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

Friday, March 31, 2006


OSHA History According To Former Administrator John Henshaw

I hate to beat a dead horse -- or a retired OSHA administrator -- but former Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, John Henshaw, in an interview with the American Society of Safety Engineers, is trying to change history. And such dasterdly deeds demand to be exposed:
Once at OSHA, Henshaw's vision to create a more customer-responsive agency began to take shape. It was a strategy borne largely out of the political climate surrounding regulations at that time, especially the buzz created by the repeal of the ergonomics rulemaking under the Congressional Review Act.

"Any person coming in [to head OSHA] has to take stock of the current environment. What does the universe look like? What are the powers and influences happening right now? When I took over, Congress had flexed its muscles on the ergonomics rulemaking and the economy was faltering. I realized if we followed the model of jamming it down somebody's throat, we'd be beating our heads against the wall. I knew we'd be called up to Congress constantly to defend ourselves, which would consume a lot of our resources.
First, "Congress had flexed its muscles on the ergonomics rulemaking and the economy was faltering." Take a look at history, John. Industry (and its "friends" in Congress) have tried to flex their muscles with every rulemaking in OSHA's history, whatever the state of the economy at the time. The state of the economy has nothing whatsoever to do with industry's opposition to OSHA standards. Its a control issue. They don't want no government agency telling them what to do. And if you for industry support before issuing any standards, OSHA might as well go out of the standard-setting business -- which is what they've done.

Then there's this:
"In addition to Congress feeling it could stop or at least slow regulations, there was nothing in the pipeline. The previous administration had used most of its resources on ergonomics, so we knew it would take a while to build things up and get things done."
"There was nothing in the pipeline?" Hello? What about the almost completed tuburculosis standard, which you later withdrew? And then there was the almost completed standard that would have required employers to pay for their employees' gloves, boots and other personal protective equipment. It's still sitting there, in the pipeline, without being finalized, more than five years later.

And this:
Voluntary efforts, partnerships and alliances are another part of the puzzle Henshaw focused on. And, although many said the agency didn't have the resources to pull it off, Henshaw reports that the agency added no staff and still did all the alliances, VPP activities and partnerships. "Our folks found the time because they saw there was real value in this. They saw that much more is getting done, that is it getting done on a voluntary basis and that the people doing it are owning it," he explains. "They also like people calling them in and asking for opinions and help. Before, people didn't want to talk to the agency. Now, OSHA people are sought after. Everyone responds to that."
Actually, even the Government Accounting Office says OSHA doesn't have anough resources to "pull it off." A 2004 GAO report found that not only were your planned expansion of OSHA's voluntary efforts inevitably going to cut into the enforcement budget, but there was no evidence that OSHA's voluntary efforts were effictive in preventing workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

At least he recognizes some reality:
As to criticism that OSHA has lost some of its enforcement teeth as a result of this approach, Henshaw says that to big companies OSHA has always been a "drop in the bucket, a small fly on the wall." He adds, "For most cases [with large companies], OSHA doesn't have enough muscle from the statute standpoint. The agency doesn't have the kinds of fines and penalties found in other agencies. I'm not saying OSHA should, but the agency is not going to fine a large company into doing something right."
But is the administration advocating higher penalties to correct this situation? In your dreams.

Henshaw says that before he got there, "people" didn't want to talk to the agency. Actually, I was there and plenty of people wanted to talk to the agency all the time. The difference now is that plenty of industry people are talking and talking about alliances and other voluntary efforts, but not doing much else. Meanwhile, the agency has made a point of not talking to certain "people" -- like workers and labor representatives.

Finally, Henshaw doesn't seem to be giving a ringing endorsement to Ed Foulke who has now taken Henshaw's place at the helm of OSHA:
Henshaw credits his SH&E (safety, health and environmental) background with helping him be an effective leader at OSHA. In fact, he believes the agency needs a transformational leader, and that means having an SH&E professional at the helm. "I strongly believe that an SH&E person should be the head of OSHA," he says. "If we view OSHA as only a regulatory agency, one that simply goes through the process of setting and enforcing standards, then you don't need an SH&E professional. You just need someone who knows the bureaucracy, knows the legal issues and goes about doing the tasks. That's a transactional leader, someone who just follows the process, doesn't interject anything, has no real passion for the issues.
Foulke an attorney. Enough said.




EPA To Investigate Hexavalent Chromium Industry For Suppressing Evidence

I've written a few times about how OSHA caved into industry, issuing a standard to protect workers against cancer-causing hexavalent chromium that set a limit 5 times above what OSHA had originally proposed, and 20 times higher than advocated by Public Citizen, the group that sued OSHA for the standard.

The standard was issued just a week after an article was published in the scientific journal Environmental Health by George Washington University professor David Michaels revealing that the industry had covered up findings from a study they had conducted showing that hexavalent chromium causes cancer at extremely low levels. The industry never published the results, nor did they submit them to OSHA, even though the agency had requested all information when working on the standard.

Industry may have won the battle over the standard, but may be losing the war. Forbes.com has revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency, tipped off by the Michaels article, may be investigating the industry under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which requires companies to report new substantial risk information about chemicals to the government in a timely manner. Last year, EPA sued DuPont for failing to report to the agency that perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA,had been found in water and had serious health effects.

A formal EPA investigation could target Elementis Chromium, the Corpus Christi, Tex.-based unit of parent Elementis, a specialty chemicals company listed on the London Stock Exchange with annual sales of $767 million. It is unclear whether other companies that use chromium in manufacturing processes, such as Owens Corning, 3M Engelhard and Textron, were privy to the findings of the study and might also face suit.

***

Michaels notes that three trade groups--the Society of the Plastics Industry, the Surface Finishing Industry Council and the Specialty Steel Institute--all sent letters to OSHA in the final day of the post-hearing comment period that display knowledge of the concealed industry-sponsored chromium study, "and not a single one of the trade associations [or their member companies] notified EPA or OSHA."

Forbes is also the only media publication that has revealed another problem with the standard.

In its final rule in late February, OSHA set a "permissible exposure limit" to airborne particles of hexavalent chromium of 5 micrograms of the toxic dust per cubic meter of air--one-tenth the level that had been permitted for 63 years. One little-noticed exception was won by the aerospace industry, thanks to effective lobbying by the Aerospace Industry Association, whose members include Lockheed Martin. Workers who paint aircraft or large aircraft parts can work around 25 micrograms of the toxic dust per cubic meter of air.
And leave it to Forbes, one of the premier business outlets to ask the question: "Time for an Erin Brockovich sequel? "

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Thursday, March 30, 2006


Steelworkers and Environmental Justice Partners Show How to Clean Up Toxic Properties in New Orleans

By Special Correspondant Jim Young

Neighborhood contamination in the wake of Katrina has lingered so long without government intervention that two unusual partners have joined forces to do something about it. On March 23, the United Steelworkers (USW) union and Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) announced the kick-off of A Safe Way Back Home project, an environmental neighborhood clean up and outreach campaign.

The first phase of the project, which ran from March 23-26, removed tainted soil from properties on a ravaged and almost-empty block on Aberdeen Road in New Orleans East. The contaminated dirt was taken away by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Sidewalks, curbs, and streets were pressure washed until all accumulated sediment was removed. Each lot was re-landscaped with graded river sand and fresh sod.

Participants included residents, college students and Steelworkers who have received certificate training in Hazardous Materials handling in programs funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

“This demonstration project serves as a catalyst for a series of activities that will attempt to reclaim the New Orleans East community following the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, it is the government’s responsibility to provide the resources required to address areas of environmental concern and to assure that the workforce is protected,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, DSCEJ’s executive director.

“FEMA should replicate this demonstration project on thousands of blocks in hundreds of neighborhoods across the City of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region,” added United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard. “Only the federal government has the resources and authority to lead such a massive undertaking. But it has to be done. The human dignity and economic security of the people of the Gulf Coast depends on it.”

Both the USW and DSCEJ say FEMA should allocate a portion of the billions of dollars recently appropriated by Congress to clean up environmental contaminants in the region. They maintain the agency should provide the work force and materials necessary to complete the remediation. And it should sponsor and fund the NIEHS Hazardous Waste Worker Training Program and Minority Worker Training Program as models for educating cleanup workers about how to identify, control and prevent numerous potential health hazards.

DSCEJ and USW launched A Safe Way Back Home following an analysis of sediment samples taken by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at two properties on Aberdeen Road. The results showed that all but one sample contained at least one chemical at a higher concentration than the Louisiana Risk Evaluation Corrective Action Program (RECAP) screening levels for residential soil. The analysis was conducted by the firm of Glenrose Engineering, Inc. of Austin Texas.

Chemicals exceeding RECAP standards included:

  • Heavy metals (arsenic, zinc, barium, cadmium). Arsenic levels were greater than 40 times the Region 6 EPA soil cleanup level for residential areas. This level is set at 0.39 milligrams/kilogram (mg/kg) to protect against cancer. The levels also exceeded the state guidelines for clean-up used by Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). This level is set at 12 mg/kg.
  • Diesel range organics. At both sites the levels greatly exceed the state guidelines for clean-up in residential areas used by LDEQ of 650 micrograms/kilogram (ug/kg). At 8750 Aberdeen the level was found to be more than twice the state clean-up level.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (benzo[a]pyrene and benzo[b]fluoranthene). At one site, the level of the cancer-causing PAH Benzo[a]pyrene significantly exceeds the state guidelines for clean-up in residential areas used by LDEQ and EPA of 330 (ug/kg).

These results, when compared to other US EPA data from across the city of New Orleans, appear typical of post-Katrina New Orleans. But that doesn’t make them safe -- they represent both acute and long-term health hazards. (See also an analysis with similar conclusions conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

“There are no acceptable levels of contamination for the thousands of hurricane victims now living in what resembles a sludge pit – no matter what state and federal environmental officials say,” noted Gary Beevers, Director of USW District 13, which encompasses Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. “The government was doing next to nothing to remedy these hazards, so the Steelworkers felt like we had to step in and take some action.”

A Safe Way Back Home is the product of a strategic partnership between labor, environmental and community organizations. It offers neighborhood residents whose homes were flooded by Hurricane Katrina an opportunity to work with local Steelworkers and environmentalists to take a proactive approach to cleaning up their neighborhoods.

Health and Safety training and equipment was provided to all volunteers before starting the Safe Way Back Home project. The training is supported by grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to Dillard University, home of DSCEJ, and to the Steelworkers’ Tony Mazzocchi Center for Safety, Health & Environmental Education.

“The failure to adequately respond to the devastation caused by Katrina has had disastrous environmental and health consequences,” said Jim Frederick, Assistant Director of the Steelworkers’ Department of Health, Safety and the Environment. “Thousands upon thousands of residents continue to suffer exposures to contaminated soil, unsafe water and toxic mold.”
Frederick said the Steelworkers will continue providing Hazardous Materials training for small and disadvantaged businesses and contractors involved in demolition, debris removal, mold remediation, and clean-up.

More Information:

Analysis: Health risks in Katrina's wake, United Press International March 27, 2006
By Olga PierceUPI Health Business Correspondent

New Orleans Activists Starting From the Ground Up, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2006, By Ann M. Simmons, Times Staff Writer

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Homeland Security Finally Backs Down On Impersonation of OSHA Officials

The New York Times reports that the Department of Homeland Security sent a letter to the United Food and Commercial Workers union confirming that they would stop impersonating Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials in order to nab undocumented immigrants.

Last summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcment officials staged a raid on undocumented immigrants in North Carolina by impersonating OSHA officials. The raid led to a firestorm of protest from unions, immigrant rights groups and OSHA who argued that such sting operations would discourage immigrants from seeking assistance from OSHA when working in hazardous jobs. ICE had reaffirmed it right to use such stings, but later said they would only be used when there was a "national security threat or extreme situation." last Summer, where they invited undocumented workers to a phoney OSHA training
This is exactly the action that I.C.E. should have taken," said Jackie Nowell, director of occupational safety for the food and commercial workers union. "Using health and safety as a ruse to catch workers is definitely the wrong way to go when immigrant workers are being killed and injured in far greater numbers than other workers."

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Happy 3rd Blogiversary To Confined Space

Happy
3rd
Blogiversary



Today is the third Blogiversary of Confined Space. In blog years, I’d say that puts me somewhere in late middle age (far, far older than I am in “person years.”) If anyone had told me three years ago that I would still be doing this (or that I would still be doing this and still be married), I’d say they crazy, nutso, one beer short of a sixpack.

This year’s anniversary coincides with the finals of the Koufax awards. The most gratifying thing about the Koufax awards (win or lose) is that people not only vote for you, but they write comments. Now, as you know, I encouraged people to vote for Confined Space, and to leave messages about what they liked about it. One could argue that I was fishing for complements. But if I was fishing, it was for trout; what I caught was Moby Dick. Thanks, when the night gets late and the hours long, your appreciation means a lot.

Although I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of appreciation, what hit me most was the hole in the health and safety movement that Confined Space seems to have filled for people over the past three years – a hole that most of us weren’t even aware existed.

There needs to be a place that really pulls together in one place everything that’s happening to workers while they’re at work. Few people, aside from those of us who do this for a living (or a hobby), or who have been “drafted” by a personal tragedy, are aware of the carnage that still plagues American workplaces, the ineffectiveness of government enforcement, the inadequacy of health and safety standards, the apathy of our elected representatives, and the hostility of the business community. Nor are people aware that the impact of the political process on the safety of everyone’s workplace.

Happily, I haven't had to do all of this completely myself. Even though I do most of the writing (with the major exception of Tammy Miser’s invaluable contributions with the Weekly Toll), this has been somewhat of a group effort. Although I have automated Google search, much of the material that I write about is sent to me by all of you out there who keep me supplied with far more material than I can ever cover. That, and the feedback I get – both in the comments, and privately, keep me thinking.

But it takes more than good material and anger to keep a blogger going; it also takes inspiration. It seems that every time I start thinking about giving this up so that I can start sleeping more, reading good books and watching lousy T.V., I get an e-mail from someone whose found their way to Confined Space, whose husband, wife, partner, father, mother, son or daughter was killed in a needless, preventable workplace “accident,” for which the employer paid a relatively small fine, even though she or he knew (or should have known) that workers were being place in hazardous situations. Their lives are forever changed, a part of them irreplaceably gone.

Even worse, their loss is rarely acknowledged or sufficiently recognized by society. If they’re lucky, there may be a short news report that rarely mentions what caused the “accident,” what OSHA standards might have been ignored, the history of the employers past citations, or interviews with other workers who may have warned of unsafe conditions. Readers are often left with the impression that the tragedy was “just one of those unfortunate things,” a “freak” accident, or even an unavoidable “act of God” Even worse, the victim’s name is often not mentioned, pending notification of family. By the time that’s done, the media has lost interest and moved on to the next robbery, traffic accident or missing blonde in Aruba. End of story.

Mostly, they’re not union members and don’t have a COSH group in the area. Many live in rural areas, and too many are immigrants who don’t even have family here. What has been missing for the families, and what they seem to find in Confined Space, is an outlet for their anger and frustration, a confirmation that their loss didn’t have to happen and a feeling for the political context in which all of this is happening. What I’d also like to provide is a constructive outlet for their emotions: a local or national struggle to join in where they can make sure that the loss of their loved one may not have been completely in vain, that their efforts can contribute to preventing similar tragedies from happening to other families.

And, to a certain extent it’s working. This is an excerpt from a note I received today from Michelle Lewis, whose step-father was killed in a trench collapse:

When I felt no one else was listening or cared about the death of my step-dad in a trench, you did. Through your passion and commitment, you gave me a voice and I will be eternally grateful for that. After you posted my letter and upon learning from your work, I felt more empowered to see the connection between policy and my personal loss. I've contacted my state officials and have encouraged them all to use your blog as a resource for truth, prevention and justice.

Things like that makes it all worthwhile.

Unfortunately, organized campaigns in which people can involve themselves are few and far between, and this is one of my biggest frustrations. Several larger cities in the country have COSH groups that are active in local issues and national issues and involve families of workplace victims. But there’s not much out there, especially on a national level. There are bills in both the Senate and the House that would raise the penalties for workplace crime, but their mostly token efforts backed by few co-sponsors, with no hope of getting anywhere in this political environment.

The answer, of course, is changing the political environment. And by making the connections between workplace death, illness and injury and politics, some of the familys’ energy and emotions can be channeled into the political process which may, in the medium term, bear some fruit in better enforcement, improved standards and meaningful penalties.

We’re now in an election year. Workplace safety issues are rarely an issue in national or even local elections. After Sago, however, this year has the potential of being different, at least in certain parts of the country, if the issue is framed properly. Some of us are also looking for ways to tie the endless tragedy contained in each Weekly Toll with local elections. There are lots of ideas out there; all that’s needed is several more hours in each day, and more money. With the demise of the AFL-CIO’s Safety and Health Department, the prospects for putting significantly more resources into political organizing around safety and health issues seem less than probable.
But I digress.

So where are we, how far have we come? On the first anniversary of Confined Space, in 2004, I wrote the following:

Think of what's happened since Confined Space hit the web. One year ago today, George Bush was president, OSHA was sinking into irrelevancy and still hadn't issued its Tuberculosis or Payment for Personal Protective Equipment standards, most public employees weren't covered by OSHA, immigrant workers were dying and being injured in record numbers, American soldiers were dying in Iraq and weapons of mass destruction had yet to be found.
OK, moving right along…

Two years ago I boasted of having 40,000 hits and 70,000 page views in the past year. I was averaging around 200 visits a day, 1500 a week. Today, I’m averaging 1200 visits and 2000 page views a day.

But who’s doing all that reading. I think I’m reaching most health and safety activists. I’m also reaching a lot of health and safety professionals who find Confined Space on a Google Search. I occasionally get a message from them saying they’ve found a lot of good information year, but it’s too bad there’s so much politics.

My main target when I started this was workers do dangerous work and find Confined Space an important resource. I’m not sure much has changed from what I wrote two years ago:
I had fantasies that every organized -- and lots of unorganized workers would be avid readers. I'm still around twenty to thirty million hits short. Confined Space has been linked on a number of local and international union websites, although it's becoming increasingly clear to me that most workers don't come home and surf the web every night (or at least they don't surf their union's webpages much). In fact most of my readership comes during weekdays, presumably at work.

And the workers who do the most dangerous work probably have the least daytime access to the internet.

Aside from Google searches, links on websites or other blogs, and occasional media stories, the main way we’re going to expand the circulation and potential impact of Confined Space is with your help. Forward it around, send me e-mail addresses of those who might be interested, download this flyer http://users.rcn.com/jbarab/Flyer.pdf and take it to conferences.

So, what does the future hold? Who knows? Will there be a fourth Blogiversary? Some days I think I won’t last another week, some days I think I would be happy just doing this all day long (emphasis on day) -- if I didn’t have to make money.

So, thanks again for all the support and kind words.

And, by the way, if anyone wants to try out as a blogger-in-training, let me know.




Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Capitol (Asbestos) Crimes

The last few weeks have been kind of busy, so I passed up this story. It's not a completely unusual story, except for few details.

Workers who work in century-old steam tunnels are exposed the the threat of cave-in and lots of crumbling, cancer-causing asbestos. The employer, although well aware of the hazards, refuses to do anything about it.

You can read similar stories almost every week around the country, but there's one thing "special" about this situation.

The workplace: The United States Capitol.

The employer: The Architect of the Capitol.

NOTE: I am about to say something good about Republicans.

Until the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994, congressional employees were not covered by OSHA, despite the fact that they do the same maintenance and construction jobs that private sector employees do, and despite the fact that even white-collar congressional employees suffer from exposure to asbestos, poor indoor air quality and ergonomic hazards.

The new Republican Congress decided this was unfair; Congressional employees should be covered by OSHA standards, and their employers should be forced to comply with OSHA standards -- that includes Senators, Congressmen and the Architect of the Capitol. The Congressional Accountability Act was passed and the Congressional Office of Compliance was created to monitor safety conditions. This was, of course, a good thing, even if the motive wasn't entirely pure. The new Republican majority figured that if Congressmen and Senators had to comply with stupid OSHA regulations, that would give them even more incentive to weaken or even abolish the agency.

But there were some unintended conseqences: real hazards are being found. At the beginning of March, the OOC filed its first occupational safety and health complaint against the office of the Architect of the Capitol, "warning that the agency is allowing employees to operate in dangerous, rotting tunnels that run under the Capitol complex.
"The miles of tunnels are in such a dilapidated state that they are subject to cave-ins that could trap and injure employees who are working in them, according to Carl Goldman, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, and Nan Ernst, a representative for the union local 2910 at the Library of Congress.

“Some of the tunnels are 100 years old,” Ernst said. “Those who do the maintenance on the pipes are subject to injury. They have no unions there to protect them. We are concerned about our co-workers there being subjected to those conditions.”

She added that in addition to the potential for cave-ins, the tunnels are lined with carcinogenic asbestos.
The complaint was filed before a hearing officer, requesting an order mandating the correction of the violation because the Architect of Capitol failed to respond to a OOC citation in 2000 for failing to maintain the aging infrastructure.

The Architect of the Capital finally admitted to an unhappy Senate Committee that there was an asbestos problem and that workers had only recently been giving respirators.
Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman yesterday admitted that he did not do enough to protect workers in crumbling asbestos-lined utility tunnels.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), angrily told Hantman, “We knew there was asbestos, we knew that it was hazardous … and literally waited years before we provided safety devices for these workers to protect them. How can we explain that to the workers and their families?”

Hantman conceded, “We have ongoing inspections going — but clearly they were not adequate.”

“That is cold comfort,” Durbin retorted. "We have done a great disservice to these workers’ families. I want to say to you point blank, if you do not come forward with requests for life-safety measures, [such as] protective devices to protect these workers, then you are not doing your duty."
Indeed.

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What's So Confusing About Melting Icebergs and Humongous Hurricanes?

All this Global Warming talk: is it happening, isn't it happening, it's all so confusing, what's on T.V.?

I've written several times about one of the favorite games of the chemical and tobacco industry: "manufacturing doubt," as George Washington University professor David Michaels described it in several articles (here and here, for example).

What's worked so well with tobacco and chemicals also seems to be working well for the oil industry with global warming "debate," according to an ABC News report. It's not like there isn't enough good information already out there.
The vast majority of scientists has determined global warming to be a real threat. So why has it taken so long to convince Americans?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan blames a 15-year misinformation campaign by the oil and coal industries.

"The point of this campaign was not necessarily to persuade the public that global warming isn't happening," Gelbspan said. "It was to persuade the public that there is this state of confusion."

A 1998 memo by the American Petroleum Institute said, "Victory will be achieved when … average citizens recognize uncertainties in climate science."
To redefine global warming as theory — not fact — the industry funded research by "friendly" scientists such as [climatologist, Pat]Michaels.
Michaels (no relation to the aforementioned good [David] Michaels) was quoted by ABC as saying
"The American people have just been bludgeoned with climate disaster stories for God knows how long....and they're just, they've got disaster fatigue."
ABC at least puts him (and those like him) in his place: "Michaels is one of a handful of skeptics still downplaying the danger. But they are a tiny minority." Maybe, but unfortunately, that tiny minority seems to control our government -- and perhaps the fate of the earth.

(Hat tip to Susie)



Monday, March 27, 2006


Thousands Of Disabled Health Care Professionals Thank George Bush

In November 2000, this nation finally took a giant step toward addressing the biggest workplace hazard facing American workers: strains, sprains and back injuries, technically known as musculoskeletal disorders. Among the main victims were our nation's caregivers, nurses, nursing home workers and home health care professionals. After a ten year fight with Congressional Republicans and the business community, OSHA finally issued its long-awaited ergonomics standard.

Less than two months after George W. Bush took office, however, the standard was dead, repealed by Congress, its death sentence signed by George W. Bush.

The administration promised a "comprehensive plan" to address ergonomics injuries. Aside from dozens of industry alliances, the only thing the Bush program has produced is a handful of OSHA citations over the past five years.

A handful of OSHA citations and thousands of disabled workers, disabled from injuries that didn't have to happen.

***

"Imagine lifting 200 pounds or more of dead weight by yourself several times a day. That's a typical day for nurses and X-ray techs, and it's becoming unbearable."

And then imagine suffering chronic pain for the rest of your life.

More than half of nurses and radiology technicians don't have to imagine. It's their reality.

According to Candice Owley, chair of Healthcare for the American Federation of Teachers. "Construction workers use cranes, package delivery personnel use dollies, yet most healthcare workers are on their own and getting hurt. This is affecting patient care and the profession."

AFT released a study today, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research associates showing that
Large majorities of both hospital nurses and radiology technicians report that they have suffered job-related chronic pain or on-the-job injuries resulting from lifting, moving or repositioning patients. Among nurses, 56 percent have suffered chronic pain and/or an injury that they associate with lifting or moving patients. Among radiology technicians, fully 64 percent have suffered chronic pain, injury or both.
The study also found that whereas staffing had been the number one problem among nurses, "the physical demands of the job have become so severe that these are now considered by nurses to be just as serious a problem as understaffing."

And they're not at all happy about the situation, which is bad news considering the on-going nursing shortage:
Among all nurses, slightly fewer than half (47 percent) have considered leaving their field during the past two years specifically because of their work's physical demands. The proportion of nurses who have considered leaving rises to 59 percent among those who have suffered from chronic pain or injuries, compared to 31 percent among those who have not experienced on-the-job pain or injury.
The study also looked at what action nurses and other hospital professionals thought should be taken:
The vast majority of nurses and radiology technicians believe that their state should adopt regulations mandating that hospitals provide patient-moving equipment and relevant training. More than four in five nurses (82 percent) and radiology technicians (85 percent)would support state standards.
So any of you health care professionals out there who are reading this, remember that this is an election year, and there are crimes to answer for. What you do at the ballot box has a direct effect on your chances of living a healthy life.

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Undocumented Immigrants As Felons

I've already written my piece about the illegal alien undocumented immigrant debate, plus I'm on vacation, so go read what Revere and Nathan Newman have to say -- as usual, perspectives you'll generally only find in blogs, but they seem to make so much more sense than the demagoguery that the main-stream-media spends its time reporting.

A sampling...

Revere:
If you want to take those who break civil laws and turn them into felons, why start with hard working people whose only crime is being poor and not speaking English? Here is a whole shithouse full of civil lawbreakers poisoning our rivers and streams. Let's prosecute the corporate officers and responsible officials as felons.

Given the choices, which one do you think would make the average person better off?
Nathan Newman:

If we want to slow immgration to the United States, the real way to do it is to end sweatshops in Mexico and the rest of the developing world and end the rising inequality in global wealth within such countries. Mexico, for example, has increasing wealth, but because of the trade deals we created with them, most of that wealth goes to the richest section of the population-- Mexico has 13 billionaires yet working families are left struggling to survive.

To tell such refugees from an economic system the US government helped engineer that they are to blame for their fate is immoral. And progressives should be standing side by side with the labor unions, civil rights groups and religious leaders marching by the hundreds of thousands in the streets to demand decent treatment for those refugees and a more just global economic system.

Go read the whole things.





A Father's Crusade

Coit Smith's son Donald was electrocuted one year ago today at Sanderson Farms when handling a pump that had 489 volts of electricity flowing through it. Confined Space readers may be familiar with Coit's campaign to challenge the inadquacy of workplace safety laws and enforcement in this country. I published a letter from him last year and he's a frequent contributor to the comments.

Today, the The Bryan-College Station Eagle had an article today about the pain of his son's death and his Coit's campaign to change the way workplace safety system. He didn't discuss his son's case with the paper due for legal reasons.
But that shouldn't matter, he added, explaining that the problems he wants to address are industry-wide. And he should know, he said. He's spent the past 20 years as a workplace safety expert trying to prevent exactly what happened to his son.

For years, Smith said, he has seen the inequities in the system, but it wasn't until his son's death that he had the courage and motivation to stand up and do something about it.

He now wants to persuade lawmakers to develop regulations with more teeth that might allow "meaningful prosecution of companies that violate federal regulations and cause death in the facility."

The first step, he said, is to change workers' compensation laws at the state level so that workplace safety violations that lead to an employee's death carry punishments similar to what happens with drunken driving deaths. If CEOs have to be put in jail for such negligence, so be it, he proposed.

The law as it is currently written protects employers from workplace injury and death lawsuits, he said. Corporations keep score by dollars, he argued, and without stiffer penalties or the threat of lawsuits, many factories don't have enough incentive to stop cutting corners.

The second step, Smith said, will be to take the fight to the national level - trying to persuade Congress to make the necessary changes at OSHA.

"If OSHA fees and punishments were more severe, there are many companies out there that would comply with federal regulations," he said, explaining that trying to prove a company committed gross negligence is "arduous at best."

The maximum penalty for gross negligence is a six-month jail term, he explained.

Smith started a letter-writing campaign about six months ago, starting with his local representatives. Since then, he has written letters urging a change in the law to every member of the Texas Senate, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He is about halfway through contacting every member of the Texas House of Representatives.

So far, Smith said he has gotten a lot of automated responses. But there are a few politicians, he said, who have shown a genuine interest in the issue and have given him encouragement to keep fighting.

"This is just the beginning of it," he said, describing his actions so far as "just the baby step."

"This is a big mountain I'm trying to climb, but the legislators do not know my tenacity. This is a moral issue for me."
There are thousands of other fathers, mothers, sons and daughters in this country facing similar pain every year. Think what could be accomplished if they all understood how things work and what needs to be done as well as Coit Smith.



Sunday, March 26, 2006


Last Hours To Vote For Koufax Award

The time is now.

Koufax Award voting ends tonight at midnight. Confined Space is doing well in the Best Single Issue Blog category, but so are the other worthy nominees.


More voting information here.



Saturday, March 25, 2006


Chem Plant Security: Too Cozy With Industry

The Centre Daily Times gets it.

I wrote earlier this week about the administration's chemical plant security plan: let private industry set the standards and private sector auditors police it. It didn't sound like a good idea to me. The Centre Daily Times out of State College, Pennsylvania doesn't either:

Cozy - like too many government-industry relationships these days. "Trust industry" is a lousy safety philosophy. If industry cooperation worked so well, Congress wouldn't be investigating the hands-off approach of the Mine safety and Health Administration following the Sago mine accident.

Chemical plant security needs a vigilant watchdog, not the industry-sanctioned benchmarks and private auditors that Chertoff prescribed Tuesday. Congressional testimony and Government Accountability Office reports have repeatedly rejected industry's "voluntary efforts" as insufficient to protect chemical plants from terrorist attack. It's long past time that Congress mandated better.

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Triangle Shirtwaist: Exporting Our Tragedies

Today is the ninety-fifth anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 140 workers who had “burned, fallen from the collapsing fire escapes or jumped to their deaths.” Author Katherine Webber, writing in today’s New York Times, describes the events of that tragic day, but adds another perspective that is usually forgotten: Many of the dead – and no one knows the exact figure – were children as young as 11, and possibly younger.

Although the official list of those killed “include one 11-year old, two 14-year olds, and 14 17-year olds,” the question remains: “Were the ages of workers, living and dead, modified to finesse the habitual violation of child labor laws in 1911?” We may never know how many young children were among the six unidentified victims, or other victims whose ages may have been falsified.

We’ve come a long way since 1911. No longer do we lock small children into sweatshops (although we don’t seem to have quite gotten beyond locking grown-up workers into their buildings.)

But much of the rest of the world is still living in that period: crowded and unsafe conditions, locked exits, hundreds of undocumented female workers as young as 12, a deadly fire.” Weber describes how we will never know how many children were killed in the 1993 fire at the Kadar Industrial Toy Company in Thailand (a supplier of Hasbro and Fischer Price) that killed 188 workers, or the 2000 Chowdhury Knitware fire in Bangladesh (contracted by Wal-Mart and the Gap) where 52 died behind locked doors and at least 10 were under the age of 14. Nor will we ever know how many children died just last month at the KTS Composite Textile factory fire in Bangladesh where 84 workers may have been killed.

Things may be better here at home,
But as long as we don’t question the source of the inexpensive clothing we wear, as long as we don’t wonder about the children in those third world factories who make the inexpensive toys we buy our won children, those fires ill occur and young girls and boys will continue to die. They won’t die because of natural catastrophes like monsoons and earthquakes; they will die because it has become our national habit to outsource, and these days we outsource our tragedies too.



Friday, March 24, 2006


Koufax Award Update

Voting will end Sunday night. So if you haven't voted yet for Confined Space in the Best Single Issue Blog, now is the time (who wants to be bothered over the weekend?)

Go here for instructions, but just to repeat, there are two ways to vote:
  1. If you like what you read here, go ahead and vote for Confined Space, click on Best Single Issue Blog. Just scroll all the way down the page to the bottom of the page to the comments and leave a comment with the following words: "Confined Space." If you have time, feel free to embellish with kind words so that people know what we're all about. OR

  2. If that's too much trouble or you're one of my many fans at OSHA or a secret dissident at some Washington D.C. law firm and you'd rather not leave an identifiable public comment, you can also just send a private e-mail to Mary Beth or Dwight, with the heading "Koufax."
Breaking News: Confined Space has won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO's Blog. No word yet from Change to Win.

Update: My father has also voted for me (several times, tsk, tsk). No word yet from my mother.

Now, back to more important things....




WARNING: Mature Audiences Only

The next few postings below contain graphic and upsetting material that may not be appropriate for small children, weak stomachs or those who continue to believe that all is well in the American workplace.



Thursday, March 23, 2006


Just Another Day In The American Workplace

There are no good days in the American workplace.

Still, it seems like some days are worse than others. This is a small sampling of what arrived in my in-box today:

OSHA investigates Metro East man's workplace death

SAUGET, Ill. Federal workplace-safety officials are investigating a man's death while he worked at a Metro East plant.

Police say 27-year-old J-D Croom of Cahokia died yesterday when he was sucked into a large machine at the Mid-America Fiber Company plant in Sauget.


Worker Dies After He Is Pulled Into Machine

NEW HAVEN -- A worker died after he was pulled into a machine at a scrap metal yard Wednesday, police said.

The accident occurred at about 4:15 p.m. at Regan Metal Corp., 69 Poplar St., police said. Richard Larson, 54, of Kensington, was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 4:45 p.m., Sgt. Robert Dudley said.

Police said Larson was loading metal into a machine that coils the metal. His work glove apparently got caught in the machine when he went to adjust a bar, and the machine pulled him in, Sgt. Andrew Muro said.

OSHA is to review fatal work accident

The federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration is expected to probe Tuesday's death of a delivery man crushed by about a ton of granite slabs.


Owatonna man killed in job accident

OWATONNA, Minn. — A 25-year-old Owatonna man died in a workplace accident, police said Wednesday.

Patrick Donahue was pinned under a crate that weighed nearly a ton while working in the shipping area at Viracon Inc., an architectural glass fabricator based in Owatonna.


White Mills Man Dies In Construction Accident

(RADCLIFF, Ky.)
-- A construction worker died on Thursday morning when the trench he was working in collapsed on top of him.

Tommy Hensley, 42, was standing about eight feet deep in the trench in a new construction site off Hill Street when the sides of the trench caved in, Radcliff Police spokesman Bryce Shumate said.


Days like this always bring to mind the wise words of the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY):
Cooperation, not confrontation is essential in making our workplaces safer. The notion that employers care little about worker safety, or are prepared to sacrifice worker health in the pursuit of profit is a dangerous myth.

In fact, most employers are concerned for the welfare of their employees and are fully prepared to comply with laws aimed at enhancing their safety on the job.
I gotta go to bed.

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BP Survivors One Year Later: "It Was Like A Warzone Out There"

Well, you can't say that BP didn't plan well.
Early last year, BP officials circulated a planning document for 2005 that lamented safety shortfalls and identified the following "key risk" for the year: "TCS (Texas City site) kills someone in the next 12-18 months."

Less than three weeks later, at 1:20 p.m. March 23, a massive explosion killed 15 people and injured scores more in the worst U.S. refinery accident in more than a decade.
Today, one year after the explosion damaged and ended so many lives, many of the survivors of the explosion as well as families of the victims are readying themselves for a court battle with the company.
While BP paid tens of millions of dollars each to the majority of the most serious victims — family members of loved ones killed and workers who were burned or lost limbs — shortly after the accident, scores of less-seriously injured people are still waiting for what they call justice.

Armed with the pre-explosion plan, which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle Wednesday, and thousands of other company documents they say point to longstanding safety concerns at the company — the victims are looking forward to their day in court with the oil behemoth.

Galveston County State District Judge Susan Criss recently gave them just that, setting the first trial date for Sept. 18. That's when the first batch of plaintiffs — eight of an estimated 500 remaining — will take their claims of widespread negligence against BP to a jury.

"They're the string-alongers," said Beaumont attorney Brent Coon, who is representing more than 100 people. Their injuries run the gamut, he said, from broken backs to injured knees and legs, to hearing loss.

Many, he said, have the added diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder, the psychological fallout from "being at ground zero."

"It was like a war zone out there, seeing people running and screaming," he said.

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More On The Death Of Francisco Alejandro Garcia

We have a little more about the poorly-reported death of Francisco Alejandro Garcia. You may recall that I was rather upset at the lack of information in the article about his death.

First, Mary Vivenzi whose boyfriend Kevin Noah was killed, falling from Golden Gate Bridge in 2002 while working on an earthquake retrofit project, sent a letter to the WBDJ who ran the original story.
I would like to inquire on what do you base the importance of your journalistic efforts when deciding what or what not to give a story.

Because it is personally offensive that when reporting such a tragic event as a workers death you would not allow your journalism to extend itself further than a whole paragraph I fail to understand why this article seemingly failed in comparison next to that of your article Radford student gets big chance on Price Is Right which somehow managed to merit the importance of a full page story. It makes me angry and it makes me sick and once again gives merit to my belief that there are those who come to work for the love of what they do and others who only show up for the check.

Its a sad thing when the public is forced to rely on passionless journalism as a source of information. And sadder still to imagine how hard your lack of compassion affects those who need you most.
And the station's response?
Our information was based on a brief news release from the Henry County Sheriff's Department sent to us Saturday evening. That was all the information available to us all weekend. We passed along all we had regarding the circumstances both on the air and on the Internet.

Perhaps you are upset we did do more on this story Monday, although by then, the events were three days old. And we have learned over and over that grieving family members resent media inquiries as they prepare to bury a loved one.

But that does not mean we are done with the story.... we will request a copy of the state or federal safety inspection report.

Nonetheless, we regret that you find our response to be inadequate, and we do not pretend to be perfect in our decision-making process. Please let us know what elements to this story we failed to present that you believe are important and deserve our further attention.
What elements you failed to present? How about what happened? What safety standards might have been violated? What other workers had to say about working at the plant? The company's safety record? You know, "journalism." And it's not always necessary to invade the privacy of grieving families to get some useful information -- especially, as we shall see, there most of the grieving family wasn't even there.

And speaking of journalism, Cathleen in the comments brought our attention to the local newspaper, the Martinsville Bulletin, which has done some decent coverage of the story (but is apparently too small to show up in Google.)

It seems that Garcia was working for a contract company, National Service Co. of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, that cleans industrial equipment. Garcia was on a platform above a processing machine, hosing off the moving blades with a water hose when he fell in. No one observed him fall, but he apparently either slipped or the hose got tangled in the blades. (Guardrails? Lockout?)

The result was not pretty:
The State Medical Examiner's Office in Roanoke completed an autopsy of Garcia on Monday. Dr. William Massello, assistant state medical examiner, said Garcia's cause of death will be listed as multiple injuries from body fragmentation. He said it would be accurate to say Garcia's body was pulled into pieces when he was caught in the machine.
Sadly, Garcia's wife and child were on their way from Mexico to visit him when he was killed:
A week and a half ago, Alejandra Jimenez Arias was a happy young wife and mother with a promising life ahead of her. She had left Mexico with her 2-year-old daughter, Zuemy, on a week-long, 3,000-mile journey, expecting a joyous reunion with the husband and father they had not seen for 10 months.

She arrived in Martinsville on Monday as a widow.

When Arias reached the Mexican/American border late Friday night and called her husband to tell him that they were nearly here, her brother-in-law answered. Julio Cesar Alejandro Garcia broke the news to her that 19-year-old Francisco Alejandro Garcia had died that evening when he fell into a processing machine at the Knauss Snack Food plant.
The community is taking up a collection from Hispanic stores and Mexican restaurants throughout Virginia and South Carolina where many of their townspeople and distant relatives live. They're trying to raise the $6,800 it will take to send his body back to Mexico for burial.

Garcia's brother-in-law said that "neither he nor anyone in the household has been contacted by Knauss or National Service since the accident, and he has not known how to reach appropriate authorities to make inquiries."

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Koufax Award Update

Voting is hot and heavy over at the Koufax Awards for Best Single Issue Blog, with Confined Space among the front-runners. Check here for background and how to vote. Then vote for the only workplace safety or labor blog in the running.




“Refineries should not explode around you.” -- Anniversary Of The BP Refinery Explosion That Killed 15

March 23, 2005:
The punch list meeting was going on without a hitch. Less than 200 feet away, things were going terribly wrong within the isomerization unit.

David Leining said the crew heard a boom, followed by another explosion that began to shake the trailer.

“Debris starting flying — the trailer began to roll,” said Leining. “It’s hard to explain what happened. It was so quick. “There was just a tremendous, tremendous amount of pressure, a lot of noise and a lot of smoke, all instantaneous.”

Twelve of the 15 people killed were in the trailer. Leining was one of seven people in the trailer who survived.

About 10 minutes later, he was able to get a radio working.

“We radioed out that we were stuck in the trailer, and the answer came back: ‘You can’t be; the trailer is gone,’” said Leining. “We just radioed back for someone to come get us.”
With all of the attention paid to the 14 miners killed in the Sago mine earlier this year, it's easy for most Americans to forget that one year ago today fifteen workers lost their lives and 170 were injured in a massive explosion that ripped through the BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, Texas. It was one of the biggest workplace disasters in over a decade.

But it's not surprising that people have forgotten. Unlike the recent mining disasters, the BP explosion produced no Congressional hearings, no emergency legislation, no calls for OSHA to enforce the law more effectively or to raise its fines. The story fell from the national headlines after barely more than 24 hours.

What was the difference between BP and the mine disasters? Possibly that miners die in slow motion over days while the agony of their family and community is televised nationwide. The refinery workers, on the other hand, were literally gone in a flash. Or maybe it's the "romance" and folklore of mining compared to the grease and grit of working in a refinery. But similar issues were raised in both disasters.

BP management initially tried to blame the operators for the explosion, but in the face of evidence compiled by the US Chemical Safety Board and OSHA, they were forced to acknowledge that they were operating dangerous, obsolete equipment with a history of problems and a malfunctioning level indicator, level alarm, and a control valve. Instead of venting flammable liquids to a flair, they were vented into the atomosphere where they overflowed and exploded, despite the fact that OSHA had warned them years before that the equipment was dangerous and should be replaced. But the OSHA citation was withdrawn and BP refused on numerous occasions to make the needed changes. All of those killed in the refinery were contractors in or near trailers that had been placed too close to the unit that exploded.

A preliminary report by the CSB found serious lapses in the company's safety systems and recommended that BP commission an independent panel that would review a range of safety management and culture issues stemming from the March 23, 2005 explosion and several other incidents before and after that event. The panel is being headed up by former Secretary of State James Baker.

While the families of those killed mourn, several are also organizing for improvements in the industry. The Galveston Daily News describes the activities of Linda Hunnings and Eva Rowe. Hunnings’ husband, Jim, and Rowe’s parents, James and Linda, were among the 15 people killed in the explosion.
Both, independent of one another, decided to begin lobbying legislators and the public. They also want to see the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration given more power to regulate and fine employers.

“There’s no reason at all these should be blowing up,” Rowe said of the nation’s refineries. “You don’t go into an office building to work expecting it to fall down while you are sitting there. Why should you expect that there would be explosions in a plant?”

Hunnings, herself a longtime petrochemical worker, said her personal experience had convinced her that all the talk of an emphasis on safety is just that — talk. Even BP’s recent efforts to improve its Texas City facility, the company’s quick action to settle a majority of the legal claims, a $21 million fine by OSHA and all other efforts in the wake of the March 23 blasts have done little to change her mind.

“I think it’s all a show for Texas City and a show for the families,” she said. “They need to give a wakeup call to the petrochemical industry.”

Dangerous practices need to be eliminated, she said.

“If you are doing those things, then you need to be shut down until it’s fixed,” she said. “Period.”
OSHA issued a $21.3 million fine against the company last September and referred the case to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges. Even though the fine was the largest in OSHA's history, it came to only a few hours of BP's annual profit.

The Chemical Safety Board is expected to issue its final investigation report later this year, along with recommendations. The CSB is not empowered to issue fines, however.

Hunnings is lobbying for the State of Texas to take action, citing the example of West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin's actions after the recent mining disaster when he pushed through emergency legislation and shut down the mines for a day after two additional miners were killed. Texas Governor Rick Perry argues that only federal OSHA has the authority to take such action, but Hunnings is advocating a Texas state workplace safety agency that can crack down on companies that refuse to take safety seriously.
“Maybe they need to see the pain that is caused when the state of Texas turns its back on us,” said Hunnings. “I am getting so damn tired of hearing about recommendations. Something needs to be changed. Laws need to be passed.”

Hunnings and Rowe hope others will join their efforts.

“I need to know my parents died for a purpose and not in vain,” said Rowe. “I want to make a difference. I want to make sure legislators change the laws so people can work safely.

“Refineries should not explode around you.”
And the Galveston Daily News brings it all home with an editorial about need to empower OSHA with the authority to force companies to make changes or shut them down:

The reality is that, through the years, Congress and presidential administrations pulled the watchdog’s teeth. Regulators could complain about BP’s safety practices, but they couldn’t force the company to make changes.

Those changes would cost money — and there’s a reluctance to force corporations to spend money on safety equipment.

That reluctance with corporate giants is odd, given that regulators routinely force ordinary people to spend money on safety.

Imagine taking your car to get its inspection sticker. Suppose the inspection reveals the brakes are bad.

Do you get off the hook by claiming that new brakes cost too much?

And, if you failed to get new brakes and then drove your car through a crowd, would you expect to get off with a light fine?

***

As it stands today, some federal officials have a responsibility to protect the safety of workers. But they don’t have the authority to compel reluctant companies to take action. They ought to have that authority.
More BP stories here.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Koufax March Madness: Final Voting Is Open

No, no. Don't skip this.

Oops. It seems that out of 65 nominees, I've somehow made the Final 10 for Best Single Issue Blog in the Koufax Awards for the best "lefty" bloggers. This puts me in the rather embarrassing position of asking for you vote for me yet again, one last time this year. Promise.

Although it's a cliché, I'm truly honored to be nominated with so many great blogs, many of which are better written than Confined Space and have far more readers than Confined Space (hint hint). Go read them.

So why vote for me? Two reasons. Out of all the nominees in this and every other category, Confined Space is the only blog that addresses workplace safety and labor issues on a regular basis and by winning, more people will read it, exposing them to the reality behind the road work, the factories, the construction sites and the convenience stores they pass by every day. And on those rare occasions when other blogs pick up on health and safety news, it comes from Confined Space.

In addition, if I win, my kids will think I'm cool.

Voting Instructions

There are two ways to vote:

  1. If you like what you read here, go ahead and vote for Confined Space, click on Best Single Issue Blog. Just scroll all the way down the page to the bottom of the page to the comments and leave a comment with the following words: "Confined Space." If you have time, feel free to embellish with kind words so that people know what we're all about.

  2. If that's too much trouble or you're one of my many fans at OSHA or a secret dissident at some Washington D.C. law firm and you'd rather not leave an identifiable public comment, you can also just send a private e-mail to Mary Beth or Dwight, with the heading "Koufax."
And, although it might be tempting to stuff the ballot boxes, only vote once. That goes for your spouse, children and third cousins as well.

The voting is expected to last a week, but in a desperate effort to burn all of my annual leave as early as possible, I'm going on yet another vacation next week, where I may or may not have the capability to do mass mailings to 10,000 of my closest friends. So, as my father used to say "Don't make me come in there and ask you again."

Vote early (but not often.) Hurry, I'm being crushed. Yes, that means you.



Also



If you have time, read some of the other blogs in this and other categories. You'll be glad you did. And if you find anything that changes your life, send a little thanks (the green variety) to the kind folks at Wampum who are doing all this in there spare time.



My recommendations for other awards:


Best Blog (non-pro): Majikthise or Crooks and Liars
Best Blog (pro/sponsor): Political Animal/Washington Monthly
Best Group Blog: AmericaBlog
Best Writing: Suburban Guerilla
Best Expert: Effect Measure
Most Humorous Blog: Jesus' General

So what are we all going to do now? Go here.

Thank you.




Homeland Security To Turn Chemical Plant Security Over To Industry

There are 3,400 high-priority chemical facilities in this country where a worst-case release of toxic chemicals could sicken or kill more than 1,000 people, and 272 sites that could affect more than 50,000 people. Yet despite reports from government agencies and independent journalists since 9/11 that chemical plant security is seriously flawed, the Bush administration has refused to address the issue.

Now, however, with Iraq disintegrating into civil war, with the port fiasco barely behind us, and Congressional elections rapidly approaching, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, has finally decided that it might be time for the Bush administration to do something about chemical plant security.

And guess who's going to be running the show:
Chertoff, speaking at a forum hosted by the chemical industry, called on Congress to give his department authority to approve or reject security plans for an estimated 15,000 facilities nationwide. But he said the government would not set minimum standards for chemical companies to follow, allowing the industry to tailor its own "so we can go about the objective of raising our security in a way that doesn't destroy the businesses we're trying to protect."

"There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and we're going to let chemical operators figure out the right way, as long as the cat gets skinned," Chertoff said.
He also said private-sector, "third party" inspectors could check on compliance, unlike the way OSHA or EPA currently enforce the law.

Oh, and in case individual states decide that federal laws are not good enough to protect their citizens or that it might make sense to require chemical plants to use "inherently safer" technologies to reduce the target,
Chertoff generally backed an industry push to preempt state and local governments from enacting tougher rules. He said inconsistent rules that expose businesses to "ruinous liability" would create "a regulatory regime that is doomed to failure." He criticized as "interference with business" a proposal backed by environmental groups that would require industry to substitute "inherently safer" chemicals and processes.
Chertoff's aversion to states developing their own rules is aimed at New Jersey, which became the first state to issue regulations requiring chemical plants to take measures to reduce their vulnerability to catastrophes resulting from terrorist attacks. The best part is that 43 (of the state's 140 plants) using the most hazardous chemicals are required to review the potential for adopting inherently safer technologies.

Although the NY Times calls Chertoff's proposal "unusual turnabout by the Bush administration," this whole debate is following a familiar pattern:
  1. Industry opposes any government regulation.
  2. States that have given up hope of federal action begin to issue their own regulations.
  3. Industry, suddenly facing the prospect of being forced to comply with multiple different state regulations, turns around and advocates for a weak federal regulation that pre-empts the states.
This debate has been going on since shortly after 9/11, initially with legislation introduced by former New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine that would have forced the chemical industry to implement, where possible, inherently safer technologies (e.g. substituting safer chemicals, storing smaller amounts of hazardous chemicals, etc.), along with increased traditional security measures. The American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association) and their clients in Congress managed to kill Corzine's bill and instead suggested an approach that focusses almost entirely on traditional security (guns, guards and gates), and relies on compliance with voluntary guidelines -- developed by the American Chemistry Council.

Some experts aren't quite so confident about the ACC's program as Chertoff is. According to an article in US News and World Report earlier this year,
The American Chemistry Council, the leading industry group, says its 2,000 chemical facilities have invested nearly $3 billion in security since 9/11 to adhere to an industry-developed set of voluntary security measures. But Sal DePasquale, a former security official with Georgia-Pacific Corp., who helped craft the code, calls it "window dressing." He says investments in cameras, fencing, and network security are "a sorry joke" compared with the highly armed teams that guard nuclear plants. DHS estimates 20 percent of the roughly 300 highest-risk plants aren't even signed up for a voluntary program.

In addition to the discussion over whether standards should be madatory or voluntary, the most contentious part of the debate was whether to require the chemical industry to seriously consider inherently safer technologies. For example, immediately after September 11, Washington D.C.’s Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant changed from chlorine to sodium hypochlorite, essentially a strong version of bleach, but much safer than liquid chlorine. The change cost about $1 million, which translates into about 50 cents per customer more annually for sewage treatment.

One of the main advantages to inherently safer technologies is that they not only protect against a terrorist attack, but also against the every-day run-of-the-mill domestic chemical accident. But even if the only threat we had to worry about was terrorism, how much sense does it make to only commit resources to guard a target (with questionable effectiveness) when in most cases it’s entirely possible to shrink or even remove the target completely? As outlaw Willie Sutton explained, they robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Terrorists would be tempted to attack chemical plants because that’s where the greatest potential for terror is. Take the money out of the banks -- or the catastrophic potential out of chemical plants -- and no one cares.

Chertoff clearly doesn't get it:

Clearly a lot of chemical companies on their own, in meeting performance standards, will want to look at inherently safer technology as a means to reduce the risk, and therefore achieve what they need to achieve. But we have to be careful not to move from what is a security-based focus, as part of the type of regulation I'm describing, into one that tries to broaden into achieving environmental ends that are unrelated to security. There is an Environmental Protection Administration. They deal with environmental matters that are distinct from security. And I want to make sure that we don't allow our focus on security to become a surrogate for achieving ends that may very well be worthwhile but ought to be pursued in a debate in another forum. (emphasis added)

Another point of sharp disagreement is whether DHS or the Environmental Protection Agency should handle chemical plant security. The chemical industry feared that the EPA may end up being too hard to control (in future administrations, not this one). Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), who has introduced industry favored legislation that resembles Chertoff's plan, has opposed giving EPA the responsibility for chemical plant security, despite their obvious expertise in chemical plant safety: "Whom would you trust to protect chemical plants against terrorists, former Navy Seals or Greenpeace?," Inhofe asked

Most recently Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) have proposed a compromise legislation. The Collins/Lieberman bill addresses one of those problems (pre-emption, by allowing states to set their own standards), ignores another (inherently safer technologies), and apparently admits defeat on the third (Homeland Security wins, EPA loses).

Although Collins praised Chertoff's speech, environmentalists and others were not so pleased:

Andy Igrejas, a program director at the National Environmental Trust, which is frequently critical of the administration's environmental policies, said of the speech: "It was lame. It reflects pandering to the industry. And it means this could end up being more of a paperwork exercise instead of something that really protects people."

Dan Katz, chief counsel to Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, joined the criticism.

"That is the Enron mentality: trust industry and put the public at risk," Mr. Katz said. "But unlike Enron, the risk here is not that people will lose some of their stock savings. It is that we could have a catastrophic terrorist event."

Rick Hind of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign said there were sewage treatment plants in 45 urban areas, as well as power plants and refineries in a number of states, that used extremely dangerous chemicals like chlorine gas and hydrofluoric acid and that could replace those chemicals with alternatives widely used elsewhere and without excessive cost.

"With guards, fences, cameras, lights and gates, we are still gambling with people's lives," Mr. Hind said.

The irony is that, after sitting on their bony behinds for the past several years, the administration is suddenly in quite a hurry to look like it's doing something:
Mr. Chertoff said he expected vigorous debate on any legislation. But the fact that this is an election year should not prevent Congress from acting, he said.

"The terrorists aren't planning to take this year off," Mr. Chertoff said. "I refuse to simply abdicate the field this year and say, 'Well, we're going to have to wait until after the election to get serious again.' "

Well certainly not, after abdicating the field for the past three years.

The full text of Chertoff's speech is here.

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Monday, March 20, 2006


A Life Gone In 60 Words

What is this? Journalism? I think not.

This is the entire article:
Martinsville man dies on the job in Henry County

Martinsville, VA -- Local and federal authorities are investigating a fatal industrial accident in Henry County. It happened around 8:00 p.m. Friday, March 17 at Knauss Snack Food in the Beaver Creek Industrial Park. Officials say 19-year-old Francisco Alejandro Garcia fell into a processing machine and died. Garcia was a contract employee responsible for cleaning the machines that night.

He fell in "and died?"

What, a heart attack? Natural causes? Or is this perhaps a lockout incident? Was he crushed in moving machinery that wasn't de-energized? Or did Garcia fall into an opening and hit his head? Or maybe he was electrocuted. Was he working alone? Are there OSHA standards that may cover this incident? Any witnesses?

But wait, answers to these questions might actually take a bit of work and research, some actual interest in why this man died. Anyway, he was probably just an immigrant, most likely "illegal."

Are we ever to hear more about Francisco Alejandro Garcia? Probably not.

(Thanks to Coit Smith for seeing the obvious.)

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Feds Cracking Down On Lawbreakers? Think Again.

No-Nonsense Enforcement? High Fines? Tell Me Another One.

As a father of three children, I would punish them for three reasons: As a punishment for the "crime," as a warning not to let it happen again, and as a lesson to the other kids. We all know what happens when you "spare the rod." It's no different in the corporate suites.

For the past five years, American citizens have been plagued by an administration in Washington that isn't crazy about punishing business-related crime. But there have been exceptions -- large, highly publicized for the really bad guys allegedly showing that the feds are cracking down on lawbreakers. But as soon as the spotlights are turned off, the fines are quietly negotiated to just a fraction of their original amounts.

An Associated Press investigation shows that there's actually not much behind the curtain:
When a gasoline spill and fiery explosion killed three young people in Washington state, officials announced a record penalty against a gas pipeline company: $3 million to send the message that such tragedies "must never happen again."

When nuclear labs around the country were found exposing workers to radiation and breaking other safety rules, assessments totaling $2.5 million were quickly ordered.

When coal firms' violations were blamed for deaths, injuries and risks to miners from Alabama to West Virginia, they were slapped with more than $1.3 million in penalties.

What happened next with these no-nonsense enforcement efforts? Not much. The pipeline tab was eventually reduced by 92 percent, the labs' assessments were waived as soon as they were issued, and the mine penalties largely went unpaid.
And (surprise, surprise), things have gotten much worse recently.
The amount of unpaid federal fines has risen sharply in the last decade. Individuals and corporations regularly avoid large, highly publicized penalties for wrongdoing - sometimes through negotiations, sometimes because companies go bankrupt, sometimes due to officials' failure to keep close track of who owes what under a decentralized collection system.
And getting of lightest is "white collar" crime (even if it results in the death of blue collar workers.) A report by the Government Accountability Office investigators found that just 7 percent of restitution is paid in white collar cases.

Like many agencies, OSHA has a forumula for reducing fines:
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's written policy explains to inspectors that they can reduce penalties by as much as 95 percent, "depending upon the employer's `good faith,' (25 percent) `size of business,' (60 percent) and `history of previous violations.' (10 percent)"
What's the justification?
Officials explained that compliance is the agency's goal, and that the law allows penalties to be reduced when companies make amends. Violators who don't comply risk being referred to the Treasury Department, which can collect by seizing federal benefits.
Of course, as we saw recently, some agencies (like the Mine Safety and Health Administration), kind of neglect to send unpaid fines over to the Treasury Department. Computer problems. And stuff.

So why is all this a problem?
"Fines and orders to pay restitution are an important part of how we punish convicted criminals. When so little effort is made to collect that money, we allow convicted criminals to avoid punishment for their crimes, weaken our criminal justice system and ultimately deny justice to the victims of crimes," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who has pressed for closer scrutiny for years.
Newly appointed OSHA director Ed Foulke told his Senate confirmation committee that he saw no need to amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to make it easier to jail employers who kill. The current penalty structure is perfectly adequate to enforce the law. What we're left with -- in even the most serious cases -- is little chance of prison time and fines effectively reduced to pennies and what do we have left? The corporate equivalent of spoiled children-- with more tragic consquences.

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