Occupational Health and Safety for the J-1 Participant in the United States

Drain

That A rating can be deceiving. 

I’ve had a number of jobs since coming to the United States on a J-1 Visa, and in that time I’ve learned that occupational health and safety standards are lower here. In New York, there is a Citywide Occupational Safety and Health department, but with exponentially more businesses to oversee it is less robust than equivalent bodies in Australia. This means you need to be vigilant in identifying the hazards in your workplace and the risk they pose to you and your colleagues.

The first job I had in New York was at a Photolab. If New York is your destination, you’ll soon discover that there is less space in the home and in the workplace. The photolab was comprised of a store and a minilab where the developing took place. Running along the back of the store was a meter wide corridor at the end of which was the toilet. Against the wall of the corridor was stock, a refrigerator with a microwave on top of it. By the toilet was an industrial sink.

This space presented safety issues. The refrigerator and microwave hadn’t been cleaned and there was food rotting in both devices. Also, the food that employees bought to work was stored in the same space as toxic photo developing chemicals. Similarly, the sink that employees were expected to wash their hands in after using the bathroom was also used to flush chemicals during the developing process. As such that area always had a toxic odour, and staff risked of getting chemicals on their hands when they washed them.

In a photo lab there’s always the risk of chemicals burning your skin and eyes. Without a clean sink space to flush the chemicals off, there is no way to treat the injury. I should have notified my sponsor of the hazard immediately and ceased working in the job. However I continued until other systemic issues caused me to resign.

The fact that the business neglected occupational health and safety should have signalled the dodgy practices that permeated the workplace. These included inability to access staff email, pay slips and schedules. Be prepared for this type of inefficiency. There’s often little you can do about it except find another job.

My next job was working in an ice cream store. After working in a professional environment in Australia, scooping ice-cream felt like a regression to my teenage years working at McDonalds, but with one key difference; The cleanliness standards that I took for granted at McDonalds weren’t maintained here. The floors were mopped just once a day and the dining area received little to no attention. Issues with having the correct stock to deliver the product compounded the problem. Understaffing meant that it was difficult to address any of the issues, and the lack of interest in the store by the owners meant that conditions were in a constant state of deterioration.

These issues signalled that it was an environment where staff safety was not a consideration, a hypothesis supported by training that took place in a construction site with hazardous materials permeating the air, and a later incident involving a store being fumigated while staff members were on the premises. Being Australian it can be hard to comprehend such a flagrant disregard for staff wellbeing, particularly as we are used to such highly regulated work environments. Indeed, it may explain why the owner of this business has no plans to open stores back home.

From the outset I was not advised about the protocol for when staff sustained an injury. Nor was there a document detailing common injuries and how to avoid them. As a consequence when a colleague and I each had a bi-fold freezer door open, because the bi-fold was not attached to the freezer itself it fell in and injured my wrist. I experienced a degree of pain, however I hadn’t been made aware of the contingency plan in these situations. The next morning the pain had intensified and on the nurses advice I attended the doctor.

Later the manager told me that I wasn’t eligible to claim my medical expenses because I had not reported the injury during the shift. Though this wasn’t true, it added an extra layer of stress to my recovery. It was clear that the business was not focused on employee wellbeing. The takeaway is: ask a manager you aren’t advised of the injury protocol when you start work. Don’t rely on them to be helpful when the injury occurs. You’ll soon learn that in the US workplace the culture is to blame the employee for everything that goes wrong. Educating yourself on the applicable systems will, to an extent, allow you to circumvent this.

If you’re working in a hospitality business, the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will do random spot checks to ensure that sanitation standards are being met. There’s a requirement that a red bucket with a cloth and some bleach in it is under each sink, and businesses will obsess over this. However this can be at the expense of actual issues that pose a risk of contamination.

In the ice cream store, the issue was that the scraper used to remove excess ice from the freezer each morning was stored in the main drain each night. At a food business, drains function as the primary exit portal for bacteria. Placing the scraper in the path of the bacteria meant that all the ice cream was in danger of contamination. However informing the manager did not remedy the issue. It appeared that she didn’t think giving customers food poisoning was a problem.

This is perhaps another cultural difference where the manager in question failed to take into account the cause and effect relationship of leaving the scraper in the drain, and potentially making people sick. A customer would have had to actually get sick for my manager to act on what I had told her. In these situations it’s prudent to take your concerns to upper management.

Ethical quandaries like this are frequent in the United States. You need to be prepared for push back, and mindful that your own safety is paramount. Remember that your primary resource in the US is your sponsor. You have contracted them to provide a service and they are very good at doing so. If you feel that management has not adequately addressed any of your concerns consult your sponsor because unlike your employer, they’ve got your back.

My former employer and their insurance company ensured that my claim was paid in full.

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