Could Drones Help Deter Illegal Labor and Environmental Practices?

Critics of unmanned aerial vehicles often raise concerns about real and potential violations of personal and business privacy.  But some of those apparent violations could well be in the public interest.  For the past 5 years, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, has pushed for the authority to deploy aerial drones as a means of surveying US workplaces to detect possible violations of US labor laws.  Until recently, however, OSHA could deploy drones over businesses that had not formally consented to drone surveillance – arguably a huge deterrent to detecting such violations, which can result in enormous OSHA fines.

But one state – New Jersey – has recently decided to become more proactive.

Last September, the state’s Labor Department Enforcement Division revealed details of an ongoing investigation of New Jersey construction companies suspected of under-paying their workers and subjecting them to unsafe working conditions.  At several companies already under suspicion, the agency has contracted with private drone operators to fly over their work sites to monitor how work is conducted and verify or debunk charges of exploitation and abuse.  To protect the anonymity and integrity of the operation, the agency hasn’t revealed the sites being monitored and the investigation is still ongoing.

Using drones offers state investigators major advantages, state officials say.  Unlike internal company whistleblowers, drones don’t expose complaining parties, especially workers, to retaliation, including dismissal. The drones conduct their surveillance work at high altitudes without being detected by ground observers, including company officials.  Drones can also get a complete picture of the workplace over time, noting workflow patterns and creating a more compelling – and legally damaging – evidentiary portrait of the abuse issues.

What do the drones look for?  The number of  workers being employed on a site, and the excessive hours they might be working.  Drones can detect workplace safety problems, including unsecured ladders and reckless use of dangerous moving equipment.  They can also document workplace injuries and the circumstances that led to them, bolstering employee liability claims.

Drones are especially useful for documenting contractors and individuals that may be working off the books.  During a recent drone operation at an undisclosed worksite, state DOL surveillance drones zoomed in on vehicles entering and leaving the site, recording their logos and vehicle registration numbers.

In addition to tracking labor and working conditions, drones also have the potential to monitor environmental hazards and toxic waste disposal issues.  Oil and chemical plants are especially notorious for illegally dumping toxic substances into landfills or even nearby lakes and rivers.

While no US state agency appears to be conducting drone surveillance of this kind, private drone fliers have occasionally documented illegal dumping by private companies, leading to lawsuits by the companies involved.

By contrast, in the UK, drones since 2021 have begun monitoring landfills and hazardous waste sites for evidence of illegal dumping.  In addition to their high-resolution zoom cameras, the drones are equipped with thermal imaging cameras that can quickly detect hotspots and even determine types of waste that may be invisible to field investigators.

Experts note that drone surveillance at worksites need not be conducted in an adversarial manner.  Some construction companies already employ their own surveillance drones to monitor worksite conditions, mainly to enhance the work flow, but also to identify potential threats to workplace safety.

New Jersey officials say most companies are compliant with state labor and environmental regulations, but a subset remains that seeks to cut corners.  They’re hoping that the threat of drone surveillance, and enhanced investigations, will keep the number of blatant offenders to a minimum.

“A lot of this is about deterrence and [the company] knowing [it’s] being watched,” says New Jersey Labor Department Commissioner Robert Asara-Angelo.

New Jersey, unlike many other states. has the advantage of having tough labor laws on the books – and an enforcement bureau with the funding and staff to pursue violators.  Many other states defer to employers and adopt a hands-off approach.

And New Jersey is also unusually UAV-friendly, with strong support from the governor and the legislature for expansive public sector drone use.

Despite continuing resistance at the state level, the federal government, including OSHA and the EPA, is stepping up to fill the void.

Last December, the EPA agreed to introduce specially equipped drones that can detect methane emissions.  Sniffer, a Michigan-based drone company, was contracted by the agency to test its ability to detect methane gas at landfills remotely, eliminating the need for time-consuming and dangerous field inspections.

Results from early tests revealed that Sniffer drones could detect 60% more elevated methane areas than those found by human inspectors alone.  Sniffer drones are expected to enter into regular use by the EPA sometime later this year.

And OSHA, under new guidance released in late 2021, is no longer completely bound by an employer’s formal consent to drone surveillance.  The agency says it will make every attempt to secure employer compliance, but if faced with stiff resistance, will seek a warrant for drone use when labor violations are suspected.

The upshot?  Thanks to drones, workplaces are likely to be safer and consumers better protected from companies intent on skirting labor and environmental laws, or simply negligent in their observance of them – and in need of stronger compliance.

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