As if one of the wealthiest corporations on the planet paying poverty wages wasn’t bad enough, McDonald’s (one of several franchises being represented in a lawsuit against the city of Seattle over its recent mandate to raise wages to $15 an hour) apparently believes itself to be exempt from regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Remember Ketchup As a Vegetable?

In the great tradition of the Reagan years, the management at McDonald’s “restaurants” consider mustard and mayonnaise to be first aid ointments. It’s not a joke. In a press release from the website, a McDonald’s worker from Chicago described her experience:

“My managers kept pushing me to work faster, and while trying to meet their demands I slipped on a wet floor, catching my arm on a hot grill…the managers told me to put mustard on it, but I ended up having to get rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.”

This worker’s story is not unusual. At least 80% of McDonald’s employees report suffering moderate to severe burn injuries. Of that 80%, 6 out of every 10 workers suffered multiple injuries. 1 in 3 report that the first aid kit (mandated under OSHA regulations) is either not readily accessible, lacking supplies – or missing altogether.

And what of safety equipment? Dream on, folks – you think this is a four-star French cafe? (Incredibly, there are 1200 McDonald’s outlets in France – but in order to survive in that country, the corporation was forced to adapt to French eating habits and preferences…and you’d better believe working conditions are better as well.)

Actually, McDonald’s and most other “fast food” franchises have far more in common with an automotive assembly line than any sort of upscale dining establishment.

A Bit of History

The concept of “fast food” in the United States goes back over a century, but arguably, the first modern “fast food” chain was A&W (of root beer fame), which began franchising in 1921. 19 years later, two brothers in San Bernardino, California, created a kitchen and food service method modeled on the same assembly lines pioneered by Henry Ford.

The brothers’ names? Richard and Maurice McDonald.

In 1954, a salesman for milkshake blending machines visited the McDonald’s operation in order to learn why the brothers had ordered a dozen machines (most eating establishments and soda fountains had one or two at most). When the dust settled from that visit, the McDonald’s had a partner in that visiting salesman, who went by the name of Ray Kroc. He opened the first McDonald’s franchises in his home state of Illinois shortly thereafter. By 1961, Kroc was in a position to buy out the McDonald brothers – and the modern McDonald’s Corporation was born.

It’s Not All Bad

For better or worse, this food service business model has become almost ubiquitous. However, some present-day fast food restaurants treat employees far better than others. Not surprisingly, these tend to be either small, independent family businesses or more localized chains, such as the Pacific Northwest’s Burgerville or the Southwest’s In-N-Out Burger. Both of these companies have always paid starting employees more than minimum wage and provide low-cost, full medical and dental benefits. Current and former employees give the companies high marks when it comes to worker satisfaction, despite the fast-paced and stressful nature of the job.

So….what is it about these issues that McDonald’s doesn’t get?

Ronald Could Learn a Thing or Two

On 16 March, 28 complaints from workers having suffered burn injuries were filed with OSHA. This issue – now attracting national attention – is quickly becoming part of the fight for higher wages among these workers from across the nation. Demonstrators in the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere in the country are gathering outside of McDonald’s stores, not only demanding $15 an hour, but speaking out about unsafe working conditions as well.

A spokesperson for McDonald’s told USA Today that alleged safety violations would be investigated, but added that the media should to be aware that said allegations were “part of a larger strategy” on the part of “activists” who were targeting the company.

According to the allegations, as managers exert extreme pressure on employees to work faster and “more efficiently,” basic, common-sense safety precautions are ignored. One of these is to wait for cooking oil to cool down before emptying fryers for cleaning. At least one employee was instructed to line a cardboard box with plastic, fill it with ice, and dump hot cooking oil into it so the fryer could be cleaned faster and the used product disposed of sooner.

After all, profits are at stake. Franchisees are themselves under intense pressure from the corporate office, which sends out inspectors regularly to make certain they are toeing the line. (Conformity appears to be the main concern, here; safety is low on the priority list.)

It must be paying off for someone. Despite a great deal of bad press in recent years, McDonald’s – a global corporation with 36,000 locations worldwide – has been seeing a modest increase in sales. In 2012, the corporation had revenues of $27.5 billion, a little over 3% over the prior year. That averages just under $764,000 per restaurant.

In-N-Out, which has a mere 232 locations in five Western states, made an estimated $625 million that same year. But that represents an income of nearly $2.7 million per restaurant – about 350% better than McDonald’s.

One significant difference between the two restaurant change is that the global corporation must grow and expand at all costs. If that means cutting corners and gaming the system, so be it. If workers get hurt and customers get sick, well, that’s just part of the cost of doing business.

It is what the late author and social critic Edward Abbey described as “the mentality of the cancer cell.”

The regional chain, which was founded in 1948, has an entirely different business philosophy. Central to In-N-Out’s philosophy is treating employees well and sharing the corporation’s success with the workers who make it possible. According to Wall Street wisdom, anything that cuts into the profit margin and prevents constant, rapid expansion is bad business.

Yet In-N-Out is doing phenomenally well by all standards. McDonald’s, which follows Wall Street convention, is facing charges for violating labor regulations, armies of angry, dissatisfied employees demanding a greater share of the wealth they work to generate – and a rapidly tarnishing public image.

And in the meantime, McDonald’s employees continue to suffer unnecessary, painful, on-the-job injuries. One hopes that OSHA officials will take these complaints seriously and give the Golden Arches a good, hard, detailed once-over.