Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Chem Board Recommends Revisions of NY Fire Code

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard investigation Board recommended today that New York City revise its 85 year old fire code to include modern developments in hazardous materials management. The recommendations resulted from an investigation of the April 25, 2002 explosion at Kaltech Industries in the Chelsea section of Manhattan that injured 36 people, including 14 members of the public and six firefighters.
The blast erupted in the basement, where a commercial sign-making company stored hazardous chemicals and was mixing incompatible waste -- nitric acid and lacquer thinner, investigators said.

The explosion came just seven months after the World Trade Center attack, fraying the nerves of a still-rattled city. The building facade collapsed onto West 19th Street, and people on upper floors had to break windows and jump to safety after the explosion sent flames up the elevator shaft and a stairwell.
The report also noted that neither the NY state Department of Environmental Conservation, nor the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had ever inspected the company.

The actual cause was a witch's brew of chemical mismanagement and faulty oversight," said Gerald Poje, a safety board commissioner.


"Dangerous chemicals are prolific in New York York City," he said, and the board's investigation has revealed a "gaping hole in the city's chemical safety net."

The city's fire code, for example, was written in 1918 and is so outdated that it does not even prohibit the mixing of incompatible chemicals in manufacturing facilities, according to the report.

"We need a much more aggressive updating of the city's fire code," Poje said.
The incident could have been much more serious as it occurred in the middle of a commercial and residential area. In addition, several workers were trapped in the building and would likely have died if the sprinkler system had not extinguished the fire.

The Board also issued a recommendation that OSHA Region II (which covers New York and New Jersey) and the NY Fire Department that it establish a "referral program" where the fire department would refer to OSHA possible health and safety violations during the course of its inspections. The fire department visits almost all NY businesses that use hazardous chemicals, while OSHA rarely visits most small businesses.

NYCOSH Director Joel Shufro and Philip Weinberg, who teaches environmental law at St. John's University, published an article in Newsday pointing out that while explosions like Kaltech are bad enough, "the potential for arson and intentional releases of chemicals by terrorists is far greater." They point out that
The city requires companies to use alternative substances and equipment to reduce the presence of dangerous toxics. So do state regulations, which dovetail with the city's. And city law says risk-management plans must at least consider using less toxic substances.

But little has been done to enforce these rules. The city has never penalized a facility for filing an insufficient risk-management plan or mandated a reduction in toxic materials. The law should be strengthened to require that quantities of toxic chemicals be reduced wherever possible, with meaningful penalties for those who disobey.

The accidental release of a pesticide chemical in Bhopal, India, in 1984 resulted in thousands of deaths, so we know how devastating toxic discharges can be. A counterterrorism expert, Rand Beers, recently pointed out that "chemical plants have a vulnerability which has a catastrophic characteristic ... that could approximate the World Trade Center."
More articles on the Kaltech Report can be found here and here

You can view a live broadcast of the hearing here. The full text of the report will be available here in a few days.

Regulations Costly? Oops, Nevermind.

When it comes to environmental and workplace safety, the benefits to communities, workers, society and the economy far exceed the costs. This is not a surprise.

What is a surprise is that the White House's Office of Management and Budget agrees. (This report was released last week, but I'm still catching up from Isabel.)
A new White House study concludes that environmental regulations are well worth the costs they impose on industry and consumers, resulting in significant public health improvements and other benefits to society. The findings overturn a previous report that officials now say was defective.

The report, issued this month by the Office of Management and Budget, concludes that the health and social benefits of enforcing tough new clean-air regulations during the past decade were five to seven times greater in economic terms than were the costs of complying with the rules. The value of reductions in hospitalization and emergency room visits, premature deaths and lost workdays resulting from improved air quality were estimated between $120 billion and $193 billion from October 1992 to September 2002.

By comparison, industry, states and municipalities spent an estimated $23 billion to $26 billion to retrofit plants and facilities and make other changes to comply with new clean-air standards, which are designed to sharply reduce sulfur dioxide, fine-particle emissions and other health-threatening pollutants.
While the report focuses primarily on environmental regulation, it also looked at OSHA's Confined Space standard where the benefits of $540 million were found to outweight the costs of $92 million. The total benefits of OSHA regulations were estimated between $1.8 billion and $4.2 billion from October 1992 to September 2002, with costs estimated to be just over $1 billion.

The report did not consider OSHA's assassinated ergonomics standard because it was repealed in 2001 by the Bush Administration and Republican Congress. Oh, well.

The report is particularly surprising because the appointment of John Graham, head of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs was fiercely opposed by labor and environmental organizations because
Graham, founder of a Harvard University-based risk analysis institute, would lead a Bush administration assault on regulatory safeguards. But Graham has sided with environmentalists on several key issues, including new rules to sharply reduce diesel engine emissions and the fine airborne particles that contribute to asthma and other serious respiratory ailments.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) suspected that the Bush Administration's supporters would not be amused
"I'm sure the true believers in the Bush administration will brand this report as true heresy because it defies the stereotype of burdensome, worthless regulations," Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said yesterday. "They clearly don't understand that the government regulations are there to protect you -- and they work."
Sure enough
An industry official said the report may have greatly understated the costs associated with environmental regulations. Jeffrey Marks, a clean-air policy expert with the National Association of Manufacturers, said EPA "has traditionally underestimated the costs of regulations on industry. . . . The tendency to choose benefit numbers to correspond to favorable policy choices is strong within the agency."
More commentary on the report by Calpundithere.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Happy Birthday

No, not to me, I just had one. To Confined Space. It's 6 months old today. Never thought I'd make it this far, but I've managed to successfully fight off hurricanes and family members who think (for some crazy reason) that I spend too much time on the computer.

Over the past 6 months, we've had over 14,000 visitors and almost 23,000 page views. (Some blogs get that many in a few days, but there's always next year.)

It's had visitors from over 80 countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, from Oman to Croatia, from Jamaica to the Cook Islands.

Has it been everything I've hoped it would be? Well, first it's been fun. It keeps me from kicking the kids and yelling at the dogs every time I read the newspaper. I've gotten a lot of good feedback from those of you out there in internet land, and surprisingly few "flames" or death threats.

I've managed to share my perspective on workplace safety and health issues, the environment, labor, politics or whatever I was in the mood for. Hopefully, it's inspired some thinking among those who don't have the time (and ability to exist on very little sleep) that I do.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I've yet inspired a major movement of millions of health and safety activists to storm the halls of OSHA and take back the country. It's been a challenge to reach local workplace health and safety activists who may not spend a lot of time hanging out on the internet. While I've been linked on a number of union, COSH and other Weblogs, I'm still around 13 million short of being read by every member of the AFL-CIO.

I've also found it difficult to inspire fights on health and safety issues, when OSHA's chief mission these days seem to be to make itself invisible and irrelevant. Not to mention a few other issues dominating the news of late.

Over the next 6 months (if I survive that long), I'd like to try to make this site more interactive. I had a very underused "comments" section for a while before it ran into technical difficulties. I may try that again. I'd also like to invite more of you to send me information or even "guest" articles. I can't do this all alone. And, in fact, I haven't. Many of you, especially Rory O'Neill at Hazards and Jonathan Bennet at NYCOSH, and others too numerous or shy to mention (but you know who you are) send me frequent news stories without which I wouldn't have half so much to write (although I'd get more sleep.)

So, if you have any great ideas or stories or suggestions or even criticisms, please e-mail me. If you see a webpage that I should be linked to, e-mail them (or me). If you'd like to be added to my weekly "I'm still here" e-mail list, let me know. And if any of your local or national magazines or newsletters are looking for stories, suggest one about the one and only blog focusing on "News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics"

Otherwise, don't just websurf, organize.

-- Jordan

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Canada: Come in sick, win a prize

This is amazing. I surprised they didn't think of this in the U.S. first.
A Canadian health authority is offering workers a chance to win $300 Canadian if they don't call in sick for six months. Vancouver Coastal Health Authority is running the contest to cut staffing costs.

Public sector union CUPE has condemned the contest as 'absurd and dangerous' and 'only a small part of an unhealthy cost-cutting agenda.' The health authority is bent on reducing a $175 million budget deficit by cutting staffing costs. Any of the 27,000 employees of the authority is eligible to enter the raffle if they don't call in sick during the six months between September 15 and March 15.

Health care workers say encouraging sick people to go to work in hospitals, nursing homes and care facilities will inevitably put patients at risk. 'In light of the SARS episode and infectious disease experts predicting SARS will come back (Risks 102), it’s appalling that a health employer will encourage people to risk making other people sick,' said Deb Niemi, a nurse and union rep. She added that the authority should be addressing concerns raised by health care workers about stressful working conditions.
Source: Risks Issue no 125 - 27 September 2003

U.S. Pressures Europe to Stop Caring So Much About Environment and Health

I've written before here and here about the European precautionary principle, "a doctrine enshrined in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty among European Union members, governments should protect their populations against risk, even before all the data are compiled," and how they're whipping American companies into shape. And I've written about how the tactics used by U.S. companies here -- major lobbying dollars arguing that regulations are too costly, they'll drive us out of business, etc. -- don't work in Europe.

You may recall a recent American Prospect article which described the American objections.
Last year, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Rockwell Schnabel, complained in a Wall Street Journal Europe op-ed that European regulators did not take enough business input into their decisions and that they were concentrating too much on environment and health at the expense of growth and trade.

Now Britain's Independent Portfolio has uncovered documents showing that
President George Bush is mounting an intensive campaign to force European countries to drop safety tests expected to save thousands of lives each year.


The documents - which include diplomatic cables signed by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell - show that the Bush administration has threatened Europe with trade sanctions if it goes ahead with the tests, which are designed to protect workers and the public from highly toxic chemicals.
The interest among European workers and consumers is clear:
The European Commission estimates that it would prevent up to 4,300 cases of cancer a year among chemical workers alone; far more lives could be expected to be saved among the public at large.
Pressure from the Bush Administration seems to be having some effect. Like the war on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has once again jumped onto George Bush's lap. The British government
which has been generally supportive, last week denounced the measures as "disastrously wrong".

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Safer Alternatives: Out with the Bad, In with the Good

When workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, management's first response is often to give them respirators. But respirators -- hot, uncomfortable and often ineffective -- are the last option on the list of the industrial hygiene "hierarchy of controls."

The best way to protect workers from toxic chemicals to substitute a safer chemical for a hazardous chemical. Now there is a bill in the Massachusetts state legislature that would "replace commonly used toxic chemicals with safer alternatives."
The bill, S. 1268/H. 2275 An Act for a Healthy Massachusetts, initially targets 10 of the worst toxic chemicals found in common household products such as dry cleaning, pesticides, solvents, building materials, foam cushions, and electronics. It would mandate a careful process to evaluate alternatives to these chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives where feasible. It would also stimulate research and development on new technologies and solutions when a safer alternative is not currently feasible.


The ten chemicals targeted by this bill were chosen because there is credible evidence that they pose a threat to human health or the environment, they are widely used within Massachusetts, they are found in a range of products we use in our homes and offices and safer alternatives exist for many uses of the chemicals.
As usual, opponants of the bill are claiming that it will be too costly and drive business out of Massachusetts. But economics experts at Tufts University disagree:
"Public health and safety are not unaffordable luxuries -- it would cost the state little or nothing to begin switching to safer alternatives for several of the chemicals identified in this bill," said Frank Ackerman, PhD, Research Director for the Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University. "Furthermore, our failure to eliminate hazardous chemicals imposes huge health care costs and losses of future income."
Now if Massachusetts would just pass a law providing OSHA coverage to public employees....

Not a Nice Place to Die AND I Wouldn't Want To Work There

Even the best morgues are probably not the nicest places. But the D.C. Morgue? Yech!
Behind the walls of the District's morgue, even death is put on hold.

Unclaimed bodies, awaiting public burial, have been decomposing on fiberglass trays in refrigerated storage rooms, some for up to three years. The cause and manner of death for roughly 400 people who have died since 1999 are "pending," the details of their demise left unresolved. Paper case files -- the morgue's records are not computerized -- are stored in unlocked rooms where workers, visitors and funeral directors wander freely.

In the unventilated laboratory where tissue samples are examined, toxic chemicals and formaldehyde were left out in the open, creating fumes so noxious that city health inspectors in June called them "immediately dangerous to life and health."

Unidentified skeletal remains lie in a cardboard box, a grim hand-me-down from the previous physicians who headed the office -- an agency that until the early 1980s was one of the best in the country, renowned for its research into gunshot deaths and its superb training of medical residents.

McWane/Tyler Pipe: Getting better or Same Old, Same Old?

McWane corporation, owner of Tyler Pipe is in the news again. McWane, you will remember, was the subject of a New York Times/Frontline investigation into the high number of injuries and deaths at McWane-owned facilites over the past several years.

McWane says they're doing better, and OSHA agrees.

David Willis doesn't agree.
David Willis was working against the clock. His shift was ending soon and he still had a job to do.

The mechanic had a choice, the kind that has become routine at the Tyler Pipe foundry. He could do things the slow, safe way but maybe not finish in time, or be fast, risky and, if all went well, get the job done.

Like so many colleagues before him, Willis went for speed. Eighteen days later, he left a hospital, lucky to be alive.

Willis skipped the "lock out" process, which would have kept his machines shut off while he changed a 500-pound iron mold. Without that safeguard, the machine was somehow triggered by co-worker Jason Testerman, crushing Willis against an elevated deck. Ribs broken and a lung collapsed, his face turned purple as he shrieked for his life.


Tyler Pipe officials insist conditions have improved in recent years. But workers point to Willis' July 22 accident and other problems as proof that the East Texas foundry is still fraught with risk.
And do we think there's a connection here:
Lost workdays are still higher than the most recent industry standard. In 2001, Tyler reported 17.1 percent of workers had injuries that prevented them from doing their usual jobs, compared with the industry standard of 7.4 percent. In 2002, Tyler improved to 13.8 percent. Industry figures are not yet available for 2002.

More training hours are now required, the company said. There's also a safety task force and incentives for complying: company jackets, caps and watches to workers who avoid accidents; cash prizes for reporting hazards
Some workers evidently think so:
While some employees agree, others say the shift is superficial. It's still bottom-line first, they say, noting that training is limited to videos, relief workers are still scarce, and employees are still asked to work alone and do jobs they're not trained to do.

There are also grumblings that the safety incentives are a joke because some supervisors don't enforce rules and bully workers to keep quiet about violations.
Anyway, no matter how hard you try, shit happens.
Company officials say they're doing all they can, but they can't prevent everything.

"Sometimes," said Ruffner Page, the McWane president, "mistakes are made."
But "sometimes" the ones who make the mistakes are not the same as the ones who get hurt.

AFL-CIO Health and Safety Conference Dec. 7-10, 2003

Spend December in Detroit!

The AFL-CIO will hold its biannual health and safety conference December 7 - 10 at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center. This conference will be incredibly important leading up to an election year. Register now.

Friday, September 26, 2003


Check out the NYCOSH (New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health) Update on Safety and Health.


-- Political Storm Develops after EPA Inspector General Reports that White House Downplayed Post-9/11 Health Hazards in Lower Manhattan

-- Senate Could Take Up Controversial Asbestos Compensation Bill Soon

I'm Back

I finally called the CEO of RCN (Starpower's parent company) in New Jersey after a week of:

-- "We're having an outage." Well, duh!

-- "We're working on it." I should hope so!

-- "We don't know how long it will be until you have service. It could be a day or a week." Not acceptable

-- "My supervisor, and her supervisor will tell you the same thing." So, no one in the entire company knows what's going on?

-- "We'll send someone out to your house in a few days" Uh, I don't think this is MY problem. I think it's a system problem.

-- "Don't worry, you won't be charged for the time your service is out." Gee, thanks, but you need to do much better than that.

-- "We're going to have someone come out to the neighborhood on Saturday to see what's wrong." $#%^&@#^&**!!!!

All this after waiting an average of 30 minutes on hold each time listening to lousy elevator music.

I actually didn't get to talk to the CEO, but I did speak to one of his assistants who brought up my neigborhood on his computer. "Oh my God!" he responded after perusing the service calls from my area. "There are a lot of people getting no information."

He then spent a half hour trying to reach someone in the Washington area to no avail, but promised to call me back in the morning.

I haven't heard from him yet, but this morning our telephone and cable were back up again. Don't know if it was my call that did it, but I've been happily accepting the accolades of a grateful neighborhood.

So this weekend I'll do a bit of catching up from my involuntary blog vacation. Hope you didn't miss me too much.

In the meantime, speaking of failing infrastructure, this is an interesting perspective on America's Crumbling Infrastructure.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003



Still no phone or internet (thanks Starpower), but "promises" that they'll be restored by this evening. Meanwhile, rumors of (news) starved Confined Space fans rioting in the streets cannot be substantiated.

Consider this a good opportunity to sample some of the links on the left, especially the other Political and Labor Blogs, as well as checking out the archives for your favorite episodes of Confined Space before the new season starts.

Talk to you sometime.....

Sunday, September 21, 2003


Date with Izzy ended up more like Fatal Attrraction. No electricity for two days. (Bad, but not as bad as many.) And no phone or internet still.

Woe is me.

Back with you sometime.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Blow Izzy Blow

Got a date with a girl named Isabel. Sounds like a wild one. Talk to you later.

CENSORED: The Effort to Make Unions Disappear

"Called the 'most pro-corporate president in history,' George W. Bush has been, particularly since 9-11, engaged in a relentless, yet largely covert, effort to undermine labor unions and worker protections."

The Bush Administration's effort to effort to destroy labor unions has earned it the number 5 position among Project Censored's Top 25 Censored Media Stories of 2002-2003.

Project Censored explores and publicizes "the extent of censorship in our society by locating stories about significant issues of which the public should be aware, but is not, for one reason or another." Hopefully, the public will then demand that journalists start covering these stories.

The issues highlighted by the journalists that did cover this story include Bush's intervention in the Northwest Airlines strike, using homeland security concerns to attack public employees, contracting out of government work, (ab)use of the NLRB to discourage organizing, and misportrayal of the 2002 West Coast dockworkers' strike and other recent labor struggles.

Thanks to Muvfugga for bringing this to my attention.

"Just a Horrible Accident"

Workers dying in trench collapses have always pissed me off -- mainly because they're completely avoidable and almost always a result of pressure to finish a job quickly or cheaply. In this case, 54-year old Steve Durbin, an employee of the Kokosing Construction Co., was crushed to death under more than 1000 pounds of wet soil when the trench he was in collapsed on top of him.

What really makes me mad though is when these deaths are portrayed in the press or employers who should know better as just freak, unavoidable accidents:

"It was just a horrible accident," [Health Police Detective Eric] Rardain said. "There doesn't appear to be any negligence on any person."

According to the Newark (Ohio) Advocate, the Executive Director of the construction company, Ronald Cochran assured the public that "we're investigating right alongside OSHA to find out what in the world caused this."

According to one article, "It was unknown what caused the collapse, which forced Durbin against the water line at about hip level."

Actually, it doesn't appear that it's too hard to determine "what in the world" killed Durbin. The article states that Durbin "was killed when the dirt wall of a 7-foot trench collapsed on him." Seven feet is 2 feet deeper than OSHA regulations allow without shoring or sloping.

So what's the problem? After all, OSHA will investigate and probably fine the company.

The problem is that the public -- which includes construction workers -- now have the impression that this was an unavoidable, "freak" accident that couldn't have been prevented. "What in the world" could have caused it? As if this is the first trench collapse that ever happened, instead of the same accident that needlessly kills who-knows-how-many workers every year.

Yes, six months from now, OSHA will probably cite the company. Maybe the citation will get a bit of press. Maybe not. But the impression will remain with most people that it was "just one of those things."

It is our responsibility -- those of us who know that these deaths are preventable -- to educate the press and the public that these deaths are preventable. Workers won't be safe until they understand the hazards of trenching and how to prevent them. Ultimately, workers need to have the right -- and the power -- to simply refuse to enter unprotected trenches, and they need the backing of a strong union and the support of an outraged community that has decided they've seen enough of their neighbors die.

Because Kokosing is a private sector contractor, OSHA is investigating the accident. But Kokosing is working under contract for the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). In the mid 1980's I worked on an AFSCME public employee organizing campaign in Ohio and it was not uncommon for state and local employees to be trapped -- and sometimes die -- in trench collapses -- some 12 or 15 feet deep. But because public employees weren't (and still aren't) covered by OSHA in Ohio, there were never any investigations or penalties. Had Durbin been an ODOT employee, there would be no OSHA investigation today.

In 1990 I testified at a U.S. Senate hearing into proposed legislation that would have required all states to provide OSHA coverage for public employees. Testifying with me was a women who had recently lost her father -- a municipal employee nearing retirement -- in a trench collapse. She told the Senators that she had never suspected that her father had no OSHA coverage, that there was no law requiring the city to make his workplace safe.

Then she broke down -- along with the Senators and myself -- when she told of how her son would never be able to go fishing or to a ball game with his Grandpa.

Twelve years later, and more than 30 years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, most states in the country still provide no OSHA coverage for public employees. Public employees still die, their deaths still uninvestigated, the lessons still unlearned.

Just one of those things.

Chemical Safety Board Issues Report on Fatal Fire

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board called on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oilfield operations in the state, to require all drillers and producers to comply with federal regulations on communicating hazards to workers and safely transporting hazardous liquids.
The January 13 accident in Rosharon, Texas, occurred as two tank trucks unloaded waste liquids into an open collection pit at the BLSR Operating Ltd. disposal facility. Unknown to either the drivers or BLSR personnel, the waste material was highly volatile, and a flammable vapor cloud formed in the unloading area. Vapor was drawn into the air intakes of trucks’ running diesel engines -- causing them to race and backfire – and the flammable cloud ignited. Two BLSR employees standing near the trucks were killed in the fire, and three others suffered serious burns. The two drivers, who were employed by T&L Environmental Services Inc., were also burned after rushing back to their trucks when they heard the engines accelerate. One of the drivers died several weeks later from his injuries.
More here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Texas Passes 'Polluters and Predators Protection Act'

According to the New York Times, "The doctors beat the lawyers on Saturday as Texas voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment limiting medical malpractice awards."

But actually, the winners were the insurance companies and the losers (as usual) were patients, consumers and workers.

In yet another example (California governor, Washington State ergonomics) of conservative big-money perversion of the democracy and the initiative process, voters in Texas narrowly approved a change to the state constitution Saturday that puts a limit of $750,000 per case on noneconomic claims for medical malpractice.

Among the numerous "sky is falling" claims by supporters of the proposition was the main allegation that "Skyrocketing medical liability insurance costs have forced some doctors to close or cut back their practices, reducing available healthcare in many areas of Texas."

Now it's true that medical malpractice insurance premiums have been rising to unaffordable levels in many states. But the first question that must be asked is "How bad is it? Really?" Here are the facts about rising medical malpractice premiums according to a Washington Post summary of a recent report by the General Accounting Office (GAO).
And many of those highly publicized accounts of doctors who have retired or moved are, according to the GAO, either "not substantiated," temporary or involved only a few physicians.

In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, for example, two of 19 states designated by the AMA as being in a "full-blown liability crisis," the number of doctors per capita has actually increased in the past six years, according to the GAO.

In Florida, where the state medical society told congressional investigators that all the neurosurgeons in Collier and Lee counties had stopped practicing, the GAO found at least five such specialists at work in each county. Although medical groups have repeatedly warned that doctors are reluctant to come to Florida because of escalating premiums, the GAO found that the number of new medical licenses issued by the state has increased in the past two years.
The second question is what's causing medical malpractice rates to rise?

According to Robert Hunter, former federal insurance administrator who is now director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a CFA study showed that
Premiums paid by doctors "do not correspond to increases or decreases in payouts," but "rise and fall in concert with the state of the economy. . . . Insurance companies raise rates when they are seeking ways to make up for declining interest rates and market-based investment losses."

That conclusion is similar to one reached by the GAO in a report released last June. Among the causes of the latest round of malpractice premium increases, the congressional investigators found, were insurers' losses in their investment portfolios, inadequate reserves to pay claims and artificially low rates set during the 1990s when many companies vied to attract policyholders.
Did you get that? Insurance companies are raising rates because they (like many Americans) have lost a lot of investment income over the past few years due to declining interest rates and the falling stock market.

Does this sound familiar? Those of you who read Confined Space religiously may remember that this is the same reason Workers Compensation rates are currently rising in many states, causing a Workers Compensation "crisis" that business groups are exploiting to pass laws that "solve" the problem by cutting benefits that go to injured workers.

And what's NOT causing medical malpractice rates to rise? Medical malpractice awards:
Figures collected by the Texas Board of Medical Examiners for medical malpractice claims since 1989 show that the number of lawsuits filed has dropped from 5,467 in 1999 to 4,555 in 2001. During that same period, the total amount paid in claims has declined from $171.5 million to $71.1 million.

The average paid per claim also has dropped from $37,000 to $25,000.
It's Even Worse In Texas

Other states have passed similar limits on medical malpractice awards, but Texas has now taken the process one giant step further. The initiative
extends the limits on malpractice awards across the board for lawsuits that could cover polluters, toxic dumpers, unsafe apartment buildings, hazardous workplaces or dangerous products.
Which is why columnist Molly Ivins warns
Don't let anybody tell you Prop. 12 is just about med-mal, just a little cap on jury awards in this one area. This is the whole ball of wax. This thing permanently alters the separation of power between the judicial and legislative branches.

For 150 years, the Texas Constitution has guaranteed that every person who has suffered some sort of injury shall have remedy by due course of law. Prop. 12 limits the right to sue makers of dangerous supplements like Fen-fen, makers of unsafe tires and exploding gas tanks, polluters, drunk drivers, manufacturers of unsafe medical devices like the Dalkon Shield and corporate crooks. People like Ken Lay and Jeff Skillings of Enron, who destroyed the life savings of thousands of people, get legal protection under Prop. 12. This is the Polluters and Predators Protection Act. And it doesn't even do anything to discourage frivolous lawsuits.
(More good information from another blogger on the Texas proposition here.)

Don't Confuse Me With The Facts

The most infuriating thing is that when insurers are forced to tell the truth, a very different story emerges. This past summer while similar medical malpractice legislation was being considered in Florida, something strange happened when insurance industry representatives were forced to testify under oath: They told the truth.
Among the startling admissions:

There are no "frivolous lawsuits" against doctors - despite the Bush brothers' fancy for the phrase - because Florida law put a stop to them more than 14 years ago.

The medical lobbies have only anecdotes, not hard facts, to back their claim that Florida is losing doctors, emergency rooms and trauma centers; if anything, there are more licensed doctors every year.

The Office of Insurance Regulation doesn't probe the data that companies submit to justify their rates and doesn't require executives to attest to the truth of it.

There has been no explosion in actual malpractice or litigation, and the insurance company that underwrites the most Florida doctors considers this its most profitable state. "If we can't make money at these rates," its president conceded, "we ought to quit." (His company pays the Florida Medical Association $500,000 a year, which is 10 percent of the FMA's budget, to recommend its policies to Florida doctors regardless of what competitors might charge.)
In addition,
Florida insurers reneged on their promise to reduce doctors' premiums by 20% if a cap were passed. Soon after, an executive of Florida's largest malpractice insurer admitted under oath that Florida is its most profitable market, despite claims that large jury awards are forcing companies to raise premiums
More about the rare and strange phenomenon of insurance industry representatives telling the truth here and here.

Hmm. I think it might be interesting to force industry representatives to testify under oath at OSHA and EPA regulatory hearings as well. Maybe we could even go so far as forcing them to tell the truth in Congressional testimony.

Sounds like a good idea. On the other hand, you first need legislators that will actually base their votes on the facts, instead of where their campaign contributions are coming from: The Florida legislature passed legislation limiting medical malpractice awards anyway.

As Molly Ivins says, this is serious business. The regulatory process is all but broken and enforcement of workplace health & safety, environmental or consumer protections always wins the Congressional prize for "most likely to be cut." By reducing damage limits you not only remove the incentive for companies to clean up their acts, but you remove the incentive for trial lawyers to take up the cause of people who have no money to hire an attorney (much less the high-priced talent the major corporations and business associations can hire.)

Oh, and as a side-benefit, by damaging the income of trial lawyers you weaken one of the main progressive contributors to the Democratic party.

So without malpractice and large judgements against other forms of corporate malfeasance, what do we have left to strike fear into the hearts (and portfolios) of businesses that may not have the welfare and health of workers/consumers/patients/ communities at heart?

Monday, September 15, 2003

The Weekly Toll

Worker killed in S.J. blast identified
By the Mercury News

The Santa Clara County coroner's office has identified the factory worker killed Friday in an explosion at United Technologies Corp. in South San Jose.

James Franklin Spotts, 47, of San Leandro died while working on a 400-gallon mixer used to make rocket fuel at the factory. Officials from UTC said Friday that the worker, an employee of Union City-based contractor Jenson Mechanical Inc., was making ``maintenance upgrades'' on the mixer.

Friday's blast follows another, larger, explosion that rocked the company's plant Aug. 7.

More here.

Trench collapse kills contractor on site

ATLANTA - A 31-year-old contractor from Woodstock died Thursday after a trench collapsed at a construction site in southeast Atlanta near Grant Park.

Family members identified the man killed as Richard Turem.

Mr. Turem was part of a three-person crew that was installing storm sewers, officials said. The soil around the project collapsed, officials said.


LONGVIEW - The Gregg County Fair opened as scheduled Tuesday night, a day after a carnival worker died while working on a Ferris wheel.

Pat Crabtree, president of Crabtree Amusements, said the worker was Timothy J. Swickard, 20, of the Houston area, an employee who had worked for the company, based near the San Marcos area, for two seasons.

Swickard would have turned 21 later this month, Crabtree said.

Crabtree said Swickard was working on the ride's lights when the incident occurred. Another employee later noticed Swickard wasn't moving, he said.

"I believe he was electrocuted," he said, noting that he most likely came in contact with the device that gets power into the moving part of the wheel. Crabtree said Swickard was not following proper procedure because power was on in the area he was working.

Scaffolding Accident Kills 1 Person In Camden
Second Worker Injured

CAMDEN, N.J. -- One person is dead after a scaffolding collapsed Tuesday morning in Camden, N.J.

According to the Camden County Fire Department, the accident happened around 11:20 a.m. at Sixth Street and Penn streets, which is near the Rutgers University-Camden campus.

Authorities said Donatius McMahon, 44, of Delran, N.J., and another man were installing glass panes on the new Camden County College building.... The men were disassembling the scaffolding when it fell about 40 feet, or three stories. More here.

Second Blast Victim Confirmed Dead

Authorities have recovered the second body of two contract workers killed in a blast that rocked eastern Rockingham County yesterday afternoon.

The Rockingham Sheriff's Office identified the victims as Keith A. Dean, 44, of Grottoes, and Frank Domzalski, 45, of Timberville.

The two were welding on a sludge storage tank at the Coors Brewing Co. plant near Elkton when the explosion occurred between 2 and 3 p.m. yesterday.

Fire and rescue workers found Dean's body shortly after the blast. Authorities located Domzalski's body about 10 p.m. last night, said a spokeswoman with the sheriff's office. Authorities with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating the accident.

Barrel blast kills Eagle Alloy worker

Sunday, September 14, 2003

A 22-year-old Eagle Alloy Inc. employee was killed Saturday morning when a metal barrel he was cutting with a torch exploded.

Jason L. Nichols of Muskegon Township died at the steel foundry, 5142 Evanston, from injuries caused by the explosion

Sanitation Worker's death investigated

September 09, 2003

RED BLUFF, CA — The state has launched an investigation into the death of Christopher Lee Berry, 44, of Corning, who died in an industrial accident at GreenWaste of Tehama.

Berry was replacing the hydraulic cylinder inside the garbage truck when the accident occurred...The accident happened after Berry called out to fellow employee Jarrod Calder, who was standing outside the truck, to push a button that activates the packer, a device that compacts garbage, so he could place a rod. Although Berry believed he had set the packer to go forward, it went the other direction and crushed him in a matter of moments. More here.

OSHA Investigates Fatal Fall In Evanston
38-Year-Old Falls From Scaffolding Sunday

CHICAGO -- Federal investigators will try to determine Monday what caused a painter to fall to his death from a scaffold affixed to an Evanston office building.

Robert Klein, 38, fell Sunday from a building at 1029 Howard St. in the near north suburb, according to a spokesman for the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office.

Friends recall surveyor killed in accident

September 6, 2003

WILTON CT-- As the investigation continued yesterday into the death of a Wilton man killed Thursday while working for a surveying company in Greenwich, his friends and colleagues recalled a tireless and intelligent worker who was also a champion orienteer.

Damon Douglas, 69, a senior surveyor for Stamford-based Redniss & Mead Inc., died while examining pipes with another employee inside a manhole on a private driveway of Prescott House, a residential development owned by Greenwich Hospital. As Douglas raised his head, he was struck by a sports utility vehicle, according to police. There were no cones or barricades protecting the manhole, police said.
More here.

Television tower collapse kills 3


HUNTSVILLE, AL - Three men were killed Thursday when the Huntsville television tower they were working on collapsed.

The tower of just more than 1,000 feet, including antenna, leased by WAAY-TV Channel 31 fell just after 1 p.m. Thursday, police said. Two workers died instantly and the other died later at Huntsville Hospital.

Names of the men were being withheld pending notification of family, police said.

All three men were above the 700-foot level adding support to the tower and putting in equipment for digital cable when the tower buckled below them, said Huntsville Police Sgt. Ed Cain. The tower collapsed on itself before the top part fell over, the tip of the antenna landing 15 feet or so behind the television station building, which sits atop Monte Sano Mountain. More here.


September 4, 2003 -- A crane operator was killed and another worker injured when a 60-foot crane collapsed on a Staten Island loading dock yesterday, witnesses and officials said.

OSHA investigating blast that injured workers

Two workers who were seriously injured in an explosion Tuesday morning at Ametek Specialty Metals Products on Route 519 in Eighty Four remain hospitalized in Pittsburgh.

The federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration is investigating the explosion of the electrical arc furnace that burned Rudolph Paci, 38, of Brownsville, and James C. Sutch, 37, of Daisytown.

Police give construction site death case to OSHA

LAWRENCEVILLE — Police have turned over the investigation of a man who died Friday at a construction site to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The unnamed victim died while working at a construction site near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, where a shopping center is being built. He was dead when fire officials arrived, said Gwinnett Fire spokesman Chief Randy Robinson.

"Shangshan village will be a widows' village in 10 years' time..."

More depressing stories from the capitalist paradise, "communist" China:
SHANGSHAN, China - The oxygen tank at Wu Shengfu's side fills his scarred lungs with enough air to breathe but not enough to talk for long about why, at 48 years old, he will be dying soon.

His friends do their best to help explain, even at the risk of being harassed by police, because many of them too will succumb to an early death. Slowly, the men of this village in central China are dying, and the local authorities here, having profited from their labors, would prefer that they die in silence.


Without much supervision from local authorities, Wu and other villagers worked seven days a week drilling into the rock on Earth Dragon Mountain to mine gold ore for the government and, furtively, for themselves. They also breathed in huge amounts of white dust - silica from quartz - because they weren't wearing masks or any other protective equipment.

The dust was everywhere, Wu's friends said, so thick sometimes that one couldn't see a fellow miner a few feet away. It would sit in their lungs for years until the miners, one by one, developed silicosis, an incurable lung disease.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Is Anything Better Off?

You know, I just can't help but wonder sometimes how Bush's popluarity rating can even get up to 25%, much less 52%. Can anyone out there in Blogland tell me anything about this country that has become better since he took office?

One only hopes (and recent polls like this and this are looking better) that some of this information is sinking in around the country:
With no extra money available for the foreseeable future, real choices are being illuminated on Capitol Hill — choices between electronic bombs and electrical grids, between low taxes now and lower retirement payments later.

Should Washington reconstruct Iraq's schools and hospitals, lawmakers are asking, or America's? Should it pay for more than 100,000 American troops to stay in Iraq, or for 40 million seniors to be offered prescription drugs through Medicare? And if it tries to do it all, should it keep cutting taxes?

The Bush administration says it can do all of the above, once the tax cuts inaugurate a burst of economic growth. Democrats and virtually every mainstream economist say that something will have to give, very possibly the government's retirement promises to millions of aging baby boomers.


Disputes have broken out in Congress this year on spending items that used to be routine, like construction of housing for military families, which the administration proposed cutting by 6 percent. The administration invoked the deficit earlier this year in explaining the size of its proposed 2004 budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, which was 5.5 percent less than this year's spending. (Congress is likely to restore some of those funds.) And next year's budget could fall short of paying for more than 100,000 housing vouchers now used by low-income families, said a study by the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities; it would be the first time in 30 years that existing vouchers were not renewed.


The Committee for Economic Development, a group of business executives, warned earlier this year that persistent deficits could lead, for the first time in the nation's history, to a lower living standard for future generations.
A Sliver Lining?

With things looking so bleak, enquiring minds might wonder if there's some kind of vast rightwing conspiracy out there:
Congressional Republicans deny the Democratic charge that the deficit was deliberately created to shrink government, but nonetheless acknowledge that it will be a useful tool to achieve that goal.

"There's no question that annual federal deficits have been the only effective check on Congressional spending in the modern era," said Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican and a member of a conservative House caucus pushing for big cuts in spending. "There's been a lot more willingness on the part of our appropriators to exercise discipline in the last eight months than in the previous Congress. It doesn't justify all that red ink, but it's kind of a silver lining in that cloud."
That was the New York Times, here is the Washington Post
Imagine an army massing directly in front of you. Your own forces are having some supply line problems. And enemies are hiding on either side, waiting to ambush you. So what do you do? Dismantle your own arsenal?

If you're talking about the fiscal battles the United States is facing, and if you're the Bush administration, the answer seems to be: Yes. Call it fiscal disarmament. In its first two years, the Bush administration -- faced with a swelling army of retirees, unknown costs of lurking national security dangers and challenges to its supply of tax revenues because of fixes needed with the alternate minimum tax -- chose to surrender some of the fiscal weapons at its disposal through massive tax cuts.

The president's request last week for another $87 billion for the occupation in Iraq is chump change in the context of what has been given away in the Bush tax cuts. It comes to about 5 percent of the cost of the president's tax cuts over 10 years. In the mountain of U.S. borrowing, it amounts to a hill of beans. It will add only a little more than 2 percent to the national debt.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Most Amusing Quote of the Day

Vaguely Reminiscent of the '90's

As many of you are aware, in a rare victory over the Bush administration, the Senate yesterday, by a vote of 54 - 45, attached a "rider" to the Labor/HHS Appropriations Bill forbidding the Department of Labor from issuing proposed overtime regulations that would have exempted over 8 million American workers from their right to receive overtime pay. The Labor Department is currently evaluating the more than 80,000 comments received on the issue.

According to the Washington Post
In an attempt to head off the administration defeat, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the committee that handles labor legislation, said the vote was premature because the Labor Department has not finished drafting the rules. "For the Congress to step forward at this time is wrong," he said.
What's so funny? Judd Gregg and Republicans in the Senate and House passed numerous riders in the 1990's forbidding OSHA from issuing an ergonomics standard before OSHA had finished drafting the rules. In fact, the ergonomics riders were passed before OSHA had even drafted a proposed standard.

This is reminiscent of similar "what's good for the goose is not good for the gander" policies on judicial nominations where the Republicans are SHOCKED that the Democrats would block the confirmation of a handful of judges when the Republicans blocked many times more judicial nominations throughout the Clinton administration.

More on the overtime proposal here and here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

OSHA Ergo Advisory Committee to Meet Sept. 24

OSHA has announced that the National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics (NACE) will meet later this month. This committee, you may remember, was part of OSHA's COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH TO ERGONOMICS, announced after repeal of the ergonomics standard.
NACE is chartered to advise the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health on issues related to OSHA's approach to reducing ergonomic-related injuries in the workplace-guidelines, research and, outreach and assistance.
But hey, the committee is a fact of life and we have to deal with it. In order to show my good faith, I though I'd help the committee out by providing committee members or outside observers with a list of questions to ask Assistant Secretary John Henshaw, and maybe a list of items that the committee should work on. I invite all of my faithful readers to help me out on this.

A few examples to get you started:

1. What has this committee accomplished?

2. How effective or credible can this committee be considering that:

  • NACE is the only advisory committee in the history of OSHA that doesn't have an equal number of labor and management members.

  • NACE members are forbidden to discuss the need for an OSHA ergonomics standard

  • One member of the committee, James L. Koskan, Corporate Director of Risk Control, SUPERVALU, a company that just received the largest OSHA ergonomics citation in years after workers were found to be lifting a total of total weight of 37,025 pounds a day and "a review of the company's injury and illness records from 1998 to the time of the inspection, ... document that a significant number of MSDs have been caused by exposure to stressors; including 6 shoulder surgeries in 2001 and 2 shoulder surgeries in 2002."

  • Supervalu is contesting the citation.
But don't let me hog all the glory. If you have any ideas, e-mail me.


The war of the worlds is being staged in Washington State right now. The right-wing anti-ergonomics ideologues are using the referendum process – Initiative 841 -- supported by the usual lies and distortions, to kill Washington’s ergonomics standard at the ballot box on November 4.

I’ve written before about this attempt to once again repeal needed worker protections here and here.

The stakes here are extremely high for a number of reasons. First, the ergo foes have failed so far to repeal the standard in the legislature or in the lower courts. The Washington Supreme Court is still considering a business appeal, but the good guys expect to win. The referendum is their last chance. If they lose, they are out of options. A win will have nationwide implications for workplace safety: the already difficult task of getting other states to issue ergonomics standards – a process that could put pressure on the federal level -- will become very nearly impossible

But there are other reasons that it is imperative to defeat this referendum. Like the California gubernatorial recall, Initiative 841 is another example of big right-wing dollars being used to distort the referendum process and democracy itself. If not for the huge amounts of money used to hire professional canvassers and flood the media with misinformation, the referendum never would have reached the ballot.

Finally, like the repeal of the federal ergonomics standard, right wing ideologues are using lies, distortions and massive amounts of money to subvert the administrative process by which agencies comply with their mandates to do what Congress and the state legislatures intended for worker protection laws to do – protect workers.

And, as usual, when all the dust settles it may be workers and their families who may end up paying the price:
Each year, 50,000 Washington workers suffer preventable ergonomic-related injuries to their backs, joints, muscles and tendons. These painful chronic injuries, such as carpal tunnel, account for almost half of all workers' compensation costs to our state's industrial insurance system and are driving up workers' compensation costs -- even for safe employers.
The Washington State ergo foes are using the same weapon they used to deep-six the federal standard: lies. An article last may in the Spokane Spokesman-Review outlined the most obvious lies that the referendum sponsors used to gather signatures:
Carpet layers and drywallers wouldn't be able to work more than two hours per day, said signature gatherers outside of Lowe's Hardware stores on North Division and East Sprague. Laborers could only lift one load weighing more than 75 pounds.

Mariners catcher Dan Wilson might not even be able to catch an entire game.

But the new law designed to reduce workplace injuries doesn't have those restrictions
Actually, according to Mike Silverstein, assistant director of industrial safety and health of the state Department of Labor and Industries, the signature collectors are referring erroneously to the section of the standard that talks about “caution zones”
The hourly limitations described in the talking points appear to come from a section that deals with "caution zone jobs," Silverstein said. They are conditions that could require an employer to take certain precautions, such as extra training or education, or perhaps some additional equipment.

But the section on caution zones also says that such jobs are not prohibited.

"Under no circumstances does (the law) require employers to replace a worker with part-time help or reduce hours," Silverstein said.
Unfortunately, according to Washington State law, it’s OK for signature gatherers to lie:
But the fact that they could make false statements about the ballot proposal -- whether intentional or not -- illustrates a problem with the state's initiative system.

People who are paid per signature collected -- called circulators in the industry -- can tell voters almost anything about a proposal with little fear of sanction. The state Supreme Court ruled five years ago that supporters and opponents can't be sanctioned for lying about an initiative.
Many of the other lies and the real story can be found on the No on 841 Webpage. Although some of the false statements were discontinued and other lies on the webpage of the initiative’s main sponsor, the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIA) , were taken down, the damage has been done. The initiative is on the ballot.

What the BIA and its allies are lacking in truth, they are making up for in money. They spent over $350,000 to gather signatures and are expected to spend another $1 million before the November 4 election.

What Can You Do?

Send money: Workers and unions need money to get the truth out. If you’ve got some cash burning a hole in your pocket while you decide which Democratic candidate to support for President, send some of it to Washington. If you can’t donate yourself, ask your union local to send in a contribution. Donations can be sent to: Any donations can be sent to:

Working Families For Safe Jobs
300 Queen Anne Ave. N. #411
Seattle, Washington 98109

Write letters to the editor: The “No on 841” site is still under construction. In the meantime, the bad guys on the “Yes on 841” website have graciously provided a way to send letters to all of the newspapers in Washington. I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you used it to send your own message opposing the referrendum.

Educate and Agitate: If you don’t live in Washington State, but have any friends or relatives there, educate them and urge them to get involved.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch: The National Ergonomics Scene

I wrote last month about how the industry backed National Coalition on Ergonomics and its supporters in the big industry associations were so upset with OSHA’s feeble attempts to enforce the OSH Act by issuing a handful of ergonomics citations that they were considering suing the agency. A Wall St. Journal article on Monday confirmed that the business associations are up in arms at the fact that OSHA has cited 11 (yes, 11!) employers around the country for ergonomics violations.

The Bush administration’s “activity” compares with 935 citations during the first Bush administration and 120 during Clinton’s years. (The Clinton administration was reluctant to issue too many ergo citations because the DOL Solicitors were scared to death of losing and setting any more bad precedents, and after 1995, they were reluctant to raise too many political red flags in front of a Republican Congress at the same time they were working on the ergonomics standard.)

The associations are accusing OSHA of basing its citations on the voluntary guidelines it issued in an effort to show that it was taking action against ergonomic injuries.
But the first guidelines, for nursing homes, prompted employer complaints that they appeared based on the rejected Clinton rules -- and could be used to justify general duty clause citations, despite administration promises to the contrary.

Now they say their fears are coming true. "There continues to be well-founded concern in the business community that . . . the culture of heavy-handed enforcement at OSHA has not changed," said Tim Hammonds, head of the Food Marketing Institute, in a letter commenting on OSHA's recently proposed ergonomics guidelines for the grocery stores.

The business lobby's National Coalition on Ergonomics urged OSHA to re-evaluate the citations and withdraw ones "that do not reflect the prudent exercise of prosecutorial discretion."
The bottom line is that these guys clearly want nothing -- no federal standard, no state standards, no guidelines, no citations, no data collection.

The harshest accusations came from Janice Zalen of the American Healthcare Association, which represents 12,000 nursing-home operators. “Citations issued to nursing-home companies ‘almost read like a repetition of the rule that was rescinded’"

“Well,” as my kids would say, “Duh!”

That’s because there was nothing evil, complicated or particularly new about the Clinton standard; it was basically just an ergonomics “program standard” which means that after discovering injuries or other indications of a problem, the employer provides medical management, assesses the cause of the problem, determines what might be done to address it, and then implements solutions. There are a number of similar OSHA program standards that also set the basic outlines for a safety program, but then allow employers to work out whatever details are appropriate to their business.

And these are the exact same basic programmatic procedures used to address ergonomics and other health and safety problems by conscientious employers like the members of OSHA’s VPP program, promoted by the agency to recognize “outstanding efforts of employers and employees who have achieved exemplary occupational safety and health.” No wonder the elements of the nursing homes’ citations sounded familiar.For the most part the citations were repetitions of the rescinded rule, which, despite the inflated rhetoric, was a repetition of what successful employers were already doing to address ergonomic hazards.

One of the outraged recipients of a whopping $4,500 citation was the Coca Cola bottling company.
OSHA cited Tri-State Coca-Cola Bottling Co. for requiring workers to perform various repetitive and awkward manual tasks -- lifting, pushing, pulling, bending and twisting -- while handling heavy boxes, beverage cases and carbon-dioxide tanks. The citation suggested various methods for preventing injuries, including easily controlled handcarts and handhold cutouts on boxes.
In the end, of course, all of this amounts to a tempest in a teapot. A quick review of the OSHA website (which lists 9 of the 11 citations) reveals that the highest citation was only $12,600 against Supervalue food wholesalers. Three of the five citations against nursing homes were for less than $300 each, with the largest nursing home citation coming in under $3,000.
All the complaining has labor unions scratching their heads, because they think the Bush administration ergonomics enforcement actions and guidelines aren't nearly tough enough. "OSHA is just exercising its tepid authority," said Jackie Nowell, safety and health director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Without an explicit ergonomics rule in place, "thousands of workers are becoming permanently disabled and losing their jobs" because of musculoskeletal disorders, she says.
But no one could justify the need for a standard better than Coca Cola in their response to the OSHA citation. According to the Journal:

“The company, which is contesting the citation, said its employees are given at least two hours a year of safety training.”

I have yet to see a better illustration of the need for a mandatory OSHA standard.

Who Cares for The Caregivers?

One of the most interesting -- and depressing -- parts about working for AFSCME was learning about the worklives of those people who are down in the trenches valiently holding our society together despite low pay and dirty, dangerous working conditions.

The organizing efforts of underpaid janitors have been getting lots of news lately, and rightfully so. But there are lots of other workers out there doing valuable work but with little recognition, low pay and lousy benefits: direct care workers supporting individuals with mental retardation.

Patients suffer and the workers suffer:
The harm to workers is obvious. To earn close to a living wage, they must work two or three jobs. Working that many hours makes them more vulnerable to mistake and personal injury. It also sends the unmistakable message that their work is not valued. Even though they are "first responders," the essential personnel that don't get to home on snow days, direct support workers earn less than $10 and hour.
A responding letter to the editor by SEIU organizer Enid Eckstein makes the point that, as with the janitors, organizing is the answer.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Asbestos Crimes: A Just Punishment

It's nice sometimes to see someone get what they deserve. (Interesting article, but some journalists need to educate themselves. There's no mention in this article that asbestos can cause cancer.)
In one of the most severe punishments ever handed down for a federal environmental crime, a former Rensselaer businessman was resentenced to 14 years in prison for violating asbestos removal laws and jeopardizing the health of hundreds of employees.

Joseph Thorn, 41, former owner of A+ Environmental Services Inc, was initially sentenced to five years and five months for his October 2000 conviction on charges of money laundering and illegal asbestos removal.

But federal prosecutors appealed the sentence, saying Thorn's actions "resulted in the substantial likelihood of death or serious bodily injury" to roughly 700 people who worked for him between 1990 and 1999, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Benedict.

Chief Judge Fredrick Scullin sentenced Thorn, who is in federal prison, for the second time in U.S. District Court Monday, after the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan struck down the first sentence in January.

Thorn's former employees testified in 2000 that they had worked in asbestos "snowstorms" without required respirators and tore out asbestos without first wetting it to prevent the microscopic fibers from getting into the air, where they can eventually lodge in the lungs.

The company may have violated asbestos safety standards in about 1,000 buildings in upstate New York, including several schools in the Capital Region. Some customers were told the asbestos was removed and shown fraudulent air tests, witnesses said.
So this guy operated for 10 years, grossly violating asbestos standards in over 1,000 buildings -- including schools? Who's minding the store up there?

A Day Without Krugman Would Be A Day Without....The Truth

If Mr. Bush had admitted from the start that the postwar occupation might cost this much, he would never have gotten that last tax cut. Now he says, "We will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary. . . ." What does he mean, "we"? Is he prepared to roll back some of those tax cuts, now that the costs of war loom so large? Is he even willing to stop urging Congress to make the 2001 tax cut permanent? Of course not.

Read the rest and an article about Krugman's new book here in Salon, although you have to do their "Day Pass" thing if you're not a subscriber.

Monday, September 08, 2003

Love That Dirty Water...

Yes, I'm sure this is exactly what Congress had in mind when it passed the Clean Water Act:
EPA Analysis Finds Clean Water Act Changes Would Cause Major Setback

An internal analysis conducted by the U.S. EPA has found that a Bush administration plan to alter clean water rules could result in more than half of the mid-Atlantic's streams and one-third of its wetlands losing protection under the federal Clean Water Act. That, in turn, would leave more than 3 million people reliant on drinking water supplies that were not protected by pollution regulations, according to the EPA analysis. From Grist

Blogging Into the Future

Here's an article by Matt Welch in the Columbia Journalism Review about how blogs like Confined Space are the single most significant journalistic phenomenon of the 21st century. (Well, almost...). Although he fails to list Confined Space as one of the best blogs (an all-too-common, if unforgivable oversight), it's an interesting article that is guaranteed to make many of you want to start your own blogs.

Come on in, the water's fine!

The Victims of Silicon Valley, cont'd

Another column by the New York Times' Bob Herbert on the victims of Silicon Valley
The pristine environment is for the sake of the products, which can be ruined by even a speck of dust. At the same time, the hazardous chemicals used in the process are capable of doing devastating physical damage to the workers

"In every case the business community got what it wanted..."

First the bad news:
In the past few weeks, the administration diluted federal rules governing air pollution from old coal-fired power plants; emissions that cause global warming; ballast water on ships contaminated with foreign species of plants and animals; sales of land tainted with PCBs; drilling for oil and gas on federal land; and scientific studies that underpin federal regulations.

In every case the business community got what it wanted, and environmentalists got mad.
Bill Kovacs, the vice president for environmental issues of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the business community won more environmental battles during the final week of August than it had during the entire eight years of the Clinton administration.

"We certainly had a number of victories this week; I don't think anyone can deny that," Kovacs said on the Friday before Labor Day.

He and two big-industry lobbyists said the Bush administration had delivered nearly every environmental regulatory change business put on its to-do list in January 2001. Their industries got every change they wanted, the lobbyists said.
The good news is that this is from an article that appeared in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel and other Knight-Ridder outlets. Why is this good news? Because I know, and most of you who read Confined Space and similar authoritative media sources know, that the current Administration is totally under the control of the ideologues in the business community and Republican party who are, not to mince words, trying (and succeeding) to screw workers and the environment, while lying to us about every conceivable aspect of their domestic and foreign policies. But most people don't have time to read enough sources to figure out what's really happening. Which is why I'm happy to see an article like this in a middle-American newspaper.

The article also explains a little about how the Bushniks like to operate in Washington:
Experts say the timing of the changes wasn't accidental.

"They need to get this stuff out of the way before they get into an election year; they need to get enough below the radar," said political science professor Stephen Meyer, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Project on Environmental Politics and Policy.

"The Bush administration always likes to announce unpopular environmental policies in the dead of political and press night. And you can't find a week when people are less likely to pay attention than the end of August," said Phil Clapp, the president of the National Environmental Trust.
Unable to get bills that would weaken environmental laws through Congress, the administration made all these changes as administrative rulings.

"They leave the laws in place, but undermine the regulations below them, undermine the rules and undermine the agencies," said MIT's Meyer. "The details get lost because the average person doesn't have the details or the time to follow it."
Unfortunately, the author lets the Chamber of Commerce get away with this as the concluding quote:
Kovacs of the Chamber of Commerce said Bush was simply borrowing a tactic that the Clinton administration routinely used.

"They figured out what the Clinton administration figured out," Kovacs said. "If you control the agencies, you use them. I wish they had done it sooner."
Now let's look at that.

First, by definition, every President controls the agencies. That's why they're called Executive Branch agencies. Clinton didn't figure that out. Every single President in American history has known that if you're President, you control the agencies. That's part of the reason people want to be President.

The issue is not that Presidents are controlling the agencies, but what they're doing with that power. The difference between the Clinton Administration and the Bush II (and to a slightly lesser extent Reagan) is that Clinton was using the regulatory power of the agencies to implement the laws that Congress passed, whereas the Republicans and their business allies are using the agencies to undermine the laws that Congress passed.

Just take a look at their actions just over the past few weeks:
  • Two controversial changes in a rule governing expansion of old coal-fired power plants, dramatically easing the rules requiring companies to install new pollution controls when they make big upgrades.

  • Two legal opinions ruling that carbon dioxide, which most scientists say is the chief cause of global warming, isn't a pollutant that the EPA can cite to regulate emissions from cars and power plants. The rulings reverse a Clinton administration legal opinion that carbon dioxide is a pollutant.

  • An EPA legal opinion declaring that it won't regulate ships' ballast water under the Clean Water Act, turning the issue over to the Coast Guard. The ballast water contains billions of tiny fish, plants and other foreign invasive species that scientists say are major threats to native species in American waters.

  • An edict changing a 25-year-old rule to allow the sale of land tainted with toxic PCBs.

  • An order to Bureau of Land Management field offices in the West telling them to speed up the process permitting drilling for oil and gas on federal lands.

  • A new Office of Management and Budget policy governing scientific studies used to justify costly federal regulations. The policy orders more stringent peer review; environmentalists fear it will slow the enactment of environmental regulations.
Are they really trying to say that it was the intent of Congress when it passed the Clean Air Act that carbon dioxide, the chief cause of global warming, isn't a pollutant that the EPA can regulate? Or that Congress didn't really ever intend for old power plants to significantly reduce the pollution they generate after decades of upgrades? Or that when Congress passed the Clean Water Act they really didn't intend that scooping off the tops of mountains and dumping them into valleys, burying mountain steams, might be a violation?

To put it in as simple terms as possible: They are the bad guys. We are the good guys. They need to go as quickly as possible. But for that to happen, many more people need to understand the facts that are contained in the News Sentinel and similar articles.


P.S. Let's play a little game, just for fun. The purpose is to show how the Republicans deliver for the business community, but the Democrats are a bit less grateful to their friends. Here's how the game works. For every reference to a business initiative or spokesperson in one of the paragraphs above, substitute "labor." Then imagine how unlikely it would be for you to ever see such an article.
In the past few weeks, the administration strengthened federal rules governing organizing, issued an ergonomics regulation, along with several others, stenghtened overtime regulations, beefed up wage-and-hour enforcement, restricted government contracts to businesses that have broken the law, and [add more here].

In every case the labor movement got what it wanted, and business got mad.
Bill Samuel, Legislative Director of the AFL-CIO, said the labor movement won more worker battles during the final week of August than it had during the entire four years of the Bush administration.

"We certainly had a number of victories this week; I don't think anyone can deny that," Samuel said on the Friday before Labor Day.

He and two labor lobbyists said the Democratic administration had delivered nearly every pro-worker regulatory change labor put on its to-do list in January 2005. Their affiliates got every change they wanted, the lobbyists said.

McWane Fined Again

OSHA has fined McWane Inc. another $103,000 for 21 serious and three repeat violations at the M&H Valve fire hydrant plant in Anniston, AL. According to the Birmingham News:
In the spirit of cooperation, we have agreed to settle this matter rather than dispute OSHA's determination," Thomas Walton, the plant's general manager, said in a written statement. "We realize that our company is under intense scrutiny at this time, and that we will be held to a higher standard than other companies as a result."
McWane, you will of course recall, was the subject of a scating NY Times Frontline series earlier this year. If we keep this up, maybe we can finance the war.

Late Labor Day Gift: Molly Ivins Gets It, Wish More Did

It's so nice to occasionally read a column where a journalist -- in this case Molly Ivins recognizes what working people are dealing with in this country, and how the Bush administration is dissing them right and left -- actually just right.

And icing on the cake is that she hasn't forgotten the first high crimes of George the W and his Republican friends: the repeal of the ergonomics standard, followed by the appointment of ergo foe Gene Scalia to Solicitor of Labor, and then deciding to solve the ergonomics problem by just not counting the injuries.
Another insulting episode came when Bush named Eugene Scalia (son of the Supreme Court justice) as solicitor of the Department of Labor, apparently as a cruel joke. Scalia's specialty as a K Street lobbyist was fighting ergonomic regulations.

For years he attacked and mocked the very idea of repetitive stress injuries, calling them "junk science," "exotic and absurd, like a trip through Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean." "Work less, and you'll feel better! Why I've experienced the same thing myself!"

He has written that heavy lifting does not cause back strain and that reported increases in repetitive stress injuries are caused by "feeding frenzies." Try doing the same thing hundreds and hundreds of times an hour, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

Has Scalia, who has since left the post, or President Bush ever held a job that involved physical labor?

One of this administration's first actions was to repeal the ergonomic regulations that prevent repetitive stress. Two years later, the administration solved the entire problem with characteristic brilliance: It revoked the provision requiring employers to report such injuries! This was almost as good as the time that the administration solved global warming by simply editing it out of an environmental report.
Now can we make sure our Democratic presidential candidates don't overlook this little bit of history as well?

Friday, September 05, 2003

9/11 Coverup: Shorter James Inhofe:

This is my shorter version of a press release issued by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) rejecting a request for a hearing into why the White House ordered EPA to delete warnings to New Yorkers that the post-911 air might be hazardous.


Rejects request for hearing, denounces political attacks on the President

In times of crisis it’s OK to lie about health hazards as long as you offer free medical screening to the crybabies victims. And Democratic presidential candidates aren’t allowed to have any opinions, because their motivations are purely political, unlike those of the President.

With apologies to Busy, Busy, Busy

More Information here and here and here and here.

Bush Lied and Jobs Died

OK, maybe he didn’t know he was making stuff up. Maybe it was his speechwriters. His Secretary of Commerce. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. He made headlines on Labor Day, and the truth is appears several days later hidden in the back pages of the Washington Post and probably no where else.
Not So 'New' After All

By Al Kamen

Friday, September 5, 2003; Page A19

President Bush announced Monday that he is creating a new position of manufacturing czar, otherwise known as the assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing and services, to focus on boosting the faltering manufacturing sector.

Turns out this is not really so new, congressional and Commerce Department folks say. The existing post of assistant commerce secretary for trade development will get the new name, along with some new functions. The trade post was probably going to be eliminated anyway as part of a long-running reorganization of the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration.

"I guess we can't say the new manufacturing initiative has created at least one new job after all," a Senate Republican aide quipped to our colleague Jonathan Weisman.

And the change apparently was not Bush's idea. It was mandated in the House version of the 2004 Commerce, Justice and State appropriations bill.
P.S. Read down further in the Post column: Condi Lied and Americans didn't die.

Corrupting the Social Contract

See how many small business myths you can find in this one short article. And then ask yourself what century these guys think they're living in? (I've provided hints and heated commentary at the end.) How much would you wager that they were "briefed" by NAM or NFIB before the meeting?

Small businesses speak up

By Jane Hodges
Times Snohomish County bureau

MONROE — The state just created a $3 billion incentive package to keep its biggest employer, Boeing, but what can it do to improve the economic climate for small businesses?

That was the question that state Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, asked small-business owners and managers at a round table in Monroe last week. The feedback, he said, would help him create a small-business to-do list for the next legislative session in Olympia.

"I was raised in a family of small-business owners, and I'm very concerned about the small-business environment," he said, noting that he once ran a small construction business. "Most of the employees in the state are employed by small businesses."

Many owners and managers lamented the state's traffic snarls and inadequate road network. They also said the state needs to address tort, or liability, reform in order to reduce the potential for frivolous lawsuits.

A tort-reform bill that addressed liability in construction, in medical practice and for employer references failed during the last legislative session.

The small-business people also cited costly and time-intensive permitting processes and complex regulations.

Deanna Taylor, a co-owner of a Ben Franklin variety store in Monroe, said she and her husband had wanted to expand their business but hesitated because of concerns about the permitting process.

"We have grown with this community since 1975," she said. "It's not that we don't want to invest in the future."

Business owners also provided Kristiansen — and representatives from the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development — with some additional concerns they'd like the Legislature to address during its next session. Among them:

• Reducing fees associated with workers'-compensation and unemployment insurance.

"We're one of three or four states in the union that don't let employers buy private insurance," said John Dacy, vice president and controller of Monroe-based Canyon Creek Cabinet. "This (insurance industry) is a state monopoly."

Clarifying or eliminating a state requirement that businesses secure "UL" (Underwriters Laboratories) certification on electrical machinery.

Though business owners said they wanted to comply with safety standards, they said stringent UL codes and inspections can require them to rip out and rewire new machinery just to comply with UL codes.

Ken Boyer, senior vice president of operations at Canyon Creek Cabinet, said he thinks only a handful of states require manufacturers to follow UL codes. He said his company will spend $350,000 on UL-related upgrades to equipment worth $1 million, even though some of that equipment is new.

• Considering loosening or altering forthcoming ergonomics regulations that could raise operating costs at some businesses.

Ron Wise, a supervisor at 35-year-old State Roofing in Monroe, told Kristiansen that ergonomics laws scheduled to go into effect next July would prohibit individuals from lifting weights more than 50 pounds from off the floor — a problem because State Roofing's materials are typically packaged in parcels that weigh more.

Wise said the new rules would mean the company would have to double its staff to handle the same workload, reducing its profits.

"This will kill the small companies first and then the big ones," Wise said. "All the roofing companies we've dealt with over the years feel the same way."

• Improving economic-development programs.

Douglas Roulstone, senior vice president at Thomas James International, which owns machining companies in Monroe and Wenatchee, noted that the state loses tourism business to Canada and Idaho every winter during snow season — despite the state's popular slopes — because Washington lacks the resort-style lodging those other locations have.

To satisfy concerns of environmental groups, Roulstone said, developers could temper new construction with commitments to offer proportional preservation efforts, perhaps funding preservation of a set amount of forest acreage for every acre of new construction on rural land.

"In the long run, you get the environmentalists and preservationists to support you," Roulstone said. "Maybe you give them a percentage of the profits (to further preservation work).

"When somebody articulates a clear vision, it's easy to get behind it."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


Give me a break: Not only have they bought into the ergonomics lies, but they can't even deal with UL certification. And of course we need to get rid of unemployment insurance and we sure as hell can't afford workers comp (especially with all of those musculoskeletal injuries once we get rid of the ergonomics standard). And we can't have anyone suing us, no matter what hazardous products we may produce. And we sure don't need no stinkin' permits! Only the ski guy makes the slightest bit of sense.

These are almost all of the elements of worker and consumer protection that this "civilized" society has produced over the past 100 years. In this day and age, ALL of these should be considered a normal cost of doing business. And most small business people probably would consider them to be normal costs of doing business if they weren't indoctrinated by the ideological warfare being waged by the punch-drunk Bush-era business associations and right-wing Republicans who think they can get away with anything as long as they sound compassionate and keep saying how concerned they are with all of those poor, unemployed working stiffs.

And speaking of lies, check out this article (found in Tapped) by David Greenberg in the Washington Monthly about why journalists, who usually love to pounce on lying politicians, seem to let Bush get away with whoppers. Here's a taste. Read the whole thing:
To the axiom that journalists love lies, however, there's one important corollary -- and it helps explain Bush's Teflon coating. Reporters like only certain lies. Perversely, those tend to be the relatively trivial ones, involving personal matters: Clinton's deceptions about his sex life; Al Gore's talk of having inspired Love Story; John Kerry's failure to correct misimpressions that he's Irish. Here, the press can strut its skepticism without positioning itself ideologically.

The lies reporters dislike, in contrast, center on what are usually more important matters: claims about public policy -- taxes, abortion, the environment -- where raising questions of truthfulness can seem awfully close to taking sides in a partisan debate. Most of Bush's lies have fallen in this demilitarized zone, where journalists fear to tread.