On Monday, McDonald’s employees and the Fight for $15 campaign filed 28 health and safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state agencies against both franchise owners and corporate headquarters in 19 cities.
The workers say that understaffing and pressure to work quickly, coupled with a lack of protective gear and training, have led to dangerous accidents, some resulting in severe burns. Workers have to deal with boiling oil, hot grills, and slippery floors, and allege they are made to clean and filter the oil while it’s still hot and work over sizzling grills without the right gear.
The workers also say that the stores don’t have basic first aid kits and managers often tell workers they should treat their burns with condiments instead of burn cream.
In response to the allegations, a McDonald’s spokesperson said, “McDonald’s and its independent franchisees are committed to providing safe working conditions for employees in the 14,000 McDonald’s Brand U.S. restaurants. We will review these allegations.” She also added, “It is important to note that these complaints are part of a larger strategy orchestrated by activists targeting our brand and designed to generate media coverage.”
One worker, Brittney Berry, has worked at a Chicago location since 2011 making $8.30 an hour but says she suffered a severe burn and nerve damage on her forearm from an accident. “The managers at the store consantly push us to work fast,” she said on a call with the press. “I’ve been repeatedly burned on the job.” The worst came one day when she slipped on a greasy floor and caught her arm on a hot grill. “The burn almost burned my entire forearm, and as I fell I twisted my wrist, causing nerve damage I still have today,” she said. “I worked through tears from the pain.” In response, however, her manager told her to put mustard on the injury, yet once she finally was rushed to the hospital she was immediately put on morphine. She ended up missing work for three weeks without pay and then going on medical leave for six months. “My injury was devastating,” she said.
She noted that she still hasn’t been given safety training and that coworkers are also suffering. “As painful as this experience has been for me, I know I’m not alone. I see workers at the store getting burned all the time,” she said. “This is exactly why workers at McDonald’s need a union so we can have a voice.”
Another worker from Philadelphia, Martisse Campbell, says he is constantly getting burned on his hands and arms. “I don’t have any protective equipment when using the grills, and as a result boiling hot grease pops up from the grill and burns my hand,” he said. The only equipment they use is plastic gloves, and he says he and his coworkers also haven’t been given safety training. So they dump hot grease into plastic bags in boxes of ice. He also recounted how one coworker who was badly burned was told by a manager to “put mayo on it, and he’d be good.” He said the first aid kit at his location is “just an empty box.”
In statements sent to OSHA, workers in New Orleans describe being burned from filtering grease and working the grill. One recounts filtering grease without training and without burn-resistant gloves, so the plastic gloves melted to the hand. Another describes grease popping up from seasoning on the grill, burning hands and arms nearly every shift, but not being given any protective gear. Statements from workers in Philadelphia also recount being burned by Teflon from old grills that gets stuck to arms, a cookie machine, a hot pan, and grease while emptying the trap because the machines that do it automatically are often broken.
Although the majority of McDonald’s employees work at locations operated by individual franchisees, the charges also target the corporate entity, claiming that a computer system the corporate offices use to dictate staffing and work pace led to the dangerous conditions. Those computer systems are at the heart of other lawsuits workers have brought against the company charging it with wage theft and also holding corporate headquarters responsible, and the National Labor Relations Board has backed up the idea that the company is responsible for working conditions. McDonald’s also sets minimum health and safety standards, which workers say aren’t properly enforced, and employees of corporate-owned locations report similar conditions.
McDonald’s, however, isn’t the only offender when it comes to hazardous working conditions in the fast food industry. As part of the announcement of the OSHA complaints, Fight for $15 also released a national survey of fast food employees about safety conditions, finding that 87 percent have suffered an injury on the job in the past year, including 78 who had multiple injuries. Burns are by far the most common, with four out of five workers experiencing them over the last year and 58 percent of all fast food workers suffering multiple burns, although they also report cuts, falls, injuries from lifting, and assaults.
Workplace injuries aren’t unique to fast food, either. In 2012, according to the most recent data, there were 3.8 million workplace injuries and illnesses as well as 4,628 deaths. While OSHA is charged with inspecting workplaces to ensure that they are safe, budget shortfalls means that the number of workplaces — 8 million in its purview — far outnumber the 1,955 inspectors it has. Each workplace will only get a visit from OSHA every 139 years, on average.