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Posts Tagged ‘Wal-Mart’

Here in Kansas City, we already know a little more about Wal-Mart than a lot of people because a former Wal-Mart c.e.o., David Glass, owns our Kansas City Royals.

The common complaint is that Glass runs the Royals like Wal-Mart executives run their company — on the cheap.

Well, cheap is one thing, but allowing unsafe employment practices is something altogether different. And that’s what it looks like Wal-Mart is guilty of in its two-year-old battle to overturn a $7,000 federal fine that stems from a customer stampede on Thanksgiving weekend, 2008, at a Long Island, New York, store.

Damour

In case you’ve forgotten — although it’s pretty hard to purge this from the memory — a 34-year-old temporary worker named Jdimytai Damour was trampled on Black Friday as he and other Wal-Mart employees attempted, unsuccessfully, to hold back a crowd of shoppers who charged into the store when the doors were unlocked at 5 a.m.

A story published in today’s New York Times summarizes the situation: “Eight to 10 employees were pushing against the door to counteract the press of customers trying to get in…Once the doors were unlocked, customers fell in the vestibule and employees climbed on top of vending machines to protect themselves. As in years past, the doors popped off their hinges. Mr. Damour was trampled. He died at the site.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Wal-Mart $7,000 — the maximum penalty — and last Friday, the agency’s chief administrative law judge, Covette Rooney, upheld the fine, concluding that unruly crowds on Black Friday in each of the three preceding years — 2005, 2006 and 2007 — should have prompted Wal-Mart to take precautions by 2008.

And what was Wal-Mart’s reaction? Accept the $7,000 fine and pledge to improve conditions? Oh, no, it’s planning to appeal the fine to the full OSHA review commission.

Well, you’ve got to hand it to Wal-Mart; it has been consistent on this. The company has spent more than $2 million on legal fees trying to overturn the $7,000 fine. Of course, the fine isn’t the point with Wal-Mart. It’s all about a bigger principle, the principle of the government sticking its nose in the company’s (and other companies’) business.

Specifically, according to another New York Times story, “Wal-Mart asserted that OSHA was wrongly seeking to define ‘crowd trampling’ as an occupational hazard that retailers must take action to prevent.”

In other words, Wal-Mart is saying, “Let us deal with our crowd-trampling problem, if, indeed, we have a crowd-trampling problem.”

Well, now, that rings a bell with me — and perhaps you, too — on a problem we had here in Kansas City regarding smoking in bars and restaurants.

If you’ll recall, when city officials first began proposing a limit or ban on smoking in bars and restaurants about 20 years ago, the proprietors raised a hue and cry. I remember, specifically, Carl DiCapo, owner of the former Italian Gardens, appearing before a City Council committee and saying, “Please, let us police ourselves.”

For a long time, DiCapo and other opponents of a ban were able to hold the city off — and did little more than designate, in some cases, nonsmoking areas. Finally, three years ago, a citizens initiative petition got enough signatures to put the issue to a vote, and voters implemented an effective ban on smoking in indoor, public places.

The idea of letting Wal-Mart and other big retailers police themselves in the matter of crowd control makes about as much sense as letting Carl DiCapo — a fine citizen in every other respect, by the way — and his entrepreneurial pals decide how to control smoking in bars and restaurants.

Fortunately for big-box employees and customers, as long as the $7,000 fine stands, retailers will have to begin putting in place new crowd-control guidelines that OSHA issued last year.

Wal-Mart wisely implemented some changes at all of its New York stores as part of a 2009 settlement with Nassau County, and it has extended the approach to most of its stores.

For one thing, Wal-Mart stayed open from 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day through the night. For some special-sale items, like electronics, people were given tickets so they did not have to surge into the store and make a run for the items. Also, outside the store, officials set up steel barriers in zigzag patterns to prevent a massive, forward press of shoppers.

The steps that Wal-Mart took were in line with the new OSHA guidelines.

The guidelines, according to today’s story in The Times, “say that barricades should start away from the store’s entrance, and that they must have breaks or turns in them to prevent customers pushing from the rear. The guidelines also say that employees should be assigned to specific spots, and that the local police, fire department and hospitals should be alerted about an event that might draw crowds.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have OSHA setting the crowd-control rules than relying on Wal-Mart to do so. After all, if Wal-Mart was so on top of things, wouldn’t it have taken action earlier, after surging crowds had popped the doors off the hinges at the same Long Island store in 2005, 2006 and 2007?

No, didn’t happen, not even after three consecutive years of difficulty managing Black Friday crowds.

And the result? The doors popped off the hinges again, and a 34-year-old temporary worker — a little guy working for a big, big company — lost his life.

I’m sure Wal-Mart regrets the loss…just not enough to allow the big, bad, federal government to hand down crowd-control guidelines.

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