May 5, 2011

Retail Workers Need Safe Workplaces, Too

Retail workers can be safer with a union voice on the job.
With Workers Memorial Day just behind us, I've been thinking lately about work safety. The most high profile on-the-job tragedies usually involve those working at jobs we all know are difficult and dangerous: miners, firefighters, police officers, truckers, commercial fishing workers, plant employees. But we often forget that retail jobs, too, can be difficult and dangerous—and that considering retail workers’ safety on the job is no laughing matter. 

It’s safer now than it used to be, since murder is down across the nation—but working the overnight shift in retail is still a dangerous job. As a prime target for robbery, the clerk’s job puts him or her in the way of violence more often than many other workers. And retail workers in malls, shopping centers, fitness centers, and other places are at greater risk of being injured or killed by random violence. They can be the victims of spree attackers – or, as the recent murder at a yoga store in Bethesda, Maryland, shows, of their own co-workers. In 2007, 167 people were killed working retail, according to a study by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And most retail workplace deaths occur as a result of homicide.

Of course, random violence is still extremely rare—but retail workers do encounter many on-the-job threats to their physical safety and well-being. Retail workers are often asked to stand in place for long periods of time, sometimes hours or more. This puts lots of stress on the legs, feet, back, and circulatory system, and over time, permanent injuries and disabling conditions can occur. Retail workers are often asked to set up displays, stock merchandise, and perform other tasks that often see them lifting heavy equipment, boxes, and display units without aid of a harness and without being shown the proper way to handle heavy lifting. They may be asked to climb up ladders in stockrooms or even operate machinery which they have not been trained on properly. 

And injured workers don’t always receive the proper treatment or advice from management or HR. I worked at several retails jobs over the years, and at some of these places if you were hurt on the job, no one told you about workers’ compensation. It was always your fault that you got hurt, no matter than you’d been asked by your manager to lift a heavy display case over your head or carry a table by yourself. If the injury was very bad, you might be allowed to go home or to the hospital or doctor’s office—but frequently workers with head injuries or bleeding wounds would be told they needed to finish their shift before they could go home. The people I worked with (including me) had no idea what kind of safe environment we were entitled to at work, so we kept our mouths shut, put a bunch of band-aids on that bleeding gash, and went back to our counters and customers with a (somewhat strained) smile on our faces. At most of these places, the stores’ safety procedures were good, but managers often overlooked or ignored them, or created shortcuts that shouldn’t have been acceptable.

I’m sure that my store wasn’t the only place where such incidents occurred. I’ve heard horror stories from many non-union retail workers about injuries they received on the job and how they could have been prevented beforehand, or better managed afterwards. We need better awareness, too, of how repetitive stress injuries, back neck and foot injuries, and other injuries can develop over time with unsafe working conditions. These working conditions are often seen as silly or ignored (you can stand for six hours! You don’t need a stool.) because they aren’t life-threatening, but they take their toll on the body over time and can cause all kinds of problems later. 

So as we remember workers who’ve lost their lives on the job, and consider how to make workplaces safer, let’s not forget to include retail workers in the conversation. From protecting workers from violence to the more mundane safety concerns that still have very serious impacts, retail workers deserve a safer, more comfortable work environment, too.


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Lyca Beth Taylor said...

I definitely agree with you. Retail workplaces may not be as obviously dangerous as those in construction sites or chemical plants; but where there are lives involved, safety measures must be applied as well.

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