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Posts Tagged ‘job safety’

OSHA Fines Honeywell, Citing 17 ‘Serious Violations’ at Uranium Facility

Friday, July 1st, 2011

mike elkFederal action comes almost exactly one year after USW members were locked-out of Illinois plant by international company

When union workers were locked out over a year ago at the Honeywell uranium facility in Metropolis, Ill., they warned that the unskilled scabs being brought into the plant would cause accidents at the uranium enrichment facility due to their lack of experience. Despite these warnings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the workers as being qualified to operate the plant, and it has continued to operate.

Since then, a very loud explosion has been caused at the plant last August, a small amount of lethally toxic UF6 was released last September, and a very large release of the toxic HF gas occurred in late December that set off alarms and troubled local community members. Locked-out union workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 7-699, claimed that the scab replacement workers running the plant were unqualified and should not be allowed to run it.

They cited an NRC report from last November, which showed that Honeywell cheated on initial safety qualification reports for its workers. The NRC claimed that after the cheating on the tests was discovered all workers were retested and passed after being retested.

USW Local 7-669 members put up mock tombstones around the Honeywell uranium enrichment facility in Illinois to demonstrate the damage done by the lockout.

USW Local 7-669 members put up mock tombstones around the Honeywell uranium enrichment facility in Illinois to demonstrate the damage done by the lockout.

But a new citation against Honeywell from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) bolsters their claim that the Honeywell uranium facility is being run unsafely. Last Wednesday, OSHA cited Honeywell with 17 separate “serious violations” that could have resulted in death or serious harm and fined Honeywell $119,000 for the accidental release of HF gas in December.

The federal agency defines a “serious violation” as occurring “when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.” According to OSHA the 17 serious violations they were cited for included:

Violations include allowing cylinders to be exposed to physical damage; having inaccurate field verifications on tanks and values; using equipment that was not in compliance with recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices; failing to have clear written operating instructions for processes such as unloading hydrogen fluoride into storage tanks and switching storage tanks; failing to address human factors in relation to remote operating valves on the hydrogen fluoride storage tanks; failing to document and resolve issues addressed by the process hazard analysis team; failing to establish written procedures to maintain the integrity of process equipment; failing to implement written emergency operating procedures for emptying hydrogen fluoride tanks; failing to perform appropriate checks and inspections to ensure equipment was properly installed; and failing to establish and implement written procedures to manage changes to process chemicals, equipment and procedures.

The company also was cited for a deficient incident report that did not include factors contributing to the vapor release and the recommendation resulting from the internal investigation.

The violations that OSHA cited Honeywell for at the uranium plant has troubled many in the local community, who worry that a release of toxic gas could kill nearby residents. Speaking at a rally marking the one-year anniversary of workers being locked-out from the Honeywell uranium facility, Metropolis, Ill., Mayor Billy McDaniel, said he was so worried about the safety conditions that “There are times when I have trouble sleeping at night.”

The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request a meeting with OSHA, or contest the citation in front of an independent OSHA Review Commission. Honeywell Spokesman Peter Dapel did not return phone calls requesting comment from the company.

Union workers say the new safety violations cited by OSHA are even more evidence that Honeywell needs to settle the lockout. “The OSHA violations further validate what we’ve said all along. The members of this local union are the guardians of safety in the plant, and left to themselves, Honeywell will not ensure a true culture of safety first,” says union spokesman John Paul Smith.

This blog originally appeared in These Working Times on June 28, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times as well as Alternet, The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.

After 8 Years of Bush Neglect, Job Safety Gets New Boost from Obama, Solis

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Image: Mike HallA little more than a year after taking office, the Obama administration and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have taken significant steps to repair the damage to workplace safety and health left behind after eight years of the Bush administration.

With Workers Memorial Day (April 28) approaching, this is a good time to look at the progress made since the “the new sheriff” hit town. (Click here for fact sheets, fliers, posters, stickers and other Workers Memorial Day materials.)

As Esther Kaplan writes in the Nation:

During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse.

For eight years under the Bush Administration, corporate officials and management representatives headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Bush’s first MSHA head, David Lauriski, was chief safety officer at Emery Mining’s Wilberg, Utah, mine in 1984 when an explosion killed 27 coal miners. The blast,  says Kaplan, “was later attributed to numerous violations at the mine.”

The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record…Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under [the] Clinton [administration], advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with industry.

Today, MSHA is headed up by Joe Main who began work in the mines when he was 19, became a local union safety committeeman, a safety inspector in the Mine Workers (UMWA) Safety and Health Department and eventually is director.

At OSHA, Bush’s last administrator, Edwin Foulke, was former partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis. He so strongly opposed workplace safety and health laws The New York Times labeled him “an antiregulatory ideologue.”

Contrast Foulke with David Michaels, Obama’s choice as OSHA administrator. Michaels is an occupational safety and health expert, co-founder of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and epidemiologist at George Washington University.

Under Bush, OSHA and MSHA emphasized voluntary compliance programs over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health regulations. When they issued penalties, the employers often negotiated down the fines, which were negligible to begin with.

Now, both OSHA and MSHA have stepped up enforcement, assessing large penalties against employers with serious, repeated and willful violations. In October, OSHA levied the largest fine in its history-$87 million against BP Products for failing to correct the safety problems that caused a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people at a Texas City oil refinery.

OSHA also is strengthening its enforcement program to focus more on repeated violators and to develop corporate-wide approaches to enforcement.  It’s launched a national investigation in the under reporting of injuries and employer practices that discourage workers from reporting job injuries.

During the eight-year run of the Bush administration, not only did OSHA and MSHA put the brakes on new safety and health rules laws in the pipeline when they took office, neither agency issued any new standard unless forced by the courts or Congress. OSHA is now moving forward with rules on silica, cranes and derricks, hazard communication, combustible dust and other workplace hazards.

The Bush administration presided over the repeal of the nation’s first ergonomics standard and made it so that OSHA’s hands tied to set a new ergonomics rule. But the agency now has proposed changes in the injury recordkeeping rule to reinstate a requirement, repealed by the Bush administration, for employers to identify musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the workplace injury log.

At MSHA, new rules to limit exposure to coal dust and silica and to address increases in lung disease among miners are top priorities. Main also told Kaplan that MSHA will identify the top risk factors  that lead to mining deaths and injuries and help educate mining companies on how to eliminate them, but not as a substitute for enforcement.

We’ll provide assistance to the mine operators who do need it, .but never as a replacement to the enforcement tools. There was some confusion about that in recent years. I’m not confused about that.

Both safety agencies suffered drastic cuts in budget and personnel (especially in inspection and personnel) under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has restored those cuts and its FY 2011 budget includes some modest increases.

Employers’ rights appeared paramount in the Bush OSHA and MSHA. Today both agencies have established programs focusing on workers’ rights, including whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections and better worker access to fatality and injury.

The Obama administration also is backing congressional efforts to improve workplace safety and health laws, including the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which toughens penalties, expands OSHA coverage to public-sector workers, strengthens anti-discrimination protections and expands workers’ rights.

It’s likely the same corporate and Republican forces that blocked improvements in workplace safety and health will fight this legislation and each and every new safety initiative.

So this Workers Memorial Day, along with honoring workers killed and injured on the job and demanding good, safe jobs with decent wages, health and retirement security and a voice on the job, workers will continue the fight for strong new safety and health protections.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on March 18, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

Your Boss Swears Your Job is Perfectly Safe

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

We’re accustomed to reading statistics from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration about workplace injuries. Every year, for instance, there are 4 million work-related injuries.

But ever wonder where OSHA gets those numbers?

According to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Labor and OSHA may not be doing enough to make sure these numbers reflect reality. For one thing, inspectors don’t always talk to the workers they’re supposed to be protecting.

OSHA gets its information about workplace accidents and injuries from employers. Employers have incentives to downplay injuries on their job sites. A high injury rate makes a company look bad. Reporting too many injuries could open the door to a lawsuit or an investigation. (See below for a new video from Brave New Foundation on the fatal effects of lax enforcement of OSHA regulations.)

Most people are honest, but realistically, there will always be a certain number of bad actors who game the system and slackers who only make a half-assed effort. The bias is toward underreporting: cheaters could be artificially driving down injury statistics or the whole country.

To help keep employers honest, OSHA audits about 250 of the 130,000 high-hazard worksites that it monitors. The auditors check to make sure that the auditee’s reports to the government square with the companies’ internal records. But those audits won’t catch employers who don’t record injuries in the first place. Maybe workers aren’t telling their bosses about incidents because they’re afraid of being penalized. Or maybe they are telling management and management isn’t writing it down.

GAO found that OSHA doesn’t routinely interview workers. This is partly because there is a two-year lag between the audit period and the time the inspectors show up. By that point, workers may not remember, or they may no longer be working at the same job.

The report recommends that OSHA routinely interview workers about safety and minimize the lag between the time an incident is reported and the time OSHA inspectors show up.

The recommendations section doesn’t specifically address what OSHA should do to make random audits more effective. All the advice is geared toward investigating incidents that have been reported. You’d think that they’d be at least as worried about employers that haven’t reported injuries.

And here’s “16 Deaths Per Day,” the new five-minute video from Brave New Foundation about the weak laws protecting U.S. workers from on-the-job injuries—and death:

*This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on November 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

**For more information on workplace health and safety issues visit our Workplace Fairness resource page.

About the Author: Lindsay Beyerstein, a former InTheseTimes.com political reporter, is a freelance investigative journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Slate.com, AlterNet.org, The New York Press, The Washington Independent, RH Reality Check and other news outlets. Beyerstein writes a daily foreign affairs bulletin for the UN Foundation’s UN Dispatch website and covers healthcare for the Media Consortium. She is the winner of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Majikthise.

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