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The Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Are Still Relevant 107 Years Later

Monday, March 26th, 2018

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the impacted area. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. Thirty minutes later, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon at the time. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for those lost at Triangle.

Three months later, responding to pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely revamping New York State’s labor protections and creating a state Department of Labor to enforce them. During the Roosevelt administration, Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

The shirtwaist makers’ story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. And while there have been successes along the way, the problems that led to the Triangle fire are still present today. It was just five years ago, for instance, that the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As worker health and safety continues to be a significant issue both in the United States and abroad, the AFL-CIO took a strong stand at our 2017 Convention, passing a resolution on worker safety:

The right to a safe job is a fundamental worker right and a core union value. Every worker should be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

Throughout our entire history, through organizing, bargaining, education, legislation and mobilization, working people and their unions have fought for safe and healthful working conditions to protect workers from injury, illnesses and death. We have made real progress, winning strong laws and protections that have made jobs safer and saved workers’ lives.

Over the years, our fight has gotten harder as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. We haven’t backed down. Most recently, after decades-long struggles, joining with allies we won groundbreaking standards to protect workers from silica, beryllium and coal dust, and stronger protections for workers to report injuries and exercise other safety and health rights.

Now all these hard-won gains are threatened. President Trump and many Republicans in Congress have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections.

The worker protections under assault include:

  • Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts funding for the Department of Labor by 21%, including a 40% cut in job training for low-income adults, youth, and dislocated workers and the elimination of the Labor Department’s employment program for older workers.
  • The budget also proposes to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, eliminate OSHA’s worker training program and cut funding for coal mine enforcement, while proposing a 22% increase for the Office of Labor-Management Standards’ oversight of unions.
  • The budget also proposes to slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s job safety research budget by 40%, to move NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to remove the World Trade Center Health Program from NIOSH’s direction.
  • OSHA delayed the effective date of the final beryllium standard originally issued in January 2017. Then it delayed enforcement of the standard until May 11, 2018. In June 2017, OSHA proposed to weaken the beryllium rule as it applies to the construction and maritime industries.
  • OSHA delayed enforcement of the silica standard in construction, which in December was fully upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • OSHA delayed the requirement for employers to electronically report summary injury and illness information to the agency set to go into effect on July 1, 2017, until December 31, 2017. OSHA has announced it intends to issue a proposal to revise or revoke some provisions of the rule.
  • OSHA withdrew its policy that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA enforcement inspections on their behalf.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration delayed the mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines from May 23, 2017, until Oct. 2, 2017, and then again until March 2, 2018. MSHA also proposed weakening changes to the rule, including delaying mine inspections until after work has begun, instead of before work commences.
  • In November 2017, MSHA announced it would revisit the 2014 Coal Dust standard to examine its effectiveness and whether it should be modified to be less burdensome on industry. This comes at the same time NIOSH reported 400 cases of advanced black lung found by three clinics in Kentucky.
  • OSHA withdrew over a dozen rules from the regulatory agenda, including standards on combustible dust, styrene, 1-bromopropane, noise in construction and an update of permissible exposure limits.
  • The agency also suspended work on critical OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases, process safety management and emergency preparedness.
  • MSHA withdrew rules on civil penalties and refuge alternatives in coal mines from the regulatory agenda and suspended work on new standards on silica and proximity detection systems for mobile mining equipment.

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy took place 107 years ago today. We have a long way to go to make sure that we prevent the next such tragedy and keep working people safe and healthy.

Supreme Court to Decide Fate of Public Employee Unions: Worker Safety Is At Risk

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

One of the most significant cases for workers in recent history is coming before the Supreme Court next week. Janus vs. AFSCME will determine whether “workers who are not members of unions representing teachers, police, firefighters and certain other government employees must pay to help cover the costs of collective bargaining with state and local governments.”  Currently workers are able to refuse to pay that portion of dues that go to political activities.  If Janus wins, workers would not even have to pay that portion of dues that goes to bargaining expenses and defending workers rights. Non-members would still enjoy the benefits of union contracts and representation, however.

Janus and his supporters are hiding behind “freedom of speech” arguments, but their real agenda is weakening public sector unions by taking away their ability to collect dues.  Destroying the labor movement in this country has long been a goal of most Republicans and  the right wing  — mainly in order to weaken one of the Democrats’ most powerful backers.  The right-leaning court is expected to rule in favor of Janus. A similar case came before the court two years ago, but resulted in a 4-4 tie after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans’ refusal to allow Obama to appoint a new justice enabled Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch and a probable majority against public employee unions –a decision that will weaken the entire labor movement.

A ruling against public unions is unlikely to have a direct impact on unionized employees of private businesses, because the First Amendment restricts government action and not private conduct. But unions now represent only 6.5 percent of private sector employees, down from the upper teens in the early 1980s, and most of the labor movement’s strength these days is in the public sector.

Public employees do the hard work that makes this country worth living in, but they’re treated as second class citizens.

Public employees — health care workers, teachers, wastewater treatment plant workers, highway workers, firefighters, police, etc — do the hard work that makes this country worth living in, but they’re treated as second class citizens. There is no national right to collective bargaining for public employees, so states decide whether government workers get to have a union or not. That right can be given, and, as we saw recently in Wisconsin, that right can be taken away.

Public employees were also not covered by OSHA. State plan states are required to cover public employees and other states can choose to establish a public employee OSHA program with half the funding coming from the feds, but only five states have chosen to do so. That leaves 23 states and 8 million public employees who have no right to a safe workplace in this country, even thought they do work that is as dangerous as private sector workers, and suffer injuries and illnesses at a higher rate.

An AFL-CIO report notes, for example, that

Workplace violence events disproportionately occur among public employees. The incidence rate of injuries caused by workplace violence was more than 675% higher for state government workers (31.2 per 10,000 workers) than the rate for private industry workers (4.0). The incidence rate of violence for local government workers (23.0 per 10,000 workers) was 475% higher than for private industry workers.

Lack of OSHA coverage makes union representation even more important for public employees, a feature noted in a New York Times article today that discussed the Janus case. Illinois AFSCME local union President Randy Clover, who voted for Trump, opposes Janus.

Mr. Clover said his union had done invaluable work, notably in ensuring workers’ safety. He gave an example from his workplace, a maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill people caught up in the criminal justice system.

“The only thing we have is our hands to protect ourselves,” he said, “and we have handcuffs we can put on an individual if they are so out of control you cannot control them without somebody facing injury.”

When the state tried to ban the use of handcuffs to transport patients, Mr. Clover said, “the union went to battle for us.” The handcuffs stayed.

But, the Times notes, Janus’s lawyers argue that even safety should be considered “lobbying on questions of public policy and that unwilling workers should not be made to subsidize it.”

But make no mistake. Behind the façade of freedom of speech is a raw power play to weaken the labor movement and workers’ rights in this country — including the right to come home alive and healthy at the end of the work day.

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).

Trump puts public, workers at risk as he tries again to eliminate nation’s chemical safety agency

Monday, February 5th, 2018

As part of his administration’s rollback of key safety and environmental protections, President Donald Trump wants to eliminate the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency with a strong record of improving public safety. The proposed gutting of the agency comes as the Trump administration seeks to give a boost to the nation’s petrochemical industry as part of its “energy dominance” agenda.

As with his FY 2018 budget, Trump’s new budget proposal will call for wiping out the Chemical Safety Board’s entire $12 million budget, Bloomberg News reportedThursday. The agency is charged with investigating major chemical fires, explosions, leaks, and other accidents.

The Chemical Safety Board, with its relatively small budget, plays an oversized role among federal agencies. In 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the agency was on the frontlines, looking into a fire and explosions at a chemical facility, owned by French company Arkema Inc., northeast of Houston. Fifteen sheriff’s deputies were sent to the hospital on the morning of August 31, 2017, after responding to the chemical fire and falling ill in the middle of the road.

The board was created as part of the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 and began operations in 1998. The agency’s recommendations are often adopted by industry and government agencies. For example, the agency, with only 40 staff, investigated the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and has performed more than 130 investigations since it began operations in 1998. The agency is modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates plane crashes and other major accidents. Like the NTSB, the Chemical Safety Board is an independent agency.

Most recently, Chemical Safety Board staff traveled to Oklahoma to investigate a natural gas well explosion that killed five workers. The agency is currently reviewing information about the drill site and plans to interview eyewitnesses and others who were present beginning next week, it said Wednesday in a statement.

The United States averages more than 1,000 industrial chemical accidents each year, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group that investigates reports of environmental crimes from government employees. Throughout its history, the agency has responded primarily to incidents with high consequences, including fatalities, injuries, more than $500,000 in facility damage, or significant environmental or community impact.

Starting in 2010, the agency prioritized eliminating an investigation backlog. The backlog peaked at about 22 open cases in June 2010 following the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig explosion and fire. In January 2016, a year before President Barack Obama left office, the number of open investigations has been reduced to seven.

Last year, after the agency learned of its proposed elimination under Trump’s FY 2018 budget, Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland issued a statement expressing extreme disappointment with the president’s proposal.

“For over 20 years, the CSB has conducted hundreds of investigations of high consequence chemical incidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon and West Fertilizer disasters,” Sutherland said. “Our investigations and recommendations have had an enormous effect on improving public safety.”

The agency’s recommendations 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 Mississippi. “The American public is safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB,” she said.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org.

Trump took credit for airline safety in 2017. What about the surge in coal miner deaths?

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

President Donald Trump is taking credit for what a new study is calling the safest year on record for commercial aviation. The president, however, is refusing to take responsibility for what his mine safety agency is saying was a year where almost twice as many coal mine workers died on the job than the final year of the Obama administration.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Since taking office, I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news — it was just reported that there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Over the past 20 years, the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, thanks to “safety-driven efforts” by international aviation organizations and the aviation industry, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent research group. Nowhere in the analysis did the researchers mention efforts by the Trump administration as a reason for the airline safety improvement.

In the coal mining sector, data from the Trump administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal government’s mine safety agency, show coal mining deaths nearly doubled in 2017. But unlike the aviation statistics, Trump isn’t taking any personal responsibility for the coal mining deaths. What’s more, he tapped a former coal executive with a record of safety violations to head MSHA.

The death of a coal miner in Fayette County, West Virginia, on December 29 brought the total number of U.S. coal mining fatalities in 2017 to 15, according to MSHA’s website. Eight of the 15 coal mining deaths last year occurred in West Virginia. The remaining deaths occurred in Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. In the previous year, under President Barack Obama, the coal industry saw its lowest number of coal mining fatalities to date, with eight deaths recorded across the country.

A number of factors could have led to the rise in coal mining deaths. The nation saw an uptick in coal production last year. Estimated coal production for the first 11 months of 2017 totaled 719 million short tons, 54 million short tons, or 8 percent, more than production for the same period in 2016. For 2018, though, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting a drop in production due to a decrease in exports and slower domestic demand.

Employment in the coal mining sector reached about 51,700 in September, about 3,000 more than the year before. But since then, the sector’s job numbers have declined slightly each month.

Under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, mining companies could be taking more risks under the assumption that enforcement will be more lax. The House of Representatives wants to cut MSHA’s coal enforcement budget by $11 million, or almost 7 percent, after cutting the division’s budget by $7.9 million in FY 2017.

During his presidential campaign, Trump reached out to coal miners, telling them that he would bring jobs back to their communities, despite widespread consensus that coal will continue to decline in the long run. In return, the miners have put a lot of faith in Trump to fulfill his promise.

As part of his focus on coal, Trump selected David Zatezalo, a former coal mining executive who has faced criticism over his company’s safety record, to serve as the head of MSHA. Zatezalo, who was confirmed by the Senate in November, retired in late 2014 as chairman of coal producer Rhino Resources after serving in various top posts at the company.

Zatezalo was head of Rhino Resources when the company was issued two “pattern of violations” letters from MSHA over safety and health issues at its mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. At the time, the Obama administration was seeking to improve enforcement of mine safety following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Last month, the Trump administration also announced plans to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

Most coal miners understand the increased dangers they face when the government steps back from safety enforcement. But the miners also see limited employment alternatives, unless they choose to uproot their families and relocate.

“We have all witnessed friends and family fight in vain for compensation after suffering from permanent injuries and black lung,” Nick Mullins, an author and former coal miner, wrote in an op-ed for HuffPost last month. “Few people seem to realize the lack of choices miners face. They do not realize that many miners would jump at the chance to earn a decent living without risking their life and sacrificing their health.”

This article was originally published on January 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org

Murray, DeLauro Call on USDA to Reject Chicken Council’s Petition to Increase Line Speeds

Friday, November 17th, 2017

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Ranking Member of the House Labor Appropriations Committee, today sent a sharply worded letter to Carmen Rottenberg, acting head of USDA’s Food Safety Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) calling on the agency to reject a petition from the National Chicken Council to increase the line speed for poultry workers.

The legislators argue that

granting the petition would further endanger an already vulnerable workforce. Poultry workers face harsh and dangerous working conditions. Industry-reported statistics show that poultry workers are injured at rates almost twice the national average and suffer occupational illnesses at a rate that is over six times as high. Still worse, according to FSIS itself, these shocking figures significantly understate the actual rate of injury and illness among these workers.

Poultry workers currently work at breakneck line speeds, and further increasing the speeds will inevitably result in even more worker injuries and illnesses. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) research shows staggeringly high rates of injuries directly related to the rapid, repetitive movements these workers must perform. In one study, 34 percent of such workers had carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and 76 percent had evidence of nerve damage in their hands and wrists. In another study, 42 percent had CTS. Further, workers in the poultry industry suffer finger amputations at the single highest rate of any U.S. industry.”

They argue that FSIS does not have the authority to grant the petition because the agency only has temporary waiver authority and “only 1) in the event of a public health emergency or 2) “to permit experimentation so that new procedures, equipment and processing techniques may be tested to facilitate definite improvements.”

There is no public health emergency according to Murray and DeLauro, and “there is nothing ‘new’ or ‘experiment[al]’ about fast line speeds.” Not only has the department already issued a waiver to some plants, but “FSIS issued a final rule in 2014 declining to allow any increase in the line speed limit beyond 140 bpm.”

And finally:

Additionally, FSIS assured the public that it would make no changes to any provisions in the rule until it could assess the impact of changes under the NPIS after it has been “fully implemented on a wide scale” for at least one year.  The system has not been “fully implemented on a wide scale;” only a few dozen plants out of the 187 expected to convert to NPIS have operated for a year or more under it.

The Chicken Council has been waging a long campaign speed up production.  Chicken Council spokesperson Tom Super says we’re in a race to the bottom that they don’t want to lose: “The motivation behind the higher line speeds is to keep up with international competitors.”

But as a recent NPR story describes, worker groups are fighting back, warning that “higher line speeds increase the risks for foodborne illness and worker injuries in an industry that has an already spotty safety record.”

Workers are hurting. “Federal statistics show that animal slaughtering and processing facilities are the 6th most dangerous workplaces for severe injuries. According to a Government Accountability Office report, most musculoskeletal injuries caused by repetitive movement, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, are not reported by workers.”

And it’s not good for people who eat chicken either.   Under a pilot project, according to a former USDA inspector,  only one federal inspector is responsible for viewing birds that come through the chicken evisceration line. “‘You had less than 30 seconds to inspect the chicken. How can you look at the front, back, up and down and inside a chicken in 30 seconds? [retired USDA inspector Phyllis] McKelvey asks before answering her own question: ‘There’s no way.’”

Thirteen non-profit organizations and unions, including worker rights, civil rights, consumer safety, public health, and animal welfare groups—met with top officials last month to “to urge them to reject a poultry industry petition to allow faster and unrestricted line speeds in poultry plants.”  And last August, the groups sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sunny Purdue calling on him to ”oppose any proposed rule that would increase line speeds in poultry plants within the United States above the current 140 birds per minute (bpm).”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on November 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017. Before that he worked for the House Education and Labor Committee, the Chemical Safety Board, the AFL-CIO, OSHA and AFSCME. He currently produces Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.

Poultry lobbyists hope Trump will okay dangerous chicken processing speed-up Obama rejected

Monday, October 16th, 2017

The poultry industry really, really wants to process the chickens you eat at rates of more than 140 per minute. Under former President Obama, the USDA considered and then backed off of an increase to 175 chickens per minute going down the line being eviscerated and inspected. Under Donald Trump, the National Chicken Council hopes that the sky’s the limit, asking for plants to be allowed to operate “at any line speed” if they adopt a new inspection system.

The Obama-era cap is an “arbitrary” limit that is holding back the industry’s ability to compete in the global marketplace, the National Chicken Council stated in its petition.

Granting waivers would help the Trump administration achieve its goals of “reducing regulatory burdens on the industry,” the council said, adding that it would help poultry plants cut costs and expand production to meet rising demand.

Because what you really want to hear about the meat you’re eating is that cutting costs was the producer’s primary goal, and that the government went right along with that.

Do chicken eaters trust the safety of that new inspection system? The jury is out on that and under Trump we can be sure of never getting trustworthy data. But one thing is for damn sure: if line speeds increase, the workers who process chickens will lose limbs.

Poultry workers are almost twice as likely to suffer from serious injuries as workers in private industry, and more than six times as likely to have a work-related illness. Two poultry and meat processing plants, Tyson Foods and JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride, are among the 10 companies with the highest number of work-related amputations and hospitalizations, out of more than 14,000 companies reporting to the federal government, Berkowitz, a former Obama Labor Department official, discovered.

But what are the hands and arms of a heavily immigrant workforce when a bunch of big companies could profit? Nothing, in Trumpworld.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on October 16, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Lost wages, serious illness and poor labor standards: The dangers of rebuilding Texas and Florida

Monday, September 11th, 2017

As Texas prepares to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey devastated much of the state, and Florida starts picking up the pieces from the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Irma, emergency workers may face exploitation for the sake of greater profits and speedier project completion.

Past abuses after similar natural disasters have left laborers without all of their wages and with serious illnesses that could have been prevented with proper supervision and training, labor experts say. A large portion of these workers are undocumented and likely afraid to alert authorities when their rights are violated. On top of that, the Trump administration’s approach to labor protections doesn’t inspire confidence, according to workers’ safety experts who spoke to ThinkProgress.

Forty percent of Houston construction workers do not have health insurance, retirement, life insurance, sick leave, and paid time off, according to a 2017 report from the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, an organization that advocates for better health, safety, and labor standards. The report was the result of interviews with over 1,400 construction workers. On average, a construction worker dies once every three days in Texas because of unsafe working conditions.

Texas is also the only state in the country that doesn’t require any form of workers compensation coverage, said Bo Delp, Director of the Better Builder Program at Workers Defense Project.

“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on — rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well. Texas is a uniquely bad state for construction workers in terms of conditions,” Delp said. “That is compounded with a disaster like Harvey, when we know, in other contexts, that this has led to exploitation on an unprecedented scale.”

“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on — rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well.”

Studies after Hurricane Katrina found that wage theft and unhealthy working conditions were rampant and that undocumented workers were particularly vulnerable. A 2006 study from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice found that 61 percent of surveyed workers had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations. A similar 2009 study by the University of California, Berkeley found that there were concerning differences in conditions for undocumented versus documented workers. Thirty-seven percent of undocumented workers said they were told they might be exposed to mold and asbestos, while 67 percent of documented workers reported they had been informed. Only 20 percent of undocumented workers said they were paid time and a half when they worked overtime.

Delp said that there are “good honest contractors” in the state, but he is concerned about “fly-by-night” contractors who will eschew safety measures to get things done cheaply and quickly.

Sasha Legette of the Houston Business Liaison works alongside community partners and policymakers, including the mayor’s office, to ensure better wage and safety conditions for workers. So far, she said that she has been impressed with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s response to the disaster. But she hopes the state doesn’t rush it in a way that could harm workers.

“We know that the water and flooding has created a very toxic environment and what we don’t want to see happen is that workers or that the city is so eager to rebuild that the safety of those who are going to do that work is not taken under consideration,” Legette said.

“They can identify hazards and prevent the need for OSHA to have to enforce after the fact,” Goldstein-Gelb said.

Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program and former principal deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, said she is concerned about the administration’s potential response to the recent disasters.

Often, OSHA will begin with “compliance assistance mode,” which means they will help employers comply with rules, and then will eventually move to enforcement mode. But the Bush administration never moved into enforcement mode after Katrina, and she worries that the Trump administration could do the same.

Block is also worried about whether there are enough resources at the agency. In addition to the proposed cuts and business-friendly approach of the administration, there is no OSHA chief.

“They don’t have real leadership in the agency,” Block said. “So having watched Sandy and the Gulf oil spill, these sort of unexpected disaster responses, even for an agency like OSHA, it’s really complicated and it’s really resource intensive.”

“Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”

“There is a lot at risk,” Block added. “Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”

There are some potential downsides to not having an OSHA chief at a time like this, such as getting assistance from FEMA to do work on the ground to address workers’ health and safety needs, said Barab.

“A lot of the activity around these national disasters involves agencies working together,” Barab said. “It requires agencies having frank and candid conversations, [such as] getting FEMA to be more accommodating to the health needs of workers. It always helps to have a higher level person doing that.”

In order to get OSHA staff to hurricane-affected areas in Texas or Florida, OSHA would have to transfer some compliance and enforcement staff there temporarily. But this is expensive and the agency has been chronically underfunded. To reimburse the expenses of doing this, FEMA can provide supplemental assistance, Barab explained, but the state must request this and, on top of that, the state has to contribute 25 percent of the funding.

“To pony up about 25 percent of cost — we haven’t seen a lot of states willing do that. I am not optimistic about Texas and I don’t see them wanting to spend money to get more OSHA enforcement there,” Barab said. “FEMA has the ability to waive that requirement, but they generally don’t, and didn’t, in fact, after [Hurricane] Sandy.”

 One of the other challenges facing OSHA will be outreach to undocumented workers who may be concerned about reporting safety and wage violations. Barab said the government needs to send a message that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency will not be involved if workers want to report violations. But because many workers will feel uncomfortable going to a government official in any situation, OSHA needs to maintain relationships with local nonprofits.

“We already had pre-existing relationships with nonprofits that were continuing to train immigrants and day workers during [Hurricane] Sandy,” Barab said. “In terms of being able to reach out to OSHA, the nonprofits had a relationship with these workers and other groups had relationship with OSHA.”

Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director of Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, an organization that helps low-wage workers learn about their rights and organizes workers, said the group has been through post-disaster health and safety trainings and has a healthy relationship with the local OSHA office. The center is educating workers on what kind of respirators to use if they’re working in a structure that has mold, for example, while also keeping an eye on any worker safety and wage violations. The center has also benefited as subgrantee from the Susan Harwood program for the last five years.

“Undocumented workers specifically fear retaliation in terms of losing a job or an employer calling ICE on them, and that happens a lot. It is definitely a barrier for people to come forward,” Acuña Arreaza said. “Even other immigrants who have other statuses — some of the fears are similar because they are still worried about losing their job or having their employer retaliate.”

“We try to repeat that and and say, ‘No, you have rights.’ And people start getting it after we repeat it enough.”

By having a staff of mostly immigrants, she said the organization has created an environment where undocumented workers would feel comfortable, never asking workers about immigration status, and working with other nonprofits and local churches to encourage people to come in.

“We try to repeat that and and say, ‘No, you have rights.’ And people start getting it after we repeat it enough,” Acuña Arreaza said. “But there is a huge disconnect that comes from documentation but also comes from not being able to speak English or fully speak English, other cultural barriers, and racism. Lacking papers does not help, but there is this layered separation from justice in the system of worker rights.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

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.

Fire Departments, Airports and Military Bases May Be More Toxic to Workers Than You Think

Friday, August 12th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanDrinking water supplies for at least six million Americans contain toxic industrial chemicals at levels that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommended safety limit. This number is likely an underestimate since the information available through the EPA does not include data for about one-third of Americans—those 100 million or more people who rely on private wells or the vast majority of public water systems that serve communities with populations of 10,000 or less. These are the conclusions of a new study whose authors include scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the University of California at Berkeley and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The study “is just showing us the tip of the iceberg,” says author Philippe Grandjean, Harvard T.H. Chan adjunct professor of environmental health and University of Southern Denmark professor of environmental medicine. What also remains largely undocumented is the extent of exposure to workers on the frontline of this chemical use.

While industrial sites were previously recognized as sources of these highly fluorinated, toxic and environmentally-persistent compounds, this is the first nationwide study to document that wastewater treatment plants, along with military bases and airports where these chemicals are used in fire-fighting foams, are also contributing significantly to drinking water contamination. The study reports groundwater and surface water near some of these bases and airports with concentrations of these chemicals 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory level for drinking water.

While the EPA’s May 2016 fact sheet says, “Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility for example, an industrial facility where these chemicals were produced or used to manufacture other products or an airfield at which they were used for fire fighting,” the new study shows the contamination is much more widespread. The study’s findings suggest that not only are far more people potentially exposed through drinking water than previously thought, but that the military bases and airports where these fluorinated foams are used may be hotspots of exposure. This means that in addition to runoff from these sites, exposure to those working with these foams may be a health concern, as suggested by recent testing that showed firefighters to have elevated blood levels of fluorinated compounds.

What are PFAS?

These synthetic chemicals (they don’t occur naturally) known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are used in waterproofing, stain and grease-resistant and non-stick coatings. They’re used in clothing, furniture, carpets, paints and food packaging, among other products. They are also used in plastics and computer chip manufacturing, and in the fire-fighting foams used in military trainings and at airports. These compounds have been so widely used over the past 60 years that theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found these chemicals in the blood of more than 97 percent of the Americans tested. These chemicals have also been found in newborns’ umbilical cord blood, an indication of prenatal exposure.

Given the well-recognized potential environmental and health hazards of PFAS and widespread exposure, the EPA has recently lowered its drinking water health advisory limit for PFAS.  But this is a guideline, not an enforceable standard. The six PFAS compounds that the EPA is now monitoring in drinking water standards are part of the agency’s Unregulated Contaminated Monitoring Rule program. This requires participating public water systems to monitor for certain contaminants and report on their presence. But it doesn’t require public water systems to ensure that the health advisory levels aren’t exceeded.

“Most wastewater treatment plants don’t remove these compounds,” explains study author Cindy Hu, doctoral candidate in environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“We’re concerned about these chemicals because they’ve been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects. And drinking water can be an important source of exposure,” says Hu.

Various PFAS have been linked to certain cancers, elevated cholesterol, immune suppression, obesity, low birth weight, reproductive system problems and hormone disruption. Levels of PFAS found in the environment have also been linked tosuppressed immune systems in children.

“These compounds are incredibly stable, so they can leach into the groundwater over many years and they stay there,” says Grandjean.

“Their half life is on the order of several years,” explained study co-author Laurel Schaider, research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute. “If you stopped being exposed, it would take a couple of years to reduce levels in your body by half,” said Schaider.

For this reason, says Grandjean, “Even the small contributions”–or exposures–“are what we worry about.”

Even though the EPA recently lowered what it considers a safe limit in drinking water, Grandjean worries that this level is not sufficiently protective.

“Unfortunately, I have to say, the EPA water limits are way, way too high,” he says. The concern is the large “number of people that are exposed to levels that we can see are associated with adverse effects on the immune system and carry risks of miscarriage,” he explains. These are, he says, “levels that we’re not protecting people against.”

Workers on the frontline

The fact that so people are likely exposed to PFAS through drinking water at levels of concern to scientists raises additional concerns for people–like firefighters– regularly exposed on the job.

Existing studies examining firefighters for the presence of perfluorinated compounds in their blood have shown elevated exposure after responding to fires. A study of California firefighters found such levels to be three times higher than that of American men tested by the CDC. That these compounds persist in the body and can produce adverse effects at low levels makes cumulative exposures a concern. For female firefighters there’s the additional concern that these chemicals can be passed on to a fetus or infant.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, there are about 19,299 airports in the United States, a number that includes both military and civilian airports. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are an estimated 137,300 U.S. workers employed in aircraft maintenance. But, to date, beyond the studies looking at blood concentrations of PFAS in firefighters, the limited occupational exposure studies for PFAS have largely been of workers at plants that manufacture these chemicals. And most such studies have been conducted or commissioned by companies producing the chemicals. Some ofthese studies have linked exposure to high blood cholesterol. Others have found links between exposure and some increased risk of prostate cancer. But overall, the industry-commissioned studies say there is not yet sufficient evidence to establish a causal link between PFAS exposure and adverse human health effects.

Yet, says Schaider, the studies that might begin to link PFAS exposure to specific health outcomes in fire fighters and others using these foams haven’t been done. Some are now just getting underway, through the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is examining impacts of these fire-fighting foams on women fire fighters. But she says, “Unfortunately, I don’t think this has been addressed yet.”

And while there is ample documentation of “highly polluted water” at airports and military bases where PFAS are used, “epidemiological data on the military is hard to come by,” says study author Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

The solution? For one, says Blum, “The military needs to needs to investigate alternative fire-fighting foams that don’t contain any highly fluorinated compounds.”

“My key message,” says Grandjean, is that because these chemicals “are so persistent and we are discovering more and more effects at lower doses, we need to vigorously reduce these exposures.” And, he says, for people “who’ve been exposed over a long time, exposures should get as close to zero as possible.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on August 11, 2016. 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.

 

New Study Reveals Just How Brutal Meat and Poultry Work Is for Workers

Friday, May 27th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanThe meat and poultry industry remains exceptionally dangerous, despite a decline in reported injuries and illnesses over the past 10 years, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Further, says the report, the injury and illness rates reflected in Department of Labor numbers are significantly underreported. As a result, these figures do not fully represent what is actually happening within this industry that employs about 526,000—including many recent immigrants and noncitizens. The report also found evidence of workers being denied proper medical treatment on the job and that they often fail to report injuries for fear it will cost them their jobs.

Released Wednesday by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), the report notes that working conditions in the industry have not improved substantially since the GAO examined the industry in 2005. Workers in poultry and meat processing plants, says the report, “continue to face the hazardous conditions the GAO cited in 2005, including tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders, exposure to chemicals and pathogens and traumatic injuries from machines and tools.”

“Today’s report makes clear that workers still face hazardous conditions that put their health and safety in jeopardy,” said Senator Murray on a call with reporters. “In our country every worker should be able to earn a living with dignity and without worrying that their work will make them sick or injured,” she said.

“The pain never really went away. It just went up my arms and elbows,” said former Nebraska meatpacking work Jose Gaytan on the call. “The work speeds of the plant were so fast that my hands would swell up and lock up,” he said. Gaytan described how the plant processed 1500 to 1800 head of cattle a day, so that each worker processed 250 to 300 “loins” per day—each about 80 pounds of “frozen cow meat and bones” —or almost one per minute. There were “falls slips, burns and cuts and crippling injuries to co-workers,” said Gayton. “I saw two different saw operators cut off fingers because the line was coming too fast,” he said.

Line speed is a huge problem in these plants where poultry workers typically handle 30 or more turkeys and 100 or more chickens a minute.

Omar Hassan, who worked at a Jennie-O turkey plant in Minnesota for over two-and-a-half years described how when he came back to work after a finger and shoulder industry with a doctor’s note saying he could not do the same level of work as before, the company refused to accommodate him. “I tried talking them into placing me on light duty,” he said. But the company refused, “and they fired me after that,” said Hassan, speaking on the call through an interpreter who translated from Somali.

Also contributing to the injury undercount, says the GAO, is that injuries and illnesses suffered by workers hired through labor contractors may not be properly accounted for. Contributing to these problems is the industry’s high turnover rate—“often 100 percent or more annually,” said Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney Sarah Rich.

Poultry and meat plant workers often include “refugees, undocumented immigrants and prisoners,” said Rich. These workers, she said are “often fired and treated as disposable by these companies.” And all this contributes to “a climate of fear that prevents workers from speaking out,” she said.

Musculoskeletal disorders rampant in meat and poultry processing but underreported

The GAO also reports that injuries included in official records cover only those for which workers took time off. This means they fail to account for many of the musculoskeletal disorders that are widespread throughout the industry.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that musculoskeletal disorders account for many of the injuries that create a serious injury rate for the meat and poultry processing industry that is more than 3 times higher than other U.S. industries. In a 2015 report, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found 81 percent of the poultry plant jobs it evaluated exceeded recommended limits for hand activity and that 34 percent of employees had symptoms qualifying as carpel tunnel syndrome.

“We should have no confidence about industry’s assertions about their injury rates,” says Celeste Monforton, professorial lecturer in occupational and environmental health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. She describes a NIOSH investigation finding that a Maryland poultry plant logbooks showed only four cases of carpel tunnel syndrome over four years while NIOSH found 18 workers with those injuries at the same plant.

She also described an OSHA Alabama poultry plant investigation that found a worker who was seen 94 times by a company nurse before being referred to a physician for treatment. “The industry games the system,” says Monforton, explaining that first aid is not recorded in company logs.

Well-documented history of high hazard

“The GAO report reinforces and validates reports released by independent groups for over ten years,” says Rich, listing reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oxfam America, by Alabama Appleseed, Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Centerand others as well as investigations by NIOSH and OSHA.

“We uncovered many of the same issues the GAO has now confirmed. Workers have told us about the same conditions that the GAO detailed in their report today,” Oxfam America senior advocacy advisor Oliver Gottfried told reporters. In addition to denial of medical care, fear of retaliation, and lack of reporting on industry logs, Oxfam America has recently reported on how poultry plant workers’ are denied adequate bathroom bathroom breaks.

Speaking in Hmong, through an interpreter, a Tyson foods poultry plant worker called May, explained that the company only allows her to use the bathroom twice per night. “That is not enough for people,” says May, who works cutting meat. She also described how people who work close to meat get chemicals sprayed on their hands and face.

In stark contrast to the report’s details, the meat industry seized on the GAO report’s note of the decline in reported injury rates—from 9.8 cases per 100 workers in 2004 to 5.7 cases per 100 workers in 2013.

The report, “highlights the greatly improved worker safety record of the meat and poultry industry over the last 10 years,” said the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) in a statement. “There is always room for improvement and we will look closely at the GAO recommendations to see how they can best be implemented in the industry,” said NAMI president and CEO Barry Carpenter.

“We are pleased to see the report emphasizes the fact that injuries and illnesses have decreased dramatically in the poultry processing industry over the past several years,” said the National Chicken Council in its statement. “Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome,” said the council.

So what happens next? 

Sen. Murray voiced support for OSHA’s new rule that will provide workers with more protection from retaliation against injury reporting and improve OSHA’s access such records. “In our country every worker should be able to earn a living with dignity and without worrying that their work will make them sick or injured,” said Murray.

“We’re taking it to the public,” Berkowitz tells In These Times. “Consumers have a tremendous influence on this industry,” she says. “We are hoping consumers are starting to take a look … at the inhumane conditions of workers and that industry has to respond by lifting standards.”

And Gottfied says reporting on industry conditions is already prompting workers to seek help in speaking out about workplace health and safety.

This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on May 27, 2016. 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.

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