In early December, federal workplace safety inspectors say, the U.S. Postal Service’s sorting hub in Bethlehem Township had pallets of bulk mail blocking exit routes at two of its loading docks, a major safety concern if workers needed to evacuate during an emergency.
The same obstruction was observed two months later, on or about Feb. 10.
For that and other safety violations, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Thursday that it is proposing penalties totaling $236,783 for the Lehigh Valley Processing and Distribution Center at 17 S. Commerce Way.
“Exit routes are vital for safe evacuations should a workplace emergency occur,” OSHA Area Director Jean Kulp said in a statement. “Employers who fail to keep them clear and unobstructed put their workers at risk of injuries or worse.”
OSHA issued the citations to the Postal Service on May 26, and OSHA spokesperson Leni Fortson said the service has opted to contest the citations. When an employer contests citations, OSHA suspends abatement and payment for the contested penalties until a higher court issues a final decision.
“The Postal Service places the safety and well-being of its employees as a top priority,” Postal Service spokesperson Desai Abdul-Razzaaq said in a statement. “OSHA’s inspection of the Lehigh Valley [Processing and Distribution Center] is still open and final citations and/or fines have not yet been issued. As such, the Postal Service has no comment at this point in time.”
A local union leader, however, said improvements are underway at the facility.
Andy Kubat, president of the American Postal Workers Union local that represents about 600 post office employees in the Lehigh Valley, acknowledged the congestion OSHA observed, noting the facility didn’t have the square footage necessary to handle the incoming volume of packages. As of early 2020, the 316,000-square-foot facility employed about 500 people and handled roughly 77,000 packages and parcels a day — and that was before a global pandemic that heightened demand.
“With the pandemic and the peak season, we kind of had the perfect storm,” Kubat said. “We had the election balloting. We had the pandemic, which caused a huge spike in parcel delivery. We did have some people who were out of work due to the pandemic, and then we had the holiday season on top of that.”
The good news, he said, is that the Postal Service has taken steps to fix the situation, especially since a new manager came into the facility a few months ago.
For example, Kubat said the Postal Service is in the process of opening a satellite facility near Lehigh Valley International Airport, which will process oversized parcels and help with any overflow. That should free up a lot of space on the Bethlehem Township facility’s work floor, he noted.
“I think if OSHA was to come in today, they would see a completely different facility,” Kubat said. “It really is a night-and-day situation, and we’re hoping that we can maintain this kind of situation.”
The most important thing, he said, is to abate the hazard to keep workers safe, which should also help improve service for customers, many of whom complained last year of late packages and missed deliveries.
The Postal Service’s statement to The Morning Call did not address a question about where the money to pay the fine would come from if its appeal is unsuccessful. The Postal Service, in general, receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.
The Postal Service did, however, receive about $8.7 billion in March from the U.S. Treasury Department under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, according to a quarterly report filed in May. The legislation allows the Postal Service to receive up to $10 billion from the Treasury to fund operating expenses.
The Postal Service has been on unstable financial footing for a decade, and even though it saw a surge in demand during the pandemic, it still reported a hefty loss in its fiscal year ended Sept. 30. While the Postal Service’s operating revenue for the year increased $2 billion to finish at $73 billion, its operating expenses also went up, resulting in a net loss of $9.2 billion.
At the Bethlehem Township facility, the allegedly blocked exit routes on the loading docks resulted in a willful violation, defined as a “violation in which the employer either knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement (purposeful disregard) or acted with plain indifference to employee safety.” That violation carries a proposed penalty of nearly $129,000 — about 54% of the total proposed penalties.
The investigation, which was opened Dec. 1 following a complaint, also found portable fire extinguishers were not readily accessible and discovered inadequate workspace in front of the electrical equipment. OSHA issued two repeat citations for these violations: The agency said it had previously cited the Postal Service for inaccessible fire extinguishers at a facility in Raleigh, North Carolina, and it also had fined the Postal Service for a similar electrical equipment hazard at its Los Angeles site.
In addition, OSHA also cited the Postal Service for two serious violations for other obstructions that resulted in safety hazards.
The Postal Service now enters the appeal process, which will eventually lead to a hearing before an administrative law judge, said Edward Easterly, a labor and employment law attorney who is not involved in the case.
Or, the parties can come to a resolution before the final determination, which typically would result in reduced fines, said Easterly, a founding member of Hoffman Hlavac & Easterly in South Whitehall Township. But the hazards would still have to be abated.
“They can fight this and appeal it, but they’re going to have to show that OSHA is wrong,” he said. “But as a general matter, during that appeal process, if the parties can work it out, that’s what they’ll try to do.”