Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Postal Workers Kept in Dark on Anthrax

The Washington Post reports that the U.S. Postal Service violated federal regulations and undermined management's credibility when it failed to disclose anthrax test results promptly to workers at a contaminated Connecticut mail facility according to a General Accounting Office report issued Monday.
The GAO said postal officials did not comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules in early 2002 when they did not fulfill a request for test results from union representatives at the Southern Connecticut Processing and Distribution Center in Wallingford.

Investigators tested the facility several times in late 2001 after letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to two members of Congress and several media outlets. The letters caused 23 anthrax-related illnesses and five deaths.

Although initial results at the Wallingford facility were negative, later tests turned up dangerous levels of anthrax in a sample from a mail-sorting machine. The facility remained open. Workers were told only that "trace" amounts had been found and were advised to continue taking antibiotics. No workers became ill.

Officials did not release the results until September 2002, nine months after they first learned of the results.
The GAO termed the problems understandable given the confusion at the time. Nevertheless, the GAO report concluded that:
Numerous lessons can be learned from the experience, such as the need for more complete and timely information to workers to maintain trust and credibility and to help ensure that workers have essential information for making informed health decisions. Federal guidelines developed in 2002 by GSA and the National Response Team suggest that more—rather than less—information should be disclosed. However, neither the Service’s guidelines nor the more recent federal guidelines fully address the communication-related issues that developed in Wallingford. For example, none of the guidelines specifically require the full disclosure of quantified test results. Likewise, OSHA’s regulations do not require employers to disclose test results to workers unless requested, which assumes that workers are aware of the test results and know about this requirement.
Postal officials said they would update their guidelines to ensure a swifter flow of information, but according to the Post, John Dirzius, president of the Greater Connecticut Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union, said he is skeptical because union officials aren't involved in drafting the revisions.

Russia's industrial wasteland chokes on fumes

Yet another cheery jobs vs. environment story from the ex-Soviet Union.

KARABASH, Russia - Vast stretches of soot-coloured wasteland, mountains of black slag and a handful of ailing birch trees mark the landscape around the Urals town of Karabash, one of the most polluted places on the planet.
Around the clock, the five chimneys of the century-old Karabash Copper Smelting Works spew out pitch-black toxic fumes laden with sulphurous waste.

"Nothing grows in our vegetable patches - everything dies or turns yellow," said Svetlana, a mother of two who has spent her life in the town. The soil in and around Karabash is full of toxic metals including lead, mercury and arsenic.

"Our children have asthma, respiratory diseases, many now suffer from skin diseases too," Svetlana said.

Karabash, a town of apocalyptic bleakness, is a painful reminder of an environmental policy that has balked at the huge cost of cleaning up many of the ailing behemoths left behind by the Soviet Union, including its metals sector.

McWane and Steelworkers Sign Agreement

The United Steelworkers of America has reached an agreement with the McWane Corporation, a company made (in)famous by the New York Times/Frontline series detailing the high numbers of injuries and deaths at McWane Facilities. The agreement establishes "a top-level safety task force, calling it a major element to increase workplace safety."

McWane and the union already have local health and safety committees, but this joint task force will include senior members of the union and management. According to USWA Health and Safety Director Mike Wright, ""The idea is we would have a task force at the international level."
Earlier this month, Tyler Pipe agreed to pay $196,000 in penalties for citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The 18 violations OSHA identified consisted of 13 it labeled "serious," four repeat violations and one other-than-serious violation.

The plant was fined $1 million in August 2002 for violating workplace safety and health standards.

The company pleaded guilty in July 2002 to violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act regarding the incident and U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Guthrie sentenced the company to pay a $250,000 fine and placed it on probation for a year.

That was after an employee was crushed between a conveyor belt and a pulley in 2000.

In October 2002, another employee was seriously injured after his legs were crushed when they became trapped between a truck and its bed.