Feds tell Walmart: Fix safety and health problems

Walmart’s taking yet another hit on labor issues today, as the U.S. Labor Department announced a corporate-wide settlement agreement between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Walmart that requires the company to fix safety and health problems in nearly 3,000 of its stores. Walmart is also required to improve training related to hazard communications and the use of trash compactors and harsh cleaning chemicals, and will pay a $190,000 penalty.

OSHA’s investigation of safety concerns at Walmart began after a store worker filed complaints in August 2011 about conditions in a Rochester, NY, Supercenter. OSHA identified two dozen repeated and serious violations, including fall hazards, blocked exits, and maintenance concerns about heavy equipment.  According to OSHA, a “serious” violation “occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.”

The fact that Walmart came to a settlement with OSHA is notable. After all, the company’s most recent public involvement with OSHA involved Walmart spending millions of dollars to contest a $7,000 OSHA fine related to the trampling death  of a Walmart associate on Black Friday 2008.

So why the settlement? The company has lots of other serious labor problems to contend with right now—strikes in its stores, strikes in its distribution network, worker deaths in its supply chain—and those don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. And of course there are the ongoing (and increasingly costly) federal FCPA investigations. It would be understandable if someone wanted to clear the lawyers’ plates of at least one set of legal issues.

What do you think?