Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Wednesday, April 30, 2003


An Act of God?

Employers often blame "acts of God" or the "whims of Mother Nature" for workers' deaths in trench collapses or by asphyxiation in manholes or other confined spaces. In other words, despite OSHA regulations and general industry recognition, "nothing could have been done to prevent this tragedy." This article about the death of a tomato field worker, Immokalee farm worker killed by lightning strike, might actually come close to an act of God. Or?

When lightning and thunder threaten, my kids are rushed off their soccer and baseball fields and out of the public pool. I wonder if field workers are also given the opportunity to seek shelter from the storm as experts and federal government agencies recommend? It's not smart to try to fool Mother Nature.

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Letters from Readers: Why Get Involved?

Jordan, My question is what can a group do to get the citizens to act after they learn about a situation ( like the ones you offer) ?

We can't get registered voters to vote !! Then they complain, whilke the city is taxing and spending us to death. The police were threatened by firing if they looked at AFSCME. So they did not organize..
-- J. K.
J.K: My "theory" is that people will vote if they think that voting matters -- or that not voting means that they will get screwed (even worse than they are now).

My small part in this struggle (and the reason for this Blog) is to try to show people that voting can directly determine how safe their workplaces will be (and those of their family and friends) and whether or not they will be coming home from work in the same shape they left the house that morning.

If even one more Democrat had been elected to the Senate (or a few more in the House of Representatives), we might have saved the ergonomics standard. If Democrats who voted wrong (even some moderate Republicans) had truly feared the wrath of millions of pissed off workers (and their families and friends) at next election time, maybe they wouldn't have voted the wrong way.

We lost the ergonomics standard and millions of workers pay the price every year because of it. If every worker with a musculoskeletal disorder voted -- and if they convinced a couple of their non-voting friends to vote, we might have a very different picture in this country.

My thoughts. Your comments?

-- Jordan




Screened Out

$2.95 will buy you the May 12, 2003 edition of the Nation which has an excellent article about "How 'fighting terrorism' became a bludgeon in Bush's Assault on Labor," by David Bacon.

Unfortunately, it's not on their website in a linkable electronic version. Some quotes from Bush Administration officials will give you a taste:
"Collective Bargaining would be incompatible with the nation's safety," Chris Rhatigan, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA.)

"Security is paramount and collective bargaining could cripple the system." Nico Melendez, TSA Representative.
What is linkable on their website, however, is William Greider insightful analysis the Bush "vision" in Rolling Back the 20th Century. Read them. (P.S. I receive no funding or support from The Nation for these plugs. Not even a free subscription or even a blurb about this Blog.)



Tuesday, April 29, 2003


Old OSHA Directors Don’t Die, (But They Make Sure They’re in God’s Good Graces When They Do.)

Some say that the problem with high government office – like Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA – is that it goes to your head; people treat you like God – or like the Devil. So it may not be surprising to look at Thorne Auchter’s current career choice. Auchter, you may remember if you’ve been in the OSHA game for long, was Ronald Reagan’s first OSHA Director and spearheaded Reagan’s attempt to dismantle OSHA.

Well, Thorne has apparently reversed the Reagan mantra: government is no longer the problem, it’s the solution to the problems of the U.S., Iraq, the Middle East, and Heaven itself.

Seems Auchter has become the CEO of Grace News Network, now the beneficiary of our tax dollars. What in heaven is Grace News Network? Read on:
The U.S. government this week launched its Arabic language satellite TV news station for Muslim Iraq.

It is being produced in a studio -- Grace Digital Media -- controlled by fundamentalist Christians who are rabidly pro-Israel.

That's Grace as in "by the Grace of God."

Grace Digital Media is controlled by a fundamentalist Christian millionaire, Cheryl Reagan, who last year wrested control of Federal News Service, a transcription news service, from its former owner, Cortes Randell.

***
Grace Digital Media and Federal News Service are housed in a downtown Washington, D.C. office building, along with Grace News Network.

When you call the number for Grace News Network, you get a person answering "Grace Digital Media/Federal News Service."

***
According to its web site, Grace News Network is "dedicated to transmitting the evidence of God's presence in the world today."
Sounds like a perfect fit for Radio Baghdad.

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Monday, April 28, 2003


What Is This?!

This is an article about a worker, Marty Nesbitt, who died after falling 30 feet off a grandstand roof at a raceway in Madison County, IL. The foreman "confirmed that Nesbitt was not wearing a safety harness at the time. Nesbitt had not been working close enough to the edge for the company to consider using a monitor who could have warned him when he got too close to the edge, Gill told Wittenauer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the death to determine whether a monitor should have been used"

Tragic, but so far, routine. Then there's the last paragraph:
A toxicology test showed no alcohol in Nesbitt's system. Madison County Deputy Coroner Ralph Baahlmann said that at some point prior to the accident Nesbitt had used marijuana and that he may have been under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident.
At what point prior to the incident? Minutes, days, weeks? According to whom? And is this an excuse for not having fall protection? What is this doing in the newspaper? Sounds like "blame the worker" B.S. at its worst to me.




LEGAL DOESN’T MEAN SAFE: Black lung study casts cloud over coal-dust limits

A rather disturbing article from the Louisville Courier Journal revealing that miners –- both below and above ground -- are still getting black lung disease at alarming rates, even thought they have worked their entire careers at supposedly “safe” or at least “legal” limits of coal dust.
WASHINGTON -- New cases of black lung are developing in miners who have worked their entire careers under federal coal-dust limits that were supposed to prevent the crippling respiratory disease, according to a new study.

Tommie Hall, of Topmost, Ky., worked in mines for 26 years under the dust-control limits. Yet he said he has black lung and has filed a claim with the state.

His breathing is so bad that it takes him 10 to 15 minutes to recover after climbing the single flight of stairs in his house, said Hall, 50.
Dust controls in the mines he worked in were regularly ignored, he said. Miners knew they couldn't complain. ''If you said something, you'd go look for a job,'' Hall said. ''That's the way it is.''
Even more disturbing is that these findings may be underestimated:
The study emphasized that it was limited to working miners and that the X-rays were voluntary. Participation rates in X-rays were low, and data on work experience wasn't consistent, researchers added.

Dr. E. Lee Petsonk, one of the authors of the study, also pointed out that disease rates among retired or sick miners who were forced to leave work weren't included, nor could researchers do much about miners who didn't participate but may have signs of black lung.
As we always say when training workers about chemical exposure limits, "legal does not mean safe." I wonder if the same problems exist for OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limits, which are coming up on their 40th birthday?







Sunday, April 27, 2003


WORKERS MEMORIAL DAY SPECIAL

Remember when WMD stood for Workers Memorial Day?


Bush's OSHA: Flee from All That You Can Be

Now as you all know, I really try to give these guys in the Administration the benefit of the doubt sometimes. Even if they weren't really elected. Even if many of them are anti-worker zealots who behave like subsidiaries of the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers. I think some of them really do want to do something to save workers' lives, in their odd, dysfunctional, nasty Republican way. And you've got to give them a little credit for recognizing Workers Memorial Day every year. A little.

But sometimes, sometimes, they just drive me over the edge. Especially on Workers Memorial Day. Let me count the ways.

1. OSHA's theme for Workers Memorial Day 2003 is “Safety and health add value to businesses, workplaces and people's lives.” We know that this is the them because OSHA’s Workers Memorial Day Press Release repeats this phrase twice. This is amusing because this was the year that the New York Times and Frontline did a series on McWane Industries, which clearly believed that added value lay in making as much money as possible not caring how many workers you injured or killed until finally high OSHA fines, adverse media attention and threats of criminal prosecution forced the company to be accountable for its workers' safety and health. Interestingly, corporate accountability is the world-wide labor union theme for Workers Memorial Day this year.

2. Henshaw to Families of Workplace Fatalities: "Message -- I care." Last year's big Workers Memorial Day announcement from OSHA was that Assistant Secretary John Henshaw would personally write letters to the families of all workers who are killed on the job. This year, OSHA triumphantly announced that Henshaw had, in fact, "written to the families of over 500 men and women who lost their lives while at work." (How careless of them to "lose" their lives. Where did they go?)
Statistical Note: Letters were sent to only 500 of the more than 6,000 workers killed in on-the-job "accidents" each year, because many are in state plan states and others fall outside of OSHA's jurisdiction, leaving 1,000 deaths that OSHA investigated. For half of those, "OSHA has not been able to identify parties where letters could be sent." Just as well. All those letters could have caused a musculoskeletal injury.
3. Last year on Workers Memorial Day, OSHA announced that it would "soon begin to collect data on country of origin and primary language capability for all workers involved in fatality and other serious accident investigations." That was a good thing. In fact if you look up the two recent confined space deaths that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, you would find that they were coded as immigrant workers.

Now that OSHA has a better handle on who's being killed, this year's big immigrant announcement was that OSHA was going to address the high number of immigrant fatalities by releasing not one, but two public service announcements to over 650 Spanish radio stations across the country. One spot is meant for employees and their families; the other targets employers.

We here at Confined Space think that these public service announcements should be really helpful in preventing the deaths of Hispanic workers. I can hardly wait to see them. I'm sure that if only those public service announcements had been out a few months ago, those two Hispanic workers (and probably hundreds of others) would be alive today. And I'm sure all of those employers who kill Hispanic workers are shaking in their boots:
Message from OSHA to Contractors Who Employee Hispanic Workers: You are accountable for the health and safety of your employees. Yet you have been taking advantage of your workers, especially your immigrant workers, seriously injuring and killing many of them. We're out of patience. You've been warned. You've had your last chance. We are now bringing down the full weight of the Government of the United States upon your heads. We are announcing today the release of two public service announcements. And if you don't shape up, we'll release two more. And we'll keep releasing them until you understand that health and safety means added value to your enterprise. And if you still don't get the message, you can look forward to a long, painful future of partnerships, alliances and voluntary guidelines.
Time out for an ironic note on all of this. Henshaw's promise to write letters to the families of workers killed in the workplace ("lost their lives") drew strong praise from Ron Hayes, a member of OSHA's National Advisory Committee on Safety and Health, who became a workplace safety activist several years ago after his son was killed in a workplace accident and OSHA fined the company only $42,000. The irony, is that the TOTAL fine against the company that killed the two workers in the confined space referenced above was $62,000. Only $56,000 of that -- $23,000 a body -- was for the fatalities.

4. Eureka! On this Workers Memorial Day, OSHA has just discovered (or re-discovered) that "the long term health effects of exposure to chemicals and other toxins can take years and even decades to determine." So what's the agency to do with this new-found knowledge?

Three guesses.
a) Issue new chemical exposure standards.

b) Announce a major new initiative to propose legislation allowing the agency to revise OSHA's old Permissible Exposure Limits for chemicals -- limits that are currently based on recommendations from the 1960's

c) Announce that a respiratory disease study will be undertaken in cooperation with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to improve outreach, compliance assistance and enforcement efforts relating to specific contaminants and industries.

d) Announce a health targeting system, similar to one used to guide enforcement efforts in general industry.

e) (c) and (d)

f) (a) and (b)

(Hint: If you guessed (a) or (b), I know a guy in Baghdad who has some Weapons of Mass Destruction to sell you.)
Time's up. The correct answer is (e). (Really)

5. Enhanced Enforcement: Last month the agency announced its "Enhanced Enforcement Program to target employers who have a history of the most severe safety and health violations." This is a result of the McWane investigation by the NY Times and Frontline. They're going after the bad actors. But no sign that they are planning to increase penalties. The AFL-CIO reports that in FY 2002, serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act carried an average penalty of only $886 ($867 for Federal OSHA, $904 for state OSHA plans).

I remember not too long ago OSHA would frequently issue million dollar penalties for ergonomic and other hazards. Their latest ergonomic citations were a few hundred dollars.

As for me, I'd take all the parking tickets you can give me as long as the fines are low enough.

6. Finally, maybe I'm quibbling about wording. This is what John Henshaw said: "Every day 16 workers die in this country, and many more become injured or seriously ill. We must challenge those who are not doing their part to step up to the plate."

Now, when my kids need to do better in school, I "challenge" them to "step up to the plate." When my kids are afraid of striking out in baseball, I "challenge" them to "step up to the plate." But when my kids do something incredibly boneheaded or dangerous or careless that endangers their lives or the lives of others -- especially when they knew what they were doing was wrong -- I'm way past "challenging" them to "step up to the plate." Exit supportive parent. ENTER WRATHFUL GOD.

WHY DO WE CARE?

This is the introduction to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970:
To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act; by assisting and encouraging the States in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions; by providing for research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health; and for other purposes.
Cutting through all of the spin and press releases and rhetoric, this is the bottom line: Congress gave OSHA the responsibility and the mandate to develop standards and enforce those standards in order to make employers accountable for assuring American workers a safe and healthful workplace. Employees have right to a safe and healthful workplace and the employer is responsible. The bald truth is that OSHA is not fulfilling the mandate that Congress gave it, nor are they even making a good faith attempt to do so. Despite the high number of new and revised standards needed to make our workplaces safer, OSHA has gone out of the standards business. They don't have enough inspectors to reach more than a small fraction of American workplaces each year, and even when they do inspect a workplace and cite an employer – often after workers have been killed or injured due to willfull violations of OSHA standards, the penalties are so low that most employers don't even care. They add more value to their businesses by correctly figuring that they'll never see an OSHA inspector.

You know what? I’ve changed my mind. I refuse to give them credit for recognizing Workers Memorial Day. It just cheapens the whole thing and allows them to rest smugly in their hypocrisy and dishonesty. As far as I’m concerned, Bush’s recognition of Workers Memorial Day adds no value – or dignity -- to anyone’s lives.

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Interesting Facts:

U.S. Dead in Iraq War (March 20 - April 14): 134. Find their names here and here and here and many other places.

U.S. Dead in American Workplaces (March 20 - April 14): Approximately 416 (not counting those killed by workplace illnesses) Bet you can't find most of their names anywhere.

And, just in case you're interested:

Iraqi Casualties (March 20 - April 14): Don't ask.



Saturday, April 26, 2003


AFL-CIO Releases 12th Annual Death on the Job Report

The AFL-CIO has released its 12 Annual Death on the Job report. The report is a national and state-by-state profile of worker safety and health in the United States. It's considered the policy "bible" for workplace health and safety activists. Here are some of the "highlights." But be sure to download the entire report. Use the information when dealing with politicians and those who hope to be politicians.
  • Penalties for significant violations of the law remain low. In FY 2002, serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act carried an average penalty of only $886 ($867 for Federal OSHA, $904 for state OSHA plans).

  • Between FY 1999 and FY 2002, the number of employees covered by Federal OSHA inspections decreased by nearly twenty percent. The average number of hours spent per inspection also decreased, from 22 to 19.1 hours for safety inspections and from 40 to 32.7 hours per health inspection. The number of citations for willful violations decreased from 607 in FY 1999 to 392 in FY 2002. The average penalty per violation decreased by 19 percent, with the average penalty per willful violations decreasing by 25 percent.

  • At its current staffing levels and inspection levels, it would take Federal OSHA 115 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. In four states (Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi), it would take more than 150 years for OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace. In 18 states, it would take between 100 and 149 years to visit each workplace once. Inspection frequency is better in states with OSHA approved plans, yet still far from satisfactory.

  • The current OSHA law still does not cover 8.3 million state and local government employees.

  • After two and a half years under the Bush Administration, rulemaking at OSHA and MSHA has virtually ground to a halt.
    President Bush's proposed FY 2004 budget cuts funding for the nation's worker safety and health programs.

  • For the second year in a row, the Bush Administration has proposed to slash the NIOSH budget

  • There was a great deal of activity on state workers' compensation, driven in large part by insurers seeking to cut benefits or limit eligibility in an effort to boost profits after too much reliance on income from the stock market and years of cutting premiums to attract new customers.

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No Doze?

April 1997, mid-afternoon: We were on the interstate outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania, driving back from a skiing trip in Canada, my wife beside me and the three kids in the back of the van. Traffic slowed to a stop because of an accident or road construction in front of us I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw a speeding semi bearing down on us. Before I could react, it hit us, slamming us into the car ahead, blowing our air bags and squishing our Windstar mini-van into the size of a compact Honda. Happily, aside from a few bloody noses, a slightly impaled leg from an unsafely stowed ski pole (my bad) and a bit of psychological trauma, we were all OK.

We were never sure why the truck hit us, although some people thought the driver must have been dozing. It was a clear, straight road and other truckers reported warning him over C.B. that traffic had stopped ahead.


So I observe with great interest an announcement of new federal rules that will “will allow truckers to drive an hour longer each day but require them to take two more hours of rest." The Washington Post reports that

Safety groups and unionized truck drivers oppose the new rule. Trucking companies are expected to endorse it, officials said.
The rule, which will be announced by the Transportation Department, will allow drivers to be behind the wheel for 11 hours instead of the current 10, sources said. But their overall shift, which includes time for breaks, loading and unloading, will be cut an hour to 14 hours.
The new rule, the sources added, will require drivers to take 10 consecutive hours off, instead of the current eight. Regulators who settled on the 10-hour rest period said research supports giving truckers longer periods to ease fatigue.

Drivers represented by the Teamsters union said they have "serious concerns" about the rule change because the increase in allowed driving time could add to fatigue. "It's something that helps the companies because they can work drivers harder and put them on longer runs," said Rob Black, spokesman for the Teamsters.

Safety groups were unhappy too, especially because the new rule will not require trucking operators to use electronic recording devices to keep accurate logs of the time drivers are on the road.

"The rule is meaningless without enforcement. They can't enforce 10 hours of driving now. How will they enforce 11?" said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
...
The safety group also said that although drivers will get more time to sleep, the benefit will be offset by longer driving times. Gillan said research shows that drivers become tired after eight or nine hours on the road.
OK. I feel much safer now.



Friday, April 25, 2003


More Workers Memorial Day News

Planning a Workers Memorial Day event this weekend? Feeling alone and isolated? Well don’t. You’ve got brothers and sisters all over the world doing the same thing. Click here to find out what’s going on in the Australia • Bangladesh • Bermuda • Brazil • Canada • China • Hong Kong • Hungary • New Zealand • Spain • Sweden • Taiwan • Thailand • United Kingdom • USA • International. Click here for more information.

Poetry To My Ears

And for more inspiration, here’s a Workers Memorial Day poem from the UAW website.

And finally

Congressman Major Owens (D-NY)will hold a workplace safety hearing in New York City on April 28, 2003, Workers Memorial Day. Owens, who is the ranking Democrat on the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and the Workforce of the US House of Representatives, stated that this would be “the first of a series of activities to promote laws and regulations which protect and enhance workplace safety”

“We must fight to protect working families on many fronts with a multitude of battles. At a time when workers are making great sacrifices in blood as well as sweat; we must mount a counter offensive against cold-blooded exploiters who believe workers are expendable." Said Owens.

This is not an official Hearing of the House of Representatives because, in our peculiar form of democracy, the Republican House majority won't let the minority hold their own hearings. Refusing to learn his place, Congressman Owens will be holding a series of hearings in the coming year. If you're represented by the minority, maybe that's an idea you should suggest to your Congressional Representative.




Carty Ousted

Clearly the American Airlines board took my article (see below) more seriously than the Wall St. Journal editorial. Feel the power!



Thursday, April 24, 2003


Postal Worker Anthrax Coverup, Continued

According to the New York Times, postal workers in Wallingford are a bit upset that they were lied to by the Postal Service about anthrax contamination in 2001 (see below).
It took seven months for managers to respond to a request for a full report on the contamination, said John Dirzius, president of the American Postal Workers Union local, which represents two-thirds of the 1,200 people who work in the Wallingford center. Today, postal workers here said they wanted an explanation.

"Why hasn't somebody come to a podium saying, `We made the wrong call'?" said James Willard, a mechanic who has worked at the Wallingford center for eight years. "The morale is down a lot and I don't know if that will be bridged."

Postal Service officials said today that it was the responsibility of health agencies to release medical information.

"On that score, we deliver mail," said Gerry McKiernan, a Postal Service spokesman. "We're not medical experts. We took the advice the medical experts gave us at the time."

But one of those experts, Dr. James Hadler, Connecticut's chief epidemiologist, said the State Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control had told postal managers that the information should be released.

"They told us, `We want to be the ones to tell the media and our employees,' " Dr. Hadler said.
...
The union membership now hopes for a formal apology said Mr. Dirzius.Asked if one was forthcoming, Mr. McKiernan said he could not comment on a matter between labor and management.

The American Way?

This may not be a health and safety issue, but indicative of the same corporate mentality. You are probably aware of the brou-ha-ha over American Airlines convincing their unions that concessions were needed to avoid bankruptcy, but then revealing that (oops), the airline had failed to disclose before the voting that it planned to pay bonuses to six top executives next year and protect part of the pensions of 45 executives if the airline sought bankruptcy. The bonuses since have been rescinded (not the pensions), but the unions are demanding a revote. Molly Ivins had awarded it her “Boneheads of the Month” title.

Well, to the rescue rides (who else) the Wall St. Journal editorial page which says it might have been nice for American to have disclosed the information “for transparency's sake,” but that the favors to the executives were justified because what with the terrorism, falling stock prices and the “nighmares” of regulatory and labor relations problems, “CEOs,aren't exactly falling all over` each other to land airline jobs these days… That would have left the carrier with a management vacuum.” As Molly Ivins says, “I don't know if you've looked around the airline industry lately, but there is not a whole lot of executive head-hunting going on. What are they going to do, go to work for US Airways? United? Delta?”

Certainly not to Northwest, which announced yesterday that it “plans to cut the salaries and benefits of its 3,000 management employees by 5 percent to 15 percent to help the company return to profitability.” Even Wall St. likes it (not the Journal); Northwest’s stock prices rose yesterday.

And as if American’s not having a bad enough day, St. Louis University has rescinded its invitation to American CEO Donald Carty to be the university’s commencement speaker. Carty was to have received an honorary doctor of laws degree.

But the Wall St. Journal still doesn’t get it. They're worried that “because they are mad about Mr. Carty's bonus, the unions plan to take revenge by voting to put the airline into bankruptcy under which their members will take even bigger pay cuts or will lose their jobs altogether.”

So, workers are supposed to accept all the lies and disrespect the company can dish out -- and do it with a SMILE on their faces -- and then trust the company to be concerned about their welfare in the future? Someday people will understand that workers join unions not just for more money and better benefits, but also for a little fairness and R-E-S-P-E-C-T. At least Don Carty should now understand that, even if the WSJ doesn’t.



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.



Tuesday, April 22, 2003


Earth Day? We Don't Need No Stinkin Earth Day!

Can't believe I almost forgot it was Earth Day. Maybe it just seems kind of, well, dumb to celebrate Earth Day while watching those guys down the street take us back to those polluted days of yesteryear. And then we have things like this to brighten my week.(Check out the third paragraph and then check here to see why it's all a grand conspiracy.) But, happily, Eric Alterman pointed out a web page that made my day.

[Note From JB: I just put 4 links to other websites in this one short paragraph. Unless you link to them, you have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about. We bloggers do this kind of thing a lot. I don't know why. I'm new at this. Maybe we're showing off. Maybe we do it because we can. Maybe, in all of our modesty, we know that we can't explain a website or article as well as the website or article itself. I'd like to know if you find this (a) incredibly irritating or (b) amazingly clever and useful. Vote here.]




WORKERS MEMORIAL DAY 2003

April 28 is Workers Memorial Day -- not just in the United States, but world-wide. You can get to the AFL-CIO's Workers Memorial Day website by clicking on the button at the top. For events world-wide, the best resource is Hazards from where you can look up events in over a dozen countries and download flyers and posters. If you haven't planned an event, find one to join. We are truly not alone.

Deadly Business

And when you're done mourning for the dead, it's time to start fighting for the living. While I write about putting employers in jail who kill workers, Hazards Magaizine has whole websites devoted to the idea. Check out Safety Crimes and Deadly Business pages. (While you're at it, check out the entire site. It's an excellent resource, and thanks to the Web, available in a computer near you.). It's full of articles and posters and even a postcard campaign to Tony Blair, urging the British goverment to pass a long promised safety bill.

Hmm. Might be some ideas that will work on this side of the Atlantic as well.





Speaking of international Workers Memorial Day, let's also remember those who need health and safety protections most, and probably enjoy them least. This rather disturbing Guardian article was forwarded by Hazards editor Rory O'Neil.

Hell on earth

This is the most polluted place in Russia - where the snow is black, the air tastes of sulphur and the life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average. But now a local union rep is taking on the might of Russian industry in Sunday's mayoral elections - and promising to clean up the town. Nick Paton Walsh is one of the few foreigners to be allowed in.

Nick Paton Walsh
Friday April 18, 2003
The Guardian

For Volodia Tuitin, snow comes in many colours. It can be black. Sometimes it is a dirty yellow or even pink. Tuitin has spent all his 45 years in they heavily polluted mining town of Norilsk, where he now works in a copper-smelting factory. His life has been dominated by the same skyline - a desolate set of snowdrifts and battered tower blocks - punctured by tall chimney stacks belching out heavy metals and industrial dust. This is the most polluted town in Russia.

Tuitin endures daily work in the electrolysis plant. Here, toxic fumes blind the senses, forcing him and his colleagues to wear respirators. Lists of dead workers adorn the walls of the plant's lobby, usually men "only 50 or 52 years old", Tuitin says. Many of his colleagues hide their illnesses to avoid losing shifts. "If I lose my job, then I won't find another place to work in this town. What will my family eat? We go to work despite knowing conditions are bad. Forced work like this is normally called slavery."
Read the rest




Free Speech for OSHA Inspectors? Surely You Jest

Seems that OSHA inspectors and other US Department of Labor (DOL) field employees are still allowed to have their union and their newsletter (they haven't been labeled security risks yet), as long as they're careful about what they say. Apparently the survival of the program they are dedicating their worklives to is not legitimate grounds for discussion by the union -- at least if they're going to use Department of Labor interoffice mail. According to an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, "At issue were an article and a cartoon criticizing White House policies on tax cuts and hiring private contractors for government jobs."

But the Labor Department says distribution of the December issue of the newsletter, the Courier, (the newsletter of the National Council of Field Labor Locals of the American Federation of Government Employees) was stopped because the publication "violated guidelines worked out by the union and the agency about what could be sent through the department's interoffice mail."

"Al Belsky, a Labor Department spokesman, said part of the December newsletter went beyond the guidelines for what can be distributed. The newsletter must be limited to matters of union interest to go through interoffice mail, he said." I guess tax cuts that will reduce the money to pay for OSHA enforcement and possible contracting out of OSHA jobs are not issues that the union representing OSHA inspectors should be interested in.

''That's not to say they couldn't distribute this some other way,'' he said. ''It's not censorship.'' Gee, thanks Al.

The union has filed a grievance against the agency for blocking interoffice mail distribution of its newsletter. It's not nice to mess with Secretary Chao.



Monday, April 21, 2003


Europe Whips US Companies Into Shape

For those of you who are victims of the regulatory wars of recent years (that is if you are members of labor unions, government, environmental organizations, or if you work in hazardous workplaces, or live in a polluted environment), you need to read this fascinating article in the NY Times. Excuse me if I quote from it extensively (all emphasis is added by me):
The European Union, which includes 15 member countries from Portugal to Finland and Ireland to Greece, is adopting environmental and consumer protection legislation that will go further in regulating corporate behavior than almost anything the United States government has enacted in decades. For American companies that are accustomed to getting their way in Washington, it has come as a shock.
...

Earlier this year, the European Union adopted two rules that companies in the United States estimate will cost them hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The first will prohibit electronics makers from using lead, mercury and other heavy metals in their products. The second will require the makers of consumer electronics and household appliances to pick up the bill for recycling their products. Since last year, automakers have had to take responsibility for recycling the cars they sell.

...

Broader and costlier rules are in the works. Among them are a requirement that chemical makers run safety and environmental impact tests on more than 30,000 chemicals; the industry has said that the rule could cost it more than $7 billion. The commission is also considering prohibiting consumer products companies from directing television commercials at children. And it is looking at passing a law to encourage manufacturers to cut the energy used and greenhouse gases generated in making their products. It also wants to reduce the number and volume of hazardous chemicals in products made in Europe.
OK, lets stop here for a moment. Why is this? Why can the European Union impose these regulations not only on their own companies, but on U.S. companies. Regulations one-quarter this stringent in the U.S. bring cries of SOCIALISM! WAR ON SMALL BUSINESS! KILLING THE GOOSE THAT LAID THE GOLDEN EGG! JOB KILLERS! COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS! REGULATORY REFORM!

And that's just from the Democrats.

So what's their secret?
In Washington, corporate lobbying has weakened or killed legislation aimed at regulating tobacco, pharmaceuticals and pollutants that contribute to global warming. In all three cases, the affected industries spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and advertising, all to persuade lawmakers that regulation restricted the free market and would hurt American business.

Such tactics would not play well in Europe, where there is a long history of state intervention in the economy and where senior government officials are usually more highly regarded than are corporate executives.
Not only that, but
Some American business practices are regarded with deep suspicion here, in light of the corporate accounting scandals and what many Europeans see as the Bush administration's high-handed and unilateralist policies on the environment and Iraq.
Yeah, yeah, they're viewed "with deep suspicion" here too. Fat lot of good it does.

And here's an idea:
In the European Union, measures often seek to avert harm before it occurs. By contrast, regulation in the United States often responds to a crisis; the recent Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, for example, tightened corporate accounting rules after the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

"No longer do public authorities need to prove they are dangerous," she said at a recent conference on the chemicals legislation. "The onus is now on industry" to demonstrate that the products they sell are safe, she added.
Gosh, why didn't we think of that. Oh, yeah, I forgot, in this country we treat chemicals like people: innocent until proven guilty. (Actually, since passage of the Patriot Act, chemicals have more rights than people.)

Oh, but let's not forget that we're talking about those limp-wristed, Sadaam-loving, snail-eating French and their equally squirly German neighbors:
Often, American executives are bewildered when European ideals of social democracy trump America's more laissez-faire values. In Europe, "there is a whole kind of underlying socialist suspicion of corporations," said a lobbyist for an American investment bank. "Consumers are treated like children in Europe."
Au contraire, mein Freund. Seems to me consumers (and workers) are treated like f*!%#^ing HUMAN BEINGS rather than the losing end of a cost-benefit analysis. Hell, we don't even treat children like children in this country.
European regulators, however, seem to perceive the companies themselves as children who will misbehave if left unattended. In Washington, corporate lobbyists deride legislation as an example of "big government." But such arguments do not play in Brussels.
Now these are the two best paragraphs:
John T. Disharoon, a lobbyist for Caterpillar who moved to Brussels three years ago from Washington, says policy makers in the United States are generally more accountable to the public than European regulators. "So it basically changes the entire lobbying dynamic," he said. "Traditional pressure points like jobs, economic data, what it will do to industry are not as effective."
Note from the editor: More accountable to the public? The Public? Who do we think Mr. Disharoon considers "the public" here? Three guesses:

(a) Workers
(b) Consumers
(c) Business Interests

If you don't know the answer, read on....
The biggest difference in Brussels and Washington, lobbyists here say, is that American politicians rely far more on corporate donations to finance their election campaigns. Further, the revolving-door phenomenon, a virtual institution in Washington where former officials go to work for the industries they once regulated, is far less common in Brussels.
(I once again want to thank Grist for bringing this article to my attention as it was buried somewhere in yesterday's business section, rather than being on the front page of Section A where it belonged.)

It's amazing what a clear picture we can get of ourselves by looking through the eyes of other countries. What we're dealing with in this country is a no-holds barred, ideological war against workers, consumer, children, communities and the environment, using lies like economic efficiency, weighing costs and benefits, and tons of other garbage. And it's a war we're losing and will continue to lose unless we educate people and make them mad. Not mad enough to despair. Just mad enough to fight.





Life Gets Cheaper

And while I'm in such a fine mood, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?
Contractor Cited for Exposing Workers to Confined Space Hazards
Two Employees Died at Miami Beach Job Site

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Electrical Technologies Corporation for exposing employees to safety hazards at a Miami Beach job site where two workers died after entering a manhole and being exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas. The agency issued four citations with proposed penalties totaling $62,000.
Now, all of you who have been reading my rants for the last few years know that I have this THING about employers killing workers in trenches. Because EVERYONE who is in construction knows that trenches can collapse and kill. And they should go to jail if they kill people in trenches.

I also have a THING about confined spaces. Partly the same reason. And partly because about 10 years back an AFSCME member was killed in a manhole and the manager said "Oh, gosh! We never had any idea. Someone must of poured some chemical in there or something. Just one of those terrible tragic things." This person should have gone to jail, because no one who runs a wastewater treatment plant or a sewage system can honestly claim they don't know about confined spaces. This person didn't go to jail. The employer (the city) wasn't even cited or fined because this happened in one of 26 states in this country where it is still perfectly legal to kill public employees.

But I digress....

First, why does this press release say "Contractor Cited for Exposing Workers to Confined Space Hazards?" The Contractor didn't "expose" workers to confined space hazards. The contractor killed two workers in a confined space.

Second, why is the fine only $56,000 for willfully killing two people -- the original victim and the rescuer. (Actually, they probably came within seconds of killing a third worker -- another potential rescuer who managed to get out when he felt dizzy.) Quite a bargain for two -- almost three -- deaths. And just to add insult to injury, four guys had been working inside an unsafe 12-foot deep trench before one climbed down the manhole to unclog a hose. Those and other citations brought the grand total to a whopping $62,000.

Now everyone knows that OSHA doesn't have anywhere near enough staff to do the job that Congress told it to do 33 years ago. But what they can do is send a message to the employers that probably won't be inspected. $62,000 may be an "ouch" for a small contractors, but the potential for millions of dollars or jail time might really catch their attention. I don't know what the circumstances were in this case. Maybe it was a small company. Maybe this, maybe that. But $28,000 per life?

But it's not all OSHA's fault. It's up to Congress to give OSHA the authority to increase its penalty structure and make it easier to impose criminal penalties and jail time.

I could go on and on. And I will. Some other day.

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How Low Can You Go?

When California and several other states banned the use of crippling short-handled hoes in the mid-1970's, farmworkers breathed a sigh of relief. But it didn't take long for farm owners to get around the ban. Instead of short-handled hoes, how about no hoes at all -- hand weeding? Pretty clever. Now the United Farm Workers, along with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the California Labor Federation are urging CalOSHA to ban hand weeding as well. Read about it in the LA Times.



Sunday, April 20, 2003


Club for Growth: Never Underestimate the Stupidity of the American People

Check this out. And it's not from the Onion. What are these people thinking???

Conservatives Attack Two GOP Senators With Electronically Doctored Images

Washington Post
Sunday, April 20, 2003; Page A05


Politicians generally are happy to pose with a flag. But not the French flag, especially these days.

With the help of a little digital wizardry, the conservative Club for Growth is airing ads showing Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio) in proximity to French flags in order to disparage their resistance to President Bush's tax-cut plans.

Snowe and Voinovich have said they will support only $350 billion of Bush's $726 billion proposal, and their critical votes in the closely divided Senate this month led to a deal aimed at limiting the tax cut to $350 billion. This raised the ire of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax advocacy group with a penchant for throwing political rocks at moderate Republicans.

The TV ads, which will run for 10 days in Maine and Ohio, recall France's opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They go on to say "some so-called Republicans," naming Snowe in the Maine ads and Voinovich in the Ohio ads, "stand in the way" of Bush's tax-cutting plans at home. Digitally inserted French flags flutter beside the senators' images.

"It's hilarious," said Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn. "It reminds me of the Iraqi information minister's daily briefing. It's so incredible that it barely deserves a response."

The Republican Main Street Partnership, representing about 65 moderate GOP lawmakers and governors – including Snowe but not Voinovich – is responding with newspaper and TV ads that defend Snowe and describe the Club for Growth as "misinformed New York City elitists."

As for the French flag, it may not have been such as good idea in the Maine ads. A good number of Snowe's constituents are of French Canadian ancestry, and they rather like the French flag.
Well if the French are opposed to tax cuts for the rich, huge deficits, underfunding education, cutting back on health care for children, the poor and the elderly, and defunding workplace health and safety and environmental enforcement agencies, then all I can say is Viva la France!

By the way, you can see the ads yourself at the Club for Growth's web page.

Their mission is to run conservative Republicans to the right of the moderates. Seems to work pretty well. Either they pick up a more conservative congressional seat (or at least a nomination), or they at least force the Republican moderates to always be looking over their right shoulders.

Now why can't the left do that? When a bunch of Democrats (Lincoln (D-AR), Hollings (D-SC), Breaux (D-LA), Landrieu (D-LA), Miller (D?-GA) and Baucus (D-MT)) betrayed the people who elected them by voting to overturn OSHA's ergonomics standard in 2001, the AFL-CIO jumped up and down and screamed and yelled and then worked their asses off to get them all re-elected. And given the situation, it was the only thing we could do. Given the situation.... But maybe we need to change the situation. Start our own "Club."



Friday, April 18, 2003


Have a nice weekend

Going to West Virginia for the weekend. No internet. Happy Easter. Later....




(Agent) Orange Alert

The Daily Grist reports on a NY Times story in the about a study showing that
The U.S. military sprayed twice as much herbicide on Vietnam during the war there than previously estimated, according to a study published today in the journal Nature. Relying on previously unexamined military documents and new assessments of dioxin concentrations, the study found that an additional 1.8 million gallons of toxic herbicides, mostly Agent Orange, were used by the Armed Forces. From 1961 to 1971, more than 10 percent of what was then South Vietnam was sprayed with defoliants in an effort to destroy food crops and remove forest cover from combat areas. An estimated 14 percent of Vietnam's forests were obliterated, and the herbicides have been blamed for birth defects and illnesses in both Vietnamese citizens and American veterans. The U.S. compensates veterans for diseases associated with the spraying in Vietnam but has refused recompense to the Vietnamese until more data are available.
Dr. Jean Stellman, of Columbia University, who authored the report said that the report "also suggested that a significantly higher number of Vietnamese civilians had been directly exposed to the spraying than had earlier been realized."

By the way, if you're interested in environmental issues, brought to you in a concise, interesting and often humorous style, you need to check out the Daily Grist. They'll also e-mail you a digest of articles every day.




Working Conditions Improve Due to Labor Struggles

Found a good article that talks about the role of Canadian unions in the struggle to improve workplace safety and health:
It was 1963, the year that coincided with the birth of Canadian Occupational Safety, that Joe Morris, then vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, set out the principles that have guided labour in its efforts to protect the lives, health and limbs of employees in the workplace.

“It is the responsibility of the government to set minimum standards of working conditions; it is the responsibility of management to provide safe and comfortable working conditions; and it is the responsibility of labour to ensure that the conditions it enjoys are safe, and that they are maintained that way."
The article highlights labor's contribution to addressing the hazards of asbestos, toxic chemicals, workplace stress, ergonomics, mining and the new issues like work processes.

Something to consider in the great debate over whether unions should devote resources to workplace health and safety. Makes you feel like the fight is worth it.

(This article is one of several interesting articles to the 40th anniversary issue of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine. Check it out.)




Moderate Republicans to Bush: Lay off Labor

E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post writes today about moderate, pro-labor Republicans who oppose Bush Administration efforts to harass the labor movement by increasing the burden and complexity of the required LM-2 Financial Reporting form.

The Republicans wrote to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao earlier this month, stating that: "'We believe that union resources are best utilized when representing members during negotiations or grievance handling, not adapting and complying with an unprecedented level of detailed financial information and government forms," they wrote. 'While we share your concern over the burden of government regulation of small businesses, we believe the same standard should apply to labor organizations as well.'"

Dionne describes the recent Administration-Labor relationship: "The reporting rules are just one of many swipes the administration has taken at organized labor. Last year's homeland security bill was held up by a single issue: whether employees of the new department would be guaranteed collective bargaining rights and civil service protections. The president opposed the guarantees. He used the issue to win the 2002 congressional elections, and he got the bill he wanted. The administration quickly deployed its enhanced powers to deny collective bargaining rights to 56,000 newly federalized airport screeners."

Noting efforts by many labor leaders to get past the Ullico scandal by calling for the resignation of Ullico President Robert Georgine, Dionne concludes that: "American workers deserve honest unions. That means they also deserve an administration that doesn't see disabling the labor movement as one of its essential political goals. In their letter, the pro-labor Republicans argued that there are 'better ways to help rank-and-file members obtain useful information about their unions.' Too bad there's not much of an audience in these partisan days for such sweet reasonableness."



Thursday, April 17, 2003


The Cost of Workplace Injury and Illness

Liberty Mutual insurance company has released its annual Workplace Safety Index showing that the direct cost of disabling work-related injuries and illnesses grew by 8.3% between 1998 and 2000 to reach $42.5 billion (that’s with a “b”) a year. The $42 billion only counts “direct” costs, which include “payments made to injured workers and their medical care providers.” Direct costs are only a part of the total costs.

“Indirect” costs, such as “overtime, training and lost productivity related to an injured employee not being about to perform their normal work” are estimated by Liberty Mutual to be between $127 billion and $212 billion, bringing the total financial impact of disabling workplace incidents to an astounding $170 billion to $255 billion a year. This is based on a survey of managers, 40 percent of whom report that each $1 of direct costs generates between $3 and $5 of indirect costs.

And even this is an underestimate as Liberty Mutual defines a “disabling incident” as six or more days away from work. This means that injuries resulting in less than 6 days away from work aren’t even counted in the total cost.

Ergonomic injuries accounted in 2000 for over a third ($14.7 billion) of the total direct cost of workplace injuries and illnesses, with “overexertion” accounting for $11.9 billion or 28% of total direct costs, and “Repetitive Motion” accounting for $2.8 billion, or 6.5% of the total. Liberty Mutual estimated ergonomic injuries to total only $13 billion in 1999 and $12.1 billion in 1998. As many states don't even compensate for many ergonomic injuries, these costs most likely seriously underestimate the total cost of ergonomic injuries as well.

During this same period that we saw the costs of workplace injuries and illnesses rising, the frequency of disabling workplace injuries fell a little more than 1 percent. Liberty Mutual blames the increase in costs to growing use of advanced and expensive medical treatments, people going to the doctor more, and, most curiously, the alleged fact that many jurisdictions have broadened their definition of work-related injuries, meaning that workers compensation covers more medical conditions that previously. I’m not sure if there is anyone involved in the workers compensation field who could cite a major movement toward broadening coverage workplace medical conditions, especially workplace disease. And the general trend in many states is to reduce workers compensation benefits.




And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Happy Passover



Wednesday, April 16, 2003


Tim Robbins on Patriotism, Dissent and Baseball

Tim Robbins gave a great speech at the National Press Club today which is being broadcast (right now!) on CSPAN. As Congress is out (thank God!), CSPAN is showing a lot of repeats, so maybe it will be on again. Check the CSPAN schedule. Watch it.

P.S. Or, thanks to Rory O'Neil, I now have a copy of the transcript. I'll send it to you if you E-Mail Me.

P.P.S. Or, you can also find it here.



Tuesday, April 15, 2003


OSHA: TB Standard? What TB Standard?

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald W. McEntee today petitioned Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to immediately issue its long overdue tuberculosis (TB) standard to protect American workers against exposure to TB, a standard that will also protect workers against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). AFSCME was among the unions to originally petition the agency for a TB standard almost 10 years ago.

OSHA originally proposed a TB standard in 1997 and was close to issuing the standard when the Bush Administration came in and immediately shoved it to the back burner. OSHA even has a Compliance Directive enabling the agency to enforce violations of best practices for TB control. The standard was strongly opposed by such organizations as the American Hospital Assocation.Thirteen people have died of SARS in Canada and there have been 193 suspected cases in the U.S., but no deaths.

In what might be considered an understatement, James August, director of occupational safety and health for AFSCME warned that
"There is great anxiety among health-care workers that it could happen here because of international travel. And there is no reason to think it couldn't, given what happened in Toronto."
AFSCME was one of several unions to originally petition OSHA for a TB standard in 1995.

What's most interesting about this saga is that OSHA just posted a SARS Web Page. And although there are tons of references to OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard and references on its SARS webpage, there's not a single reference to tuberculosis, despite the fact that OSHA has an extensive TB webpage describing the same precautions that are needed to protect health care workers and others against SARS. Is the agency embarassed that it had deepsixed the standard when it's clear now that it was needed?

Actually, it's clear that a TB standard was already needed. Athough a serious outbreak several years ago was controlled, TB is still a serious problem in the United States. Drug resistant strains are especially deadly. And, as OSHA documents, in its Web Page, "TB is the leading cause of death due to an infectious agent in the world," which means it's a major problem among immigrants in the U.S.and anyone who is exposed to them.

AFSCME's petition referenced a National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine (IOM) 2001 Report that "Overall, the committee concludes that tuberculosis remains a threat to some health care, correctional facility, and other workers in the United States. Although the risk has been decreasing in recent years, vigilance is still needed within hospitals, prison, and similar workplaces, as well as in the community at large." The IOM study also concluded that an OSHA standard was necessary to protect workers.

On the other hand, OSHA has designed an attractive SARS logo and the agency, which has basically gone out of the regulations business, has included its usual legal disclaimer on the SARS web page, assuring employers that while they can be cited under the General Duty Clause for not providing a safe workplace, the the information on its web site is not "itself is not a new standard or regulation, and it creates no new or independent legal obligations." Wouldn't actually want to cite employers for not protecting their employees.

According to a Reuters article, "Officials at OSHA declined comment." Must be busy with homeland security, and voluntary guidelines and, uh, stuff.

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More McWane Violations: High Crimes, Low Fines

There was once a time in America where a small agency called OSHA sent big messages to American industry by handing out million-plus dollar fines to deserving enterprises. Of course that was when we had a pinkos in the White House named Reagan and Bush (I).

NY Times, Tuesday, April 15, 2003:

"McWane Inc., an Alabama-based pipe manufacturer with one of the worst workplace safety records in America, has been fined $196,000 for new violations at its largest plant, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced yesterday."

"Union officials, long critical of OSHA's enforcement efforts, said that yesterday's fines were far too light given McWane's history and the gravity of the new violations.

"These are things that kill people," Margaret Seminario, director of safety and health at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said of the new violations at Tyler Pipe. "Here you have very, very serious hazards, an employer with an atrocious record. And you get basically a slap on the wrist with respect to enforcement."

More here.

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Monday, April 14, 2003


Worker "Error" Department (Cont'd)

Workplace accidents seem so easy to figure out if you don't know what the workers were actually doing and what the working conditions actually were.

"The guy just wasn't paying attention. That's why he got hit by the truck/forklift/box." "The guy was supposed to be flagging, but he wasn't following proper procedures."

Cause identified.
Culprit found and duly punished.
Case closed.
Justice done.
Too bad.
You all be more careful next time.
Move on.

There was an excellent article in today's Newsday describing what actually went on down in the NY Subway when New York City Transit worker Joy Antony was hit by a train and killed when he was supposed to be "flagging," but had been told to do other duties by his supervisor, Deanroy Cox. Now they want to fire Cox and the Transport Workers Union is criticizing the decision, even though Cox is a supervisor and not a member of the union. I talked about this a few days ago, but this article goes into more detail about why this was a management system failure, and not a supervisor's error. It's nice to think that sometimes the "buck" stops at the top. But more often than not, the shit rolls downhill.

If I was King of the World, there would be a requirement that before passing judgment on any worker for an "error" that led to an injury or fatality, the "judges" would do the job, under the same conditions for a week. Then tell us who's to blame.

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Broaden the Struggle: We all have a Right to Know

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a story about the Tualatin Valley Water District that had discovered that it bought products from McWane Industries, a company investigated by the NY Times and Frontline for the high number of worker deaths and injuries in their facilities. The water district was exploring the idea of changing suppliers due to the company’s record. Since then, I have received inquiries from municipal unions interested in taking similar actions against McWane.

But why stop with McWane? McWane may have been one of the worst actors, but certainly not the only bad actor in the United States, much less the rest of the world. How can public entities and other companies and organizations that are interested in sending a real message to corporate outlaws get the information that is needed about their environmental, labor and human rights practices?

Good question. One coalition is already working on this problem. The International Right To Know Campaign is a coalition of labor, environmental and human rights groups with the following purpose:
At this time of heightened concern about international issues, U.S. companies are informal ambassadors of our country around the world. When operating abroad, they should represent our democratic ideals and our values. However, American companies have too often been implicated in human rights abuses, environmental destruction and labor rights violations.

Here at home, U.S. companies are required to report specific environmental and labor information publicly. However, U.S. corporations have no legally binding obligations whatsoever to disclose comparable information for their operations abroad. Restoring trust in corporate America means U.S. companies must not only provide accurate financial information, they must also disclose information concerning their environmental, labor and human rights practices. Disclosure would allow investors and consumers to make educated choices – choices that are based on a factual and comprehensive portrayal of a company’s business activities – both here at home and abroad.
Check it out.

Southwestern Exposure

And, if you’re interested in what’s happening below (and on) the U.S.-Mexican border with U.S. companies, unions on both sides of the border, and campaigns to protect workers, check out the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, which is a network of 400 occupational safety and health professionals providing
information, technical assistance and on-site instruction regarding workplace hazards in the 3,000 "maquiladora" (foreign-owned assembly) plants along the U.S.-Mexico border. Network members, including industrial hygienists, occupational physicians and nurses, and health educators among others, are donating their time and expertise to create safer and healthier working conditions for the one million maquiladora workers employed by primarily U.S.-owned transnational corporations along Mexico's northern border from Matamoros to Tijuana.




More SARS

More information on labor unions' response to SARS:

Airline Unions Recommend That Members Be Cautious
Officials at the nation's airlines said last week that the cleaning methods they had in place were already sufficient to rid an aircraft of a mystery respiratory illness, even if an infected passenger was found on board.

But airline unions are recommending that their members take even more stringent action to protect themselves against severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS.

OSHA on SARS

OSHA had develped information on SARS that can be found here.

CDC's SARS webpage is here.

AFL-CIO SARS news is here.




Rumsfeld to Iraq's Heritage: "Hey, Shit Happens."

"In the months leading up to the Iraq war, U.S. scholars repeatedly urged the Defense Department to protect Iraq's priceless archaeological heritage"

"Months before the invasion of Iraq, Pentagon war planners anticipated the fall of Saddam Hussein would usher in a period of chaos and lawlessness, but for military reasons, they chose to field a light, fleet invasion force that could not hope to quell such unrest when it emerged, Pentagon officials said yesterday."


Rumsfeld: "We don't allow bad things to happen. Bad things happen in life, and people do loot."

Yeah, I mean it's not like we're, uh, responsible for anything that happens in Baghdad. Anything bad, that is.



Sunday, April 13, 2003


Meanwhile, Back On The Ranch....

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has hit hardest at those most involved in fighting it -- hospital workers. And hospitals, supposed to be havens during medical emergencies, have often turned out to be fountainheads of contagion.

INFECTING THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
Hospital Staff Are Hit Hardest by Deadly Lung Disease


Patricia Tamlin was working the night shift at Scarborough Hospital in Toronto when she started feeling hot. She was caring for a man fighting a dangerous new pneumonia, but had been protecting herself with masks and gloves. So she swallowed a Tylenol and finished her shift. What no one knew was that another man Tamlin had nursed was also infected. Read the rest in the Washington Post

And in the NY Times: Mystery Illness Changes Life of Hong Kong Doctor



Saturday, April 12, 2003


Short Takes

The House of Representatives has once again voted in favor of drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for the umpteenth time. The Senate will inevitably vote against. No one really believes it's going anywhere. "Insiders" think the only reason the Republicans keep brining it up is not that they think they'll prevail, but only to try to split the labor movement. Fortunately, on our side is Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who has done more to build political solidarity within the labor movement anyone else I can think of.

Who's Minding the Store?

I don't know why the NY Times story about sacking the National Museum of Iraq strikes me so hard. They're just "things," contrasted with with pictures and stories of dead and mutilated children and parents, no medical care, non-stop looting and mayhem -- but the fact that "Nothing remained, museum [in the museum] at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East," while the U.S. Army did almost nothing to stop it makes me kind of sick.

There's another reason all this is bothering me. While no one's watching to museums or hospitals in Baghdad, who is not watching the alleged chemical weapons and nuclear depots in other parts of the country (assuming they exist?) I'm afraid we're all going to have some whirlwinds to reap.



Friday, April 11, 2003


Worker Error Department, Part 2

Yet another in an occasional, but never-ending, series on how management blames workers (even if they’re supervisors) in order to cover up failures in management systems.

Transport Workers Union Calls Transit Authority Staffing Levels Dangerous

The New York City Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 has come to the defense of a New York City Transit (NYCT) supervisor who is being charged with responsibility for the death of a transit worker last November. NYCT management has proposed to fire the supervisor, Deanroy Cox, who is not a member of Local 100.

"Management is scapegoating Cox for something that was the fault of managers above him," said Local 100 Vice-president John Samuelsen. "The problem is staffing levels. If they put all the blame on Cox, it undercuts our effort to make sure that staffing is adequate so work can be done safely."

On the day of the fatality, Cox headed up a 3-person crew to test track signals. According to Samuelson, the minimum number of people who can do that kind of work is four, one of whom must work exclusively at flagging, to protect the rest of the crew from moving trains. With a 3-person crew the flagger must spend part of the time assisting with the signal testing. "Cox didn't decide to go out with two men, he was assigned two men," said Samuelson "He wasn't in a position to say how many men he was taking. Management told Cox to do it one way and then when a fatality happened they told him he wasn't supposed to do it that way. The only way Cox could get the work done was to have someone flagging and working on signals at the same time. Joy Antony tried to do that and it killed him."

The circumstances that led to Antony's death are indicative of the difficulty faced by Local 100 in trying to prevent on-the-job injury and illness. A month before Antony was killed, Local 100 had won a ruling from NYCT's Office of System Safety, which stated that signal-testing crews must include at least four workers. But, according to Local 100 Safety Director Toney Earl, "signal management ignored the Office of System Safety mandate," and continued to send out teams of three men to test signals, like the team that included Antony.

Less than two months after Antony's death, Local 100 negotiated a new contract, which gives Local 100 members the right to refuse unsafe work. "It makes a tremendous difference to us, even though many managers in the system aren't aware that we have that right," says Samuelson. "We have caught managers trying to do things the old way but for the most part they are sticking to the safety terms of the new contract."
Source: NYCOSH UPDATE ON SAFETY AND HEALTH, Vol. VII, No. 21, Friday, April 11, 2003 See also NY Times Article

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The GOP Ridiculous Quote Log

A Buzzflash New Analysis

Making it's way around the web . . .

"All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith...The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system. In a religious environment the value system is set. That's not the case in a public school where there are so many different kids with different kinds of
values."
- U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige [Washington Post, 4/9/03]

"My sons are 25 and 30. They are blond-haired and blue-eyed. One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean if you go into a black community, you cannot sell a gun to any black person?"
- U.S. Rep. Barbara Cubin [Congressional Record, 4/9/03]

"Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes."
- House Majority Leader Tom DeLay [NY Times, 4/3/03, CongressDaily, 3/17/03]



Thursday, April 10, 2003


Labor Demands PPE Payment Standard From OSHA

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), joined by eight additional labor organizations, filed a petition today with the Secretary of Labor to demand a rule within 60 days that mandates employer payment for personal protective equipment. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also joined in the request. This standard has been stalled at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for three years.

Since its inception, it had been OSHA practice to require employers to pay for all Personal Protective Equipment such as gloves, boots, hearing protection and other protective equipment required by OSHA standards, although this requirement was not specifically written into OSHA's 1994 PPE revised standard.. The OSHA Review Board ruled in 1997 that OSHA could not require employer payment unless it was written into a standard. So, in 1999 OSHA proposed the "Payment for PPE Standard," took comments and held hearings.

As the petition states, "The rulemaking record overwhelmingly supported OSHA's determination that a rule was needed to clarify this issue and protect workers from the risks posed by their employer's failure to pay for protective equipment." In addition to testimony from unions, "NIOSH, the International Safety Equipment Association, the American Society of Safety Engineers, the State of Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, and many other groups all strongly supported the issuance of the rule. In addition, the rule was generally supported by a number of employer groups including Shell Offshore Inc., Southwestern Bell Telephone, Heavy Constructors Association of The Greater Kansas City Area, National Tank Truck Carriers, Inc. , the Mechanical-Electrical-Sheet Metal Alliance , and the American Trucking Association.

The standard was almost ready for publication when the Bush Administration came into office. It has lain dormant since and is now classified "Next Action Undetermined."

The petition points out that Latinos are particularly affected:
The situation at a non-union meatpacking plant in Omaha, Nebraska, is a case in point. This plant has primarily a Hispanic workforce. The workers are required to wear rubber boots to reduce the risk of falling on slippery floors, but the employer deducts the cost of the boots from their paychecks. If the safety equipment workers wear to prevent knife cuts is lost or stolen, workers must pay for replacements. For some types of PPE, this company, like many others, furnishes only the first set of PPE, and after that, when the item is worn out, the worker must pay for its replacement. Workers faced with such policies frequently do not replace safety equipment when it wears out, because they cannot afford it or elect not to buy it. As a result, workers end up working with holes in their gloves, such that their hands are not protected from knife cuts, or wearing hearing protection that has lost its protective value due to wear.
Pointing to the Department's rhetoric about committing resources to Hispanic worker outreach and training, the letter states: "Rather than just promising more funding for outreach and education, the Department of Labor and OSHA Immigrant workers need more than outreach and education. They need protection."
Just as the OSH Act requires employers to pay for engineering controls, such as ventilation and mufflers to control noisy equipment, the Act requires that the employer pay for personal safety equipment such as safety goggles and protective gloves. There has never been any ambiguity about who pays for engineering and administrative controls, and nor should there be any question about payment for PPE. It would be totally contrary to the language and spirit of the OSH Act to permit employers to pass along the economic burden of safety controls to workers.
Other labor organizations signing the petition were: the AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, UNA/American Nurses Association, Building Trades Department, AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, and the United Steel Workers of America.

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Worker Error Department

(I sometimes search Google News for the term “Worker Error.” It almost always turns up some good stuff. For example…)

Here we have a story from the New Jersey Herald about a truck driver, John Baer, who had worked for Able Energy for twenty years. One day he transferred propane from a 10,000-gallon truck to a 3,000-gallon truck. Then he got in his truck and drove off. Except that he forgot to disconnect the hose, which ruptured. The emergency shut-off valve on the large truck failed. The gas spewed out, ignited, exploded causing the evacuation of 1000 residents for five days, closing of schools and $7 million in damage. The explosion damaged 67 homes in the immediate area, with 11 suffering "major damage,

The headlines read: Human, mechanical error blamed in Newton explosion

There were rumors that Baer was smoking while loading the propane. Also it turns out it's not legal to transfer propane from a large truck to a smaller truck. The Herald reported that “Able Energy Chief Operating Officer John Vrabel said the employee has more than 20 years' experience working with propane but failed to follow company operating procedures. Vrabel said the Able employee faces disciplinary action for his mistake. He said fuel isn't often transferred from a larger truck to a smaller one. "I would not characterize it as a common practice, no," Vrabel said.

A later article revealed that Baer no longer worked for the company.

Justice done? Maybe. But wait, a few issues….

1. Maybe Baer was a total screw-up. Maybe he was a conscientious worker, having a thoughtless moment. I don’t know him. But he had been working there for 20 years. Couldn’t have been too much of a screw-up.

2. Although Vrabel was SHOCKED that Baer had been illegally transferring propane for a larger truck to a small truck, it turns out that the state fined Able $408,000 “for performing some 816 illegal fuel transfers between August 1, 2000 to March 14, 2003 at the Diller Avenue facility,” in addition to other violations. (I guess 816 times isn’t “often.”)

3. One “witness” said only that he had seen Baer with a pack of cigarettes, not necessarily smoking.

4. This is the most interesting part to think about: Suppose Mr. Baer had driven away, leaving the hose connected and the emergency shutoff valve had functioned properly, shutting off the propane when the hose ruptured. Same action, but no explosion, no damage, no injuries, no evacuation, no media, no fines. Total damage if the valve had worked: A new hose and maybe a slap on the wrist for Baer.

So, what's the root cause? Who is taking the fall?

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