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The Other Victims of California’s Fires: Workers Inhaling Toxic Fumes

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

With the death toll now standing at 42 and with some 7,200 structures destroyed, officials are now calling the wildfire in Paradise, CA (dubbed the “Camp Fire”) the deadliest and most destructive in California’s recent history. Two other massive fires—dubbed the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire are simultaneously scorching Southern California.

As frontline firefighters—including many prison laborers—continue to battle the blaze while healthcare providers work around the clock treating fire victims, millions of other workers far away from the inferno are feeling a secondary impact: toxic smoke.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, over 160 miles away from the Camp Fire, air quality dramatically declined almost immediately after the fires broke out. Over the past week, AirNow, a government website reporting real-time air quality data has shown the Bay Area hovering between 150-200 on the federal Air Quality Index (AQI), surpassing 200 (or “very unhealthy” levels) in parts of the Bay. The higher the AQI value, the more polluted the skies are and the more concern there is for public health.

This week, the Bay Area also saw the second highest amount of fine particulate matter in the air ever recorded. This substance is not only made up of smoke from charred forests, but could contain everything that gets incinerated when residences go up in flames: cars, fuel, batteries, light bulbs, cleaning products, plastics, upholstery and more.

Public health officials have been advising residents of affected areas to stay indoors to avoid the unhealthy air that can lead to headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and worse.

However, for many workers who work outdoors for a living, that’s easier said than done.

While many white collar workers don protective masks to commute to office jobs where recirculated air conditioning provides some measure of protection from the smoky skies, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, day laborers, landscapers, construction workers, public works employees and others have no choice but to work through the harmful haze—at great detriment to their health.

Many of these workers hail from neighborhoods and worksites already facing increased levels of toxins. Compounding the situation, these are also often the very same workers who are least protected by worker health and safety regulations.

“It’s been horrible,” says Kywanna Reed, who has been working 10-hour days outside this week as a traffic controller. “I wake up with headaches. I go to sleep with headaches. I have a headache right now, and a bag of headache medicine in the truck. My whole respiratory system is messed up. My coworker had a nosebleed and went home sick.”

Reed said her employer, American Construction & Supply Inc., did not provide masks to employees.

“Employers should pass out masks and you could choose to wear them or not,” says Reed, “But right now, they’re not doing anything.”

Other workers, however, say their employers are providing masks while verbally encouraging workers to protect themselves.

Cesar Fragoso, who works as a landscaper for Planting Justice, said the non-profit nursery in East Oakland passed out masks to employees.

“I work outside every day, weeding and transplanting plants. I can feel the smoke in my nose. My eyes started itching. I’ve been coughing. The masks help, but it’s tragic that we have to go through this in order for people to acknowledge what we are doing to the environment,” says Fragoso.

A 2017 news release from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) advises that “Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees).”

Those measures include “using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas,” “limiting the time that employees work outdoors” and “providing workers with respiratory protective equipment.”

However, as worker advocates note, holding employers accountable for taking such measures can be a challenge.

“Even though people we know from Cal/OSHA have made a tremendous effort, their presence in the field is so limited that it is really hard for them to do any kind of enforcement or implementation,” says Dinorah Barton-Antonio of the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.

Other workers say they wouldn’t use a mask even it was provided, citing the already highly dangerous nature of their industries. Sixty-three-year-old carpenter Ruel Bernard smelled the smoke and started sneezing this week as he hung siding at a residential construction site, but chose not to wear a mask.

“Us older generation of construction workers, our bodies have been toxic waste dumps from the get-go. I started working in New York in 1971, breaking down plastic walls, climbing around in attics filled with insulation and dust. Every day I hurt myself at work, so at some point you’re just like ‘Fuck it,’” explains Bernard. “I know that’s a dinosaur, macho attitude. But that attitude helps us survive in this industry.”

The idea that the smoke from the wildfires is just one ingredient in an already toxic soup of working conditions resonates in farmworker communities.

Lucas Zucker is the Policy Director at Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works with immigrant farmworkers in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. During last summer’s wildfires, CAUSE distributed N95 masks to workers in the field.

“Farm work is already dangerous on the day-to-day. This area has some of the highest use of toxic pesticides,” notes Zucker. “But then with the wildfires, the ag industry pushes to harvest their crop quickly to prevent damage to crops like strawberries and avocados. So we actually see an increase in production, with obvious implications for human health. Whereas a white collar worker might be able to take time off and have that paid, for farmworkers who get paid piece rate it’s hard for them to take that time off if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck.”

While much of the conversation in the Bay Area about protection from the smoke has focused on masks, some workers point to having power on the job—whether that be in the form of a union contract or worker ownership—as one of the largest factors in ensuring worker health and safety.

“We have a union here. It helps us get through things like this because I feel like we have some camaraderie and I can take steps to take care of myself without worrying that I’ll lose my job,” says Daniel DeBolt, who works as a deckhand on the ferry boats that shuttle tourists and commuters from Oakland to San Francisco and who has been experiencing headaches and fatigue all week.

Worker power on the job was also key for Dante Ortiz from Root Volume, a worker-owned landscaping cooperative.

“In 20 years of building gardens in wildfire-prone areas like Colorado and California, I’d never had a day where we had to pull out because of air quality, but that happened last Friday. We were doing heavy excavation, trenching for retaining walls. It’s hard work. You’re breathing heavily, which is the worst thing you could be doing,” says Ortiz. “So we all decided it was time to get out of there. Being in a worker cooperative gave us the agency to make that decision for ourselves.”

However, other workers like day laborers don’t have stable employment or consistent employers.

According to Gabriela Galicia, the Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, CA, “Workers stand on the corner for up to eight hours a day waiting for work. Many corners are already near toxic fumes, and now workers are out in the smoke too.”

Galicia notes that many workers are already thinking about heading north in search of work rebuilding fire-devastated communities, which carries its own risks to workers’ rights and their health. Worker exploitation and wage theft has marred reconstruction in post-disaster recovery efforts across the country.

“We’ve seen too many natural disasters where day laborers have been taken advantage of,” says Galicia. “They are human beings. They’re helping to rebuild. Treat them with dignity.”

As human-driven climate change intensifies and more of California becomes engulfed in flames, workers wonder whether toiling in toxic air is becoming “the new normal”—or if there can be a just transition to a new way of relating to land and labor.

CAUSE’s Lucas Zucker explains, “Ultimately, we need state or federal disaster aid that can fill in the gaps for workers exposed to disaster or toxic conditions so that they don’t have to make that horrible choice between putting food on their family’s table or being exposed to toxic conditions.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Brooke Anderson is an Oakland, California-based organizer and photojournalist. She has spent 20 years building movements for social, economic, racial and ecological justice. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.

Hiding Injuries at Tesla: Where The Worker Still Doesn’t Matter.

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

Under-recording of workplace injuries and illnesses is bad, and far too common. But at the automaker Tesla, in Fremont, California,  under-recording is more than a paper exercise in deception — at Tesla it means withholding needed medical treatment of injured workers so that their injuries aren’t report on OSHA logs.

We wrote previously about reports that workers are getting hurt at Tesla and that many of those injuries are not being recorded.  Earlier this year, Reveal reporters Will Evans and Alyssa Jeong Perry documented how Tesla put style and speed over safety, undercounted injuries and ignored the concerns of its own safety professionals. CalOSHA has inspected the company a number of times and found recordkeeping violations.  Now Evans shows the many ways that Tesla is keeping injuries off the OSHA logs.

Despite a clear pattern of inaccurate reporting, federal OSHA is unable to cite patterns of under-reporting after Congress repealed OSHA’s “Volks” regulation at the beginning of the Administration. Throughout OSHA’s history, the agency had been able to cite employers who violated OSHA’s requirement to keep accurate records for five years. OSHA had issued a regulation addressing a court ruling against that practice, but Congress used the Congressional Review Act to repeal it. No OSHA can’t cite recordkeeping violations longer than 6 months before a citation is issued, making it impossible to cite patterns of violations like those committed at Tesla.

California has modified these restrictions slightly by allowing the agency to cite employers for recordkeeping violations six months from when Cal/OSHA first learns of the violation, instead of six months from when the violation occurred. But the bill was signed too late for the agency to take action against Tesla.

Background

Under-reporting injuries and illnesses on OSHA logs is nothing new.  Unlike fatality reporting, injury and illness reporting is conducted by employers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated in 2016, that nearly 3.7 million workers across all industries, including state and local government, had work-related injuries and illnesses that were reported by employers. But due to documented and widespread underreporting of workplace injuries, experts estimate that the true number is closer to  7.4 million to 11.1 million injuries and illnesses a year — two to three times greater than BLS estimates.  Much of the undercounting is the result of employers discouraging workers from reporting injuries and illnesses, either through direct retaliation or through more subtle means such as incentive programs or retaliatory drug testing.  That’s why OSHA’s “electronic recordkeeping regulation,” issued in 2015, forbids employers from retaliating against workers for reporting injuries and illnesses. The Trump administration recently issued a memo weakening the enforcement of that language.

In order to understand Tesla’s strategy, you need to understand how OSHA defines a “recordable injury.” According to OSHA regulations, work-related injuries must be recorded on OSHA injury logs if they require medical treatment beyond first aid, if they result in days away from work or if the worker is assigned job restrictions due to the injury.  Tesla’s practices were designed to avoid anything that triggers recording, according to former medical personnel who worked at Tesla.

To ensure that fewer injuries would be recorded, Tesla hired Access Omnicare, headed by hand surgeon Dr. Basil Besh, to run its factory health center. Access Omnicare promised Tesla it could help reduce the number of recordable injuries and emergency room visits. Reveal obtained a copy of Access’s proposal which stated that  “Access Omnicare’s model, with more accurate diagnoses, reduces “un-necessary use of Emergency Departments and prevents inadvertent over-reporting of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recordability.”

“Over-reporting?”

How to Under-count at Tesla? Let Me Count the Ways

To under-record, and under-record effectively requires some creativity.

Access Omnicare had a rule that injured employees could not be given work restrictions. According to a former Access physician assistant, Anna Watson.

No matter what type of injuries workers came in with – burns, lacerations, strains and sprains – clinic staff were under instructions to send them back to work full duty, she said. Watson said she even had to send one back to work with what appeared to be a broken ankle.

A medical assistant who formerly worked at the clinic remembered an employee who was sent back to work even though he couldn’t stand on one of his feet. Another employee passed out face down on the assembly line – then went back to work.

“You always put back to full duty, no matter what,” said the medical assistant.

Ambulances were highly risky as well, if your goal is to hide serious injuries.  Tesla forbids staff from calling 911 without permission after workers have been injured –even when fingers have been severed or employees have suffered serious injuries. Instead they put them in a Lyft or Uber and send them to a clinic after which they’re put back on the assembly line with no work modifications, even if they can barely walk. One worker’s back was painfully crushed when a hood fell on him. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t even stand up straight,” Stephon Nelson recalled. But Tesla refused to call 911 or send him to the hospital in an ambulance, putting him in an Uber instead.

Why? To save money? More likely because “911 logs become public records. And first responders, unlike drivers for ride-hailing services, are required to report severe work injuries to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the state’s workplace safety agency.”

Other tactics Tesla used were to claim that some injuries and illnesses were not work-related and refuse treatment to temporary employees:

Watson recalled one worker who had passed out on the job and went to the hospital because of her exposure to fumes in the factory. Even though a work-related loss of consciousness is required to be counted, no such injury was recorded on Tesla’s injury logs.

Temp workers hurt on the production line also were often rebuffed by the clinic, said former clinic employees. At one point, there was a blanket policy to turn away temps, they said.

Tracy Lee developed a repetitive stress injury over the summer when a machine broke and she had to lift car parts by hand, she said. Lee said the health center sent her away without evaluating her because she wasn’t a permanent employee.

By law, Tesla is required to record injuries of temp workers who work under its supervision, no matter where they get treatment. But not all of them were.

Beware the Night

Getting hurt during the day is bad enough. But getting hurt at night is especially dangerous because there are no doctors or nurses on duty.

Two medical assistants who used to work there said they often were left on their own – one on duty at a time – and struggled to tend to all the injured. Both had to do things such as take vital signs, which medical assistants aren’t allowed to do without on-site supervision, according to the Medical Board of California. Reveal granted them anonymity because they fear speaking out will hurt their careers. Dr. Basil Besh said no one works alone. Besh is hand surgeon who owns Access Omnicare which

For a severely injured worker lying on the assembly line, it could take 10 to 15 minutes for a medical assistant to arrive and then contact on-call doctors, a medical assistant said. Getting a code for Tesla’s Lyft account was a drawn-out process that could take hours, she said.

The medical assistants said they were alarmed and uncomfortable with the doctors’ orders to use Lyft because they worried some patients could pass out or need help en route. One worker directed to take a Lyft was light-headed and dizzy. Another had his fingers badly broken, contorted and mangled.

Moving Right Along

And despite promises from Tesla CEO Elon Musk to do better, Tesla has not cleaned up its act, according to Watson:

Many more injured workers never were counted, she said.  Tesla’s official injury logs, provided to Reveal by a former employee, show 48 injuries in August. Watson reviewed the list for the three weeks she was there and estimated that more than twice as many injuries should have been counted if Tesla had provided appropriate care and counted accurately.

And despite the fact that there is evidence that Tesla is violating the law, CalOSHA has not responded to the information Watson supplied to them.

Watson called Cal/OSHA officials to insist they investigate her complaint. She told them that she had detailed knowledge of a system that undercounted injuries by failing to treat injured workers. But Cal/OSHA officials told her that it wasn’t the agency’s responsibility, she said. They suggested contacting another agency, such as the medical board or workers’ compensation regulators.

Watson, meanwhile, has moved on to a new job

She said she just wants someone to make sure that Tesla workers get the care they need. “You go to Tesla and you think it’s going to be this innovative, great, wonderful place to be, like this kind of futuristic company,” she said. “And I guess it’s just kind of disappointing that that’s our future, basically, where the worker still doesn’t matter.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on November 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab wasDeputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Mar-Jack: OSHA Inspectors “Are Not There For Us”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

I wrote earlier this month about a court decision in the Mar-Jac case restricting OSHA’s ability to expand inspections at poultry plants — even when the company’s log shows high rates of injuries and illnesses — despite the industry’s record of unsafe conditions.

When conducting an inspection about a specific incident, you may recall, OSHA is only allowed to look at factors surrounding the incident and anything within the sight of the inspector. For that reason, when an OSHA inspector requested to inspect a worker’s locker where his tools were stored, Mar-Jac told the inspector that he could only walk through the plant if he agreed to wear a cardboard box over his head to blind him to any safety hazards.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution published an article earlier this week about the court decision and its effect on OSHA.

Asked why Mar-Jac didn’t want the OSHA inspector walking through its plant, [Larry Stine, an attorney for Mar-Jac] told the AJC that Mar-Jac has its own safety personnel to conduct reviews and look for issues in an ever-changing work environment. OSHA inspectors are “enforcement officers,” he said. “Their jobs and what they try to do is find violations. They are not there for us, to be safety consultants.”

Look at that last sentence a bit closer: “They are not there for us….” They’re just “enforcement officers.”

So who is OSHA there for?

The goal of an OSHA inspector is not just to “enforce” the law. The law is not the end. The law it the means to the ultimate end — which is to protect workers.

So the manager may be correct, they are not there for “us,” if by “us” he means managers and not the company’s workers (who, I guess, are not part of “us.”)  And, of course, OSHA is not there for “us,” if he believes that managers have no interest in maintaining a safe workplace — with, as I just said, is the whole point of enforcement.

So no, OSHA is not there to be a “safety consultant.” A company the size of Mar-Jac has more than enough resources to hire its own safety consultants before OSHA arrives to ensure safe conditions in the plant. (And smaller companies that can’t afford consultants can take advantage of OSHA’s free Onsite Consultation Program.)

And indeed, Mar-Jac boasts that it “has its own safety personnel to conduct reviews and look for issues in an ever-changing work environment.”

So if those reviews are useful, and the company actually implements the results of those reviews, they should have no problem allowing OSHA inspectors to wander anywhere they want to go in a plant.

But not according to Stine.

“Why,” Stine said later, “would you want to subject yourself to multiple fines where I would rather find it and fix it myself?”

Or, Mar-Jac workers and OSHA inspectors might ask, why would you fear multiple fines when you’ve allegedly found all the problems and fixed them yourself? And if you haven’t fixed them, why don’t you deserve multiple fines?

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 26, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

OSHA Weakens Workers’ Protections Against Retaliation for Reporting Injuries

Friday, October 12th, 2018

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a memo Thursday weakening workers’ protection against employer retaliation for reporting injuries and illnesses.

Section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) of the Obama administrations 2016 “Electronic Recordkeeping Rule” told employers that “You must not discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness.”

According to Deborah Berkowitz, former OSHA policy director under the Obama administration:  “Protection from retaliation when reporting an injury is a core worker right enshrined in both the OSHA law and OSHA regulations. It is outrageous that this Administration is trying to roll back these core protections and allow industry to further hide injuries and illnesses. ”

This is the same recordkeeping regulation that requires some employers to send in their injury and illness logs to OSHA, information that the Obama administration had planned to use for research, targeting inspections and publish on OSHA’s website. OSHA is currently proposing to repeal the second part of that regulation that would require employers to send in more detailed information.

Background

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that around 3.7 million workers are seriously injured in the workplace every year. But the BLS and other researchers have shown wide-spread underreporting of injuries and illnesses — mainly because employers discourage workers from reporting — making the true toll to be two to three times greater—or 7.4 million to 11.1 million.

During the comment period leading up to issuance of the 2016 regulation, workers and researchers testified and submitted evidence about how employers discouraged reporting by retaliating against workers for reporting injuries and illnesses. The feared that the regulation would increase such retaliation and called for OSHA to strengthen protections beyond the weak language in Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Protection from retaliation when reporting an injury is a core worker right enshrined in both the OSHA law and OSHA regulations. It is outrageous that this Administration is trying to roll back these core protections and allow industry to further hide injuries and illnesses.  — Deborah Berkowitz, former OSHA Policy Director

Employer associations like the Chamber of Commerce hated OSHA’s anti-retaliation language and some are particularly upset that OSHA didn’t include repeal of that language in their current attempt to weaken the regulation.

Of course, they would never admit to actually wanting to retaliate against workers from reporting, so they focused their opposition on two areas where retaliation was common that OSHA emphasized in the preamble to the regulation: rate-based incentive programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries, and post-injury drug tests that employers often require with the intent of discouraging workers from reporting injuries or illnesses.

The memo that OSHA issued did not change the wording of the regulation; it just affected how effectively OSHA inspectors would be able to enforce the language.

Incentive Programs

Workers described common employer incentive programs where an employer would offer some kind of prize to a group of workers that would then be withdrawn if a worker reported an injury. As the preamble described:

An employer might enter all employees who have not been injured in the previous year in a drawing to win a prize, or a team of employees might be awarded a bonus if no one from the team is injured over some period of time. Such programs might be well-intentioned efforts by employers to encourage their workers to use safe practices. However, if the programs are not structured carefully, they have the potential to discourage reporting of work-related injuries and illnesses without improving workplace safety. The USW provided many examples of employer incentive policies that could discourage reporting of work-related injuries and illnesses.  One employer had a policy that involved periodic prize drawings for items such as a large-screen television; workers who reported an OSHA-recordable injury were excluded from the drawing.

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine noted that many of its member physicians reported knowledge of situations where employers discouraged injury and illness reporting through incentive programs predicated on workers remaining “injury free,” leading to peer pressure on employees not to report.

A 2012 GAO study found that rate-based incentive programs, which reward workers for achieving low rates of reported injury and illnesses, may discourage reporting.

Incentive programs are based on the “blame the worker” theory of accident prevention. That theory states that if only workers would be more careful, there wouldn’t be as many injuries. And offering workers a prize will encourage them to be more careful. Actually, most workplace incidents are caused by unsafe conditions — machines without guards, slippery floors, lack of fall protection, etc. — not worker carelessness.

Giving out prizes or bonuses doesn’t prevent injuries – it discourages injured workers from reporting their injuries.  Workers don’t need bonuses to work safely, they need safe workplaces.”   — Dr. David Michaels, former OSHA Assistant Secretary

As former OSHA director David Michaels explained, “No one avoids getting hurt simply to get a prize at the end of the week or a bonus at the end of the year. Giving out prizes or bonuses doesn’t prevent injuries – it discourages injured workers from reporting their injuries.  Workers don’t need bonuses to work safely, they need safe workplaces.”

The OSHA regulation didn’t prohibit all incentive programs. Those incentive programs that reward workers, for example, for activities “such as identifying hazards or participating in investigations of injuries, incidents, or “near misses” were perfectly acceptable. Only incentive programs based on injury or illnesses rates were prohibited if they led to underreporting of injuries or illnesses.

OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Dorothy Dougherty issued a memo in 2016 laying out for OSHA inspectors how this language was to be enforced.  The memo stated that the anti-retaliation language:

prohibits taking adverse action against employees simply because they report work-related injuries or illness. Withholding a benefit—such as a cash prize drawing or other substantial award—simply because of a reported injury or illness would likely violate section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) regardless of whether such an adverse action is taken pursuant to an incentive program. Penalizing an employee simply because the employee reported a work-related injury or illness without regard to the circumstances surrounding the injury or illness is not objectively reasonable and therefore not a legitimate business reason for taking adverse action against the employee.

Consider the example of an employer promise to raffle off a $500 gift card at the end of each month in which no employee sustains an injury that requires the employee to miss work. If the employer cancels the raffle in a particular month simply because an employee reported a lost-time injury without regard to the circumstances of the injury, such a cancellation would likely violate section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) because it would constitute adverse action against an employee simply for reporting a work-related injury.

Return to Blaming the Worker

The new memo, issued last week under the signature of Kim Stille, Acting Director of Enforcement Programs, stated instead that “Rate-based incentive programs are also permissible under § 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) as long as they are not implemented in a manner that discourages reporting.” [emphasis added]

How would an employer ensure that precautions are taken to ensure that employees feel free to report an injury or illness, even if the incentive program results in withholding a prize or bonus because of a reported injury? According to the OSHA memo:

An employer could avoid any inadvertent deterrent effects of a rate-based incentive program by taking positive steps to create a workplace culture that emphasizes safety, not just rates. For example, any inadvertent deterrent effect of a rate-based incentive program on employee reporting would likely be counterbalanced if the employer also implements elements such as:

  • an incentive program that rewards employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace;
  • a training program for all employees to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities and emphasizes the employer’s non-retaliation policy;
  • a mechanism for accurately evaluating employees’ willingness to report injuries and illnesses.

So how is that going to work exactly?

A worker suffers a serious cut on his hand while working on an unguarded machine the day before the lottery for a new riding mower ends.  Fearing that his co-workers will hate him for causing them to lose a chance for the prize, he sticks his bloody hand in his pocket and heads to the local urgent care to have it sewed up, telling them that he did it while working on his car.

Even if OSHA finds out that the incentive program caused the worker to hide the injury, the employer is now home free if there was also a program that rewarded workers for attending safety meetings that identify unsafe conditions in the workplace.

Or they’re safe if the employer conducted a training program that emphasized that they really, really, really wanted employees to report injuries, and they would never in a million years consider retaliating against them (Oh, and if you and your buddies lose the chance at winning the riding mower because you cut your hand, well that’s a shame. Better be more careful next time.)

 

Drug Testing

When developing the regulation, OSHA also compiled evidence that drug testing had been used by employers to discourage injury and illnesses reporting. For example, drug tests were sometime ordered for injuries that couldn’t have been caused by intoxication, such as musculoskeletal injuries that are “often caused by physical workload, work intensification, and ergonomic problems.” The preamble to the regulation therefore referenced as impermissible drug tests administered “irrespective of any potential role of drug intoxication in the incident” and used to deter proper reporting.

OSHA’s original 2016 memo instructed inspectors very clearly that the regulation does not “prohibit drug testing conducted under a state workers’ compensation law or other state or federal law” nor does it prohibit employers from drug testing employees who report work-related injuries or illnesses “so long as they have an objectively reasonable basis for testing.”

The regulation “only prohibits drug testing employees for reporting work-related injuries or illnesses without an objectively reasonable basis for doing so.”

And the 2016 policy put a heavy burden of proof on the agency, stating that “OSHA’s ultimate burden is to prove that the employer took the adverse action because the employee reported a work-related injury or illness, not for a legitimate business reason.”

In addition, the drug testing had to measure actual impairment, which meant that OSHA would only permit tests for alcohol use, which is the only drug test that can actually measure impairment.

Furthermore:

Drug testing an employee whose injury could not possibly have been caused by drug use would likely violate section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv). For example, drug testing an employee for reporting a repetitive strain injury would likely not be objectively reasonable because drug use could not have contributed to the injury. And, section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) prohibits employers from administering a drug test in an unnecessarily punitive manner regardless of whether the employer had a reasonable basis for requiring the test.

Employers objected to OSHA’s “intrusion” into their right to drug test employees any time, for any reason. After all, they argued, they should be able to do anything to achieve a drug-free workplace — whether or not employees were using drugs at work or impaired at work, and whether or not the drug testing caused workers to hide their injuries.  And some erroneously warned that the anti-retaliation language would conflict with other laws that mandated or allowed drug testing in certain situations.

The new policy leaves this policy mostly unchanged on paper — allowing drug testing in the same situations it was allowed before — where required by other laws and permitting it when used “to evaluate the root cause of a workplace incident that harmed or could have harmed employees” as long as all involved employees are tested, and not just those who were injured.

But actual enforcement of the language for retaliatory drug testing will inevitably be weakened because the new memo removes language prohibiting drug testing for obviously unrelated injuries or illnesses like musculoskeletal injuries, and removes language prohibiting post-injury drug test except for alcohol.

And the burden of proof for inspectors will now be even higher. Instead of showing that the employer required drug testing just “because the employee reported a work-related injury or illness,” the new burden of proof is to show that “the employer took the action to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.”

So is an employer home free if they swear that the drug testing was not intended to penalize anyone, but just to “promote safety and health,” (even if it had the effect of discouraging employees from reporting?)  We shall see.

Will this memo be enough to satisfy employers who don’t like the anti-retaliation language? Unlikely. In response to OSHA’s recent proposal to roll back on section of the recordkeeping rule, several employers submitted testimony calling for repeal of the entire regulation — including the anti-retaliation language.

These are Trump Times, after all. It’s the least they can expect.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

FY 2019 OSHA Budget Is Here: Good News, But More Work to be Done

Friday, September 28th, 2018

For the first time practically in recorded memory, the Labor-HHS-Education budget, which includes OSHA, MSHA and NIOSH, was passed and signed into law before the beginning of the new Fiscal Year — October 1st.  The final OSHA budget actually contains a $5 million increase over FY 2018 and $8.8 million over the President’s FY 2019 Request. We can thank the Senate for that, considering the final budget is a whopping $12.5 million over what the House wanted.

Highlights include:

  • The total OSHA budget is $557.8 million, a $5 million increase over FY 2018
    • $1 million increase for federal enforcement,
    • $1.5 million increase for state plans
    • $2.5 million increase for federal compliance assistance ($3.5 million will be spent on the Voluntary Protection Programs)
    • Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant program continues to be funded at $10 million — despite the Trump administration’s continuing efforts to kill it.
    • There are no “poison pill” riders — attempts to kill silica enforcement or OSHA’s electronic recordkeeping standard.
  • The MSHA budget is level funded.
  • NIOSH will receive  $336.3 million (a $1 million increase over FY 2018).
    • Trump’s proposal to transfer NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health and slash the NIOSH budget was rejected. Funding for the Educational Resource Centers, Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Research Centers and other NIOSH programs was maintained.
  • A few other Labor Department programs — Wage and Hour Division, Bureau of Labor Standards and the Office of Labor Management Standards — also got small increases although funding for employment services was cut.

A Word of Warning

But don’t get too happy. While these small increases (or level funding) are good news considering who’s in the White House and in control of Congress, funding for virtually all of the labor programs has been basically frozen for years. The total OSHA budget, and some line items like State Plan funding, are still lower than they were in 2012, as you can see in the table below.  And while the budget hasn’t shown much change, the  costs of operating these programs have increased, resulting in declining staffing levels and program activity.

As AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario summarizes, “we have a victory holding the line, but much more work to be done.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Scott Mugno: Rising from the Dead?

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

While Rod Rosenstein and Brett Kavanaugh may be on their way out, OSHA nominee Scott Mugno and other Department of Labor nominees may be on their way in according to intrepid Bloomberg reporter Chris Opfer.

You may recall that business interests, who hate, hate, hate the idea of Democrat Mark Pearce getting another term on the National Labor Relations Board had reportedly quashed a potential compromise that would have re-appointed Pearce in return for the Dems allowing the confirmation of Mugno, Cheryl Stanton at Wage & Hour and William Beach for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  But now that deal seems to be back on the table at the White House as the Senate Finance Committee plans to consider Gordon Hartogensis’ nomination to run the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation  on Thursday. There may even be some judicial nominations in the pot.

Not that business interests — especially the Chamber of Commerce — would be too disappointed. Mugno is, after all, their guy.

According to Opfer

If the deal comes to fruition, it will likely be within the coming weeks. Lawmakers are expected to flee Washington in early October for one last campaign push before the midterm elections. There’s no telling whether any agreement would still be on the table after the smoke clears from the ballot box. Look for the Senate to potentially use unanimous consent to speed the nominations to the floor and confirm Pearce and others by voice vote shortly before they head home to campaign.

No word as to whether Mugno is still looking forward to trading his leisurely retired life in Florida for a cold, slushy winter in Washington DC — to be followed by the prospects of all oversight all the time if/when the Dems take back the House (and possibly the Senate) in November.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on September 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Kavanaugh Still Doesn’t Get It

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

Good news!

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh does not think it is unreasonable for workers to expect to come home safely at the end of the day, even if they work in the entertainment industry.

So he claims in his response to a written question from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Unfortunately, “expecting” isn’t doing. And Kavanaugh, in his dissent from the SeaWorld case, in his testimony before Congress, and now in his written responses, seeks to take away the the ability of workers to make that expectation a reality.

Now, I’m not an attorney, but I do get to play one in this blog — and, at least when it comes to occupational safety law — I seem to have a better understanding of occupational safety and health law than a certain person who may take a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court of the United States before the autumn leaves start falling. And that’s disconcerting.

Background

For those just tuning in, in 2010 SeaWorld killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau was dismembered and killed by a killer whale during a live show in front of hundreds of horrified spectators, including small children.

OSHA, which had proven that SeaWorld was aware that the whale that killed Brancheau, had been involved in previous trainer fatalities, and that killer whales in general were hazardous to trainers, cited SeaWorld and ordered them to use physical barriers or minimum distances to separate trainers from whales. SeaWorld appealed, and both the OSHA Review Commission and the federal Appeals Court found in OSHA’s favor.

Kavanaugh dissented from the majority opinion, arguing in his 2014 written opinion that OSHA had paternalistically interfered in a worker’s right to risk his or her life in a hazardous workplace, that OSHA had violated its long-standing precedent not to get involved in sports or entertainment, that the agency had no authority to regulate in the sports or entertainment industries and that Congress — and only Congress — could give OSHA that authority.

And during last week’s Senate confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh doubled down on some of the arguments in his dissent while lying about other parts.

The tort system is not an alternative to OSHA protections

Kavanaugh focuses his responses to the Committee’s questions on two shaky assertions that I addressed in my previous post on his responses to Senator Diane Feinstein’s (D-CA) questions at last week’s confirmation hearing: use of the tort system and asserting that close contact in whale training is just as “intrinsic” to whale shows as tackling is to football or fast driving is to auto races.

Kavanaugh continues to insist that even if OSHA can’t act, workers can still use the tort system and file lawsuits to ensure safe workplaces. In fact, his reliance on tort law as a remedy for worker safety problems has become his preferred method of avoiding answering questions about some of the more outrageous statements he made in his SeaWorld dissent:

QUESTION: You also wrote [in your dissent]: “To be fearless, courageous, tough—to perform a sport or activity at the highest levels of human capacity, even in the face of known physical risk— is among the greatest forms of personal achievement for many who take part in these activities.”

Do you believe that fearless, courageous, and tough people do not expect their employer to “furnish to each of [its] employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to [its] employees.”? If not, please explain.

RESPONSE: State tort law helps ensure that workplaces are reasonably safe. Congress may also regulate workplace safety, as it has done. And federal agencies may also do so within the limits of the statutes and precedents.

When asked how state tort law and our civil justice system help promote workplace safety, Kavanaugh responded:

In general, state tort law and our civil justice system can provide an opportunity for people who are harmed by the actions or negligence of others to recover damages. The tort system thereby helps deter negligent actions and encourages or requires reasonable safety measures. Of course, state tort law is often augmented by state or federal regulation. It was the scope of federal regulation that was at issue in the SeaWorld case.

Well, actually, no.  Kavanaugh has it exactly backwards. Tort law — the ability to file a lawsuit — is not a replacement for the Occupation Safety and Health Act.  One fact that Kavanaugh continues to ignore is that workers cannot sue their employers if they are hurt on the job.

A little history.  Prior to workers compensation, workers could sue employers after they got hurt on the job. Employers obviously had the upper hand with far more resources than individual workers. And their arguments — that workers got hurt because they were careless, or that workers had assumed the risk (and liability) when they took the dangerous work — often prevailed with juries.

On the other hand, employer sometimes lost — and lost big. Juries were unpredictable.

State workers’ compensation systems were created in the early 20th century to establish a “no fault” system where employer-provided insurance would reimburse workers for lost wages while providing first-dollar medical coverage and rehabilitation for work-related injuries. In return, workers gave up the right to sue their employer for any injuries (or — theoretically — illnesses) occurring on the job.

The workers compensation premiums paid by employers were supposed to be connected to the rate of injuries in a company (or in an industry sector) and were therefore supposed to provide a incentive for employers to keep the workplace safe. For a variety of reasons, that incentive was never sufficient to protect employees — a problem that led to passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) in 1970 which requires employers to provide a safe workplace — to prevent workers from getting hurt or killed on the job.

So what the hell is he talking about?

We’ve all heard of workers winning lawsuits that are large enough to change or destroy an industry. The most famous is probably the lawsuits against the asbestos industry following the deaths of hundreds of thousands of workers from asbestos-related disease over the past century.  Another example is diacetyl, a popcorn flavoring that destroyed workers’ lungs. Most use of diacetyl were discontinued after disabled workers or their families won massive lawsuits.

But it’s important to remember that those workers did not sue their employers, because suing your employer is prohibited by comp laws.  They sued a “third party,” the manufacturers of the asbestos or diacetyl — companies like Johns Manville.

You can certainly make the argument that lawsuits against companies that made asbestos or diacetyl ultimately contributed to making the workplace safer for employees who came after those killed or disabled.  But Kavanaugh is trying to make this extremely small tail wag a very large dog.

How is that?

First, legal victories in these lawsuits came long after workers suffered and died horrible and preventable deaths. And tens of thousands continue to die each year from asbestos-related disease, despite the successful lawsuits.

Second, the number of successful lawsuits brought by workers against the manufacturers of hazardous chemicals is tiny compared with the thousands of hazardous chemicals in use today.

Finally,  third party lawsuits are pretty much impossible to use in workplace safety incidents — like SeaWorld. What third party does a worker sue when the employer refuses to provide fall protection equipment, or when an employer forces a worker to go down into a deep, unprotected trench?

Clearly there was no third party for Dawn Brancheau’s survivors to sue after a killer whale dismembered and drowned her. (And third-party lawsuits against God — the whale’s creator — are rarely successful.)

Why doesn’t Brett Kavanaugh — or the staff that actually wrote these answers, or the clerks that work for him  — know all of these things?

No clue. Either they’re uninformed, or they hope the Senators (and the American public) are uninformed. Either way, it’s inexcusable.

Getting eaten by a whale is not the same as racing a car

The second thing Kavanaugh insisted on over and over again in his written responses was the erroneous argument that close contact between trainers and whale was “intrinsic” or essential to whale shows.

When asked to explain how close contact between whale and trainer was intrinsic to the killer whale shows at SeaWorld  — especially when SeaWorld had itself imposed the safety measures that OSHA was requiring — Kavanaugh simply repeated what he argued in his dissent, namely that “[t]he Department [of Labor] cannot reasonably distinguish close contact with whales at SeaWorld from tackling in the NFL or speeding in NASCAR.” 

Well, no. Wrong.

First, as I already explained earlier this week, killer whale shows are not sports.

Whale trainers are not athletes; they’re workers in the entertainment industry. There is no fight between whale and human (or there shouldn’t be). No one is trying to win. No one keeps score. No one is supposed to get hurt. No one is supposed to die.

And second, close contact between whales and trainers is not ‘intrinsic” to whale shows and are not comparable to car racing or football. Obviously you can’t have a car race if cars can’t speed.  Football would arguably not be the same if you couldn’t tackle. But, as SeaWorld continues to prove every day, you can have successful, entertaining killer whale shows even without close contact between whale and trainer.

Finally, just because a hazard may be inherent to a job, doesn’t mean that OSHA can’t require feasible safety measures to prevent workers from getting hurt.  You can’t work on top of a tall building without the danger of working at a dangerous height, but you can protect those workers from falling without killing the construction industry. You can’t process chickens without cutting and hanging, but there are ways to prevent poultry processing workers from getting disabling musculoskeletal disorders while still allowing people to enjoy their wings and nuggets. You can’t have killer whale shows that don’t star a 12,000 pound wild animal with large teeth, but you can protect trainers from the hazard while spectators still enjoy the show. That’s why the OSHAct was passed in 1970.

A Comic Interlude

Now never fear, there is one bright spot to this whole sordid tale. If you think that spending your life incorrectly analyzing the law and taking away workers’ rights must be a dreary job, I learned that you can at least entertain yourself and others by occasionally saying phrases like “ipse dixit”  —  a Latin legal term meaning “an assertion made but not proved.”

Kavanaugh argues in his written comments that despite OSHA’s insistence that it would never ban tackling in football, 

that ipse dixit just brings us back to square one: Why isn’t close contact between trainers and whales as intrinsic to SeaWorld’s aquatic entertainment enterprise as tackling is to football or speeding is to auto racing?

Admit it. It’s not possible to say “ipse dixit” without smiling, just a little.

Conclusion: Kavanaugh is a human time machine

Kavanaugh’s responses to his written questions, ipse dixit, just bring us back to our original question: Why is someone who doesn’t understand occupational safety and health law, and who is hostile to worker safety being considered for the Supreme Court?

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on September 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Court Orders EPA To Implement Chemical Plant Safety Rule

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

In a stinging rebuke to the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal court has called EPA’s delay in implementing the Obama administration’s chemical disaster rule “arbitrary and capricious” and told the agency to implement the rule.

EPA had argued that delaying the rule would reduce industry confusion while it figured out whether it wanted to modify or rescind the rule. The court, noting that the Clean Air Act clearly limits such delays to three months, rejected the EPA’s reasoning. The decision means that EPA can no longer delay enforcement of the rule. So far, only provisions regarding local emergency-response coordination requirements are in effect, while other provisions come into effect in 2021.

We have written frequently here about how issuing standards and regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the environment is a long and difficult process.  Rescinding or even delaying these legal protections is also difficult because an agency is required to justify its actions and provide evidence showing why the previous regulations are no longer needed. And despite all the fanfare that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt received for being the deregulator-in-chief, the corners he cut have come back the haunt the Trump Administration’s efforts to undermine the laws that Congress passed to protect people from preventable workplace and environmental hazards.

According to Mike Wright, Director of Health, Safety and the Environment for the United Steelworkers union, who successfully sued the agency, “The decision clearly shows that EPA – and by implication OSHA and other federal agencies – can’t just delay a rule protecting the American people on a whim, or to do the bidding of some outside group.”

Background

Following a number of chemical plant disasters, including the 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer that killed 15 people and destroyed much of the town of West, Texas, President Obama issued an Executive Order that, in part, ordered EPA to reconsider its Risk Management Program (RMP). In January 2017, EPA issued a revised RMP regulation that enhanced requirements related to emergency response, provision of chemical hazard information, and requirements for facilities to consider inherently safer processes, as well as post-accident investigations, more rigorous safety audits and improved training.

“The decision clearly shows that EPA – and by implication OSHA and other federal agencies – can’t just delay a rule protecting the American people on a whim, or to do the bidding of some outside group.” — Mike Wright, USW Director of Health, Safety and the Environment

Provisions of the 2017 rule related to clarifying regulatory definitions were scheduled to come into effect on March 14, 2017. Other provisions, including most local emergency-response coordination requirements, were supposed to become effective on March 14, 2018. The requirements for emergency response exercises, public information-sharing and post-accident public meetings, third-party audits, more rigorous post-incident analyses, and safer technology requirements are not scheduled to become effective until March 15, 2021.

The Trump administration, under then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, delayed enforcement of the rule three times, the last time by issuing the “Delay Rule,” which delayed enforcement of the rule for 20 months while the agency decided whether to modify or rescind the Obama rule. (The EPA did, in fact, issue a proposal to rescind most provisions of the Obama rule last May. That process is not affected by this decision.) A number of organizations, including the United Steelworkers union, sued EPA, arguing that “The Clean Air Act (CAA) is explicit that reconsideration ‘shall not postpone the effectiveness of the rule,’ beyond a three-month period.” A number of other environmental and community groups joined in challenging the delay, along with a number of states.

A Mockery of the Statute

The court found that EPA’s delay rule “makes a mockery of the statute” because it  violates the paragraph in the Clean Air Act that requires EPA rules to “have an effective date, as determined by the Administrator, assuring compliance as expeditiously as practicable.” The court writes that “The Delay Rule does not have the purpose or effect of “assur[ing] compliance”; it is calculated to enable non-compliance.” And the EPA did not consider the delay’s effect on the requirement to “prevent accidental releases,” to “minimize . . . consequences of any such release,” to “protect human health and the environment,” and “to include procedures and measures for emergency response after an accidental release.”

The court criticizes EPA for basing the delay on a bunch of “alleged ‘security risks’ and other hypotheticals raised by industry” without actually explaining why the implementation delay was necessary.

The court also mocks EPA’s explanation that the delay is intended to avoid confusion among the regulated community and local responders who would have to comply with a rule that might later be changed, when it is actually EPA that’s causing confusion “by the almost two-years’ reconsideration it desires in order to decide what it wants to do.”

EPA is also ignoring the express interest of Congress Congress which expressly stated that it wants compliance with rules “as expeditiously as practicable” and therefore  provided “a strict limit of three months on stays of effective dates pending reconsideration” in order to keep any reconsideration from delaying a final rule.

Arbitrary and Capricious

The court found the EPA’s delay rule to be arbitrary and capricious first, because it didn’t explain why it couldn’t revise (or rescind) the rule while the rule was in effect. Second,the Delay Rule didn’t provide a “reasoned explanation” why the original effective date and compliance dates were unjustified, despite the fact that the EPA in the original Obama rule had gone to great lengths to justify the compliance dates and consider comments from the public. EPA also failed to explain “why the detailed factual findings [in the Obama rule] regarding the harm that would be prevented upon implementation of the Chemical Disaster Rule are now only ‘speculative.’”

The third reason the court found the Delay Rule to be arbitrary and capricious is a favorite of mine. The court found that the EPA’s justification of the delay on “‘the timing’ of a finding by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms . . . that the West Fertilizer explosion was caused by arson’ rather than an accident…is not a reasoned basis for delaying the entire Chemical Disaster Rule.”

As readers of Confined Space are aware, in 2016 — days before the end of the RMP rule comment period — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), found that the fire that led to the catastrophic explosion at West was intentionally set.  (The Bureau used a highly criticized investigative process to make that doubtful finding, but that wasn’t the reason for the Court’s decision.)

The EPA partially based the Delay Rule on arguments made in chemical industry petitions to the EPA stating that they did not have enough time to comment on the BATF finding and if the cause of the fire was actually arson, that might have affected their comments and the final outcome of the rule, especially in the area of emergency response and provision of chemical information to responders and the public.

But the court rejected EPA’s reasoning — particularly as the argument impacted the emergency-response and information-sharing provisions of the Obama regulation:

Even were the court to agree for purposes of argument that the cause of the West, Texas disaster being arson is relevant to some of the accident-prevention provisions of the Chemical Disaster Rule, it is irrelevant to the emergency-response and information-sharing provisions, including those that have indisputably been delayed from the original March 14, 2018 effective date. Given that twelve of the fifteen fatalities in the West, Texas disaster were local volunteer firefighters and other first responders, this would be a fairly weak explanation for delaying provisions that EPA previously determined would help keep first responders safe and informed about emergency-response planning. (emphasis added)

The court also noted that the West disaster was not the only chemical plant incident that EPA cited to justify the original regulation, citing incidents in Hawaii, Colorado, Washington, California, Louisiana and the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas.

Standing

One other feature of the court decision was that it granted “standing” to the United Steelworkers Union, allowing the union to sue the agency on behalf of its members who work in chemical facilities and live in communities surrounding the plants. As Wright explained,

The Court’s decision on the USW’s standing is especially important. The ruling clearly shows that unions have the right to defend their members, not only in the workplace, but in the broader community. And that’s a right the labor movement should always be exercising.

One final note. The decision notes that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh was a member of the judicial panel at the time the case was argued but did not participate in this opinion.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on August 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

US to Workers Killed on Small Farms: We Don’t Care

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018

Some workers’ lives are worth more than others, according to Congress.

If you’re killed in a factory or construction site due to blatantly unsafe conditions allowed by your employer, OSHA will investigate and likely issue citations and fine the employer if violations of OSHA standards are identified.

But if you’re an employee in a small farm (under 11 employees), and clear violations of OSHA standards lead to your untimely death, Congress has told OSHA “hands off!”

Language in OSHA’s appropriations bill since the 1970’s has prohibited OSHA from conducting any enforcement activities on small farms (as long as they don’t also maintain a temporary labor camp). That means OSHA can’t investigate deaths on small farms, much less issue citations or fine an employer. And it doesn’t matter if it’s just one death, or 10 deaths. OSHA Is not allowed to set foot on the premises.

Congress has a similar prohibition against OSHA enforcement of safety violations in certain small businesses. But in this case, there is an exemption to the exemption.  OSHA is allowed to investigate and cite in the event of a worker complaint or a fatality.  But not even a worker complaint or a bunch of dead workers will get OSHA onto a small farm.

Maurice Kellogg had the bad fortune of getting himself killed on a “farm” that employed fewer than 11 employees.  Although OSHA has a grain facilities standard since the late 1980s that has been remarkably successful in preventing deadly grain facility explosions, the agency “dropped its investigation in late June after learning the privately-owned elevator had too few employees to fall within its jurisdiction.”

And just to add insult to injury, the facility is “also exempt from regular inspections by the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office.”

So, no inspection, no investigation, no findings of why the explosion happened, who was at fault or how to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Background

Now I don’t know anything about this specific case that I haven’t read in the newspaper, but I do have extensive experience working with the powerful agriculture lobby which gets incensed that the federal government would ever think of meddling in small farms’ right to kill its employees without the interference of government bureaucrats.

After OSHA mistakenly cited a farm that fell under the agriculture exemption in 2012, the agency re-wrote guidance defining where the agency was and was not allowed to enforce in small agricultural facilities.  It turns out that figuring out exactly what a “farm” is isn’t easy. OSHA determined that a farm is where you grow stuff, but what about other processes that exist on a farm — such as processing of products (like apples into juice in machines that might crush hands or electrocute workers) or storage of agricultural products (like grain in grain silos that might explode).

OSHA determined in a “policy clarification” issued in 2014 that operation such as ” storing, fumigating, and drying crops grown on the farm” were exempt as long as they stored or processed their own grain or other products. But if the facility performs activities

that are not related to farming operations and are not necessary to gain economic value from products produced on the farm, those activities are not exempt from OSHA enforcement. For example, if an exempt small farm maintains a grain handling operation storing and selling grain grown on other farms, the grain handling operation would not be exempt from OSHA enforcement under the appropriations rider.

So, we are forced to assume in this case, that Andersen Farms, Inc. was only storing its own grain in the elevator that exploded, killing Maurice Kellogg.  But we will never learn why the facility exploded, what safe work practices were violated, or how future incidents could be prevented.

Because, according to Congress and the agriculture lobby, the official policy of the United States is “We don’t care.”

What Is To Be Done?

Fighting the powerful agriculture lobby (especially if you’re allegedly affecting “small family farms”) is a fools errand. It’s the so-called “third rail” of regulation.

We did make attempts during the Obama administration to soften the exemption — to at least allow OSHA to investigate a fatality, without actually issuing citations. At least in that case, valuable lessons might be learned.

But no dice.  Not even workers’ lives can get in the way of free enterprise on small farm.

This article was originally published at Confined Space on July 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and I spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Groups Petition OSHA to Issue Heat Standard

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Peggy Frank, a 63-year-old California postal worker — and also a mother and grandmother — died last week while working her usual route in unusually hot weather. Frank’s heat-related death was not a freak occurrence, nor was it unusual.

“An average of more than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat each day,” according to according to a report released yesterday by Public Citizen, in support of a petition by more than 130 organizations for an OSHA heat standard.  High heat — and especially working in high heat — can cause serious heat-related illnesses and death. It can also worsen other conditions such as heart disease and asthma.

The report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics which concludes that “exposure to excessive environmental heat stress killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016,” and these numbers are probably significantly underestimated because many heat-related deaths are registered as heart attacks. Construction workers and farm workers are the occupations most at risk.

Although it seems hard to believe, almost 50 years after OSHA was created, the agency still has no occupational heat standard. High heat has been plaguing workers for a long, long time — pretty much since God said “Let there be light.” We’ve known about the hazards of heat stroke and how to prevent them for a long time as well.

And, of course, the problem has gotten much worse since the beginning of time. The groups petitioning OSHA — which include Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and several other labor unions —  tied the need for an OSHA heat standard to global warming which is significantly increasing the risk to workers. The petition noted that

Global warming is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat, and record-breaking summers are now becoming the norm. 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016. Indeed, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001…. Record-setting years will be common in the coming decades, as temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5°F (1.4°C) for the period 2021–2050 relative to 1976–2005 even if we aggressively reduce greenhouse gas pollution worldwide.

Groups Petition OSHA For A Heat Standard

Yesterday, more than 130 organizations announced a petition to OSHA for a heat standard that would protect workers from the hazards of high heat.  Joining the press conference were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels as well as former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess. The press conference, which included the passionate statement of a man whose brother died of heat exposure, can be heard here.

Federal OSHA, which concluded that extreme heat was a factor in the deaths of at least six workers in 2017, has been concerned about the problem for many years. The agency launched a national heat education campaign in 2012, following successful efforts to prevent heat-related deaths among workers cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.  OSHA borrowed CalOSHA’s  their “Water, Rest, Shade” campaign and developed a cell-phone heat app, that would analyze the hazards of heat for workers in their geographical area, and recommend measures to protect themselves. (Available from the Apple Store or from Google Play.)  OSHA also increased enforcement under its General Duty Clause, which the agency uses when there is no standard. But, according to former OSHA head David Michaels, the Obama administration declined to launch rulemaking for a heat standard due to lack of time and resources while working on the silica, beryllium and other OSHA standards issued during the last administration.

Three OSHA state-plan states — CaliforniaWashington, and Minnesota (indoor) — have heat standards, leaving 130 million workers in the rest of the country who lack the protections of a national OSHA heat standard. The military also has strict heat standards and in 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)  issued the third version of its criteria for a recommended heat standard “which includes the following elements: heat stress threshold, rest breaks, hydration, shade, heat acclimatization plan, PPE, exposure monitoring, hazard notification, worker training, medical monitoring, injury surveillance, and recordkeeping.”

The report and petition argue that federal OSHA’s current efforts and voluntary activities are not enough. The report points out that an OSHA analysis of heat-related fatality cases show that “17 of 23 fatalities (74 percent) involved workers who were in their first three days on the job, and eight (35 percent) victims were on the very first day of work,” because employer did not follow industry recommendations to allow workers to acclimatize, or get used to the heat for a few days before heavy work.

Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), who spoke at the press conference,  promised to introduce legislation that would require OSHA to issue a heat standard.

The petition outlined a number of elements of an OSHA heat standard, which would reqiure employers to:

  1. Provide mandatory rest breaks with increased frequency in times of extreme heat and significant exertion.
  2. Provide access to shaded and otherwise cool conditions for employees to rest during breaks.
  3. Provide personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments.
  4. Make provisions for adequate hydration.
  5. Implement heat acclimatization plans to help new workers safely adjust to hot conditions.
  6. Regularly monitor both the environmental heat load and employees’ metabolic heat loads during hot conditions.
  7. Medically monitor at-risk employees.
  8. Notify employees of heat stress hazards.
  9. Institute a heat-alert plan outlining procedures to follow when heat waves are forecast.
  10. Train workers on heat stress risks and preventive measures.
  11. Maintain and report records relating to this standard.
  12. Institute whistleblower protection programs to ensure that employees who witness violations of the heat stress safety standard are free to speak up.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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