Store of the Future   //   June 25, 2024

After OSHA citations, REI OKs respirator use for Soho shop workers

REI reached a deal with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over conditions in its bike and ski repair shop in Manhattan after workers there were concerned about the health risks of inhaling chemical compounds used in their work. 

An informal settlement agreement dated June 5 shows the company will pay $4,500 to resolve three OSHA citations related to the company’s instructions and training around the use of respirators in the bike shop. It will also update its Respiratory Protection Program to include the voluntary use of approved half-face tight-fitting respirators, according to a copy of the agreement posted in the store’s office.

But workers there are still hoping to see more proactive protection measures, especially as they negotiate their first-ever union contract. Emma Harris, a member of the unionized store’s bargaining committee and a tech in the bike and ski shop, said workers requested the respirators themselves and want to have proper fittings and medical clearance to use them. “My biggest hope for REI is to go above the bare minimum of what is required of them,” Harris said, “and to be more proactive about it and not just respond to when employees are bringing up issues.”

For REI, the situation underscores the ongoing tensions between the business and its frontline workers. Ten stores have unionized — either with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union or the UFCW — out of about 180 locations nationwide. The unions have yet to successfully ratify a contract, and workers have filed a slew of unfair labor practice complaints.

Zoomed out, REI workers’ call for respirators points to a broader issue where retail workers are increasingly voicing concerns about their safety on the job. Sometimes, this is in relation to industry-wide concerns like organized retail crime or unexpected events of mass violence. For some workers, these concerns are a motivating factor for unionization. Whatever the reaction, the feelings are widespread. The latest Retail Worker Safety Survey from Theatro, a company that makes communication systems for frontline workers, found that 80% of retail workers feel unsafe on the job. And more than half said they think stores should do more to equip workers with tools and technology to keep them safe. Yet around 23% said they were not involved in any capacity in safety and security planning for their store. 

REI told Modern Retail in responses to questions about the bike shop safety concerns that the “safety and well-being of our employees, customers and members are top priorities.”

“At REI, we’re committed to maintaining consistent safety and working conditions across our operations and follow all applicable state and federal safety laws to ensure a secure and safe environment for everyone,” a company representative said in an email.

Safety concerns

The OSHA citation stemmed from an anonymous complaint filed over the winter and a subsequent OSHA site visit in February 2024. Harris, a shop technician who has worked for REI for about five years, said workers melt plastic and wax while repairing skis. In peak season, they may be doing this for eight to 15 pairs of skis a day. The shop is two stories underground — subway level — with no windows or ventilation.

Workers of their own volition obtained half-face respirators sold by a ski company vendor to help protect them from inhaling any particles or chemicals. But Harris said REI had no written policy for their use. Instead, the policy suggested voluntary use of N95 masks. After the OSHA visit in February, workers were given a short training and asked to sign off that they were trained, but they declined, Harris said.

“None of us felt like it was adequate in terms of the training or protection. Those masks are only rated for particulate [microscopic particles]. They’re not rated for fumes at all,” Harris said.

The issue of chemical compounds is unique to a manual labor role like the ones at REI’s repair shops. But other types of safety concerns are pressing issues for retail workers.

Theatro CMO Kimberley Drobny said the findings in its latest retail survey indicate how widespread safety concerns are among frontline workers. Overarching concerns among the more than 600 workers surveyed include aggressive customers or emergency situations like fire or medical crises. They underscore that workers overall want to have more proactive interaction and conversation with employers, Drobny said. 

“Employees would like to be part of the decision-making or at least asked what they need to feel safe,” she said. “The higher you go in an organization, you sometimes lose touch with what reality is and what these front-line workers are maybe dealing with,” Drobny said.

Ongoing negotiations

REI’s Harris said that while the respirator policy is a sign of positive momentum, she’s disappointed that REI fought to lower its fine as part of its settlement agreement. The original fee was nearly $7,000.

Harris wonders what the deal will mean in practice. Come ski season, she wonders if there will be an opportunity for employees to get their respirators fit tested. Harris said she would also like to see REI conduct air quality testing in the shop when the materials are being melted so there is a better sense of what the risks may be.

There’s also the matter of what happens at the bargaining table. Harris said SoHo REI workers, unionized with the RWDSU, want to see health and safety considerations, like respirator fitting, locked into their contract but that hasn’t been agreed to.

“We’ve come to the table with outlines — talking about our shop employees specifically so we can get that health and safety training,” she said. “They’ve rejected that as well.”

REI told Modern Retail it is committed to negotiating in good faith with stores that have chosen union representation. “The collective bargaining process — especially when negotiating a first contract — can be lengthy,” the statement said. “Both parties have been engaged in numerous negotiations and have reached tentative agreements on various topics — including safety. We remain steadfast in our commitment to this process and to finding a mutually beneficial agreement with our stores that have chosen union representation.”