Saturday, November 29, 2003

Dean vs. Gephardt, Union vs. Union

The L.A. Times has an interesting article about the conflicts among unions in Iowa resulting from the service sector unions' endorsement of Dean and the manufacturing unions' endorsement of Gephardt.
John Campbell is a blue-collar philosopher who routinely steps off the factory floor at the Firestone tire plant here to marshal fellow foot soldiers in the United Steelworkers Union on causes close to their hearts, minds and wallets.

The 47-year-old high school dropout often joins forces with Judy Lowe — a no-nonsense single mother and an organizer for white-collar government workers — to knock on doors, dial telephones and stage cold-weather rallies to get out the vote for politicians sympathetic to working families.

For years, Iowa's industrial and service unions have generally acted as one clan, one unified political force. But the effort to choose a Democratic candidate to oppose President Bush in the 2004 election has caused fissures in this traditionally ironclad solidarity.

Friday, November 28, 2003

A drop of lemonade in a truckload of lemons

Bill Borwegen of SEIU reports that something good came out of the otherwise disappointing Medicare/Prescription Drug bill -- coverage under the bloodborne pathogens standard for public employees not covered by OSHA -- an issue that AFSCME and SEIU have been championing for years.
Tucked into the massive Medicare giveaway bill is a provision that would require public hospitals not currently covered by the OSH Act (about half of all the states; those without federally approved state plan OSHA programs) to meet the agency's bloodborne pathogen standard -- including the safer needle provisions -- by July 1, 2004, or face civil monetary penalties mirroring those under the OSHAct.

This requirement would be in addition to any state safer needle laws in these non-state plan states. For hospital workers in about a dozen states (AL, AR, CO, FL, ID, IL, LA, MS, MT, ND, NE, SD & WI), this will be the first time that they are covered by these types of protections.

Section 947 on pages 627-629 states that: "In the case of hospitals that are not otherwise subject to the OSHAct, to comply with the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard under section 1910.1030 . . .A hospital that fails to comply . . is subject to a civil money penalty . . [in] an amount similar to the amount of civil penalties that may be imposed under the OSHAct for a violation of the Bloodborne Pathogens standard.

. . The amendments made by this section shall apply to hospitals as of July 1, 2004."

This is getting tiresome...

Yet another fatality in a trench collapse. Another wife without a husband, another kid without a father. This isn't rocket science guys. People are dying.
A 32-year-old man was buried alive late Tuesday afternoon when the wall of a trench on which he was standing collapsed.

While a rescue attempt was launched almost immediately, the effort had to be abandoned moments before more of the wall fell in, burying the victim under 10 feet or more of the thick, wet, heavy clay, town police said.
Which is why, as with confined space accidents, you're not supposed to jump into a deep trench to try and rescue someone, or you may become another victim.

And, as usual, this was no "freak accident."
The day after a mudslide took a man's life, rescue workers who tried to save him said the trench he slipped into lacked safety features....Donald Koons Jr., 32, of Schoharie, [an employee of JRP Inc.] apparently was trying to install foundation drains into an 11 foot trench when officials said the ground gave way, burying him underneath the heavy wet soil.
Just to give you an idea of what happens to the human body when buried in a trench collapse
"It's been very wet over the last month," [Colonie Police Chief Steve] Heider said about the unstable earth. He said the soil was so wet and heavy, the five-gallon pails used to bring up the dirt weighed more than 50 pounds.

"It's a very dense, heavy clay soil," he said, adding that Koons probably suffocated because of the weight of the dirt around his chest. The actual cause of death will be determined by an autopsy.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Turkey Follies

For a little Thanksgiving humor, check out Whisky Bar. Read the comments too.


As I relax and read the paper during this Thanksgiving holiday while the kids oversleep and then fight about the hotel room T.V. and we never get anything done even though it's a beautiful day in New York City, a few questions come to mind.....

Why does "free trade" seem to mean a race to the bottom? Environmental improvements (e.g. California regulation of MBTE or REACH in Europe) are bad because they restrict trade of hazardous chemicals. Using government's power to negotiate down pharmaceutical prices is bad because it hurts the U.S. pharma industry.

No one's allowed to restrict the sale or use of any poisons because it might disrupt free trade? I mean, sure, free trade may be good in theory. It's always good to sell exports, and comparitive advantage and all that. But is it more important than people's health or working conditions?

And if so, why can't North Korea claim that these stupid nuclear non-proliferation treaties keep it from selling nukes to Sadaam where ever?

Why is it good for a bunch of private sector companies to try to negotiate better prescription drug prices, but not not for the government (which has more ability, being big) to negotiate down prescription prices -- either here or in Australia? The new Medicare/Prescription Drug bill not only neglects government's ability to negotiate lower prices, it actually prohibits the government from negotiating lower prices.

OK, back to my paper....

Medicare Turkeys

Some people may really believe that the private sector does everything best. Some people may still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy (except for Charlie Norwood (R-GA) who accused OSHA of killing the Tooth Fairy when it issued the bloodborne pathogens standard). Others, however, look at the facts.

This belief allegedly applies to the battle between Medicare, the government program, and private sector competition being promoted in the recently bludgeoned through passed Medicare/Prescription Drug bill. As Senator Bill Frist said:"We just think that competition through the private sector, through bulk purchasing and negotiation, is a more effective means to hold down prices."

But, according to a column by Jeff Madrick in the NY Times:
The problem is that 30 years of comparisons between Medicare and private health insurance provide no evidence for Senator Frist's assertion. To the contrary, the best analyses to date suggest that Medicare may will hold down health care costs better than private industry does.
Not only that, but the private sector is much less likely to cover the elderly who are prone to poor health. And, of course, the elderly, being old, are often prone to poor health.
As a result, despite competition and government subsidies, many of the poor or less healthy elderly would probably be left with plans that provide inadequate care.
Which is why this country needs a government health care program -- at very least for the elderly (which I someday in the waaaaaaay distant future, plan to be), if not for everyone.
If Congress and the president keep going in this direction, it will undermine the philosophy of protection and inclusiveness that guided the passage of Medicare in the first place, and so much of the rest of America's social legislation. Is this a decision Americans understand they are making? They are probably taking for granted that Congress has done the research. It hasn't.
Happy Turkey Day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

U.S. Workers: A Vast Exploitable Mass Worthy Of A Colonial Backwater?

You know how globalization is supposed to eventually raise all boats? NOT!

Harold Myerson writes about normally civilized (e.g. good health and safety conditions, progressive benefits, pro-union, etc.) Swedish company, H&M clothing, goes native (exploitive, anti-union and cruel) when it comes to the U.S. And other European companies are doing the same thing.
So it's come to this: When European employers look to the United States, they see roughly the same thing that U.S. employers see when they look to China: millions of low-wage workers who have all but lost the right to organize and a government intent on keeping things just the way they are.

The erosion of worker power and the growth of employer supremacy here have transformed the bottom half of the U.S. workforce into a vast exploitable mass worthy of a colonial backwater.

Something to chew on as we give thanks for the marvel that once was America.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Every Day Is Workers Memorial Day

This is a workplace health and safety site and I write frequently about workers dying on the job, almost always from causes that could have been prevented by simple compliance with common OSHA standards. But we talk too often in terms of statistics, or names, or snippets from newspaper articles. Then the people are forgotten and we move on until all-too-soon, it happens again.

It is all too rare that the reality of death in the workplace comes home -- what it means to the family and friends of those who lost a loved one. I received the following note the other day from the sister-in-law of a worker who had been killed in a trench collapse that I had written about previously. It's not an easy read, but ultimately, it's the sorrow and anger that these tragedies generate that give us the energy to keep on fighitng. This letter brings home what we're all fighting for much better than I ever could. (At the request of the family, I've changed the names.)
I read with interest the article you wrote about trench deaths. I say with interest because John Stevens was my brother-in-law. My only sister's husband. Needless to say, she is devastated. He was her soul mate. They did everything together. My heart is broken because he was more than my brother-in-law. My family dropped in-law a long time ago and just considered him a brother. He was my protector and friend. When I was going through my divorce and lost my home, it was John who suggested I and my two sons move in with them. I was a single mom at the time and he didn't let anyone mess with me or my kids. I guess you could say he was my kids surrogate dad.

Enough of the personal stuff. I am pissed. He didn't have to die. Nor did the man from Zanesville that died recently. He left behind a 17 year old son who was his best friend. He won't get to see his son graduate next year or walk him across with him at his football game for parent's night. I talked to her for about three hours one day on the phone and she, too, is devasted.

The report from OSHA has been filed and all they received is mainly a slap on the wrist. Three citations for $5000 a piece. $15,000 for a man's life. They were only cited for "serious" violation, when they could have been cited for "willful" violation. If you have been in business for as long as they have, have project specs that state how deep a trench can be without shoring, and you still don't provide the protection, isn't that "willful"? And in turn, the grief-stricken (Ha) project engineer was quoted in the paper as saying that they will fight those citations and get them migated down.

What a slap in the face! I feel OSHA is not doing their job! I went to and for the same citations in a Rhode Island worker's death, they were fined $89,000! Their manual does not specify between states. I want to go around publicly, via news, TV, whatever and call OSHA on their citations and explain to the public why they do what they do. Nobody is safe if the laws aren't enforced.

Oh, and the "police investigation", I have a copy of and if ever there was room for improvement, this is it. They didn't take any statements from witnesses, have the accident directions ass backwards, and so forth. 6 pages of nothing. I know you say public workers have no investigation, no fines, so on. That is a shame. But this hasn't been any better. They just went through the motions to say they did it.

Keep up the good work. Maybe sometime down the road our paths will cross and we can work for a common goal.

I'm sorry I am blowing off. My sister actually e-mailed your article to me because she doesn't sleep anymore, so she surfs the web and vegetates. I not only lost my brother-in-law, but I am watching her die a slow death and there is nothing I can do for her.

Electrocutions at L.E. Myers: Safety Last?

Good, long article from the Chicago Tribune on electrocutions at L.E. Myers. I recall reading an artilce about L.E. Myers in the Wall St. Journal about a year and a half ago. They had implemented a new safety program, heavily laden with one of the most intricate safety incentive programs I've ever come across, and laced with reminders to workers that they have families (in case they forget and go get themselves killed.)
Blake Lane was 20 years old when he died, jolted by 2,400 volts of electricity in 1999 while working atop a 120-foot steel tower in Mt. Prospect.

A rookie in the power-line construction industry--it was just his second day as an employee of electrical contractor L.E. Myers Co.--Lane touched a wire that he did not know was carrying current.

Authorities later charged that Lane was a victim of a company that has failed for decades to adequately enforce safety measures at its far-flung work sites.

Rolling Meadows-based L.E. Myers has a long history of on-the-job deaths, accidents and safety violations. At least 35 employees have died--17 by electrocution--in the three decades the government has been keeping workplace safety records.

The deaths and accidents at L.E. Myers raise questions about the company's commitment to safety as well as about the effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, created by Congress in 1970 to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.

Comments (Again)

My old comment generator has crapped out again. You get what you don't pay for.

So I have a new one. Use it. The only problem is that the comments behave like pop-ups, which means if you have a popup blocker, they won't come up unless you hold down the while clicking on the comment link.

Oh, and my apologies for those of you who left excellent comments over the past couple of weeks. Thank you for your contribution, but they're lost in cyberspace, vanished, irretrievably.

Life's complicated.

Rush Accuses Republicans of Traitorous Nixonian Politics

Rush Limbaugh may be off the drugs, but his mind is still altered. He's upset about the prescription drug "sellout" by the Repubilcans who have forgotten that they're supposed to be for limited government, just like that other Republican sellout, Richard Nixon.
Let me just continue with this. I know Bush has cut taxes, but the Republicans haven't done anything to stem the growth of government, and it's in this respect that this administration reminds me of Nixon. Remember, under Nixon EPA and OSHA were created. Nixon also put federal police powers behind affirmative action. And he imposed wage and price controls.....There is no party in the Congress representing the whole concept of limited government and individual liberty. The view that says the Constitution must be followed and the federal government's scope and size must be limited, there's nobody in power that represents that view. Well, there are 12 or 14 in the House. There's some people around, but they get bowled over. Now, it may be good politics for the moment, but it could be crippling to the Republican Party in the future. I mean, look, it's hard to argue that the Republicans believe in limited government when they're responsible for this prescription drug entitlement, the EPA and OSHA and affirmative action. It's hard to make the case that they're for limited government.
Yeah, throw the bums out.

Doctor Killed by Mental Patient

Dr. Erlinda Ursua, 60, was bludgeoned to death by a 37-year-old patient, Rene Pavonan, during an exam at John George Psychiatric Pavilion in San Leandro, California last Wednesday. Ursua was found on the floor of the exam room and died from blunt-force trauma, according to the autopsy.

No one on the unit was aware of the attack until a staff member noticed Pavon clutching a piece of medical paperwork that patients don't normally have access to and checked the exam room.

One of those unexpected, unfortunate, but unavoidable things? Not exactly. This had been forseen and efforts had been made to prevent it:
Cal/OSHA, the state's workplace safety agency, investigated John George in 1998 and earlier this year in response to violent workplace assaults and complaints about substandard measures to prevent workers from getting hurt.

The investigations resulted in five citations and $30,000 in proposed penalties for John George's not having an injury-prevention program in place and failing to report two nonfatal assaults on workers, one last December and the other in April.

In July, Cal/OSHA officials took the unusual step of suggesting measures the 80-bed inpatient facility could take to improve worker safety, including hiring trained peace officers as security guards and installing video cameras in exam rooms.
The union representing workers at John George was also involved in efforts to make the facility safer.
Linda Joseph, staff director for Service Employees International Union Local 616, said the union had been urging management to improve safety measures.

The assaults and state citations "are a direct result of misplaced priorities," she said. "They have financial difficulties. Instead of looking at misplaced programs to save money, they just cut staff, and with limited staff they aren't able to cover."
Tragically, before her death, Ursua had discussed being nervous about working at the facility
Shortly before Ursua was killed, she told her husband that after more than 25 years she was getting tired of the work and was feeling "uneasy" at the facility, a close family friend said Friday.

"She said the patients were becoming more difficult and she talked about the budget cuts," said Dr. Lene Martinez of Fremont, who knew Ursua both professionally and personally for more than 15 years.
Background: As mental health facilities closed in the 1980's and pscychiatric patients were deinstitutionalized, sent home or put into community facilities, the rate of violence against social workers began to rise, as did the number of violent attacks against workers in the remaining mental health facilities which had become increasingly understaffed at the same time their patient population was becoming increasingly violent.

I watched this happening to ASFCME members and we, along with SEIU, AFT and the nurses association, appealed to federal OSHA to consider workplace violence to be a workplace hazard under OSHA's jurisdiction. Until the Clinton administration, these appeals were ignored. "We deal with hazards coming from machinery and chemicals, not people. Anyway, there's nothing you can do to predict or prevent violence, except possibly increase staff, and that's out of our jurisdication. "

California, ahead of the curve as usual, took the lead in this area, coming out with innovative guidelines in 1993 that suggested practical measures to address workplace violence in mental health and social service workplaces. In 1997, Federal OSHA issued Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care and Social Service Workers and in 1999, Recommendations for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs in Late-Night Retail Establishments. OSHA handed down several General Duty Clause citations against health care facilities in the late 1990's, but has not actively pursued cases in several years because it is extremely difficult to win challenges to citations under the General Duty Clause.

OSHA has never seriously entertained the possibility of a workplace violence standard. Perhaps the time has come.

The Wages of Child Labor

You all know about the hepatitis A outbreak, spread by imported scallions, that has killed three and sickened hundreds.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, child labor in Mexico could be to blame
How the scallions became contaminated is not known. Hepatitis A is spread by fecal matter from infected people, particularly those who fail to wash their hands after using the restroom. The virus can survive in food, though it does not multiply outside the body.

The report by the disease control agency noted that children work on the scallion farms in Mexico, and would be especially likely to spread the virus. Hepatitis A is a common childhood disease in developing countries, Dr. Osterholm said.

Children are far more likely to be infected than are adults because most adults in the developing world had the disease in childhood and became immune to it.

Monday, November 24, 2003

They'll sure think twice about killing any more of their employees...

The wrath of big government again...
InChem plant fined for safety violations

InChem Corp. at 800 Cel-River Road was recently fined $350 by state regulators for serious safety violations.

The state [South Carolina] Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the fine after an investigation that started after contract employee Emerson Sturgil was killed at the InChem plant in June. The 70-year-old Fountain Inn resident was an employee of Operatos Unlimited, a firm that hires out wastewater operators.

According to the OSHA report, Sturgil was standing on a ladder that was leaning on an over-pressurized carbon filtration canister, which exploded. Sturgil was thrown head-first into a concrete wall and killed, the report stated.

The employer knew, or should have known, that the equipment could be operated at unsafe pressure levels, the report stated.

The company has since installed pressure-relief devices on the equipment, the report stated.

InChem officials were not available for comment Wednesday.

Sturgil's death was the third fatal incident in six years at InChem, which makes chemicals used in coatings in hot-melt adhesives. Since 1995, the company has been fined about $54,000 by OSHA for safety violations.
Hey, it was only the third person they've killed in three years. If they don't watch out, the next person they kill might cost them $500.

The Weekly Toll

Worker Crushed To Death

WINDSOR TOWHSHIP, Pa. -- A York County worker was killed Monday morning after an industrial accident at his company just south of Red Lion.

It appears Terry Houser, of Spring Grove, 41, was crushed to death while working on a piece of equipment

"He got in between two pieces of equipment and was pinned in there and could not breathe," Mary Breighner, the chief deputy coroner said.

"He was not a machine operator," Police Chief Tom Gross said.

"Actually, I believe the machine operators were on a break, and there was some problem with the machine that he was trying to rectify."

Hmm, he “got” between two pieces of equipment? Sounds like your basic lockout-tagout failure to me

Man found dead at bottom of grain silo

A Muleshoe man died Thursday morning at a Farwell grain elevator owned by AGP Grain Marketing, according to Farwell police.

Samuel Alvarado appears to have fallen into a grain silo and died as a result of suffocation, said Farwell Police Chief Robert Achterberg.

More here.

Three Workers Drown in Flash Flood

Three construction workers were killed in aflash flood Wednesday in Woodlawn.

The drowned worker who was first discovered in Dead Run was identified Thursday as Michael L. Shawyer, 22, of Cavetown in Washington County.

Arturo Zarate, 44, of Hyattsville, the father of three, was found about 250 feet inside the culvert that runs beneath Interstate 70 and two ramps at about 11:45 a.m.

His foot was stuck under a pipe inside the culvert, which is apparently why he wasn't swept into Dead Run with the two workers who were found Wednesday, said Elise Armacost, a county Fire Department spokeswoman.

Zarate left his wife and three children -- ages 18, 16, and 13 -- in El Salvador two years ago to earn money in the United States for his family. He was planning to return to El Salvador in March, said Jose Alvarez, whose parents adopted Zarate as an infant.

"I don't believe it's true; it doesn't seem real," said Diana Rosa, sister of one of the dead workers, Santos Zetino, who also was known as Milton Ventura, 29, of Hyattsville.

Zetino had been found Wednesday and taken to St. Agnes HealthCare where he was pronounced dead.

The Gaithersburg company that employed the three workers who had been cited for more than 30 workplace safety violations, state and federal records show.

A crane operator for Concrete General Inc. was killed on the job in 1988. Another employee's arms had to be amputated after he was shocked by a power line in 1982, and a Concrete General worker was rescued after a trench collapsed in 1995. Most recently, in 2000 and 2001, the company was cited six times for trenching violations, according to Maryland Occupational Safety and Health records. More here.

Worker dies at Smithfield Packing plant

A Fayetteville man was found dead inside a tanker truck at the Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel on Thursday morning.

An employee found Glenn Birdsong in the tanker at 9:30 a.m., according to a statement issued by the company. Attempts to resuscitate him failed. Birdsong was 25.

Birdsong was an employee of Labor Ready, a company that provides temporary workers. Labor Ready has a contract to clean Smithfield's tanker trucks. The statement issued by Smithfield did not say if anything was inside the tanker.

More here.

North Dartmouth man killed in elevator accident

Stephen Custadio, 53, a maintenance man at E.C. Pigment in Fall River, was trying to fix a stuck elevator when the cable broke, authorities say.

FALL RIVER, MA -- A broken elevator cable dropped a North Dartmouth man two stories, resulting in his death yesterday afternoon, Asst. Dist. Atty. Gerald FitzGerald said.

Stephen Custadio, 53, of North Dartmouth, was a longtime maintenance man at E.C. Pigment, formerly known as Roma Color Inc., FitzGerald said. Custadio's son, Adam, was the plant's other maintenance man, according to one coworker.

Custadio was trying to repair a freight elevator that was stuck on the second floor of the E.C. Pigment plant at 749 Quequechan St., FitzGerald said.

At about 1:30 p.m., a cable broke and the emergency brake did not activate, FitzGerald said. Custadio was alone in the elevator when the accident took place, according to Fall River police Lt. Jeff Cardoza.

Explosion at Brandon gas station kills 1, injures 1

BRANDON -- Gasoline tanks exploded as they were being removed from a shuttered convenience store Wednesday, killing one worker and injuring another, authorities said.

Workers were cutting into tanks with saws at the time of the explosion shortly after noon, said the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. The blast sent plumes of thick smoke into the air and sent workers at an adjacent strip mall scrambling.

Killed in the incident was Pete Watson, 32, of Lutz, the sheriff's office said. The injured man was identified as Rick Parker of Winter Haven. More here.

Second welder dies from burns

BUFORD, GA — The second welder who was severely burned during a flash explosion in a water pipeline died last week at Grady Memorial Hospital.

Keith Duffer, 47, died Thursday after having been in critical condition since the explosion Nov. 10, according to Denise Simpson, spokeswoman for Grady Memorial Hospital.
The other victim, 32-year-old Brian Lipe, died on Wednesday.

Duffer, a welding superintendent, and Lipe, a supervisor, were employees of National Welding Corp. in Salt Lake City, Utah, which had been subcontracted to weld the 6-foot in diameter water pipes. Once constructed, the pipeline will transfer water for Gwinnett County from Lake Sidney Lanier to a water treatment plant.

Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration officials are still trying to determine the cause of the explosion, which has been attributed to a gas leak.

One Killed; One Injured in Wall Collapse

Hyattsville, MD -- One construction worker was killed and another was injured today when a wall collapsed at a parking garage they were helping to build in Hyattsville, authorities said. Bradford Mearig, a 34-year-old male of Lititz, Pa., was killed instantly, police said.

Officials said they believe the collapse was attributable to strong winds, although the cause has not yet been officially determined. Prince George's County police and Maryland occupational safety officials were investigating. More here.

Worker killed in mill accident

CLOQUET, MN - A 47-year-old paper mill worker was killed early Tuesday in an industrial accident.
Kerry Roe, of Cloquet, died in the finishing department at Sappi Fine Paper while doing maintenance work on electrical equipment and computer controls, company officials said.

Roe apparently got caught in the hydraulic arm of a machine that wraps rolls of paper with a protective cover, Capt. Steve Kolodge of the Cloquet Fire Department said. The accident was reported to fire and rescue officials just after midnight.

Fatal accident involved fork lift

Aspen, CO -- A 20-foot fall off a forklift preceded the death of man at a construction site in Woody Creek Tuesday afternoon.

El Jebel resident Everado Garcia Lopez, 25, was killed in what authorities have deemed an accident. He had been working on the roof of a single-family residence. Two other men were injured in the accident, but officials have not released their names

According to sheriff’s Investigator Ron Ryan, two workers were standing in a plywood box lifted up to the edge of the roof, 22 feet from the ground, by a telescoping forklift. Ryan said the 4-foot-by-8-foot box was open-aired and open on the side facing the house so the men could work on the roof.

The box also held their tools and materials for the roof, he said. Around 3 p.m. the box fell to the ground, with the workers inside.

Worker Dies in Fall

Venice Gondolier, FL -- Officials are still trying to link the chain of events leading up to the death of a construction worker at the Waterfront on Venice Island condominiums Nov. 7.

William J. Molinaro, 44, 1000 block West Baffin Drive, Venice, died when he fell from an eighth-floor balcony. Police called it a
workplace accident.

California Here We Come?

California just drives conservatives and the business community crazy. Despite the election of Governor Arnold, California is enough to make right-wingers wonder what they ever saw in the concept of states rights.

In 1986, Californians passed Proposition 65 which requires the Governor to publish a list of chemicals that are known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and put controls on those chemicals to protect the state's air and water.

California also has the nation's only remaining ergonomics standard. The state has recently come under attack by corporate interests for setting higher automobile emission standards, and is even under attack for trying to control emissions from lawn mowers.

But what's really driving the chemical companies crazy is California's flirtation with the precautionary principle," a policy that says new chemicals should not be allowed on the market unless they’re proven safe. I have written before about the REACH initiative which is currenly being considered in the European Union. San Francisco has already adopted a version of the REACH initiative. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has also passed a resolution supporting REACH and opposing US opposition to REACH. Meanwhile, some state legislative are staff drafting legislation for a REACH-like program for the state.

Generally, anti-regulatory business interests have been fairly successful in using million dollar advertising and lobbying campaigns to squash regulatory initiatives. Now, however, it seems that anti-precautionary principle interests, led by the American Chemistry Council are trying new tactics.
The chemical industry may be considering a covert campaign to attack a growing effort in California forcing more chemical testing, according to a leaked "memo" from the American Chemical Council obtained by the Environmental Working Group.

The council, representing manufacturers of 90 percent of the chemicals and most plastic resins sold in the United States, denied such plans were afoot, saying Thursday the memo was instead a proposal received from a public relations firm and has not been enacted.

Nonetheless the council, a spokesman said, did pass along to other industry groups the four-page proposal, which outlines a strategy to "stigmatize" the pro-testing movement and create an "independent ... watchdog group" acting as a pro-industry information clearinghouse.


The proposal, created sometime in July according to data embedded in the computer file provided by the Environmental Working Group, outlines a public awareness campaign with a projected cost as high as $15,000 per month.

Parts of the strategy call for organizing protests timed with key votes in the Legislature, the creation of a "non-business led coalition" to provide testimony against the precautionary principle, and "selective intelligence gathering" of industry opponents.

Nichols-Dezenhall, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management and public relations firm known for its bare-knuckled tactics, wrote it, said the firm's senior vice president, Steven Schlein.

"It was designed by us because of the business climate in California," he said. "That's the way to wage a long-term public affairs campaign. You get supporters."
According to the Environmental Working Group
Creating phony front groups is “patently deceptive in its effort to use third parties to carry the message because, understandably, the ACC lacks credibility and trust in any discussion of the safety of its members’ products,” said the letter from Bill Walker, EWG’s vice president for the West Coast. “However, the third tactic, “selective intelligence gathering,” pushes the ethical envelope toward dirty tricks, given Nichols-Dezenhall’s reputation for such techniques.”
Fun times we're living in.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

And the Sun Rose Today. So This Is News?

This was on the front page, top of the fold in today's Washington Post.
2 Bills Would Benefit Top Bush Fundraisers
Executives' Companies Could Get Billions

More than three dozen of President Bush's major fundraisers are affiliated with companies that stand to benefit from the passage of two central pieces of the administration's legislative agenda: the energy and Medicare bills.

The energy bill provides billions of dollars in benefits to companies run by at least 22 executives and their spouses who have qualified as either "Pioneers" or "Rangers," as well as to the clients of at least 15 lobbyists and their spouses who have achieved similar status as fundraisers. At least 24 Rangers and Pioneers could benefit from the Medicare bill as executives of companies or lobbyists working for them, including eight who have clients affected by both bills.
Is this something new? Compare with this two-and-a-half year-old, March 17, 2001 article about repeal of the federal ergonomics regulation and passage of the bankruptcy bill by Washington Post columnist David Broder.
The clear winners in both fights are the business interests that supported Bush and lobbied hard for these actions. Banks and credit card companies have been pressing for the bankruptcy law changes for five years, eager to stem their losses from people who accept the "easy credit" these same companies market with 3 billion solicitations a year, and then get in over their heads.

The ergonomics battle drew a broad coalition of business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. They argue that the regulations would be costly to satisfy and might expose them to a new wave of lawsuits.

The losers are the same groups that supported Gore over Bush, notably organized labor, consumer organizations, advocates for women's and children's causes. Their spokesmen were the iconic liberals, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, Paul Wellstone and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Fights like these expose the true economic and social differences between the parties. Calls for civility and bipartisanship may fill the air, but when regulatory issues affecting business, workers and consumers are at stake, Republicans and Democrats heed different constituencies


In both cases, money interests prevailed over the public interest.
So, it all seems like business as usual to me. I guess its nice that the Post has managed to maintain some sense of outrage after all of this time while the rest of us risk sinking into some state of depressed fatalism.

And who knows, if the Post prints this stuff on the front page, maybe other newspapers will pick it up, and then television and people will read it and see it, and finally believe that they are really getting screwed, and vote by the millions against greed and gluttony, and throw the bastards out by a landslide.



Way to go Arlen. I try to be bi-partisan, sticking my neck out in rare praise of a Republican who is standing up for working people by blocking the Administration's attempt to take overtime away from 8 million workers, and this is how you repay me?
Congress Drops Fight for Overtime Acceptance of New Labor Dept.

Rule Ends Spending Bill Stalemate

Congressional leaders last night handed President Bush a major victory by dropping objections to his plan to revamp the nation's overtime pay policies, even though many lawmakers say it will cost millions of workers overtime benefits.

A stalemate between the White House and lawmakers over the issue has held up passage of a $284 billion multi-agency spending bill needed to let Congress adjourn for the year. House leaders may seek passage of the spending measure as early as today.

Bush's proposed new Labor Department rules would redefine eligibility for overtime pay, typically time-and-a-half after 40 hours of work in one week. Workers earning more than $65,000 a year could be denied overtime pay if their employers categorized them as administrators, professionals or other exempt employees.

The administration says the changes would better reflect modern workplace realities, and make many low-income workers newly eligible for overtime pay.

The House last month had joined the Senate Appropriations Committee in opposing the administration's plan. It marked a significant victory for Democrats and labor leaders, and Bush threatened to veto the spending package unless the overtime language was removed.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) urged appropriators to heed the White House demand. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) encouraged the White House to compromise with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the labor, health, human services and education appropriations subcommittee.

Specter, who faces a tough reelection in his heavily unionized state, vowed to block passage of the spending bill unless it retains language barring the new overtime rules from taking effect. But after weeks of wrangling with Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and other administration officials, Specter backed down yesterday.
That will teach me.

And while we're at it, maybe some of you Congessional experts can explain to enquiring readers how both houses of Congress can vote to deep-six pending regulations, and then it can be reversed by the the Conference Committee, which is supposed to reconcile differences between Senate and House versions of a bill.

Kind of makes you question one-party rule, doesn't it?

The Wal-Martization of America

For those of you who still don't comprehend the significance of the retail grocery strikes and lockouts in California, this New York Times editorial just about says it all.
The 70,000 grocery workers on strike in Southern California are the front line in a battle to prevent middle-class service jobs from turning into poverty-level ones. The supermarkets say they are forced to lower their labor costs to compete with Wal-Mart, a nonunion, low-wage employer aggressively moving into the grocery business. Everyone should be concerned about this fight. It is, at bottom, about the ability of retail workers to earn wages that keep their families out of poverty.

Friday, November 21, 2003

You Go Arlen! Special Bipartisanship Issue

Not for the first time, the labor movement's hero in the U.S. Senate seems to be Pennsylvania Republican Republican Arlen Specter.

Specter, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees labor, health and education spending, is the chief opponent of Bush's effort to change overtime rules, stripping over 8 million workers of the overtime they currently earn.

The overtime rules are the only major item keeping the labor, health and education appropriations (money) bill from being passed. Because the Congress is so over its schedule for passing appropriations bills, the Labor/HHS bill has been lumped together with a number of other appropriations bills to form one big "omnibus" bill. Bush has threatened to veto the entire bill over the overtime issue.
By directly challenging Bush on the overtime issue, Specter is burnishing his credentials with Pennsylvania's influential labor movement. But bucking the White House on such a politically potent issue will probably will hurt him in the primary race, in which he faces a challenge from conservative Rep. Pat Toomey (R) and business interests, according to some political experts.

Specter said in an interview yesterday: "I don't know where the cost-benefit ratio lies on the political scale, so I'm just doing what I always do" in defending labor. "It cuts both ways, and you can't figure out which way is sharper."
In the past, Specter has been the chief Republican defender of OSHA's budget, keeping the Bush administration from making major cuts, year after year.

On the other hand, Specter did take a dive on the ergonomics standard, a fatal decision as his support could possibly have given cover for other moderate Republicans (and a few wayward) Democrats to have supported the standard.

In another man-bites-dog story, conservative New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg is opposing the Republican energy bill because it contains too much pork. I have absolutely nothing else nice to say about Gregg, who chairs the Senate OSHA sub-committee.

Oh, yeah. If you live in Pennsylvania, call Specter and encourage him to stand strong on the overtime rules.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Dean: "Workers Are Getting Screwed"

The words look good. Hard to tell exactly what's behind them. According to the Washington Post,
After years of government deregulation of energy markets, telecommunications, the airlines and other major industries, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean is proposing a significant reversal: a comprehensive "re-regulation" of U.S. businesses.

The former Vermont governor said he would reverse the trend toward deregulation pursued by recent presidents -- including, in some respects, Bill Clinton -- to help restore faith in scandal-plagued U.S. corporations and better protect U.S. workers.

In an interview around midnight Monday on his campaign plane with a small group of reporters, Dean listed likely targets for what he dubbed as his "re-regulation" campaign: utilities, large media companies and any business that offers stock options. Dean did not rule out "re-regulating" the telecommunications industry, too.

He also said a Dean administration would require new workers' standards, a much broader right to unionize and new "transparency" requirements for corporations that go beyond the recently enacted Sarbanes-Oxley law.

"In order to make capitalism work for ordinary human beings, you have to have regulation," Dean said. "Right now, workers are getting screwed."
Dean's criticism of dergulation seems to range from utility regulation to business accounting, possibly to workplace safety, although that's not completely clear from the article.

In a hint as to how the debate may develop -- both within the Democratic party, and between D's and R's -- the Post states that
Voters are clearly hungry for government efforts to force better corporate behavior, especially with scandals hitting such industries as mutual funds and accounting, pollsters say. At the same time, they are unlikely to accept the price spikes that Republicans and some Democrats warn could accompany some new regulations.
"Some Democrats" apparently include General Wesley Clark who sharply criticized Dean's statement:
Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark criticized rival Howard Dean on Wednesday, arguing that the front-runner's business proposal is a throwback to failed Republican policies and abandons the success of former President Clinton.

The retired Army general, in the harshest assessment of a rival to date, said Dean's plan to re-regulate U.S. businesses is a major departure from Clinton, who strongly backed deregulation of energy and telecommunications markets.

"The results in the '90s spoke for themselves," Clark said at a brief news conference in which he referred to Clinton by name six times. The 1980s style "regulation is not going to get our economy moving again. It failed in the past, it will fail again."
And in a statement that sounds rather "Republican Lite,"
Clark said he would increase efforts to hold corporate America responsible for misconduct and indicated that in some instances, would go beyond the Clinton administration. But he said he would do so without writing rules and regulations.

"You have to create incentives that let people follow their natural market instincts, and through following those instincts, they have to do the right thing," he said.
And then (no surprise), there's Joe Lieberman
"He would give us a treacherous trifecta of policies that turn back the economic clock: new trade barriers, a larger tax burden on our middle class and now bigger bureaucracy," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) said in a statement. "Either he doesn't know how to turn the economy around, or this is another reckless mistake."
Yeah, Joe. You should only wish you could make such mistakes as Dean's making.

I just returned from the annual convention of the American Public Health Association where there was much discussion in the Occupational Health Section about the broken regulatory system in this country as well as the effective corporate use of job blackmail tactics to repeal Washington state and federal ergonomics regulations, and to keep any new worker or environmental protections from seeing the light of day.

Is the regulatory system permanently broken, or or is there hope for some sort of resurrection should the Democrats win the next election (and someday take back the Senate and/or the House)? That discussion certainly needs to take place, but certain Democrats don't help when they take the business position that workplace and environmental protections are inconsistent with economic growth.

As Harry Truman said, 'give the voters a choice between two Republicans and they'll choose the real Republican every time.'

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Revisionist History?

CDC Denies Existence of Smallpox Program

I could have sworn that the CDC had launched a smallpox vaccination program earlier this year, a program that failed miserably.

But, I guess not. Bill Borwegen, from SEIU, which led the opposition to the apparently non-existent program that contained no guarantees of compensation for workers who were made ill or missed work because of the vaccinations, was similarly confused by this article that he forwarded to me.
In a sharp departure from previous public comments by senior federal officials, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that the United States never launched a smallpox vaccination program this year, but instead worked toward an overall preparedness campaign.
Unfortunately, it's hard to change the facts:
Although the difference between an immunization program and a preparedness program might seem small, the CDC has been trying to play down expectations for the nationwide vaccinations after far fewer health care workers than expected volunteered to receive the smallpox vaccine.

Officials expected to immunize as many as 450,000 health workers, but fewer than 40,000 have been inoculated. Several senior health officials have recently acknowledged that the program has fallen short of its goals, but no U.S. official has ever denied the existence of the immunization effort.
Meanwhile, President Bush announced today that the United States had never invaded Iraq, but instead worked toward an overall disarmament, democracy and privatization campaign.

Glad we got all that straight.

Commie Pinko Traitorous Government Unions Threaten Freedom and Prosperity

This article by Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, is better than a double expresso to get your heart racing in the morning. Regarding the SEIU/AFSCME endorsement of Dean,
That's why Americans should be especially mindful of who the government union bosses favor. While the private-sector unions may want to steal our money, the SEIU and AFSCME want to steal our freedom.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

AARPissed Off

Within days of my 50th birthday (I know, you can't believe I'm anywhere near that old), I got my first letter from AARP asking me to join. As retirement seems to get farther and farther away as my childen get closer to college, I decided to put it aside until I actually started thinking about retirement -- probably in my early 90's. After reading the paper today about the AARP signing onto the Repubican Medicare deform proposal, I'm glad I didn't join.

I don't follow AARP developments very much, but I always had the impression that they were somewhat progressive...until Suburban Guerrilla revealed that AARP is nothing but another insurance company. Who woulda thunk it?

It was somewhat comforting to read, however, that most of the Democratic candidates, and many AARP members are giving the organization grief (and here) for their sell-out. Lieberman is still studying the bill, the demerits of which you can read about here and here.

WSJ Spews Bile on WA Ergo

Well, they just couldn't help themselves. It took almost two weeks for the Wall St. Journal to come out with an idiot-torial gloating over the loss of the Washington State ergonomics standard.

There are so many deeply disturbed things about this piece that you all should be grateful that I can't link it. Nor will I bother to go into all of the lies and distortions. Anyway, you've heard them all before. (Over and over again.) For the life of me, though, I can never figure out whether they actually believe the lies, or they're really just the cynical cretins they appear to be. Delusional, evil or just stupid? Or all three?

But there are a few areas in this column so profoundly low that I can't help holding them up for the idiots that they are.
  • The Journal is apalled that
    The rules would have applied to a huge swath of the state's economy, everyone from grocery checkers to landscapers, couriers and even nursing home employees.
    "Even nursing home employees?!" If there is any justice in the universe, the editors of the Journal will spend eternity lifting slippery, uncooperative 300 pound nursing home patients onto the toilet, then be stricken with back injuries and end up unable to support their families or play with their children. Over and over and over again.

    Yeah, I know, it's mean to wish that on anyone, but that's the fate to which they've condemned thousands of nursing home workers -- nursing home employees who will hopefully drop their fat carcasses on the floor every day when they end their sorry lives being cared for by the workers that they didn't give a shit about.

  • "Naturally, the vagueness of the regulations would have been tested in court." They already were tested in court, you idiots, and you lost.

  • The word "Patronizing" comes to mind: "No one doubts that 'repetitive stress' injuries are real, and the writer of this very editorial has felt a twinge or two in his own typewriting thumb and arms."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," the industry folk are saying as they read this (I know some of you are lurking out there in cyberspace.) "Boo fucking hoo. We won, you lost. So cry me a river."

And they're right. They beat us. And they did it by being sensitive to the voters' fears. The state AFL-CIO had found the initiative losing badly just weeks before the election.
But voters were swayed by arguments that the rules would place Washington at a competitive disadvantage with other states and perhaps lead to further job loss. Washington has already lost 96,000 jobs, or 3.5% of its workforce in the past two years. The state's seasonally adjusted jobless rate was 7.6% in September, well above the national rate of 6.1%.
Voters were afraid of that the ergonomics standard would cause job loss and the bad guys effectively used lie upon lie to stoke those fears.

But then the writer couldn't help slipping back into his delusional reverse universe:
Forces favoring regulation typically have the easier political task because they are advocating things ("safe workplaces") that everyone wants. But if they're given the right information and arguments, voters are smart enough to understand that government regulation also has costs."
This is a true statement. But only if by "right," they mean "whatever works to convince people that lies are true." And if by "smart" they really mean "vulnerable."

In other words, if that sentence read "But if they're given the right incorrect information and arguments, voters are smart vulnerable enough to understand believe that government regulation also has costs."

There, that's better.
  • "If ergonomics rules can't pass in Washington, they probably can't pass anywhere." This may also be true. But we (unions, public health activists, and maybe a few deep pockets) have the power to turn that statement into a lie as well.
Personally, after reading this editorial and hearing about their campaign, I don't know how these guys can look their children in the face.

I wouldn't be able to.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Poetry Break

Not enough poetry in this Blog. Here's an excerpt from "Report to the Stockholders" by John Beecher (sent to me by Mark Catlin at SEIU)
he fell of his crane
and his head hit the steel floor and broke like an egg
he lived a couple of hours with his brains bubbling out
and then he died
and the safety clerk made out a report saying
it was carelessness
and the craneman should have known better
from twenty years experience
than not to watch his step
and slip in some grease on top of his crane
and then the safety clerk told the superintendent
he’d ought to fix that guardrail
More poetry submissions will be accepted. Who says we got no culture here at Confined Space?

Is Eliot Spitzer the Only Activist Having Fun These Days?

Everyone complains to me that this Blog is too depresssing. I agree. Here's some good stuff.

If you haven't heard of New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, start paying attention. You'll be hearing more about him in the future (When't the next election for Governor of New York?)

I first met him testified in support of a particularly controversial section of the federal ergonomics standard -- work removal protection. Opponents claimed that the OSHA proposal, which would have required pay to people unable to work due to ergonomcs injuries, was a violation of the OSH Act which prohibits OSHA from affecting state workers compensation practices. Spitzer not only came down to Washington to testify at the OSHA hearing, but organized a whole group of state Attorneys General to sign a statement supporting the ergonomics standard.

He has been regularly featured for going after Wall St. firms who violate the law, but are not prosecuted by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He has an op-ed in the New York Times today that talks about the failure of the Bush Administration's regulatory enforcement and the need for the states to pick up the slack.

Much of the piece deals with weak SEC enforcement, but he also addresses the administration's environmental failures:
With two decisions in the last two weeks, the Bush administration has sent its clearest message yet that it values corporate interests over the interests of average Americans....It is not surprising that the commission would sanction a deal that ignores consumers and is unsatisfactory to state regulators. Just look at the Bush administration's decision to abandon pending enforcement actions and investigations of Clear Air Act violations.

Even supporters of the Bush administration's environmental policy were stunned when the E.P.A. announced that it was closing pending investigations into more than 100 power plants and factories for violating the Clean Air Act — and dropping 13 cases in which it had already made a determination that the law had been violated.

Regulators may disagree about what our environmental laws should look like. But we should all be able to agree that companies that violated then-existing pollution laws should be punished.

Those environmental laws were enacted to protect a public that was concerned about its health and safety. By letting companies that violated the Clean Air Act off the hook, the Environmental Protection Agency has effectively issued an industry-wide pardon. This will only embolden polluters to continue practices that harm the environment.

My office had worked with the agency to investigate polluters, and will continue to do so when possible. But today a bipartisan coalition of 14 state attorneys general will sue the agency to halt the implementation of weaker standards. In addition, we will continue to press the lawsuits that have been filed. We have also requested the E.P.A. records for the cases that have been dropped, and will file lawsuits if they are warranted by the facts.
And as promised:
A coalition of 14 states plus the District of Columbia filed papers in federal court today in an effort to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from introducing a new rule that the states say will seriously weaken the provisions of the Clean Air Act and send more pollution into the atmosphere.


The 14 states states that sued today want the new rule to be put on hold while the case is brought to trial to determine whether or not the regulations are legal. The new rule "violates the plain language of the Clean Air Act, conflicts with Congressional intent, and contradicts longstanding court rulings," the states said in a statement today.

"It is a sad day in America when a coalition of states must go to federal court to defend the Clean Air Act against the misguided actions of the federal agency created to protect the environment," the New York attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, said. "But in this matter, the E.P.A. is standing with polluters instead of with the people it is supposed to protect, and the states have no choice but to take this action."

Weapons of Mass Destruction Found -- In Our Backyards

Click onto the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) chemical plant security website and you'll be asked the question:"Two years after the terrorist attacks on our country, Americans understandably are asking 'Are we safer?' "

Those of you who watched "60 Minutes" last night saw a frightening spectacle of reporters with cameras wandering casually through an unguarded chemical plant filled with hazardous substances that, with a bit of help from a home-made bomb, could have killed and injured thousands of nearby residents.

Reporters from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and 60 Minutes inspected over 50 chemical plants over the past six months.

Are we safer now than two years ago? Judge for yourselves.
"60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft and a CBS cameraman strolled to the tanks of lethal boron trifluoride at Neville Chemical Co. on Neville Island. Crossing through open or unlocked gates, they spent more than 30 minutes at the unguarded works during two undetected visits. Plant officials called the police only after the journalists confronted Neville's security chief with their findings. Neville Township police then cited the men for defiant trespass. According to Neville's filings with the Environmental Protection Agency, a catastrophic release of the corrosive vapors would threaten the lives of nearly 38,000 within three miles.
These weren't isolated problems. The reporters fround example after chilling example:
Federal officials were most concerned about the easy penetration of security at the nation's potentially deadliest plants. At the mammoth Sony Technology Center in Westmoreland County, an unsecured gate, distracted guards and unconcerned employees let a reporter reach 200,000 pounds of chlorine gas. No one stopped him as he touched train derailing levers, waved to security cameras, and photographed chlorine tankers and a nitric acid vat. If ruptured, one Sony railcar could spew gas 13 miles, endangering 190,000 people. Two other plants penetrated by the Trib and "60 Minutes" -- Univar and Millennium Chemical in Baltimore -- each put more than 1 million neighbors at risk of chlorine poisoning.

As faithful readers of Confined Space know, chemical plant security and competing formulas for addressing the problems have been frequent subjects of this Blog. To summarize, Senator Jon Corzine has been pushing legislation since 9/11 that would force the chemical industry to implement, where possible, inherently safer technologies (e.g. substituting safer chemicals, storing smaller amounts of hazardous chemicals, etc.), along with increased traditional security measures. The American Chemistry Council and their clients in Congress managed to kill Corzine's bill and instead are favoring an approach that focusses almost entirely on traditional security (guns and fences), and relies on compliance with voluntary guidelines developed by the American Chemical Council.

“My bill was crushed by the American Chemistry Council. It was crushed by those who were looking after their private interests and not the public interests,” says Corzine.

The ACC has an extensive chemical security program as part of its "Responsible Care® Security Code, which addresses site, transportation, and cyber security."

He contends that members are doing everything possible to ensure plant security.
“I think that one of the things that everybody has to understand about the business of chemistry is that we're in the risk management business,” says Greg Lebedev, the president of the American Chemistry Council, which represents 150 of the largest chemical companies in America.
Really? I thought they were in the chemical production business. So do their stockholders.

So what's the problem? Plant workers seem to have a pretty good handle on the root causes of chemical plants' failure to secure their facilities.
A reporter easily canvassed the sprawling Allegheny Ludlum mill in Brackenridge three days in a row, following a path down a bluff, across the railroad, behind a guard shack and up to 100,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride, a lethal toxin used to "pickle" stainless steel.

Longtime Brackenridge employees blamed lax security on recent guard cutbacks and indifference. If released, the mill's acid could waft nearly a mile and threaten more than 16,000 residents with blindness, severe burns and death. A spill also would jeopardize water supplies drawn from the Allegheny and Ohio rivers.

Allegheny Ludlum officials declined to comment.

"I know they put in surveillance cameras, but we don't know if anyone is really watching," said Gerard Magoc, a Brackenridge steelworker for 31 years. "They put on a big show about searching cars, though. They're big on theft. ... They care more about protecting their toilet paper than they do about their hazardous materials."
I'm shocked.

Terminating Pollution Lawsuits

Those of you who used to be fans of Terminator movies (when that was not politically incorrect) remember that the plot involved sending a "terminator" back through history to eliminate the leader of the rebellion against the ruling machines.

Republicans in Congress seem to have taken that plot line to heart. A little noticed item in the energy bill that has emerged from a House-Senate conference committee contains a little item that attempts to change history:
In a decision that surprised advocacy groups following the measure, a provision protecting producers of a gasoline additive blamed for groundwater contamination was made retroactive to Sept. 5, potentially disrupting a number of actions to recoup cleanup costs that have been filed since then in New York, California, New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Robert Gordon, a Manhattan lawyer who has filed some of the cases involving the additive, MTBE, said the bill neutralized the kind of product-defect claim that has been the most successful argument used against the producers. He said he and others were stunned by the Sept. 5 date, saying it would throw into question lawsuits he has filed since then on behalf of 100 local governments and water companies seeking cleanup money.
Never let it be said, however, that Republican members of Congress aren't looking out for the downtrodden and abused of our society. Petroleum companies are complaining that they started using MTBE "because the federal government promoted the additive as a fuel oxygenate to ease air pollution," and therefore the government should assist them in making the transition away from MTBE. OK, maybe that makes some sense. But like the little piggies that they are, MTBE producers argued that if a little assistance is good, more must be better.
In protecting manufacturers of MTBE, the bill also grants them a possible $2 billion in transition aid to switch from MTBE, an increase over the $800 million they were expected to get. The substance could remain in use until 2015, when it would be banned unless the president intervened.
And who are the backers of these provisions? One guess. Right!
The provisions for MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, were promoted by Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, and Republican Representatives Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and Joe L. Barton ofTexas. Both states are home to MTBE producers.
Those concerned about protecting our environment should understand that, with the governments retreat from regulation and enforcement, the ability to sue polluters is one of the only weapons left in our arsenal. Undermining that system with "back to the future" tactics bodes ill for environmental, worker and community safety and health.

Between the MTBE provisions and other "goodies" for the energy industry hidden in the bill,
"The big winner is big oil. The big loser is anyone who breathes, pays a utility bill or drinks water," said Anna Aurilio, legislative director for the United States Public Interest Research Group, which has been fighting new energy legislation since a task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney issued the Bush administration's energy policy in 2001.
Congress may vote on this legislation tomorrow. You know what to do.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

"Definitely, it could have been prevented"

The only thing that makes me madder than fatal trench collapses are fatal confined space incidents, especially where, as in this case, one of the fatalities was the attempted rescuer.

This was your classic confined space tragedy where one worker goes down into a sewer line without any monitoring or compliance with OSHA's confined space standard. He passes out from hydrogen sufide exposure or oxygen deficiency and is swept down the sewer. A second goes in to rescue him. He also dies. A third worker when down to rescue them. He luckily survived.

Killed at the site were Francisco Hernandez, 24, and Javier Cruz, 22. They were employees of L&B Vector Service. They had been hired by Houston-based Jimerson Underground, which was repairing sewer lines for the city of Edinburg, Texas.

The one redeeming aspect of this article -- especially compared with the article below -- was the fact that Edinburg Fire Chief Shawn Snider was not shy about stating that "Definitely, it could have been prevented ... there is no excuse for not providing safety equipment for protecting your workers."

According to Jose E. Cruz, the accident victim's older brother
"They did not have the proper equipment....They have people working for the city or this utility company and they had no face masks, no goggles, no gloves, and in the case of an emergency, no hooks to get you out. Nothing for the safety of the employees. It was negligence."

Cruz said his younger brother was married with two young daughters, and his wife is expecting a third child.

"I don't see how a company, especially with a worker with two kids and a baby on the way, would let them work in conditions like that -- without protective suits and with toxic wastes," Cruz said.
One more interesting item. Both of these workers and the construction worker killed in the trench collapse that I wrote about below were working for companies contracting for municipalities. There are several ironies here. Both cities are in states that have no OSHA coverage for public employees, which means that had these employees been working for the cities, there would have been no OSHA investigation or citation because these workers would have had no right to a safe workplace.

On the other hand, being public employees, it is much more likely (at least in Ohio) that these workers were organized and therefore had much better access to information about safety hazards and some ability to take collective action to prevent these tragedies.

Although, we had plenty of confined space and trenching fatalities among our members when I was at AFSCME. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to study whether contractors for public entities have a higher injury and death rate than public employees doing similar jobs. We've clearly seen a trend, for example, in chemical plants and petroleum refineries and other industries. More and more of the most hazardous jobs are being contracted out, often to companies who pay less, provide fewer benefits, and little if any safety or health protections.

Man Killed In Trench Collapse. “Nothing could have prevented it,” Says Office Manager

Give me a break. I'd stake a considerable amount of money on betting that something could have prevented it -- like maybe complying with the OSHA trenching and excavation standard.

This is a story abou the death of construction worker James Carpenter, 54, who was killed when a trench collapsed on top of him while installing a sanitary sewer line for the City of Zanesville This was not your typical trenching fatality. The company, Zemba Brothers, contracting for the City of Zanesville, OH, was using a trench box in the 12 foot deep trench. According to the office manager, Shala Zemba, (who apparently doubles as the safety director?), "It was a weird accident,” she said. “They weren’t even back to work yet. He was the only one in there. The trench box didn’t collapse — no dirt got into it. The dirt that trapped him was outside the box."

Now, I assume this means that the dirt piled up outside the trench collapsed into the trench. "Weird?"
Nothing could have prevented it,” she said. “He was a wonderful employee who had lots of experience. It’s just a big mystery and a really tragic accident. We’re really going to miss him. He was the perfect worker — he was always very loyal, very wonderful. He will be entirely missed.
A big mystery? "Nothing" could have prevented it?

How about OSHA standard 1926.651(j)(2) which states
Employees shall be protected from excavated or other materials or equipment that could pose a hazard by falling or rolling into excavations. Protection shall be provided by placing and keeping such materials or equipment at least 2 feet (.61 m) from the edge of excavations, or by the use of retaining devices that are sufficient to prevent materials or equipment from falling or rolling into excavations, or by a combination of both if necessary.
The paper also reported that a large amount of rain may have contributed to the collpase. Which may be the reason for OSHA standard 1926.651(k)(1)
... An inspection shall be conducted by the competent person prior to the start of work and as needed throughout the shift. Inspections shall also be made after every rainstorm or other hazard increasing occurrence.
Mystery solved.

One of the problems with stupid statements like "nothing could have prevented this" is that most people believe it. You who are reading this know that there is almost no such thing as a workplace accident that can be prevented, but the general public doesn't. And the more they are fed garbage like this, the less public outrage there is over workers getting killed on the job. Much more on this theme here.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Never Never Land

Iraq: Where Conservative Dreams are Realized

If you're paying attention, you may have noticed new articles the Bushistas' attempt to remake Iraq in the same conservative image that they are trying to impose on the folks back home. They're privatizing everything in sight and are even imposing a "flat tax."

And then there's one more sacred conservative icon: anti-unionism. David Bacon writes in the Los Angeles Times of the attempts by U.S. occupation authorities to squash any sign of union activity in Iraq.
In plants and factories all over Iraq, workers are quickly organizing unions. They want better wages. They want shorter hours (workers at the refinery and elsewhere often work 11- and 13-hour shifts without additional pay). They want safety shoes, goggles, masks and other protective gear. Most of all, they want a voice in the future of their jobs.

But in their quest for what they see as simple fairness in the workplace, they are encountering a determined foe: the Coalition Provisional Authority. Whenever the new unions try to talk with the managers or ministries that operate the plants, they're told that a law passed by Saddam Hussein in 1987 is still being enforced by the CPA. This law says that workers in state-owned enterprises (where the majority of Iraqis work) have no right to form unions or to bargain for contracts.

The law violates at least two conventions of the United Nations' International Labor Organization. But on June 5, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer III backed up this decree with another that Iraqi union activists say bans strikes and demonstrations that would disrupt economic activity.

U.S. funding in Iraq seems primarily focused on two things — an overwhelming military presence and the transformation of the Iraqi economy from one in which the bulk of industry is state-owned to one in which it is in private hands. Both are key parts of a plan to make the country attractive to foreign investors, who, Bremer seems to feel, might find the presence of unions a disincentive to investment. And nothing can stand in the way of privatization.
Privatization of Iraqi industry is also not very popular among Iraqi workers:
Iraqi workers view the prospect of privatizing their workplaces with dread, fearing the sell-off will bring massive layoffs in order to maximize profits. Al Daura's manager, Dathar Al-Kashab, predicted that with privatization, "I'll have to fire 1,500 [of the refinery's 3,000] workers. In America, when a company lays people off, there's unemployment insurance, and they won't die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I'm killing them and their families."

Outside the gates, the unemployed go hungry and even homeless. Some 70% of Iraqi workers have no jobs. Though Congress may have appropriated billions for "reconstruction," Nuri Jafer, the deputy minister of labor and social affairs, says he can find "no country willing to fund our plans" for a minimal system of unemployment benefits. Reconstruction itself is invisible on the streets. Work may be proceeding on the pipelines and ports necessary to get oil exports restarted, but huge piles of the war's rubble lie untouched.
Well, if you can't find any weapons of mass destruction, you can always go after the weapons of mass organization.

The Perils of Privatization in Iraq

Great idea: focus the military on what it does best -- fighting. All the rest of the jobs can be contracted out to Bechtel, Haliburton and lots of other smaller civilian government contractors. Right?

One problem. They may not be soldiers or even government employees, but they still get killed:
Unarmed, apolitical and supposedly on missions to help the populace, the thousands of contractors here nonetheless have become targets for those who are angry with the occupation. Nine civilians working for the government have died in attacks here since the war began. Twenty-nine others have been wounded and dozens have had close calls.

As a result, security costs -- guards, armored cars, alarms, barbed wire perimeters, hazard insurance premiums -- are increasing the price of reconstruction projects by at least 2 percent. For Bechtel alone, it has added $50 million to the cost, officials said.
Anyone at OSHA working on this?

Poison Pill

To continue the series of topics not directly related to workplace safety: Medicare and Prescription Drug Bill. Because even if workers live to retirement, it's looking increasingly likely, if the Republicans get their way, that they won't have adequate health insurance to get through old age.

To listen to President Bush, the failure of Congress to pass a prescription drug bill is all due to (Democrat induced) partisianship.
"The choice is simple: Either we will have more debate, more delay and more deadlock, or we'll make real progress," Bush said in an appearance at Walt Disney World here. Urging lawmakers to break the stalemate, he added: "We've come far. Let's finish the job."
Well, at least he picked an appropriate place to make this statement.

The reality, however, is much, much different, but it's a reality shrouded in technical issues that almost no American will have the patience to decipher, even if they have the ability to find the information in the first place.

That's why NY Times columnist Paul Krugman is a national treasure. His ability to reduce complicated issues to terms that are short enough and clear enough for most people to understand is a talent that few politicians or journalists possess.
A Congressional conference is now trying to agree on prescription drug legislation. But beware of politicians bearing gifts — the bill will contain measures that have nothing to do with prescription drugs, and a lot to do with hostility to Medicare as we know it. Indeed, it may turn out to be a Trojan horse that finally allows conservative ideologues, who have unsuccessfully laid siege to Medicare since the days of Barry Goldwater, to breach its political defenses.

Meanwhile, another proposal — to force Medicare to compete with private insurers — seems intended to undermine the whole system.

This proposal goes under the name of "premium support." Medicare would no longer cover whatever medical costs an individual faced; instead, retirees would receive a lump sum to buy private insurance. (Those who opted to remain with the traditional system would have to pay extra premiums.) The ostensible rationale for this change is the claim that private insurers can provide better, cheaper medical care.

But many studies predict that private insurers would cherry-pick the best (healthiest) prospects, leaving traditional Medicare with retirees who are likely to have high medical costs. These higher costs would then be reflected in the extra payments required to stay in traditional fee-for-service coverage. The effect would be to put health care out of reach for many older Americans. As a 2002 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation judiciously put it, "Difficulties in adjusting for beneficiary health status . . . could make the traditional Medicare FFS program unaffordable to a large portion of beneficiaries."

What's going on? Why, bait and switch, of course. Few politicians want to be seen opposing a bill that finally provides retirees with prescription drug coverage. That makes a prescription drug bill a perfect vehicle for smuggling in provisions that sound as if they have something to do with improving Medicare, yet are actually designed to undermine it.
OK. Now I understand what's going on and what's at stake. The problem is how we get that message to everyone else who doesn't read the op-ed page of the NY Times every day?

Thursday, November 13, 2003

It's Always Something

Change of topic. This health and safety stuff gets so depressing sometimes. Let's talk about other depressing issues. And why not? Without the ability to vote or civil rights, what's the point?

I've been noticing, but not closely following the controversy over computerized voting machines. (I have to ration what I get upset over.) I am a computer-nerd, however, so when I saw this nice, concise, but terrifying article in the NY Times computer section, I took note. You should too.
Then came last Sunday's New York Times, which presented a terrifying report on Diebold, a leading maker of paperless touch-screen voting machines. Eight million of us will be tapping on Diebold computers in the next Presidential election.

So what's wrong with that?

Wrong Thing 1: Wally O'Dell, the company's chief executive, is a Republican fundraiser. He writes letters to wealthy Bush contributors vowing to "deliver" his state's electoral votes to the Bush campaign. He hosts campaign meetings at his house. He's also a member of Bush's "Rangers and Pioneers" club (each member of whom must contribute at least $100,000 to the 2004 re-election campaign).

No matter what your politics, you can't deny that there's a strong whiff of conflict of interest here
Read it. It only gets worse.

And then there's a rather terrifying speech by Al Gore on November 9 at a MoveOn Conference. It's good. If Jimmy Carter is the nation's best ex-President, Al Gore is the nation's greatest near-President.
Or, to take another change – and thanks to the librarians, more people know about this one – the FBI now has the right to go into any library and ask for the records of everybody who has used the library and get a list of who is reading what. Similarly, the FBI can demand all the records of banks, colleges, hotels, hospitals, credit-card companies, and many more kinds of companies. And these changes are only the beginning. Just last week, Attorney General Ashcroft issued brand new guidelines permitting FBI agents to run credit checks and background checks and gather other information about anyone who is “of investigatory interest,” - meaning anyone the agent thinks is suspicious - without any evidence of criminal behavior.

So, is that fine with everyone?

Listen to the way Israel’s highest court dealt with a similar question when, in 1999, it was asked to balance due process rights against dire threats to the security of its people:

“This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual’s liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day they (add to) its strength.”

I want to challenge the Bush Administration’s implicit assumption that we have to give up many of our traditional freedoms in order to be safe from terrorists.

Because it is simply not true.

In fact, in my opinion, it makes no more sense to launch an assault on our civil liberties as the best way to get at terrorists than it did to launch an invasion of Iraq as the best way to get at Osama Bin Laden.

In both cases, the Administration has attacked the wrong target.

In both cases they have recklessly put our country in grave and unnecessary danger, while avoiding and neglecting obvious and much more important challenges that would actually help to protect the country.

In both cases, the administration has fostered false impressions and misled the nation with superficial, emotional and manipulative presentations that are not worthy of American Democracy.

In both cases they have exploited public fears for partisan political gain and postured themselves as bold defenders of our country while actually weakening not strengthening America.

In both cases, they have used unprecedented secrecy and deception in order to avoid accountability to the Congress, the Courts, the press and the people.

Indeed, this Administration has turned the fundamental presumption of our democracy on its head. A government of and for the people is supposed to be generally open to public scrutiny by the people – while the private information of the people themselves should be routinely protected from government intrusion.

But instead, this Administration is seeking to conduct its work in secret even as it demands broad unfettered access to personal information about American citizens. Under the rubric of protecting national security, they have obtained new powers to gather information from citizens and to keep it secret. Yet at the same time they themselves refuse to disclose information that is highly relevant to the war against terrorism.

Comments: Let me hear from you

As you can see, in an attempt to make this more interactive, I've added a comment link to the page. You can add your two-cents, others can read it, and add another comment supporting you or tearing you to shreds. Sounds like fun. Use it. Seriously, I think a little more reader participation would be a good thing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

FLASH! Auto Mechanics: Don't Worry, Be Happy. Asbestos is Safe.

Another in a continuing series on lies and lying liars who are trying to kill workers.......

(This story has been flashing through my e-mail for a couple of weeks, but like a faint memory of a bad dream, I've avoided reading it...until now)

True or false: Asbestos is still used in this country.

While Confined Space readers would get the correct answer to this question, most Americans would probably say "false."
They are wrong. Although the major car makers say they no longer use asbestos, the brakes on many older cars contain the fibers. More than $124 million worth of asbestos brake material was imported into the United States last year. Thus, the potential danger will exist for decades as replacement brakes containing asbestos continue to be put on vehicles.

The Post-Dispatch talked to about two dozen St. Louis mechanics or garage managers. All but two said that asbestos had been banned and is no longer in brakes.
A little background. Not too long after I began working at AFSCME over 20 years ago, EPA (Reagan's EPA) came out with the "Gold Book," and accompanying videos describing the dangers of working with asbestos-containing brake linings and ways to prevent exposure. We invited in for demonstrations several manufacturers of equipment that encased the wheels and vacuumed up the dust while mechanics worked on the brake linings through a glove bag. Pretty nifty, considering we couldn't get rid of the asbestos.

Fast forward 17 years. Fearing lawsuits from workers or home mechanics made ill by asbestos in brake linings, industry lawyers are claiming that working with asbestos-containing brake linings is perfectly safe.

Yes, you read that right. The lawfirm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius has petitioned "the Environmental Protection Agency to stop distributing warning booklets, posters and videotapes that give mechanics guidance on the need to protect themselves from asbestos."
The main target in their petition is a thin gold-colored EPA pamphlet titled "Guidance for Preventing Asbestos Disease Among Auto Mechanics." Tens of thousands of copies of the Gold Book and other asbestos warning material have been distributed to schools, garages, auto dealers and unions since they were first published 17 years ago.

For two years in the mid-'80s, the EPA and asbestos experts from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration gathered extensive research on exposure to mechanics from leading government and civilian scientists.

The petition says that the EPA has it all wrong and that brake repair work is safe.

"The continuing availability of the Gold Book, and its alarmist and inflammatory tone continues to hinder a fair-minded assessment of the hazards, if any, imposed to users of asbestos-containing friction products," the petition states.
I find this astonishing. One of the most hotly debated issues in Congress lately has been asbestos compensation legislation which is seeking to rescue firms from inherited asbestos liability. And the origin of that liability was the fact that asbestos companies had covered up the hazards of the material for decades. And what are they basing this piece of garbage on?
The lawyers took their action under an obscure law passed in 2001 called the Data Quality Act. It demands that government agencies work with the White House's Office of Management and Budget to establish a process that permits "affected persons" to challenge information gathered and disseminated by the government.
The Data Quality Act was yet another effort by business-backed right-wing, Republicans to "to ensure accountability to the taxpayer." As long as the taxpayer isn't inhaling asbestos fibers.

The fear, of course, was that the Act would be used to undermine workplace safety and and environmental protections. And as with most of the "good ideas" of this Congress and this Administration, our worst fears are generally exceeded.

OSHA is supposed to enforce regulations protecting workers from exposure to asbestos, but the agency hasn't been much help.
An examination by the Post-Dispatch of 31 years of OSHA inspection records shows that nationwide, fewer then ten gas stations a year had been cited for asbestos problems.

Richard Fairfax, OSHA's director of enforcement, said in a telephone interview that OSHA does not have a national program on asbestos exposure.

"I know we've done sampling. Going through the old inspection reports I found a couple that I did," Fairfax said. When asked when his were done, he answered: "A long time ago. In the '70s."

In 20 phone calls to various OSHA regional offices and some of the states designated to do their own OSHA inspections, the Post-Dispatch found no one who could recall the last time they'd actually tested for asbestos in a gas station or garage.

"Most of the operations are small businesses and do not have a lot of employees. Our targeting system is geared at employers with 40 or more workers," Fairfax said.
Senator Patty Murray, who has introduced a bill to ban asbestos completely, has sent a letter to EPA urging them to reject the petition. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has also sent a letter signed by five Congressmen to EPA and OSHA strongly opposing the petition.

The "funny" thing is that the company behind the lawfirm's petition is too embarrassed to allow the lawfirm to reveal its name. Personally, I can't blame them, although according to OMB Watch, this failure to take responsibility may present a legal problem:
It should be noted that it is unclear for who or for what specific reason this law firm has filed this petition. Under the EPA’s data quality guidelines, requestors seeking a correction of information must explain how they are affected by dissemination of the information. Nowhere in the petition does Morgan, Lewis & Bockius establish that they are an affected party. EPA would be well within the guidelines to simply reject the petition on these grounds.
The Tullhoma News (Tennessee) sums it up well
Even in this cynical age, when legislators exhibit greater concern for the financial health of polluters than for the physical well-being of their workers, the law firm's actions display a level of misanthropic malevolence rarely seen outside the tobacco industry. Scientific evidence gathered over the past 17 years confirms the deadly results of inhaling asbestos fibers. Federal and state governments should be doing more, not less, to warn and protect workers.
"Misanthropic malevolence." I like that.

Or, as my friend said below: A level of despicableness beyond imagining.


More information on the hazards of asbestos in brake linings can be found here.

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from three years ago describing the extent of asbestos contamination in auto repair shops can be found here.