with only an 8 foot ladder but then asked employees to retrieve heavy items from shelves 10-12 feet above the store’s concrete floor. Of course, this required employees to place themselves in danger reaching beyond the top of the ladder. My client had little or no help running her store.
In the end, my Huntsville client suffered two serious injuries which left her disabled. Rather than take care of her, Dollar General took the case to trial. We won. But, the company should have prevented the accidents by caring for its dedicated employee from the beginning.
What Steps Should We Take To Improve Worker Safety?
Both at the Federal and State levels, we need to improve worker safety. At the local Alabama level, we could change our work comp laws. Our work comp laws bar workers from receiving benefits when they are injured by breaking known safety rules. Our work comp laws also bar workers from receiving benefits when they are injured because of their own horseplay or intoxication. In other words, the law imposes safety requirements on workers. What about employers? The same work comp laws impose NO safety requirements on companies. Our laws provide NO incentives or penalties for corporate safety. In cases where a company repeatedly flaunts or violates safety rules, the law should impose penalties. In some states, the work comp laws do just that. But, not Alabama. It’s time for a change.
On the Federal level, something is wrong when OSHA only inspects around 10 Dollar General stores a year! The problems are manpower and funding. For too long, we’ve neglected worker safety. Corporate lobbyists have worked to gut agencies like OSHA. We need more frequent inspections and stronger enforcement for repeat violators.
Our working men and women are our greatest resource. They need safe workplaces.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps personal injury victims across Alabama. We work hard to prepare our cases so our clients receive the maximum compensation possible. Outside the courtroom, we continue to advocate for safer workplaces, safer roadways and safer products. If you have personal injury questions, let us know. We are happy to provide answers.