Saturday, May 31, 2003

Pivotal Organizing Drive

Good article here about UNITE's Cintas organizing drive. The health and safety issues of the organizing drive were mentioned in a Washington Post article that I wrote about last week.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Let's Tell It Like It Is: What Language do They Speak At OSHA?

OSHA Press Release: Failure to Develop Procedures for Confined Space Entry Leads to $146,000 Fine for Menomonie, Wis. Employer

What Actually Happened: Brave Harvestore, Inc., a company that builds and services grain and silage silos, killed an employee because it didn't train him or provide him with the proper equipment to enter an oxygen deficient confined space.

Better Headline: Menomonie, Wis Employer Fined $146,000 for Killing Worker in Confined Space.

OSHA Press Release: OSHA Cites Two Contractors for Lack of Fall Protection at Panama City Hathaway Bridge Project; Proposed Penalties Total $49,300

What Actually Happened: An unsecured ladder slipped, dropping an employee 60 feet onto a concrete surface where he hit his head and then rolled through a gap into the water, 60 feet below.

Better Headline: Two Contractors Cited for Killing Employee by Failing to Provide Fall Protection

The Latest Administration Atrocity: OSHA Drops TB Standard

This is outrageous. Not only has TB not gone away (and tends to reappear with a Vengence when the guard is let down), but a TB standard would also have protected against SARS. More later.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

A Preventable Death

It's nice to see newspaper editors get it right sometimes.

I ran across this article the other day and thought I should check it out, but never got around to it. The title read: "Greensboro considers changing safety policies after worker deaths." The story was about a sanitation worker, Edmond Davis, who fell off the back of a garbage truck and was run over and killed when the truck backed up over him. What struck me was this:
The death comes less than two years after a similar incident, which resulted in an [OSHA] fine against the city.

Assistant city manager Mitchell Johnson says sanitation workers have been instructed not to ride on the back of the truck when its in reverse. He says the city will review what it has done and what it needs to do to keep it from happening again.
The city was cited under OSHA's General Duty Clause, referring to an ANSI standard: "Caution-Do not use riding steps when the vehicle is exceeding 10 mph or operating in reverse or when the distance travelled exceeds 2/10 mile." Amazingly, the city appealed the original OSHA citation and a hearing will be held next month.

What's wrong with this picture? Greensboro considers changing safety policies? After the second death? After already being cited for the first one?

I wasn't the only one who thought there was something odd.

The Greensboro News and Record also smelled something rotten:
A casual observer would say the policy review following sanitation worker Edmond Davis' death shouldn't last long.

It takes little time to see that losing two city employees in less than two years to nearly identical, preventable deaths calls for substantial change. It takes even less time to see that the Band-Aid placed on the problem after Stephen Antwoine Allen was killed - admonishing workers not to ride the rear of garbage trucks that are backing up - was terribly ineffective.

The easiest solution would be barring employees from riding on the backs of trucks at all, until the city's entire fleet could be automated.

But then the city's self-reflection needs to go deeper. Why wasn't it sufficient to spark change when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the city $6,300 last year? And why did the city seek an appeal rather than pay the fine quickly and change the rules to ensure employee safety?

Briefly, after Allen's death, employees were required to stand on the ground. Had that policy stayed in place, Davis likely would be alive today.
But that wasn't OK with the city. After evaluating the problem, "the city decided to push the envelope, permitting workers to mount the trucks - but only when they were moving forward. Had that policy been strictly enforced, perhaps Davis would be alive today."

The News and Record isn't settling for any lame excuses:
Before the temporary ban on rear riding, the city's safety manager complained that the practice was safer than having workers on the ground at risk of being hit by passing traffic. And the city quibbled with OSHA's interpretation of the safety guidelines, saying the rules only applied to riding on the side of trucks, not the rear. As if one couldn't fall beneath a wheel just as easily from either rickety perch.

Surely such callousness will not be repeated this time.

Whether the reforms come in equipment, policy (strict rules keeping sanitation workers on the ground or in the cab) or elsewhere, something must change this time around.
In a way, Greensboro workers are lucky. If Edmond Davis and Stephen Antwoine Allen had been killed in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts or over half the states in this country where public employees have no OSHA coverage, there would have been no OSHA investigation and no fine for either death.

So what's the city doing while waiting for its old appeal and new citation? Workers were given the day off and "have been asked to stay off the back steps of the rear-loading bulk-waste trucks 'for right now,' and employees are being asked to redouble their focus on safety.

'We're asking them to step back and think of everything they're doing,' said [environmental services director Jeryl] Covington."

Too bad. Just one of those things when workers aren't being careful.

Florida to Injured Workers: Deal With It.

California isn't the only state having workers compensation problems (see below). It's not bad enough that you get injured on the job, now Republicans in Florida are making sure that injured workers will have a hard time finding legal assistance to fight for their claims.

By literally stopping the legislative clock, Florida Republicans rammed through a bill to limit workers comp expenses primarily by limiting lawyers fees -- lawyers for workers, but not legal fees for the insurance companies fighting workers' claims.

"It's tremendous," said Bill Herrle, a lobbyist for the Florida Retail Federation. "It chases out the attorneys that are only in there only to hold a case up."

"The insurance companies made out like bandits," said Dwayne Sealy, an AFL-CIO official who served on the governor's study commission.

Florida workers get paid less when they get hurt on the job than virtually any other state, and Florida businesses pay the nation's second-highest rates for injury insurance.

Under the bill, a convenience store clerk raped at gunpoint would be limited to six months of psychiatric care.

That same clerk would have a more difficult time trying to sue any insurance companies that delayed or denied claims. The bill now limits fees her attorney would collect from the insurance company if she succeeded and would force her to pay the insurance company's legal fees if she lost.
There were apparently a few Republicans with a conscience, but their qualms were put to rest:
Republicans managed to quell growing opposition in their own party by adding a few last-minute amendments, including one of the most controversial provisions that would have required an injured worker to lose both arms, both legs, both hands, both feet, both eyes, or a combination of any two to qualify as permanently disabled for life.

Instead, they kept the existing definition of "catastrophic injury" that allows a person who loses one appendage to qualify. But Democrats noted that the bill included language that allows insurance companies to deny those benefits if the carrier or employer can prove the injured worker is "physically capable of engaging in at least sedentary employment" within 50 miles of his or her home.
Even the clocks were mysteriously on the Republicans' side:
Democrats also threatened to railroad the bill by stopping the Senate from extending the session past the chamber's legal 7 p.m. adjournment time. It takes a two-thirds vote to extend the adjournment time, and Democrats voting as a block could have run the clock out.

At one point the Senate clock stopped at 6:27 p.m. and stayed that way for about 15 minutes. King said there had been mechanical trouble with the electronic voting board where the clock is located.

Washington Post Discovers Workplaces are Dangerous

The Washington Post, in an article entitled "New Occupational Hazards," has discovered that it's not just the old "dirty, smelly, hazardous" jobs that are dangerous. SARS, AIDS and workplace violence have suddenly made "safe" work more hazardous:
Broadly speaking, the U.S. workplace has become markedly safer since 1971, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created. Workplace fatalities have been cut in half, and injury and illness have fallen 40 percent.

But while some jobs have always been pretty dismal because they are dirty, smelly, hazardous or pay poorly, the emergence of new kinds of health risks -- from terrorism to SARS -- are making some formerly good jobs bad, and some formerly bad jobs awful.

Postal work, for example, was reliable but boring government employment, until postal workers started dying from anthrax spores. Package delivery seemed like a steady line of work, until workers had to start screening innocent-looking parcels in an effort to determine whether they contained bombs or explosives. Nursing has always carried a certain prestige along with some risk. But now a combination of orange alerts and a raft of infectious diseases is adding new stress to the job. Flight attendants were never highly paid, but the glamour of the job and the opportunity to travel the world made up for it, at least in the days before Sept. 11 and SARS.
Of course nurses who have spent their entire careers suffering from back injuries, toxic chemicals, infectious diseases and violence might dispute the fact that SARS has "suddenly" made their workplaces dangerous. As would a postal worker, who is no stranger to dangerous machinery, musculoskeletal injuries and other workplace hazards.

The article quotes Harvard Professor Kip Viscusi who is representative of a collection of conservative economists who argue that the market -- and not government -- will take care of health and safety: companies will be forced to pay workers more for dangerous jobs than safe jobs (giving them an incentive to make their jobs safer). If a job is dangerous, but the employer refused to pay workers more to get sick and die, the worker will simply find another job that is either safer or or a job that pays them more to get cancer or lose their limbs. (Why workers should have to choose between higher pay and their lives is not addressed. Those simple working folk probably don't value their lives or limbs as much as academics.)

For more information on this Adam Smith-inspired theory of job safety, check out (I'm not kidding) where you will find an article by nutcase George Reisman on the Frontline/NY Times McWane series. Here's Reisman's summary of the problem:
While one cannot help but feel the greatest sympathy for those whom the series describes as having lost life or limb or suffered disfigurement, and utter horror at the manner in which they suffered, one must also identify the series for what it is, namely, a totally misguided attack on the profit motive and call for further government intervention to overcome the alleged evil of the profit motive....The purpose of this article is to show that if the safety of workers is the goal, the free market, and not government intervention, is the solution.

Problems with the economy? Reisman:
The great run up in business costs over the last thirty years or so, on account of so-called safety and environmental legislation, has played an enormous role in worsening economic conditions for large numbers of wage earners and ordinary people in general. Those seeking an explanation of such things as the growing need for two breadwinners in a family need look no further.

Anyway, even Viscusi admits that in this economy, "Most at-risk workers won't be paid more anytime soon, particularly in today's sluggish business climate, said W. Kip Viscusi, a professor of law and economics at Harvard Law School. If history is a guide, he said, "people will just quit their jobs." Sounds simple enough.

Luckily, there is a more sensible solution: union. (Those of you with the print edition of the post will see a large photo of workers holding a UNITE! banner). The article describes organizing efforts at Cintas Corp., a Cincinnati-based laundry and uniform rental company, partly in response to workers' concerns over blood-tainted laundry. Cintas, according to the Post, is not amused:

We get high marks for our corporate culture," Karen Carnahan, vice president and treasurer of Cintas Corp said. "We would have taken care of that, there's no doubt in my mind. . . . If there was something, an exposure, our people would handle it properly." She said Cintas has been targeted by outside union organizers involved in "a desperate effort" to gain members at a time unions are in decline.
But never fear. In case the "desperate efforts" of "outside union organizers" fail, OSHA is riding to the rescue, armed with a fearsome battery of power-point presentations and fact sheets that are sure to leave negligent employers quaking in fear:
"We will be doing more," [Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, John] Henshaw said. "Will we be writing regulations for these things? Probably not. . . . The important thing is not to go through a lengthy rule-making process but to get information out as quickly as we can in easy-to-read format so people can put it out at their workplaces."

In early May, for example, the department began posting on its Web site a PowerPoint presentation for employers to use in discussing the risk of SARS with their workers, including links to other agencies tracking the disease. In April, the agency posted information for employers to use to plan for emergency workplace evacuations.
So, if you or one of your kids was starting a job with these "new" (or more traditional) safety and health problems, which of the three possible solutions would you choose: the free market, OSHA information, or a union?

Workers Comp Crisis

This is a rather disturbing article about the workers compensation crisis in California. [Note: The LA Times requires (free) login.] Because of sharply rising medical costs, other states -- Florida, West Virginia, and others -- are also reaching a breaking point.

California is particularly bad: "Employers in California pay more for workers' comp coverage than in any other state, yet their injured employees receive some of the skimpiest benefits in the nation....Because workers' comp costs are directly linked to the size of payroll, some employers are responding by freezing the size of their staffs, reducing hours or laying off workers."

Although California has some built-in mechanisms to save workers and employers whose workers comp companies can't make it, even that system is breaking down
The semipublic California Insurance Guarantee Assn., which pays workers' comp obligations when carriers become insolvent, is so overwhelmed with claims that it recently required an emergency bailout to keep money flowing to injured workers. Meanwhile, the State Compensation Insurance Fund, a public, nonprofit workers' comp insurer that by law cannot turn any California company away, now controls more than half the market. The fund hasn't been able to grow its capital fast enough to keep up with this torrent of new business, heightening the risk that it won't be able to pay all future claims.

"The state fund is very sick and getting worse," said California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. "The entire system is broken."
The construction industry has been particularly hard hit:
Some roofing firms are paying rates in excess of $99 for each $100 of payroll on their least experienced workers, said Doug Hoffner, executive director of the Roofing Contractors Assn. of California.

Hoffner says that has led some less reputable firms to game the system. Some are paying workers under the table to trim their payrolls, and thus their premiums. Others are dropping all coverage, an illegal tactic known as going bare.

Businesses that are playing by the rules say that's making it tough for them to compete. San Francisco roofing company owner Rich Lawson says he can't begin to count the jobs he has lost to low-cost competitors he suspects are cheating on their workers' comp obligations, while premiums for his 100-worker firm have quintupled since 1998 to more than $1 million annually
Meanwhile, the insurance companies blame everyone but themselves and the bad investments they made throughout the swinging '90's that made them vulnerable to the rising medical costs and poor economy that we're experiencing now.

So what are the solutions?

Behind Door #1: Merge workers compensation into a new single payer medical system. Costs come down, no insurance company profits and no insurance company bad investments. No hassling about whether an illness is work related or not; everything is covered for everyone,


Behind Door #2: The Orange Country register, calling universal health care "socialized medicine," kindly describes for us the Chamber of Commerce's favorite bills currently under consideration by the California legislature. The one I like best is AB 431, which would require "adequate evidence of a workplace injury to get a claim." I'm sure the intention must be to make it easier for workers to get compensation for repetitive strain injuries and other work-related injuries and illnesses.

Bottom line is that the system is broken, but the breakdown in the workers compensation system is only a symptom of the breakdown of our entire health care system -- plus that fact that workers keep getting hurt in preventable accidents. The ultimate answer? I'm not positive, but I"m sure it must have something to do with cutting workers' benefits (that will teach them not to get hurt), and, of course, MORE TAX CUTS will help any problem.

Contractor Publishes Final Version of Study Calling for Banning Asbestos

(From NYCOSH Update on Safety and Health)

The final version of the report, “Asbestos Strategies: Findings and Recommendations on the Use and Management of Asbestos,” prepared by a non-profit think tank under a contract with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was published last week.

The report concludes that the federal government should ban all importation and use of asbestos and do a better job of enforcing the laws that are supposed to protect people from the deadly mineral.

An earlier draft of the report, which was leaked three weeks ago, was the subject of several news articles, including one in the last issue of the Update on Safety and Health. Some occupational health activists expressed a concern that the final report would not be as critical of government policies as the leaked draft.

But the final report, which uses many different formulations and phrases from the draft, is substantively the same.

Among the points the final report makes

  • clearly defined legislative ban on the production, manufacture, distribution and importation of products with commercially-added asbestos is the most direct means to address concerns about remaining health risk”;

  • “A federal process should be undertaken promptly to clarify the definition of ‘asbestos’” to include the unregulated “asbestiform” minerals that belong to the same mineral group as asbestos, but are not considered to be asbestos because they have no commercial use;

  • “EPA, OSHA, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and state regulators should focus on more stringent, predictable, and consistent enforcement of these existing [asbestos] regulations. . . . such an effort must continue for the long term. . . . [including] any step that EPA and OSHA can take to encourage enforcement of existing regulations at the local level.;

  • “A national mesothelioma registry is necessary. . . to evaluate the effects of asbestos exposure”;

  • “EPA and OSHA should consult with each other and leading scientists to obtain the best sense of the science [of assessing the health risk of exposure to asbestos] and then employ education and outreach to provide reliable risk information about potential risks to the regulated community and the public. Commentators indicate that following the World Trade Center attacks federal agencies may have underestimated the risks out of concern over a public overreaction to perceived risk. A backlash followed inside and outside some agencies, which may have overstated the actual risks.”
  • Tuesday, May 27, 2003

    Something Wicked This Way Comes

    Think these are just run-of-the-mill conservatives? Irritating, but ultimately not destroying anything that we can't put back together again? Paul Krugman says to be afraid; be very afraid: "The people now running America aren't conservatives: they're radicals who want to do away with the social and economic system we have, and the fiscal crisis they are concocting may give them the excuse they need."

    Ergonomics Rears its Ugly Head

    The Washington Post's "Regulator" column covers OSHA's recent grocery store ergonomics guidelines. Needless to say, labor has a problem with guidelines as a weaker alternative to the standard that was repealed by the Bush administration in 2001:
    "They have gone to the lowest common denominator. It's a simplistic look at the whole issue," said Jackie Nowell, director of occupational safety and health for the food and commercial workers union.

    Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO's department of occupational safety and health, said the guidelines are too general. "The problems and the controls are all mushed together," she said. "There is no sense of priority. It ignores that real problems are there. This is a dumbing down of the guidelines."

    She said she preferred guidelines OSHA issued in 1990 for meatpacking plants, which were written by the regulators, the industry and the unions. Those were followed by a major enforcement effort that resulted in numerous cases that led to millions of dollars in penalties. Also at that time, the Labor Department announced it would begin work on a mandatory ergonomics standard.
    Even industry has problems with the guidelines, but for a different reason:
    Randel Johnson, vice president of labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, worries that even the draft assumes a definitive relationship between developing a musculoskeletal disorder and a particular job.

    "These are only guidelines, but they can set a precedent for a regulation later because it will be taken as gospel when it has . . . the OSHA stamp of approval," he said. He added that the agency relied on anecdotal reports from stores about how they fixed ergonomic problems and left the impression that "there is more clarity to these issues than there really is."
    Imagine thinking that there is a relationship between work and musculoskeletal problems! Bookmark this under "reasons NOT to re-elect Bush in 2004."

    Greens Think Twice

    Hmm. Seems that some members of the Green Party might be waking up to the fact that a Gore administration might have been better than Bush and wondering whether they want to head down that disasterous road again. Oh well, no harm done.

    Friday, May 23, 2003

    Senator Patty Murray Calls For Asbestos Ban

    The Indestructible Mineral meets the Eternal Debate

    In further asbestos related news, Senator Patty Murray has introduced a bill to ban asbestos from continued use in thousands of products that continue to use the cancer causing mineral.
    Among other things, Murray's bill calls for a complete ban of asbestos in products within two years after the measure becomes law. It also provides for more research into the causes and treatment of asbestos-related cancers and requires the federal government to conduct a more aggressive campaign to educate the public about the risks of asbestos. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has introduced an identical version in the House.
    Asbestos is still used in brake shoes, roofing supplies, gaskets, floor tiles, piping and some types of insulation. Murray’s bill follows on an EPA alert that
    formally cautioned homeowners against disturbing and inhaling vermiculite insulation used in attics and walls because it could contain low levels of microscopic asbestos. The agency is also beefing up a public-awareness campaign designed to help consumers determine if their home contains contaminated vermiculite. That effort came on the heels of a surprising report by an independent EPA panel that called for the ban of asbestos nationwide.
    This is the second year that Murray has introduced this bill. While she is not confident about passage this year, she hopes to have a hearing and stimulate discussion. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called Murray’s effort “long overdue.”

    Murray’s bill comes a day after talks between labor and the business community over asbestos compensation threatened to break down over Senator Orin Hatch’s threat to introduce the industry bill into Congress. (See below).

    Hatch’s plan caused a sharp drop in the stocks of companies with large asbestos liabilities yesterday. Sweeney called Hatch’s bill
    a major step backward. The Hatch bill is merely a vehicle to relieve businesses and insurers of hundreds of billions of dollars of liability while significantly short-changing the asbestos victims of the fair compensation they are due.

    Thursday, May 22, 2003

    Hatch Expected to Introduce Industry's Asbestos Compensation Bill; Stocks Drop

    The NY Times reports that Senator Orin Hatch, in an attempt to force labor and the business community to an agreement, planned to introduce the business version of an asbestos compensation bill today. Hatch's action brought a threat from the AFL-CIO to pull out of negotiations with industry representatives. The potential breakdown in negotiations has also apparently had a negative impact on the stock prices of companies with large asbestos liabilities, and possibly on Hatch's plan to introduce the bill:
    Shares of USG Corp., Owens-Illinois Inc. and other companies with large asbestos liabilities fell as trust fund negotiations stumbled. USG shares fell $1.36, or more than 11 percent, to $10.55 on the New York Stock Exchange. USG rebuffed the exchange's request for a statement explaining the decline, saying it doesn't comment on unusual trading activity. Owens-Illinois Inc. shares fell 55 cents, or almost 5 percent, to $11.55.
    According to the Times,
    Under a proposal to be introduced today by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the groups would create a $108 billion asbestos trust....Business groups and insurance compa nies have praised Senator Hatch's proposal, which would include $45 billion in contributions from companies that made asbestos or used it in their products and $45 billion from insurers, as well as about $8 billion from other asbestos trusts and $10 billion from other companies with limited asbestos liabilities.

    But Jon Hiatt, general counsel for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which has played an important role in the negotiations, said in a statement that he was "deeply disappointed" in the bill, as well as the decision by Senator Hatch to introduce the legislation at a time when talks were continuing. The support of the AFL-CIO is vital if a trust is to win the votes of Democratic senators, who can block the bill in the Senate by a filibuster.

    "The Hatch bill is a step backward," Mr. Hiatt said.

    The legislation would require the primary defendants and insurance companies to contribute $90 billion, the same amount that those groups offered to pay months ago and an amount that labor groups and many businesses said was only a starting point for negotiations.

    In addition, the payouts specified in the bill are less than what had been discussed in the negotiations and are much less than what some victims now receive. People with mesothelioma, a fatal cancer caused by asbestos, would receive $750,000 each under the bill. Negotiators had discussed $1 million or more, and the current system often yields multimillion-dollar jury verdicts and settlements.

    The proposal by Senator Hatch does not contain a federal guarantee that victims of asbestos disease will be compensated if the trust fund is exhausted, a provision that labor views as vital. The legislation "is merely a vehicle to relieve businesses and insurers of hundreds of billions of dollars of liability while significantly shortchanging the asbestos victims of the fair compensation they are due," Mr. Hiatt said.
    Companies with large asbestos liabilities are not happy with the prospect of no resolution to this issue if negotiations fall apart and Congress is unable to pass any legislation. According to,
    Hiatt said labor would be able to line up among Democrats the 41 votes needed to block Senate action on the bill.

    The labor federation said Hatch's plan includes restrictive requirements for determining whether a worker is eligible to file a claim for cancer and other diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.

    "People will not even get in the front door'' to claim benefits, said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's occupational safety director.

    The AFL-CIO also said the plan wouldn't provide adequate compensation for asbestos-related cancers that have resulted in larger court judgments.

    As of this afternoon, Hatch, perhaps noticing the negative reaction of the stock market, still had not introduced the bill. Both sides agree, however, that a trust fund is the answer to the problem that, like the mineral itself, never dies.

    Symbolic of B.S

    Here is a letter (assuredly never to be published) that I sent to the Washington Post today in response to this paragraph that appeared in an article about Bush's "victory" on tax cuts:
    The 2009 elimination of dividend taxes for poorer taxpayers is something of a symbolic gesture for Bush, since the bulk of dividends go to more affluent taxpayers. About 65 million households, with taxable incomes of $47,450 for couples and $28,400 for singles, file tax returns that top out in the 10 percent or 15 percent tax bracket, according to Brookings Institution economist Peter Orszag. Of those, about 9.3 million -- or 14 percent -- have some dividend income. About 80 percent of dividend income goes to higher-income households.
    Dear Editor:

    The Post writes that elimination of dividend taxes for poorer taxpayers is something of a "symbolic" gesture for Bush because the bulk of dividends go to more affluent taxpayers.

    A more accurate word would be "dishonest," "deceitful," "mendacious or "fraudulent." Bush was selling his tax cut as a boost for middle and lower income taxpayers when he knew all along that only upper income taxpayers would profit.

    Jordan Barab
    Takoma Park, MD


    What’s Going on in Congress?

    For health and safety activists, this year might be known as “the year of McWane.” The Frontline/New York Times series on the health and safety tragedies caused by McWane’s callous disregard for worker safety, and OSHA’s inability to crack down effectively is still reverberating. OSHA has announced a new “enhanced” enforcement policy that will look at a company’s record on a national corporate-wide basis, instead of a facility basis.

    The Bush administration seems to have no intention, however, of seeking other enhancements, such as stiffer penalties and an enhanced ability to seek criminal citations and jail time for employers who willfully disregard the law and injure or kill workers.

    In fact, some Republicans seem to be heading in the exact opposite direction. You may remember Congressman Charlie Norwood (R-GA), elected with the “Gingrich Class” of 1994 after running on an anti-OSHA platform, who first made a name for himself by claiming that OSHA had “killed the tooth fairy” when it issued the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard. Norwood is now chair of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protection, the committee that oversees OSHA.

    In response to the Frontline and New York Times stories of the crimes of the McWane Corporation and OSHA’s inability to bring criminal prosecutions or enforce the law effectively, Norwood has introduced a bill that would further weaken OSHA enforcement, H.R. 1583, the “Occupational Safety and Health- Fairness Act of 2003.”

    Norwood claims that the bill give employers, especially small businesses, “new tools to defend themselves against Occupational Safety and Health Administration citations they believe are not justified."

    New Tools. Just what they need.

    And how does he propose to do this? First, before determining a fine, OSHA must consider “the size and financial condition of the business, as well as the “good faith of the employer.” (“I’m really sorry that 12 foot deep trench collapsed on those workers. We told them to be careful. Workers are our most important resource. I promise I’ll buy the equipment needed to make sure this never happens again…just as soon as we make enough money to afford it."

    Does this mean that the lives of people working for a less profitable company are worth less than a more profitable company?

    I guess now OSHA inspectors will have to take courses in accounting and psychology.)

    And consistent with the “blame the worker” philosophy, OSHA citations would have to take into consideration “the degree of responsibility or culpability for the violation of the employer, the employees, and/or other persons.” (It is not clear whether “other persons” includes God or Mother Nature) So, if the employee was being careless, clearly the poor employer shouldn’t be cited.

    Finally, to make sure that employers are “not forced into settlement when they believe OSHA is wrong, just because it is the most cost-effective option available,” Norwood’s bill requires OSHA to pay all fees and expenses of small businesses if OSHA loses the case. (The “funny” thing is that while I was at OSHA, there were numerous situations where the OSHA was reluctant to cite an employer – especially for poor ergonomic conditions – because the business – with the help of the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations – had much more money to spend on a case than OSHA did.)

    So far, all Republicans on the committee have co-sponsored the bill. No Democrats have seen the (apparently well-hidden) virtues of this approach. Representative Major Owens (D-NY), ranking minority member of the Workforce Protections Committee, said that Norwood’s bill would give employers incentives to disobey the law,” according to Inside OSHA. OSHA has not stated whether it supports the bill or not.

    Good News

    But some sanity does exist in Congress. Senator John Corzine (D-NJ) is getting ready to introduce a bill that would significantly strengthen OSHA’s enforcement capabilities, according to Inside OSHA: “Corzine’s bill would increase from six months to 10 years the maximum criminal penalty for those who willfully violate workplace safety laws in the case of an employee fatality. In addition, the bill would increase from six months to one year the penalty for intentionally misleading an OSHA inspector." Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) is considering a similar bill in the House.

    Although OSHA can currently refer cases to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, Justice rarely prosecutes because their resources are spread thin and the penalties are so light

    In March, Corzine sent a letter to OSHA Director John Henshaw “seeking his support for legislation he will introduce that would increase criminal penalties for employers who willfully violate safety laws.”

    During OSHA’s House appropriation hearing, Henshaw, responding to a question by Rep. DeLauro, stated that OSHA had a good penalty structure, but that he was willing to “work with Congress,” A code-phrase for “that’s the most ridiculous suggestion I’ve ever heard, Congresswoman, but I’m can’t say that in a Congressional hearing.”

    OSHA Appropriations

    At the beginning of May, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, John Henshaw testified before the House Appropriations Committee on the Administration’s proposed FY 04 budget request. To summarize the testimony:
    Blah blah, blah blah, for the first time... blah blah blah voluntary blah blah blah partnerships blah blah fair enforcement blah blah blah comprehensive ergonomics program blah blah voluntary guidelines blah blah blah outreach blah blah blah compliance assistance blah blah Hispanic workers blah blah blah consultation.
    If you read between the blahs, you may notice that there was no mention of new standards – like the tuberculosis standard or the standard that would require employers to pay for personal protective equipment. Both of these were on the verge of being issued when the Bush Administration was selected. Both have been moved to the back burner. Earlier this month, UFCW petitioned OSHA to issue the PPE standard and AFSCME petitioned the agency to issue the Tuberculosis standard.

    The bottom line is that OSHA is asking for $450 million for FY 2004, a 3.3 million cut from the FY 2003 budget. One of the areas that the Administration is trying to cut significantly for the third year in a row is worker training grants. The administration is requesting only $4 million for FY 2004, a 60% cut from $11.75 million allocated for FY 2003. The administration also tried to cut the grant funding last year, but the Senate put the money back in and ordered OSHA to continue funding its five-year grant program that was initiated in 2000 by then-Assistant Secretary Charles Jeffress.

    According to Inside OSHA, Rep. Rosa DeLauro “pointed out that the grant program is consistent with the Bush administration’s ‘goal of non-enforcement’ because the funds are used for education”

    Henshaw argued that OSHA could do more with less; that $4 million would create a “grater impact” than $11 million by moving away from “one-on-one training programs.” OSHA has stated in the past that instead of training actual workers, it would like to use the training funds to develop internet based programs, which would be especially useful for immigrant workers, who would presumably run home to their trailer parks from their jobs at the poultry plant, jump on their high speed internet connection, do a little “e-training” before feeding the kids, putting them to bed and running off to their second jobs.

    That’s all for now. We’ll keep you posted.

    So Long Christie

    Proudest Accomplishment: Protecting the Nation's Chemical Industry

    I have to admit, I won’t be sorry to see Christie Todd Whitman go. I’m sure she had better intentions than the Bush Administration allowed, but good intentions and $1.10 will get you a non-rush hour ride on the Metro. Integrity, on the other hand, is worth something. I would have thought better of her had she sent a message to Bush blasting the obvious corporate control of the Administration’s environmental agenda. But that would clearly be too much to ask for.

    More knowledgeable minds than I will write her political obituary. I’ll settle for a few comments about this paragraph of her letter of resignation:
    In addition, the Agency has played a key role in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the subsequent anthrax attack and in promoting the security of our homeland. The work EPA did in the aftermath of those attacks will long be a proud chapter in this Agency's history. As the federal lead for protecting the Nation's water infrastructure and the chemical industry, we also have added significantly to efforts to reduce the vulnerability of those sectors to terrorist attack.
    There are a lot of angry and sick New Yorkers who think that the EPA dropped the ball big time by dismissing within days of 9/11 any possible health threat posed by the virtual pulverization of the World Trade Centers. You can check out the NYCOSH website for more information on that subject.

    But the real whopper is the last sentence, a Freudian slip when parsed: "As the federal lead for protecting the Nation's water infrastructure and the chemical industry." Protecting the Nation's... chemical industry?" Well, yeah, but I didn't think she was supposed to be quite so up front about it.

    I'm charitably assuming she really meant "protecting the security of the nation's chemical industry [and] added significantly to efforts to reduce the vulnerability of those sectors to terrorist attack.” The only possible response to that claim is "Huh?"

    The only significant act I remember coming from EPA on this issue was to drop the ball last October, claiming that EPA had decided not to regulate in the area of chemical plant security because they feared getting sued – by their friends. Wouldn’t want to issue any chemical industry security regulations if you thought your were going to get sued by the chemical industry. Wouldn’t be prudent, in the words of Bush the elder.

    Oh and they organized a few visits to chemical plants to discuss their voluntary efforts prevent terrorist attacks -- without regulations or government interference, thank you very much.

    Meanwhile, Back on the (Tank) Farm

    Speaking of chemical plant security, the Wall St. Journal had a good article today (appropriately titled "Chemical Manufacturers Elude Crackdown on Toxic Materials"), unlike their atrocious editorial from a few weeks ago that I wrote about.

    The article discusses the early days not too long after 9/11 when the push toward "inherently safer technologies" in Senator Corzine's bill made sense:
    The logic won influential converts. Mr. Corzine's legislation set as one goal "reducing usage and storage of chemicals by changing production methods and processes." President Bush's Environmental Protection Agency drafted its own bill -- for internal administration debate -- with similar goals.
    That was before the chemical industry, shocked that the bill cleared the Senate committee unanimously, geared up for battle.
    While lawmakers went on vacation, the chemical lobby went to work. The ACC and the API called on other business groups to gin up broad-based resistance. When the new coalition met at the API's Washington offices in early August, Kendra Martin, the petroleum institute's director of security, says she asked them: "Are you aware of the Chemical Security Act and how onerous it might be?" On Aug. 29, 30 groups -- from truckers to paint makers -- signed a letter to all senators urging them to oppose the legislation.

    Prodded by the Fertilizer Institute, farm lobbyists wrote a letter expressing concern about a ban on "chemicals responsibly used and needed by agriculture" such as ammonia, a vital ingredient in fertilizers. The 3,700-member National Propane Gas Association generated 8,500 letters warning of the demise of the backyard gas grill. The Chlorine Chemistry Council raised the specter of massive economic disruption, calculating in position papers that "chlorine products and their derivatives account for 45% of the nation's gross domestic product."

    The Corzine bill didn't actually call for banning any of those materials, but opponents nevertheless warned of unintended consequences.
    And then the "greenbaiting" started:
    Seaver Sowers, a lobbyist at the Agricultural Retailers Association, says he made sure to tell members and legislators that Greenpeace backed the Corzine bill. The Ohio Chemistry Technology Council rallied companies to contact the state's senators to offset an "aggressive grassroots campaign" by "Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and other environmental activist groups."

    When Congress returned in early September, bipartisan support for the legislation unraveled. Seven Republican senators who had voted for the bill in committee now issued a statement saying the proposal "misses the mark." They declared: "We feel compelled to offer amendments to address concerns ... that have arisen from scores of stakeholders."
    Of course, there's more and more evidence that the chemical industry is not really concerned
    Companies have struggled to balance security and profits. DuPont Co. says that since Sept. 11 it has spent $20 million to bolster security, but the company is hesitant to undertake much more. "There is an endless amount of money we can spend on security," Charles O. Holliday Jr., DuPont's chief executive officer, says in an interview. "The question is: How do we have enough security and stay competitive?"

    Critics worry that many companies are more focused on the latter.
    And although Senator Inhofe (R-OK)has introduced a bill that the industry has labeled "a good start," House Republicans don't seem to anxious to do anything: "I think what the administration and private sector have done so far appears to be adequate," says Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of a key subcommittee handling the issue. "I don't personally see a need for legislation of any kind."

    Good thing we had Christie Whitman taking care of things. Don't know how we'll possibly feel safe without her.

    Ergonomics Comes to the Presidential Race: Dems Call for New Standard

    According to this article from The Hill, one of the earliest crimes of the Bush Administration, the repeal of the OSHA ergonomics standard, has become a campiagn issue.
    Eight of the nine candidates who are seeking the Democratic nomination have indicated they would seek a new regulation. Phone calls to the Rev. Al Sharpton's campaign were not returned.

    At a time when some liberals complain that differences between the Republican Party and Democratic Party are vanishing, the regulation of ergonomic injuries is a standout issue. Every Republican in Congress voted to overturn the Clinton OSHA rule in 2001. The Senate voted 56-44 to reject it. The House vote was 222-198.
    And it's even the issue in at least one Senate campaign:
    Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) voted against the Clinton rule, but says OSHA should regulate ergonomic injuries. As an influential appropriator,
    Specter infuriated business groups for years by repeatedly objecting to proposed budget language that sought to block OSHA's rule.

    Meanwhile, Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) is mounting a bit for Specter's seat in the 2004 election, and will use the incumbent's voting record on ergonomics to suggest Specter favors organized labor over business.

    "It's part of the case we're building that [Specter] is not good for business," the source said.
    (It would be highly ironic if Specter lost the nomination for his ergonomic advocacy, seeing as he didn't have the balls to vote against the repeal.)

    Among all of the anti-worker actions this administration has taken, the repeal of the ergonomics standard was probably the worst. Unfortunately, it happened right at the beginning of the administration. It's up to us to remind workers -- and friends and relatives -- that millions of people are suffering painful and career-ending musckuloskeletal disorders because the President and the Republican Congress (aided by a few Democrats) repealed a much-needed health and safety standard for the first time in history.

    Don't Let Them Forget

    Wednesday, May 21, 2003

    34 miners feared dead in China coalmine accidents, ICEM Calls for Action

    Tuesday May 20, 20:48 PM

    BEIJING (AFP) - Thirty-four miners are feared dead in two seperate coalmine accidents in north China, the latest in a neverending series of disasters to hit the beleaguered industry.

    The State Administration for Work Safety said there was little hope of finding 25 workers after a gas explosion tore apart the Yongtai mine in northern Shanxi province.

    Another 33 miners were reported missing after a flood at the Fudong coalmine, also in Shanxi, Monday, but 24 were plucked to safety Tuesday.

    "There are 25 miners missing (in Yongtai). The rescue team is in the mine now trying to find them," work safety official An Yuanjie told AFP.

    "There is little chance they have survived because it was a big gas explosion."

    The blast at the illegal mine happened at 7 am Tuesday (2300 GMT Monday) in Anze county.

    An said grave fears were held for another 33 workers in Jinzhong city after a flood at the state-run Fudong mine, which happened 2 pm (0600 GMT) Monday.

    ICEM: Action Needed on Chinese Mine Safety

    In the wake of a coal mine disaster on 13 May in Anhui Province in eastern China that left 63 miners dead and another 23 missing, the 20-million-member strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Union (ICEM) is calling on the world's mining industry to join with the global trade union federation in forming a "rapid response" team to investigate safety in China's mines.

    The ICEM today has written the Chinese government and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) offering assistance on the basis of a frank and open dialogue.

    The 13 May disaster at the state-run Luling mine in Huaibel city, Anhui, is being blamed on a natural gas explosion. The 86 miners were working 500 meters inside the mine. The Luling mine employs 7,000 to 8,000, and produces 2.4 million tons of coal annually.

    Figures from China's work safety bureau cite nearly 15,000 deaths occurred last year due to explosions, floods and cave-ins. In the first two months of 2003 alone, official figures cite 1,600 miners as having died in the country's mines. And a rash of accidents this spring has pushed this figure much higher.

    Where's The Outrage?...I'm sure it was here just a minute ago. Has anyone seen it?

    I would be very interested in peoples' opinions of this article from Industrial Safety and Hygiene News. Click on the (no)comments below or email me.
    In January, The New York Times - PBS series of articles and a broadcast documentary told of thousands of injuries and hundreds of OSHA violations at pipe foundries owned by a little-known but prosperous Alabama business. Days later, Organization Resources Counselors wrote to The Times:

    "It is baffling to many who devote their professional lives to protecting workers that there is not an ongoing and unrelenting sense of public outrage about the 19 workers who, on average, die every day of every year in America from workplace injuries.

    "What is missing," wrote ORC, which advises more than 150 large corporations on safety and health issues, "is a relentless, pervasive social intolerance for the kinds of workplace conditions that your series describes."

    Are you baffled?

    Let's explore that age-old question: Where's the outrage?

    Tuesday, May 20, 2003

    Another Chemical Cover Up. And Again Workers Pay the Price

    Yet another chilling story of Pantasote Inc. workers being exposed for years to highly hazardous chemicals, and the companies not letting them know that it was killing them. I'm starting to detect a pattern

    Worker exposed for years to vinyl chloride have filed a lawsuit alleging "a decades-long pattern of deception and denial. It charges that the U.S. plastics industry withheld information about vinyl chloride's deadly effects, both from workers and from the government. It says that Pantasote's executives participated in the deception."

    The past president, denying that there was ever any cover up of health and safety information said that "while he was aware that angiosarcoma of the liver had afflicted vinyl chloride workers elsewhere in the industry, he knew of no cancers associated with the Passaic plant."
    In fact, many cancers have developed among the several thousand workers who made plastics at Pantasote from 1957 through the 1980s. The Record's review of 36 deaths found through lawsuits, newspaper obituaries, and numerous interviews revealed two deaths from angiosarcoma of the liver, one from angiosarcoma of the kidney, and one from liver disease.

    Angiosarcoma of the liver occurs at the rate of one or two cases per one million people in the general population.

    "Angiosarcoma is so rare that one case would be significant," said Dr. Jim Melius, former head epidemiologist for New York State and, before that, head of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's epidemiology division.


    [The lawsuit] names 50 companies, insurers, and trade associations as defendants who allegedly conspired to knowingly hide vinyl chloride's dangers.

    The companies disseminated a widely used document, or "chemical safety data sheet," known as SD-56 and on display at Pantasote, that said vinyl chloride was harmless at levels of 500 parts per million and below. But the industry knew as early as 1959 that the chemical caused injury at much lower levels, according to a May correspondence that passed from Dow Chemical to B.F. Goodrich as well as a November interoffice memo at Union Carbide.

    The companies also conducted medical exams, experiments, and studies of their own workers without the workers' consent or knowledge and without reporting the results to the workers, the lawsuit alleges. And the companies manipulated and published fraudulent studies to conceal the dangers of vinyl chloride, documents reveal.
    And while their fathers were at work, where did the children play? Check out part two.

    NY Hazard Abatement Board to Hold Hearings on Workplace Violence Standard

    Jonathan Rosen of the Public Employee Federation in NY informs us that at the request of the NY pubic employee unions, the NY State Hazard Abatement Board is holding hearings on a proposed public employee workplace violence prevention standard. They are calling it the "Safety and Security Standard".

    According to Rosen, "This is an exciting opportunity to try to get an enforceable standard to prevent workplace violence." The hearing notice can be found here. For more information and a copy of the proposed standard, contact Jonathan here.

    SARS Fact Sheets

    SEIU has developed a four page factsheet and checklist on SARS protections for health care workers. Check it out here.

    Monday, May 19, 2003

    The Ghosts of Brentwood:Despite Anthrax Tests, Workers Debate Returning

    One day last week, John H.Bridges III, the U.S. Postal Service's on-scene incident commander, opened a black rubber door -- ignoring a white piece of paper with "Exclusion Zone" printed in bold, black letters -- and stepped onto the work floor of a building once so contaminated with anthrax that even the rats inside were treated as hazardous material.
    Interesting article on preparations for re-opening the anthrax-contaminated Brentwood Post Office building.
    The American Postal Workers Union, which represents the postal workers now inside, took a neutral approach, advising members that reentering the building without protective gear was strictly voluntary. "I wouldn't make any assumptions on the final clearance of the facility," said Corey Thompson, safety and health specialist for the union.

    Thompson said such a clearance needs to come from the Environmental Clearance Committee, an independent group of 15 academic, government and private-sector experts that was formed to evaluate the fumigation's effectiveness. It is chaired by the D.C. Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    The committee issued an interim statement in March that the technical requirements for a successful fumigation were met and that all samples were negative for anthrax. But it stopped short of endorsing reoccupancy. The findings "should not be interpreted as a recommendation" that the facility is safe for reuse, the statement read. The committee said it wanted to review more fumigation data and sampling results. There has been ongoing air sampling during the renovation.
    Some workers are wary of the Postal Service's assurances that the facility is safe and given the past history, it's hard to blame them. Some have retired and others have transferred to other locations.
    Those not coming back cite lingering doubts about the success of the fumigation process. The place still evokes grim memories for many, and Joan Bell[who sorted mail on Machine 17 and retired in August after a 35-year postal career] said she avoids even driving by. A powdery ghost infected the machines they staffed, killed two of their colleagues and cast a cloud of uncertainty over their health and faith in management, which many said lingers to this day.

    The Fighting O'Sullivan

    Interesting article on Terry O'Sullivan, President of the Laborers who was recently elected Chairman and CEO of ULLICO to replace the ousted Robert Georgine.

    Airport Screeners Fight to Organize Union, Threaten National Security. Oh My!

    This article from the Orlando Sentinel describes Airport screeners efforts to build a union and eventually get collective bargaining rights despite the Administration's insistence that unions and homeland security are incompatible.
    The opening salvo was fired in January by TSA chief James Loy, when he forbade screeners access to collective bargaining. That was followed by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and its absorption of tens of thousands of civil service workers, who were offered only a one-year guarantee that their union rights would be preserved. And now the Department of Defense is asking Congress for unprecedented authority to hire, fire and promote its 746,000 civilian workers.

    The administration couches everything in national security terms, saying it wants to create a nimble work force capable of responding to today's threats. But union leaders call it thinly veiled union busting.

    "The part that really frustrates me is that they are lying to the public. They have all the flexibility they need under the current law," said Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 government workers.
    Although screeners are allowed to join AFGE, they aren't allowed to bargain. Screeners talk about how they are being mistreated and claim they are being harassed for organizing activities.
    Among the problems cited in Orlando and other airports: Schedules are inconsistent from week to week, and sometimes even day to day; paychecks are lost or wrong; employees are often denied breaks whenever there is a shortage of workers; and screeners who used to work for private screening companies are given first shot at promotions.

    And they say those who complain about working conditions often are harassed by supervisors -- including being given less desirable schedules or denied transfers.

    "The way we are treated -- it's always negative," said Marzke, who thinks his union activism has made him a target.

    Marzke was one of 13 screeners who made a trek to Washington, D.C., in March to officially join the union and take part in a news conference. Immediately afterward, he started having trouble with his pay -- including missing two consecutive paychecks.

    "I could only assume it was retribution for my union activities," Marzke said.


    Nationwide, screeners are complaining about many of the same things, though there are issues of more importance to specific locations.

    At Boston, for example, union activist Dennis Cullity is worried about the lack of radiation-detection badges -- they track cumulative exposure -- for screeners who operate X-ray machines. Such badges are worn by the technicians who come in to repair the machines, he said.

    "But we're with the machines eight hours a day and we don't get to wear them," Cullity said. "If they are wearing them, why aren't we?"

    In Los Angeles, a hub for flights to and from Asia, screeners complain about not being allowed to wear masks to ward against the sometimes fatal respiratory disease SARS. But also, screeners want to see less chaotic scheduling.
    But less chaotic scheduling would clearly threaten the security of the homeland, according to Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation,* a conservative think tank.
    With unions would come new workplace rules that could make it harder for managers to respond to sudden threats. The TSA likes to point to its rapid mobilization of screeners around New Year's Day, when intelligence suggested terrorists were planning to sneak shoe-bombs aboard U.S. jetliners.

    "You want to have that level of flexibility. And that's going to be difficult to preserve if the union takes hold," Poole said....

    Even if they can't strike, union workers could use other tactics, including sick-outs and work slowdowns, to apply pressure during contract negotiations, said Charles Slepian, an aviation security expert with the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center.

    "We can't start messing around with the aviation industry," Slepian said.
    Well, all I can say is that it's a good thing there weren't any of those union members involved in 9/11 events. Imagine what a mess that would have been.

    *Reason Foundation on Bush's Government Privatization Proposal: "In an exciting development for privatization advocates, the Bush Administration announced plans to privatize 850,000 government jobs, almost half of the federal work force. The decision is a powerful endorsement of Reason’s decades of privatization work....Reason Executive Director Adrian Moore and Senior Fellow Carl DeMaio provided research and strategic guidance in formulating the Agenda, and are working closely with OMB to ensure its smooth implementation."

    Sunday, May 18, 2003

    Bush Administration Bears It All

    Check out this article in the Washington Post about the Bush Administration's challenge of hard-fought measures to protect grizzly bears by allowing a permit for silver and copper mines in a wilderness area. It would be the first major mining project allowed beneath a wilderness area.

    And there's this, a political phenomenon that is becoming all too common in this administration:
    Now, the Bush administration -- more than any White House in the past 28 years -- has been willing to take on the charisma of the big bears. The administration has made land-use decisions that it describes as sensible and scientifically based while largely ignoring howls from environmental groups about how those actions will harm Ursus arctos horribilis.

    As a consequence, a painstakingly won consensus among federal experts and environmentalists about what is needed to protect grizzlies is breaking down. Some federal wildlife managers concede that, when it comes to grizzlies, no one trusts them anymore.
    Come on guys, we're just talking silver and copper here. Surely there's some "threatening" country we can invade and leave our grizzly's in peace.

    Friday, May 16, 2003

    For Some, Every Day is 9/11

    As the following article illustrates, breathing problems and post-traumatic stress disorder still plague construction workers who were working at the World Trade Center the day of the attacks and afterwards. A meeting hosted by NYCOSH looked at the persistent problems, what could have been done to prevent them and what can be done to be better prepared should there be a next time.

    Thursday, May 15, 2003

    Talk Among Yourselves

    I'm trying to finish up an article I promised to write (way back in the pre-Confined Space days when I had more time) and I promised to teach a seminar at my kids' school on Monday entitled "Sex, Lies, Tax Cuts and the Federal Budget: It's all so boring I could die!" I figure that ought to pack 'em in.

    What this means is that I have little time for writing until early next week. So, if you're bored:

    1. Read the archives.

    2. Check out OSHA's new draft ergonomics guidelines for grocery store workers. Quiz: Can you figure out from these what early signs and symptoms you're supposed to report?

    3. Discuss. Use the comment or no comment if there aren't any comments. (Come on, it took me a lot of time and help from fellow bloggers to get these comments working.) Use them.

    Feds Get Serious About McWane

    The federal government is targeting the McWane Corporation, "one of the nation's most persistent violators of workplace safety and environmental laws," for possible endictment under federal crmiinal law, according to the NY Times.
    The investigation — encompassing McWane's safety and health record as well as its failure to protect the environment — is especially significant because it represents an unusual effort by the federal government to build a case against a major corporation that for years has avoided serious criminal sanctions despite a lengthy record of infractions.

    The company has been cited for more than 400 safety violations and 450 environmental violations since 1995. While the company has paid roughly $10 million in fines and penalties, no McWane official has ever gone to jail for these violations. Instead, a disjointed and fragmented regulatory apparatus repeatedly failed to detect, much less end, patterns of misconduct.
    The PBS Frontline program on McWane will be repeated tonight on many public television stations. Check your local listings.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2003

    Acts of God, Acts of Man, cont'd: Coal Mine Near-Disaster Explained

    At the end of March, I summarized an excellent article, LESS THAN MIRACULOUS, The Near-Disaster at Quecreek Mine by Charles McCollester about the real story behind last year's "miraculous" Somerset County, Pennsylvania mine rescue. The article had appeared in the Nation, but was not available electronically. I just noticed that it is now available on the web for all to read. So read it.

    Dozens Killed in Chinese Mine Blast

    Associated Press (
    Wednesday, May 14, 2003; Page A20

    BEIJING, May 14 (Wednesday) -- A gas explosion ripped through a coal mine in eastern China Tuesday, killing at least 63 miners and leaving 23 others missing 1,500 feet underground, officials said.

    The explosion struck the Luling coal mine near the city of Hefei at 4:13 p.m., the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Hefei is about 600 miles south of Beijing. By early today, rescuers had recovered 63 bodies and had found no signs that the other miners are alive, said an official reached by telephone in the mine's administration office.Xinhua said 27 of the 113 people working in the mine at the time of the blast were rescued. The cause of the blast was under investigation, the officials said.

    China's coal mines are considered the world's deadliest, with more than 5,000 fatalities reported last year in explosions, floods and cave-ins. Explosions are common and often are blamed on a lack of ventilation to clear natural gas that seeps out of coal beds. Other accidents have been ascribed to lack of fire-control equipment or indifference by mine managers to safety rules.

    Democracy American Style

    Do you think that most people in this country realize that the American version of Democracy (or at least that practiced in the U.S. House of Representatives) involves the ability to allow lawmakers NOT to vote on important, but controversial issues like whether or not we will continue to ban the sale of assault weapons?
    GOP Will Let Gun Ban Expire, House Won't Act on Assault Weapons

    The Republican-controlled House will not renew the federal ban on Uzis and other semiautomatic weapons, a key leader said yesterday, dealing a significant blow to the campaign to clamp down on gun sales nationwide. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said most House members are willing to let the ban expire next year. "The votes in the House are not there" to continue the ban, he told reporters.

    His spokesman, Stuart Roy, said, "We have no intention of bringing it up" for a vote.

    As majority leader, DeLay decides which bills are voted on in the House. Because the 1994 assault weapons ban expires next year, the House and Senate must pass legislation to renew it by Sept. 13, 2004. If Congress does not act, the AK-47 and 18 other types of semiautomatic weapons that were outlawed a decade ago by President Clinton and a Democratic-controlled Congress would be legal again, handing a major victory to the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups.
    This is the part that really gets me.
    Past votes and an NRA survey of lawmakers before the 2002 elections suggest that a majority of House members oppose renewing the ban, GOP officials said. But several Republicans, who requested anonymity, said some pro-gun GOP leaders worry that if members are forced to into a roll call vote, they might switch under pressure from gun control advocates.

    Oh my, we wouldn't want that. Imagine if our Congressional representatives had to come under pressure from their constituents and be held accountable for their vote. Horrors!

    Better to let the ban expire without having to vote on it at all. That's democracy, American style!

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003

    From Montana to New Mexico: Won't Be Fooled Again

    A New York Times article about yet another group of people who unknowingly fell victim to the hazards of the nuclear age and the promise of uranium mining. Now hundreds are dying of lung cancer.
    The Diné (pronounced dee-NAY) or "the People," as the Navajo call themselves, have many stories about their origins. One says that as they emerged from the fourth world into the fifth and present world, they were given the choice of two yellow powders. One yellow powder was corn pollen, and that was the one they chose.

    The other was the color of the dust that seems to give this land its golden hue, dust the color of yellowcake, the uranium oxide that fueled the nuclear age. So much yellowcake lies below the surface that a mining executive called this place the Saudi Arabia of uranium.

    The Spirits said it had to be left alone. But from the late 1940's through the mid-80's, yellowcake was picked and shoveled and blasted and hauled in open-bed trucks, and then dried in mountainous piles at multiple sites in the American West. The Navajo, whose lands extend over western New Mexico, eastern Arizona and southern Utah, were at the epicenter of the uranium-mining boom, and thousands of Navajos worked in the mines. More than 1,000 abandoned mine shafts remain on Navajo land.

    The consequences are measured today, decades after the mines closed, in continuing health problems and degraded land.

    Mr. Desiderio tells us he worked off and on in the mines from 1953 to 1981 in a variety of jobs. Many miners worked in "dog holes," primitive tunnels with no ventilation that men crawled through to dig uranium ore by hand. "Mom-and-pop operations," Dr. Strumminger calls them.

    The larger mines were frequently no better, with substandard ventilation, no face masks for workers and little or no information or education about the long-term health risks.
    But never fear....
    Hydro Resources Inc., a subsidiary of Uranium Resources Inc. of Dallas, wants to begin a new mining effort in Crownpoint and nearby Church Rock using a process called in situ leach mining. In the process, a mixture of water, dissolved oxygen and sodium bicarbonate is pumped deep into underground uranium beds. The mixture dissolves uranium, and when the liquid is pumped back to the surface, the uranium can be removed, dried and processed.

    The water for the leaching would come from the Westwater Canyon Aquifer under Crownpoint, the sole source of drinking water for Crownpoint and its surrounding area.

    Hydro Resources plans to provide uranium for the nuclear power industry, create jobs and leave the aquifer safe for drinking.
    Won't Get Fooled Again
    But the Navajo aren't buying it this time. Mitchell Capitan, a former mining technician and president of the Crownpoint chapter of the Eastern Navajo Agency, the Navajo equivalent of a mayor, founded Endaum, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining.
    The unemployment rate in the area is almost 70 percent, but there is little sentiment that mining jobs are worth the risk. Endaum has the support of all 31 chapters in the Eastern Navajo Agency Council, as well as the new president of the Navajo Nation, Joe Shirley Jr....."This uranium impacts on our water, our air and our cultural identity," Captain said. "We've already had enough uranium."
    It's nice to see that sometimes job blackmail doesn't work.

    Frontline McWane Series to be Repeated

    My faithful Philadelphia correspondants have informed me that many public television stations will be repeating the Frontline series on McWane Industries Thursday night. McWane, you will recall, was the subject of the Frontline presentation and a three part NY Times story describing a shockingly high death and injury rate at their plants. Check your local listing for times.

    Monday, May 12, 2003

    Deep 'Deception'

    Placerville author puts human face on deadly effects of asbestos exposure

    This is an article about Michael Bowker, author of Fatal Deception:How Big Business is Still Killing Us with Asbestos, a story of how the W.R. Grace Company knowingly exposed its workers to asbestos.
    Libby, set in a valley along the Kootenai River in northwest Montana, is a town of about 12,000 people that for years was deeply tied to the W.R. Grace mine, where miners unearthed tremolite asbestos as they extracted vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation and other products.

    But then people started getting sick. And not just the miners. Some of their wives, too, developed lung illnesses, exposed only to the miners and the clothing they came home in every day. So did children, many of whom played on baseball fields contaminated by tremolite.

    In 1999, nine years after W.R. Grace closed the mine, the Environmental Protection Agency sent experts to study the problem. What they found astonished them.

    A town was slowly dying.

    Bush-Rumsfeld Hit the Jackpot

    Not finding WMDs doesn’t mean there are none. “We haven’t found Saddam Hussein yet,” says a senior Bush administration official. “Does that mean he didn’t exist?
    This article about the US failure to secure potential nuclear and biological weapons sites in Iraq has everything. It’s a terrorism, foreign policy, environmental, human and worker catastrophe all wrapped up in one neat package.
    “I saw empty uranium-oxide barrels lying around, and children playing with them,” says Fadil Mohsen Abed, head of the medical-isotopes department. Stainless-steel uranium canisters had been stolen. Some were later found in local markets and in villagers’ homes. “We saw people using them for milking cows and carrying drinking water,” says Ibrahim. The looted materials could not make a nuclear bomb, but IAEA officials worry that terrorists could build plenty of dirty bombs with some of the isotopes that may have gone missing.(Article Source: Tapped)
    U.S. to World: “Nevermind”

    The Washington Post carried an article yesterday stating that we’ve given up on trying to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The disturbing thing is that while focusing on what seems to be a wild goose chase searching for weapons of MASS destruction, we’ve let the “dirty bomb” horse leave the barn without even trying to close the door. Well, I feel a lot safer now.

    I swear to God, I’m starting to believe we really don’t know what we’re doing out there….

    OK. All Together Now: Let’s Trash Unions!

    My good buddy Eric Alterman, upon whom I showered praise Friday morning (and whom I’ve never met, but he did nicely reference my Workers Memorial Day post in his WebLog, Altercation) took a rare wrong turn Friday afernoon trashing the NY city unions as "irresponsible" for not sacrificing more to ease the city’s fiscal crisis. He cites this article by Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times.

    Greenhouse’s article starts out:
    Shoppers will soon pay more in sales taxes, and smokers more in cigarette taxes. Property owners are already paying more in real estate taxes, and upper-income New Yorkers are staring at a surcharge on their income taxes. Subway and bus fares are up. So are rents.

    The only ones who seem immune from the pain of the city's and state's budget deals are New York's powerful labor unions.
    Immune? Hello? Who, exactly are “the city’s powerful labor unions?” The unions are institutions that represent their members. The members, who work for the city, are also citizens of the city; the same shoppers, smokers, property owners (or renters), subway and bus riders (more than upper-income New Yorkers) who are already making the sacrifices that Greenhouse – and Alterman – are accusing them of somehow being immune from. (This point is briefly made in Greenhouse’s article by teacher’s union president Randi Weingarten, but it’s buried at the end of the article.) Then, on top of that, they are expected to be "responsible" and sacrifice their health care benefits?

    And then we get this from Alterman:
    Yes, (the NYT-endorsed right-winger) Pataki’s the worst, and the commuters suck too, but the unions in New York City are just almost as irresponsible. I know I said this yesterday, but [the Greenhouse] piece makes the point in more detail. The leadership would rather lose jobs and services than offer up any sacrifice and this from people with totally free medical care. I mean, I’m all for totally free medical care. But why are NYC unions the only people entitled to it?
    This is just one example of how public employees are seen as lesser human beings -- especially if they belong to unions. And it's a story being repeated right now in every city and in every county and in every state in this nation where public employees are organized. (Another example of how public employees are treated as second class citizens is the fact that most public employees in this country are not covered by OSHA – they do some of the most dangerous work in this country and have no right to a safe workplace. But that’s a story for a different time.)

    Actually, public employees bleed like everyone else. So why are NYC unions -- workers -- the only people entitled to free medical care? To the extent they are paid decently (many still aren’t) and receive decent benefits (which are being cut nationwide), it’s not because NYC public employees are more selfish than everyyone else. It's because, unlike most of the rest of America, they are organized and politically active, which is the way the rest of progressive America – not just workers – should be. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with these destructive tax cuts and tragic wars. We wouldn't have a country that “is headed to hell in a handbasket from so many directions one can barely keep track,” to quote…Eric Alterman.

    Sunday, May 11, 2003

    Hog Hell

    Check out this article in the New York Times today about the horrific health and environmental problems being created by the waste from huge industrial hog farms. The source may be a relatively new phenominon -- industrial hog farms -- but we've seen the health effects, the industrial denials, the regulatory and enforcement retreats too many times before.

    PAULDING, Ohio, May 8 — Robert Thornell says that five years ago an invisible swirling poison invaded his family farm and the house he had built with his hands. It robbed him of his memory, his balance and his ability to work. It left him with mood swings, a stutter and fistfuls of pills. He went from doctor to doctor, unable to understand what was happening to him.

    The 14th doctor finally said he knew the source of the maladies: cesspools the size of football fields belonging to the industrial hog farm a half-mile from the Thornell home.


    A growing number of scientists and public health officials around the country say they have traced a variety of health problems faced by neighbors of huge industrial farms to vast amounts of concentrated animal waste, which emit toxic gases while collecting in open-air cesspools or evaporating through sprays. The gases, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, are poisonous.
    And where have we heard this before?
    The agricultural industry, backed by some government officials, contends that these health effects are at best poorly documented. They say that scientific studies have relied too much on the testimony of the people with medical problems, and that there is no way to prove that those problems are directly attributable to the farms.
    And, true to form....
    Bush administration officials are negotiating with lobbyists for the large farms to establish voluntary monitoring of air pollution, which will give farm operators amnesty for any Clean Air Act violations while generating data that will enable regulators to track the type and source of pollutants more accurately.


    Former Environmental Protection Agency prosecutors said they started looking at air pollution from factory farms in 1998, but political appointees issued a directive in early 2002 that effectively stymied new cases.... "You had decisions about enforcement that were being made on the political level without any input from the enforcement," said Michele Merkel, a prosecutor who resigned from the agency in protest.

    Eric Schaeffer, the former director of civil enforcement at the environmental agency, said Agriculture Department officials tried to exert influence to protect the industrial farms. "They essentially wanted veto power," he said.
    And if this is happening to the neighbors a half mile away, what's happening to the workers in these facilities?

    Saturday, May 10, 2003

    The War at Home

    VDOT Worker on Overpass Struck, Killed

    Victim Hit on Bridge by Car, Then Again After Fall to I-395
    Washington Post
    Saturday, May 10, 2003; Page B02
    James Richard Cameron died yesterday trying to make the roads a little safer.

    The 58-year-old father of two was hit by a car while working on the Duke Street overpass in Alexandria. He fell over the side of the bridge onto Interstate 395, where he was struck by three vehicles in the northbound lanes.

    Cameron, a Virginia Department of Transportation employee for 13 years, was doing bridge deck repairs at 10:29 a.m. when a car drove straight at him before he could react, Virginia State Police said.


    Highway work zone accidents are a serious problem in Virginia, VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said. Last year, seven employees were killed and more than 350 were injured, she said.


    "VDOT takes great pride in setting up work zones properly," Morris said. "People have got to expect the unexpected. Watch for those large orange signs. Look for those flaggers, and follow those directions. This is such a tragedy, because our workers are out there to make the roads safer for everyone. These accidents usually can be avoided if people would simply pay attention."
    Well, not exactly. It's true that people need to drive more carefully and pay better attention. And fines for speeding in a workzone need to be stiffer. But just as workplace safety cannot depend simply on workers "being careful," highway construction zone safety can't depend on drivers just paying attention. The driver that killed Cameron was 89 years old. I wouldn' t want my life to depend on how well an 89 year old driver is paying attention.

    Better lighting, warnings and barriers can prevent many more highway workzone deaths. Click here or here for more information on highway workzone safety.

    Friday, May 09, 2003

    Good News and Bad News on Ergonomics (Remember Ergonomics?)

    First the bad news.

    Connecticut says no.

    The Connecticut appropriations committee failed to schedule a vote on an ergonomics bill, according to the Bureau of National affairs. "The bill--introduced Jan. 23--would have required all state employers to identify existing or potential ergonomics hazards and develop a written ergonomics policy to abate such hazards. The state's Labor and Public Employees Committee had passed the bill after holding hearings Feb. 7 and 11."

    Maybe next year.

    More bad news...

    Minnesota says no.

    A bill that would have created an ergonomics standard for the state also failed to be taken up by the Commerce, Jobs, and Economic Development Committee.

    Such is life.

    Now, some good news.

    Washington says no.

    That's good, because the Washington State House Commerce and Labor Committee was considering a bill passed by the Senate that would have turned the state's ergonomics standard into voluntary guidelines. The Committee never acted on the bill.

    The BNA reports that "Under the bill (ESB 5161), Washington's ergonomics rule would have had no force or effect, but remain in place only as voluntary guidelines. The bill would not have allowed the state Labor and Industries Department to adopt or amend any similar rules dealing with musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace."

    OK, people, this is where we are on ergonomics. Federal OSHA is a disaster: weak guidelines, minimal enforcement with low fines, and a do-nothing ergo advisory committee. There are only two states with ergonomics standards: California and Washington State. California's is so weak, it's almost unenforceable, although there are efforts under way by the labor movement to strengthen it.

    Washington's is good, too good for the business community which has spent the last few years trying every which way to kill it -- the legislature every year, the far to no avail. But they'll keep trying because if they can kill the Washington standard, there's very little chance that any other state will ever pass a standard.

    So get ready for next year. If we are ever going to protect this nations' workers and eventually get a national ergonomics standard again, we need to create the momentum on the state level. Keep bringing it up in the legislatures. Bring it up in the upcoming elections. Make it an issue. Go forth and legislate....and agitate.

    More Hazards

    New issue of Hazards Magazine out on the cyber-news stands today.Information on workplace smoking. Working conditions in the global textile, garment and leather industries. Bush embarrassed into safety action . It's enforcement, but not as we knew it. No jail after Japanese nuke deaths. Losing the war on cancer and much, much more health and safety news from Europe, the U.S. and the world.....


    I’ve noticed that many people find this web page while doing searches for confined space hazards. Many are probably disappointed when they quickly learn that this is not a web page concerned primarily with confined space safety. (Although hopefully, some of you find some valuable information here anyway.)

    Nevertheless, because you found your way here under false pretenses, I figure the least I can do is provide you with some links to good confined space resources. (If you know of others, e-mail me.)

    OSHA: Confined Spaces

    AFSCME Fact Sheet on Confined Spaces

    CalOSHA: Is It Safe to Enter a Confined Space

    Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety

    Communications Workers of America Confined Spaces Fact Sheet

    Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health (ELCOSH)

    Manitoba Labor Department, Workplace Safety and Health Division:

    National Agricultural Safety Database, Confined Space Hazards a Threat to Farmers

    NIOSH, Worker Deaths In Confined Spaces, January, 1994, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 94-103

    Oklahoma State University's Confined Space Links web page

    WorkSafe B.C.

    I've also written about a number of individual confined space incidents which you can find by doing a search of this website. Click on "Search" on the upper right hand corner.

    By the way, for enquiring minds who want to know why I’ve called this WebLog “Confined Space,” it's because I often feel (politically) shut in a small space where the air is toxic and stinks, there’s little freedom of movement, I can’t get out, and I’m not sure if rescue will arrive before it’s too late.