Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘OSHA’

Trump’s Immigration Gag Order

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Like many employment lawyers in California, I’ve represented a number of undocumented immigrant workers in lawsuits against their employers. Some of my undocumented clients had been sexually harassed, some discriminated against because of their ethnicity, and some had been denied minimum wages for performing menial work.

Of course, these clients and millions of others are working here in violation of our immigration laws. But once they enter the workplace, they are entitled to all of the legal protections guaranteed their American coworkers. The 14th Amendment protects everyone in the United States, regardless of how or why they are here. So any law whose purpose or effect is to deny workers access to the full protection of our employment laws violates the Constitution.

Although I worry about the slow pace of our journey toward workplace equality, I have more immediate concerns these days. The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration executive order are creating barriers to the justice system for entire communities. If you believe there is a reasonable chance that you or a family member will be deported if you file a civil complaint, or even if you call the police to report a crime, you will be less inclined to complain.

Silencing Crime Victims

Look at what is happening in the criminal justice arena. We are barely 100 days into the Trump administration and already we are measuring its detrimental impact on crime reporting. According to the Los Angeles Police, Latino immigrants in L.A. have suddenly become less willing to report serious crimes. Chief Beck reported that complaints by immigrant Latinos dropped 25 percent in 2017 when compared to the same period last year. Reports of domestic violence fell 10 percent. Beck asked us to “imagine a young woman, imagine your daughter, your sister, your mother,” he said, “not reporting a sexual assault, because they are afraid that their family will be torn apart.” While undocumented families have always lived with the fear of deportation, the current political climate is amplifying those fears.

Reports are coming in from around the country showing a strong correlation between the Trump administration’s immigration policies and a drop in crime reporting in immigrant communities. We know reports of rape and domestic violence against women are chronically underreported for many reasons, including the very real fear that the criminal justice system will fail the victim. Now, under the Trump administration, the very act of reporting any crime to law enforcement has become unbearably more dangerous for millions of immigrant families in America.

Just last month California’s Chief Justice said, “When we hear of immigration arrests and the fear of immigration arrests in our state courthouses, I am concerned that that kind of information trickles down into the community, the schools, the churches. The families and people will no longer come to court to protect themselves or cooperate or bear witness,” she said. “I am afraid that will be the end of justice and communities will be less safe and victimization will continue.” As an employment attorney in California, I share these concerns.

Immigration policies that discourage individuals from reporting crime is bad for America. They cannot be justified on the grounds they are part of broader campaign to find and deport “bad hombres.” More crime victims, including legal residents and American citizens, will remain silent and unprotected, and more perpetrators of crime will go unpunished, because of these policies. Whether Trump’s promised border wall is ever built, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and ICE directives have already constructed formidable barriers within America.

Silencing Employees

When those same immigration policies discourage individuals from reporting violations of employment laws, our workplaces become more dangerous too. Imagine the conversations immigrant families across America will be having about their workplace rights in the coming years. Workers will be forced to decide whether the risks of deportation of themselves or a family member makes it worth challenging wage theft, discrimination, harassment or workplace safety violations. If an undocumented worker complains about the absence of a safety guard on a factory machine or the lack of personal safety devices by filing an OSHA claim or civil lawsuit, she might be arrested and torn away from her American-born children. So, she doesn’t complain, and the workplace protections we have fought for are placed in jeopardy for all.

In the past I have assured undocumented workers that prosecuting employment claims in court likely will not subject them to heightened ICE scrutiny. I continue to believe this to be true today. Although lawsuits are open to the public, they are in practice private affairs that concern only the litigants. Employees are almost never required to step foot near the actual courthouse where their cases are pending. Most cases settle out of court and are subject to confidentiality. The immigration status of the employee is deemed by law to be entirely irrelevant and non-discoverable in almost every employment case.

Trump’s deportation directives will not change the way employment lawsuits are resolved, whether they involve citizens, legal residents or undocumented immigrants. But his threats of deportation, coupled with stories of immigrant arrests in halls of justice across America, will make it far less likely that an undocumented immigrant will complain to anyone about working conditions.

Fewer immigrant workers will file employment-related claims during the Trump years, and not just those who are undocumented. In sanctuary cities like San Francisco where I practice law, the impact is not likely to be as great as elsewhere. In communities that support the Trump immigration agenda and accept his immigrant narrative, however, the fear of deportation is likely to keep a lot more workers quiet. And we know from long experience that any governmental policy designed to silence complaints about working conditions is not in our national interest.

About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is a labor rights attorney with offices in San Francisco and Alameda, California. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a 1992 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

The Price for Killing Workers Must be Prison for CEOs

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empaneled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 27, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

This week in the war on workers: Trump's top attacks on workers ... so far

Monday, April 24th, 2017

 

The Economic Policy Institute’s Perkins Project “tracks actions by the administration, Congress, and the courts that affect people’s wages and their rights at work,” and as we get to the end of Donald Trump’s first 100 days, they’ve provided a list of the top 10 things he and congressional Republicans have done to working people. Here’s a sample:

 

  1. Protecting Wall Street profits that siphon billions of dollars from retirement savers. At President Trump’s behest, the Department of Labor has delayed a rule requiring that financial professionals recommend retirement investment products that serve their clients’ best interests. The “fiduciary rule” aims to stop the losses savers incur when steered into products that earn advisers commissions and fees. The rule was supposed to go into effect April 10. For every seven days that the rule is delayed, retirement savers lose $431 million over the next 30 years. The 60-day delay will cost workers saving for retirement $3.7 billion over 30 years.
  2. Letting employers hide fatal injuries that happen on their watch. The Senate approved a resolution making it harder to hold employers accountable when they subject workers to dangerous conditions. The March 22 resolution blocks a rule requiring that employers keep accurate logs of workplace injuries and illnesses for five years. This time frame captures not just individual injuries but track records of unsafe conditions. President Trump said he would sign the resolution. If he does, employers can fail to maintain—or falsify—their injury and illness logs, making them less likely to suffer the consequences when workers are injured or killed. Blocking this rule also means that employers, OSHA, and workers cannot use what they learn from past mistakes to prevent future tragedies. If the rule is overturned, more workers will be injured, and responsible employers will be penalized.
  3. Allowing potentially billions of taxpayer dollars to go to private contractors who violate health and safety protections or fail to pay workers. The federal government pays contractors hundreds of billions of dollars every year to do everything from manufacturing military aircraft to serving food in our national parks. The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule required that companies vying for these lucrative contracts disclose previous workplace violations, and that those violations be considered when awarding federal contracts. The rule was needed, as major federal contractors were found to be regularly engaging in illegal practices that harm workers financially and endanger their health and safety. On March 27, President Trump killed this rule by signing a congressional resolution blocking it. This will hurt workers and contractors who play by the rules, while benefitting only those contractors with records of cutting corners.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on April 22, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Did You Vote For Unfair Pay and Unsafe Workplaces?

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

Who could be against fair pay and safe workplaces? Give you one guess.

President Trump just signed a bill, passed by the Republicans in the House and Senate, that repealed President Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order.

“Fair pay and safe workplaces” says it all. The rule stated that our government should contract with companies that have “a satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics.”

It required companies to report if the had violations of workplace laws covering wage theft, discrimination and safety, when applying for new government contracts of $500,000 to $1 million. The federal procurement officers would take that into consideration, and work with the companies to remedy the problems.

That is what President Trump and the Republicans repealed. This Trump/Republican government does not care if companies that have “a satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics.” In fact, repealing this rule signals to companies that it is OK to “save money” by stealing pay from employees, violating their civil rights and threatening their safety.

This rule was a big deal, because companies that get federal contracts employ one in five American workers.

This is the Republicans, not just Trump. This is who they are.

But, of course, the “working class” voters who helped elect Trump and the Republicans all voted for this, right? They all clearly understood that electing Republicans meant that their pay and civil rights and job-safety were going to be rolled back so that the giant corporations could pass ever-higher profits to their “investors.” Right?

Of course they did. And they understood that the things our government does to make our lives better would be rolled back so that investor class could get huge tax cuts. Right? Of course they did.

But wait, there’s more.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) “recordkeeping rule” is also under the gun. This rule requires employers with more than 10 workers to keep records of safety incidents for five years. The Republicans in the Senate voted last week to gut that rule, too.

UAW President Dennis Williams called it “a slap to the face of American workers” and urged Trump to veto it. Williams said if employers can legally dispose of incident records after six months, “it will be extremely difficult to identify and fix hazards and incident patterns that cause illnesses, severe injuries, or even deaths on the job.”

“It will now cross the desk of President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.”

But this is only right, because this is clearly what the country voted for. Right?

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on March 28, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

What Slashing the Labor Department Budget by 21 Percent Would Mean

Friday, March 17th, 2017

The Trump administration’s “budget blueprint” would devastate worker safety, job training programs and legal services essential to low-income workers. Its cuts include a 21 percent, or $2.5 billion, reduction in the Department of Labor’s budget.

The budget would reduce funding for or eliminate programs that provide job training to low-income workers, unemployed seniors, disadvantaged youth and for state-based job training grants. It eliminates the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) training grants as well as the independent Chemical Safety Board. Also targeted for elimination is the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal assistance to low-income Americans.

“Cutting these programs is cutting the safety net for the most vulnerable workers, those striving for the middle class,” said Matt Shudtz, executive director at the Center for Progressive Reform. “This budget would eliminate training programs for them, the kind of things people need to move up in the world. It is very anti-worker and anti- the most vulnerable workers.”

Judy Conti, National Employment Law Project (NELP) federal advocacy coordinator, didn’t mince words.

“This budget will mean more illness, injury and death on the job,” she said Thursday, the day the proposed budget was released.

Targeting programs that prevent injury and illness

The White House budget proposal justifies its enormous cuts to the Department of Labor by saying it focuses on the agency’s “highest priority functions and disinvests in activities that are duplicative, unnecessary, unproven or ineffective.”

The budget would close Job Corps centers that serve “disadvantaged youth,” eliminate the Senior Community Service Employment Program, decrease federal funding for state and local job training grants—shifting more financial responsibility to employers and state and local governments. The budget would also eliminate certain grants to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, which helps people with disabilities stay in the job market.

Also slated for elimination are OSHA’s Susan Harwood training grants that have provided more than 2.1 million workers, especially underserved and low-literacy workers in high-hazard industries, with health and safety training since 1978. These trainings are designed to multiply their effects by “training trainers” so that both workers and employers learn how to prevent and respond to workplace hazards. They’ve trained healthcare workers on pandemic hazards, helped construction workers avoid devastating accidents, and workers in food processing and landscaping prevent ergonomic injuries. The program also helps workers for whom English is not their first language obtain essential safety training.

“The cuts to OSHA training grants will hurt workers and small employers,” said David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “Training is a proven, and in fact necessary method to prevent worker injuries and illnesses. OSHA’s training grants are very cost effective, reaching large numbers of workers and small employers who would otherwise not be trained in injury and illness prevention.”

“Everyone, labor and management, believes that a workforce educated in safety and health is essential to saving lives and preventing occupational disease. That is the purpose of the Harwood grants,” said Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment at United Steelworkers.

The White House says eliminating these grants will save $11 million, a miniscule fraction of the $639 billion the Trump administration is requesting for the Department of Defense.

“No words to describe how cruel it is”

Eliminating the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) would mean no independent federal agency dedicated to investing devastating industrial accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the West Fertilizer plant explosion, Freedom Industries chemical release in Charleston, West Virginia, and the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California. Those are among the hundreds of cases CSB has investigated over the past 20 years or so.

“Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi. The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget. The American public are safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB,” said CSB chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland in a statement.

“The cost of even one such accident would be more than the CSB’s budget over its entire history. And that calculation is only economic. The human cost of a catastrophic accident would be enormous,” said Wright. “The CSB’s work has saved the lives of workers in chemical plants and oil refineries, residents who could be caught in a toxic cloud, even students in high school chemistry labs.”

The budget proposal also jeopardizes essential legal support for low-wage workers. While not dedicated to employment issues, the Legal Services Corporation provides vital services to low-wage workers, including on issues related to workers’ compensation and other job benefits.

“Gutting the Legal Services Corporation,” said NELP’s Conti, “there are no words to describe how cruel it is, especially considering grossly underfunded the agency is.”

“The government should be investing in workers, their families, and communities, but instead this budget drastically cuts the programs meant to uplift them,” said Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen.

The White House calls the budget proposal a “Budget Blueprint to make American Great Again.” On a call with reporters, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, “this is the ‘America First’ budget” and said it was written “using the president’s own words” to turn “those policies into numbers.”

“This is not so much a budget as an ideological statement,” said David Golston, government affairs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Trump Labor Department has a message to employers: Workplace safety? Not a priority.

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Donald Trump’s Labor Department is sending employers a message that it’s open season on worker safety—by cutting off public messages about enforcement of worker safety rules. What Fair Warning noticed 10 days ago is still going on today:

In a sharp break with the past, the department has stopped publicizing fines against companies. As of Monday, seven weeks after the inauguration of President Trump, the department had yet to post a single news release about an enforcement fine. […]

“The reason you do news releases is to influence other employers” to clean up their acts, said David Michaels, who was an administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency within the Labor Department that oversees workplace safety, during much of the Obama administration.

If there aren’t news releases, people are much less likely to hear which local companies are endangering their workers, which means that much less pressure on the companies to keep workers safe. That’s not the only red flag about the direction Trump and his people will take the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Industry groups are pushing back against an Obama-era regulation meant to exert pressure on companies to better comply with record-keeping rules. A provision of that rule, which was supposed to take effect last month, would require companies to electronically submit accident data to OSHA so the agency could post the information on a public website. As recently as early January, OSHA said on its website that it expected the site to be live in February.

But in recent weeks, the agency changed the wording so that it now states, “OSHA is not accepting electronic submissions at this time.”

“That was not an accident,” said Mr. Conn, the lawyer. “That was a big signal to employers that even if they report the data, it will not be published online.”

Republicans are also rolling back increased workplace safety fines; delaying a new rule limiting exposure to beryllium, which can cause a chronic lung disease; and in other ways weakening OSHA’s enforcement powers. But hey, the public is less likely to know about the deaths that result, so politicians are less likely to get pressure from people who care about dead workers, while industry lobby groups will stay just as active pushing for less and less enforcement. So Republicans have got it all worked out.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on March 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Labor Department goes silent on workplace safety enforcement under Trump

Monday, March 6th, 2017

In November, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced fines against businesses with workers who were killed when they were pulled into a wood chipper, burned in a refinery fire and crushed in collapsing grain bins and construction trenches. In all, OSHA issued 33 enforcement news releases that month, and over 50 more from Dec. 1 until just before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.

But since then, OSHA hasn’t issued a single news release about penalties or other enforcement actions by federal authorities. The same goes for a second Department of Labor division, Wage and Hour, which in previous weeks had announced the recovery of back wages for peanut processors in Georgia, hotel staffers in New York City, commercial painters in Texas and cafeteria workers at the U.S. Senate building.

This doesn’t mean that enforcement has stopped, but publicizing when bad bosses get fined is a way the Labor Department has gotten the word out—and potentially scared other employers away from similar abuses:

As a result, according to Barab’s ex-boss and former OSHA chief David Michaels, “Failure to publicize OSHA’s activities means many employers will not think to abate their hazards and more workers will be hurt.”

Maybe once Donald Trump gets a labor secretary in place and fills other key roles, the Labor Department will again tell the world about the fines companies face for endangering their workers. But we sure can’t take it for granted.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on March 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

New Congress on Track to Block Long-Sought Workplace and Public Health Protections

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

An estimated 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-caused diseases each year, a figure that’s considered conservative. Asbestos is no longer mined in the United States but it still exists in products here, perpetuating exposure, especially for workers in construction and other heavy industries. In June 2016, after years of debate, the country’s major chemical regulation law was updated for the first time in 40 years, removing a major obstacle to banning asbestos.

Exposure to beryllium, a metal used in aerospace, defense, and communications industry manufacturing, to which about 62,000 U.S. workers are exposed annually, can cause a severe, chronic lung disease. On January 6, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued a rule—more than 15 years in the making—that dramatically lowers allowable workplace exposure to beryllium. OSHA says this will prevent 94 premature deaths and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related disease per year.

On April 17, 2013, an explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured hundreds. In late December—after a four-year process involving public, business, governments and non-profit input—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rule designed to prevent such accidents, improve community response to and preparedness for such disasters.

Those three examples are among the occupational and public health protective policies finalized by the Obama administration now jeopardized by antiregulatory legislation already passed by the 115th Congress. It remains to be seen if this legislation will become law and actually used. But, says University of Texas School of Law professor Thomas McGarity, the likely outcome is “that this will make people sick and unsafe.”

“Landscape is grim as it is”

In addition to having the ability to pass antiregulatory legislation, Congress has at its disposal the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Passed in 1996 by the Newt Gingrich-led House, it allows Congress to overturn a regulation passed during the last 60 legislative working days of an outgoing administration. What’s more, it prevents the creation of a substantially similar regulation. It’s only been used once, in 2001, to overturn the ergonomics regulation passed by OSHA under President Bill Clinton.

Add to this the Midnight Rules Relief Act, passed by the House on January 4. It amends the CRA, allowing Congress to overturn multiple regulations promulgated during the previous administration’s last six months, rather than individually as the CRA requires. “This allows the House to pick and choose rules that industry doesn’t like and do it all at once,” McGarity explains.

Also already passed by the House is the Regulatory Accountability Act. It includes a provision that could threaten the change made to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) eliminating the provision that prevented the EPA from banning asbestos. As Natural Resources Defense Council director of government affairs, David Goldston explains, “This bill has a provision that says notwithstanding any other provision of law, costs and benefits have to be considered when writing a rule.” Goldston calls this phrase “dangerous,” as it means putting economic costs to industry ahead of costs to human health as TSCA previously required—a requirement the revised bill eliminated.

And, as if these laws weren’t enough to threaten existing regulations, there’s the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act), also already passed by the House. This law essentially says that an agency rule can’t go into effect unless Congress approves it. Or, as University of Maryland Carey School of Law professor Rena Steinzor explained in the American Prospect, “In a drastic power grab, the House has approved a measure that would strip executive agencies of the authority to issue significant new regulations.”

“If the REINS Act becomes law, then Congressional inaction will supersede previous Congressional action on fundamental bedrock popular health, safety and environmental protection laws,” says Public Citizen regulatory policy advocate Amit Narang.

He also points out that if the administration of Donald Trump declines to defend regulations now under legal challenge, they could also be undone. Among the rules now being challenged is OSHA’s long sought updated restriction on occupational silica exposure.

“The landscape is grim as it is,” says Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at the non-profit citizens’ rights advocacy group Public Citizen, referring to OSHA’s limited resources. “There are nearly 5,000 workers dying on the job every year and OSHA’s not able to respond to threats as they’re happening.” Now, she says, “I’m looking at a Congress that would nearly paralyze rulemaking.”

“Designed to smash the system not reform it”

These laws effectively knock the foundation out from under how agencies like OSHA, the Department of Labor and EPA go about creating the network of regulations needed to implement the intent of laws that protect workplace and public health.

“This is designed to smash the system not reform it,” says Goldston of this antiregulatory legislation.

Not surprisingly, the historically pro-big business U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports antiregulatory legislation, as does the American Chemistry Council and National Association of Manufacturers. On the other hand, it’s opposed by American Sustainable Business Council, which represents more than 250,000 business owners and says the regulations these laws aim to undo are needed to support healthy, thriving workplaces and the economy.

Apart from the CRA, all of this legislation still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the president to become law. But with a Republicans in the majority and Trump in the White House, vetoes seem highly unlikely.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on January 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Five Groups of Americans Who’ll Get Shafted Under Trump’s Hiring Freeze

Monday, January 30th, 2017

RichardEskowDonald Trump, in what’s been hyped as an “unprecedented” move, has instituted a freeze on the hiring of federal employees. Hyperbole aside (it’s hardly unprecedented, since Ronald Reagan did the same thing on his first day in office), one thing is already clear: this will hurt a lot of people.

Trump’s order exempts military personnel, along with any position that a department or agency head “deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.” That offers a fair degree of latitude when it comes to filling positions in certain areas.

But Trump’s appointees aren’t likely to ask for “national security or public safety” exemptions for the many government jobs that help people in ways Republicans despise. So who stands to lose the most under this hiring freeze?

1. Social Security Recipients

Trump and his advisors seem to have had Social Security in mind when they included this language:

“This hiring freeze applies to all executive departments and agencies regardless of the sources of their operational and programmatic funding …” (Emphasis mine.)

While there may be other reasons for this verbiage, it effectively targets Social Security, which is entirely self-funded through the contributions of working Americans and their employers.

Social Security is forbidden by law from contributing to the deficit. It has very low administrative overhead and is remarkably cost-efficient when compared to pension programs in the private sector.

That hasn’t prevented Republicans in Congress from taking a meat cleaver to Social Security’s administrative budget. That has led to increased delays in processing disability applications, longer travel times for recipients as more offices are closed, and longer wait times on the phone and in person.

Social Security pays benefits to retired Americans, disabled Americans, veterans, and children – all of whom will be hurt by these cuts.

2. Working People

The Department of Labor, especially the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), ensures that working Americans are safe on the job. It’s a huge task: Nearly 2.9 million Americans were injured on the job in 2015, according to OSHA data, and another 145,000 experienced a work-related illness. 4,836 people died from work-related injuries in 2016. (These numbers count only reported injuries, illnesses, and deaths; not all are reported.)

OSHA’s employees study injury and illness patterns, communicate safety practices and rules, and inspect workplaces to make sure that the rules are being followed. This hiring freeze will lead to fewer such studies, communications, and inspections. That means working Americans will pay a price — in injury, illness, and death.

3. Veterans

Some 500,000 veterans have waited more than a month to receive medical care from the Veterans Administration. Nevertheless, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer confirmed that Trump’s hiring freeze will affect thousands of open positions at the VA, including positions for doctors and nurses. The nation’s veterans will pay for this freeze, in prolonged illness, injury, and pain – or worse.

Vets will pay in another way, too. Vets make up roughly one-third of the federal workforce, which means they will be disproportionately harmed by this hiring freeze. So will women and minorities, both of whom have a significant presence among federal workers – greater than in the workforce as a whole.

4. Small Businesses and Workers All Across the Country

Contrary to what many people believe, federal employees are work in offices all across the country. The goods and services purchased by each federal worker provide jobs and growth for their local economies. Cuts in the federal workforce will therefore cause economic damage all of the states where federal jobs are located.

According to the latest report on the subject from the Office of Management and Budget, states with the largest numbers of Federal employees are: California, with 150,000 jobs; Virginia, with 143,000 jobs; Washington DC, with 133,000 jobs; and, Texas, with 130,000 jobs.

That’s right: Texas.

Other states with large numbers of Federal employees include Maryland, Florida, and Georgia.

Demand for goods and services will fall with the federal workforce. So will demand for workers, which means that wages will rise more slowly (if at all). This hiring freeze will affect small businesses and working people in states like Texas and all across the country.

5. Everybody Else.

The “public safety” argument could also be used to exempt employees of the Environmental Protection Agency from the hiring freeze. But Trump has nominated Scott Pruitt, a longtime foe of environmental regulation who has sided with some genuinely noxious polluters, to run the EPA.

As Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times. “In 13 of those cases,” the New York Times reports, “the co-parties included companies that had contributed money to Mr. Pruitt or to Pruitt-affiliated political campaign committees.”

In other words, Pruitt is dirty. It’s unlikely he’ll seek a “public safety” exemption for the inspectors that identify industrial polluters and bring them to justice. So another group that will suffer under this freeze, without getting too cute about it, is pretty much anybody who drinks water or breathes air. That covers just about everybody.

And that’s just the beginning.

This is not an all-inclusive list. We’ve left out tourists, for example, who’ll pay the price for staffing cuts at the nation’s monuments and national parks. But the overall impact of Trump’s hiring freeze is clear: it shows a reckless disregard for the health, safety, and well-being of the American people.

(And that’s not even counting his plan to end the Affordable Care Act. Physicians Steffie Woolhandler and David Emmelstein estimate that this will result in 43,000 deaths every year. And they’re not Democratic partisans or ACA apologists; they’ve been fighting for single-payer healthcare for years.)

Given these implications – and the thousands of jobs affected at the VA alone – it was surprising to read, in Politico, that “Trump’s move, by itself, doesn’t actually do much.”

That’s true, in one way. The 10,000 to 20,000 jobs affected by this freeze pale in comparison to the federal government’s total workforce of 2.2 million.

But Trump’s just getting started. His memo instructs the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to come up with a broader long-term plan for reducing the federal workforce through attrition. And Trump’s choice for that job, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, is a far-right Republican who’s been fighting to cut the federal government for years.

This freeze is a bad idea, but there will be more where this came from.

This article originally appeared at Ourfuture.org on January 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

Tyson Foods Fined $263,000 Over Unsafe Working Conditions In Poultry Plant

Friday, August 26th, 2016
Bryce Covert
The government just cracked down on the country’s largest meat and poultry processor for endangering its employees.
It all began with a report to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of a finger amputation at a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Texas. OSHA investigators determined the worker’s finger got stuck in an unguarded conveyer belt when he was trying to remove chicken parts that had gotten jammed in it.

But once inspectors got there, they realized the problems at the Tyson plant went far beyond one injured hand. They discovered more than a dozen serious violations, including failing to provide protective equipment, a lack of safety guards on moving machines that left employees exposed to a risk of amputation, letting carbon dioxide levels surpass the permissible limit, and no training for workers about the hazards of peracetic acid, a highly hazardous chemical that’s used as a disinfectant, which can cause burns and respiratory diseases. Workers are also at risk of slipping and falling due to a lack of adequate drainage and exposed to fire hazards from improperly stored compressed gas cylinders.

OSHA announced on Tuesday that it was fining the company $263,498 for two repeated and 15 serious violations, including improper drainage, holes in the floor left without guards, a lack of guards on dangerous machinery, obstructed fire exits, and storing chemicals in a hazardous manner.

CREDIT: Earl Dotter/Oxfam America

In response, Tyson said in a statement, “We never want to see anyone hurt on the job, which is why we’re committed to continual improvement in our workplace safety efforts. We fully cooperated with OSHA’s inspection of our Center plant and intend to meet with OSHA officials in an effort to resolve these claims.”

OSHA’s enforcement actions come as part of the agency’s recent focus on the poultry industry. And it also comes after a number of reports have exposed the gruesome conditions that workers must endure inside these plants.

In a report released in October, Oxfam America found that line processing speeds have increased drastically, with an official upper level of 140 birds per minute but with the possibility of going even higher if supervisors who run the lines decide to speed it up. Workers told Oxfam they process 35 to 45 birds per minute. Meanwhile, they must perform multiple motions on each bird, such as cutting, hacking, hanging, pulling, and twisting, repeatedly and forcefully 20,000 times a day.

The speed and repetitive motions combine to create a number of physical problems, such as pain in fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, and backs, as well as swelling, numbness, tingling, twitching, stiffness, and a loss of grip.

Workers also told Oxfam that they were frequently exposed to harsh chemicals, such as chlorine and ammonia, used to clean up the blood and other drippings from the birds.

The conditions lead to widespread injuries and illnesses. Poultry plant workers experience repetitive strain at 10 times the rate of the overall workforce, carpal tunnel at seven times the overall rate, and musculoskeletal disorders at five times the rate.

CREDIT: Oxfam America

“While the findings from this plant in Texas are disturbing, they’re not surprising,” said Oliver Gottfried, Oxfam’s senior campaign strategist, in a statement. “The repeated and serious violations exposed during this investigation corroborate conditions Oxfam has heard from workers at a half-dozen Tyson plants across the country.”

Oxfam’s findings were backed up in May, when the Government Accountability Office released its own report. It found that poultry and meat workers are at twice the risk of being injured on the job compared to other American workers, and they experience higher illness rates than other manufacturing employees. Many poultry workers report respiratory issues thanks to breathing in chlorine. There is also a high rate of deaths, with 151 poultry workers dying on the job between 2004 and 2013.

Workers must put up with other torturous conditions. A big problem is the lack of breaks to go to the bathroom and eat meals. Because they have to get a supervisor’s permission to leave the line and another employee to cover their spots, workers report often waiting an hour or more to get a break to relieve themselves. To cope, some say they have severely cut back on drinking liquids or even started wearing diapers.

For putting up with these hellish conditions, workers are rewarded very poorly. Average hourly pay is $11 an hour, which comes to between $20,000 and $25,000 a year, qualifying workers with children for food stamps and other government assistance programs. For every consumer dollar spent on a chicken product, a worker will see just two cents.

Tyson now has 15 days to either address the violations and pay the fines or contest them. But OSHA doesn’t have a great track record in getting the full amount it originally fines companies, as they are often able to contest and reduce them to sums that amount to a slap on the wrist. It’s rare to even get an OSHA inspection, as the agency is so under-budgeted and understaffed that a given workplace only sees a federal inspector once every 139 years.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on August 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

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