Saturday, January 31, 2004

Who Needs Government Anyway?

Just Let Business Run Everything

The Republicans may have stumbled upon an excellent way to cut government spending -- just eliminate the middleman -- e.g. bureaucrats, or maybe entire government agencies. The Washington Post reports today that
The Bush administration proposed new rules yesterday regulating power plants' mercury pollution, and some of the language is similar to recommendations from two memos sent to federal officials by a law firm representing the utility industry.
"Similar," hell:
A side-by-side comparison of one of the three proposed rules and the memorandums prepared by Latham & Watkins -- one of Washington's premier corporate environmental law firms -- shows that at least a dozen paragraphs were lifted, sometimes verbatim, from the industry suggestions.
Now travel with me to Wall St. Journal world where we move from the tragic to the absurd. You may have heard about the growing scandal concerning Republican Senate staffers stealing confidential memos from the computer servers of Democratic staff. The WSJ is not upset about the theft, but they are SHOCKED about what the memos reveal: It seems that public interest groups are actually communicating with Democratic members of Congress about how they would like them to vote!

The Journal thinks this "astonishing" and "cynically partisan." No word on what they think about corporate lobbyists literally writing environmental regulations, but I'm sure they'd be outraged.

And anyway, stealing stuff is perfectly OK, according to the Journal, because the documents weren't sufficiently protected by passwords and firewalls:
The documents aren't classified and while leaking them may be political hardball, what is the definition of denying appellate judges a floor vote for the first time in U.S. history?
Well, only if you think American history started on January 20, 2001.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Did Someone Say 'Election Year'?

Bush Announces Environmental Money for Swing States

From the Daily Grist:
A recent flurry of announcements from the Bush administration about proposed funding increases for environmental projects -- including salmon restoration and brush clearing in the Northwest, Everglades protection in Florida, and cleanup of the Great Lakes -- has some enviros suspicious. Not that they aren't glad to have a bit more money going to good causes. But they point out that the funding increases have several things in common: they are for programs the administration pushed to cut as recently as last year; they represent a fraction of the money requested by the affected parties; they were announced with fanfare in an election year; and, most significantly, they funnel money to crucial electoral battleground states. "God help you if you're waiting for EPA to clean up a toxic waste site outside of a swing state," said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. The White House rejected the contention that its announcements were politically motivated.
Details here and here.

Gee, maybe they'll even issue some OSHA standards.


And When Will They Open Baghdad OSHA?

rawblogXport reports that Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao is in Baghdad to inaugurate the grand opening of Baghdad Employment and Training Center....
The new facilities, the classrooms and the computer lab will help Iraqis gain marketable job skills and access new opportunities for lifelong learning," said Secretary Elaine L. Chao. "The Iraqi Ministry staff is proceeding to set up employment and training centers all over the country. Increasing employment is a key element to stabilizing democracy in Iraq. Already, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been registered for jobs and training and more than 25,000 Iraqis have found new jobs from the efforts of this Ministry."
Gosh, you'd almost think that major combat operations had ended.

Asbestos Exposure in South St. Louis: Government Knew, Citizens Didn't

It never seems to end. Company and government know people are being exposed to toxic chemicals (in this case, asbestos-contaminated vermiculite), but no one tells the people being exposed. This is another article in a series by journalist Andrew Schneider who broke the story of massive asbestos exposures in the town of Libby, Montana. Except in this article, the exposed community is South St. Louis, which processed the ore from Libby.

About 24 years ago, federal health investigators learned that a vermiculite processing plant in south St. Louis was spewing potentially lethal asbestos fibers over homes, schools and businesses. The government warned no one.


The government had known for decades that both the mine and the plants that processed the tainted vermiculite presented a danger to those working there and those who lived nearby.

An EPA report in June 1980 said "workers who mine or process vermiculite from (Libby) are exposed thereby to asbestos levels that present a significant risk of serious asbestos-related disease."

In that report and in others released in 1985 and 1991, EPA investigators estimated that more than 13 million people lived close enough to expansion plants to be exposed to some level of asbestos. In reality, the population actually exposed to asbestos levels that could cause disease is far lower, with some health authorities estimating that fewer than 300,000 people nationwide lived within a mile of the plants when they operated.

The vermiculite expansion plant most thoroughly studied by those doing the EPA reports was the Grace St. Louis facility.

The investigators examined the quantity of vermiculite being processed, the hours of operation, the number of nearby residents, the amount of asbestos being released into the air and the round-the-clock direction of the wind over the plant. The St. Louis operation was presented by EPA investigators as "a model" for determining potential dangers at other expansion plants.

The St. Louis data from 1980 indicate that there were residents within six-tenths of a mile of the site and that exposure to those individuals was high, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But the EPA never told those residents of the potential danger. Nor did it tell city, county or state officials. There is no indication that the agency even notified Grace, although company documents show that the worldwide chemical and construction products company was well-aware of the contamination spewing from many of its facilities.
Schneider is well known for breaking the original story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Montana, published in the Seattle Post Intellegencer in 2000.

Schneider, by the way, was interviewed on the Diane Rehm show this morning which you can listen to here (Scroll down to January 29).

On the show, Schneider also talks about the Asbestos Compensation Bill that was brought up last year which he calls "frightening" because it covers only occupational exposure, not people exposed because the lived in the community where the asbestos-laden air blew through or families of workers who wore asbestos-contaminated clothes home.

Schneider has just come out with a book entitled An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Who is to Blame For Faulty WMD "Intelligence?" The Buck Stops In the White House

As you may be aware, I've get criticized occasionally for mixing Iraq/war issues into a workplace safety blog. Well, as far as I'm concerned, it's directly relevant. More than 500 young Americans have died in Iraq, and thousand seriously wounded -- just doing their jobs. And I have a serious problem with the people and policies that put them there.

For example......

Former American WMD lead inspector David Kay has blamed the missing WMD's on the failure of intelligence gathering, in other words, on the CIA. Like all the rest of us, our well-meaning President was allegedly duped.

Ain't so. There are two steps to the wise use of intelligence. First, it has to be gathered, second, it has to be properly analyzed and interpreted.

As Seymour Hersh revealed in his October 2003 New Yorker article, this Administration -- chiefly Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney -- "stovepiped" raw unanalyzed CIA intelligence right to their offices, used it to justify their pre-determined quest to invade Iraq, and then sent it to the White House where Condoleeza Rice dutifully provided it to the President.
The point is not that the President and his senior aides were consciously lying. What was taking place was much more systematic--and potentially just as troublesome. Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council expert on Iraq, whose book "The Threatening Storm" generally supported the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein, told me that what the Bush people did was "dismantle the existing filtering process that for fifty years had been preventing the policymakers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership. Their position is that the professional bureaucracy is deliberately and maliciously keeping information from them.

"They always had information to back up their public claims, but it was often very bad information," Pollack continued. "They were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn't have the time or the energy to go after the bad information."

The Administration eventually got its way, a former C.I.A. official said. "The analysts at the C.I.A. were beaten down defending their assessments. And they blame George Tenet"-- the C.I.A. director --"for not protecting them. I've never seen a government like this."
While David Kay attempts to shift the WMD "buck" from the White House to the CIA, Bush attempts to shift justification of the war from WMDs to "Saddam was a bad person." And as David Broder points out in today's Washington Post,
By shifting the argument, Bush fuzzes the basic issue in assessing his policy. Many shared his fear of the Iraqi dictator, and many others believed Hussein had these weapons. But Bush alone decided the threat was so grave that it justified a preventive war -- one that already has cost more than 500 American lives and billions of dollars, with more to come.

That he now evades the issue and gives scant evidence of a searching reappraisal of his administration's decision-making is profoundly disturbing. It is, and ought to be, an issue in this election.
Let's not allow him to get away with it.

Supporting The Troops

By Poisoning Their Water

Oops. Seems the military neglected to tell Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune that the water they and their families were drinking
contained 280 times the level now considered safe for drinking water -- of trichloroethylene, a likely cancer-causing chemical used for degreasing machinery that can impair the development of fetuses, weaken the immune system, and damage kidneys and livers. Other samples showed as little as 1 part per billion to as many as 104 parts per billion -- more than 20 times the level now considered safe -- of tetrachloroethylene, a toxic dry-cleaning chemical that can seep into body fat and slowly release cancer-causing compounds.
Between 50,000 and 200,000 Marines and their families lived on the base and drank the water until the wells were shut down in 1985, "which would make Camp Lejeune one of the largest contaminated-water cases in U.S. history. " Now the families are wondering why.
Already, more than 270 tort claims have been filed with the Navy's judge advocate general's office by former residents, who are required by law to file claims with the military before proceeding with any possible action in civilian courts.

One of those claims was filed by a Marine air traffic controller named Jeff Byron. Within months of the 1982 tests, Byron moved his family into base housing at Lejeune, grateful to leave behind a rickety mobile home in favor of a modest townhouse with a postage-stamp back yard. Byron and his wife, Mary, were not told about the water-sampling results, and nearly two decades would pass before they would find out about them. Now he wakes up thinking about all the frozen lemonade and apple juice he mixed with tap water for Andrea, who was born three months before he moved on base, and for Rachel, who was born two years after.

Both of his girls have been beset with a lifetime of ailments: Rachel, who is developmentally disabled, was born with a cleft palate and needed leg braces as a child. She has spina bifida; a gangly, arachnoid cyst on her spine that cannot be removed; and brittle, rotting teeth. Andrea had a rare bone marrow syndrome known as aplastic anemia and has been told by her doctors that the disease could recur if she becomes pregnant.

"I find myself asking, 'What if I hadn't joined the Marine Corps?' " said Byron, who left the military for the private sector in 1985.

No one knows for sure whether the water at Lejeune made Byron's children ill or whether it sickened thousands of other former residents -- both Marines and civilians living on base -- hundreds of whom have organized into a lobbying group known as Water Survivors. The group's members blame the contamination for a variety of ills, from chronic headaches to virulent cancers, from infertility to the incurable leukemia that claimed their children's lives.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The Hazards Of Garbage Collection

This article ran as a follow-up to the death of Eva Barrientos who was crushed by a garbage truck compacter Monday (see below)
The truck, known as an EZ Pack, is the type of front-loader that killed a sanitation worker, Eva Barrientos, 41, in Brooklyn on Monday. Ms. Barrientos, a mother of three, had apparently tried to clear some trash that had jammed the truck's compactor.

She was crushed by a lever lifting a steel trash bin and became perhaps the first female sanitation worker in the city to be killed on the job.

City garbage collectors interviewed on the street yesterday called Ms. Barrientos's death unnerving and sad. But a reminder of how dangerous the job is? None called it that.

"Maybe to the public it's a reminder, but anyone who works this job is reminded every day how dangerous it is," said Andy Roth, 54, who was loading trash bags into the back of a garbage truck yesterday morning on Manhattan Avenue near 103rd Street.

"I guess people don't realize: you have reckless drivers racing by you all the time," said Mr. Roth, a Staten Island resident with 19 years on the job. "You have all kinds of things in these black trash bags, and if you're loading bag after bag into the truck you can easily get cut up by glass sticking out, or anything."


While Ms. Barrientos's death was believed to be the first to involve a female city sanitation worker on the job, other Sanitation Department employees have lost their lives to different causes. In 1996, a worker died after inhaling acidic fumes from a discarded container that burst.
Dangerous, hard and dirty work. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer. Guess that's why they make the big bucks.

Why There's A Lockout-Tagout Standard -- Part 2

Worker Loses Both Arms in Conveyor Accident

Before we get into yet another "freakish" accident, let's review the principles behind the lockout-tagout standard (LOTO): It's dangerous to put your arms or head into machinery to fix or unjam it if there is any chance it can start up. The LOTO standard therefore requires that all equipment be shut off and de-energized. "De-energized" means making sure that even if the power is off, the machine is not half way through a cycle when you stick your head or your arms into it. Not only must be power be shut off, but the switch must be LOCKED OUT -- Like with a pad lock, so no one can turn it on when your head or your arms are inside it. Then you keep the key to the lock. Lockout is often bypassed because it is difficult and takes too much time when there may be pressure to get a piece of equipment back on line.

OSHA also allows machinery to be Tagged when a it is not possible to lock it or when the employer can demonstrate that the tags provide the same level of safety as using lockout procedures. Needless to say, all employers and supervisors need to be trained about Lockout-Tagout.

OK, now we've got the principles down, let's move on to today's lesson. (Warning: The following article is particularly graphic.)
Worker loses arms in conveyor mishap

A Bridgeton man's arms were severed Monday morning in an industrial accident at a Bivalve clam-processing plant, state police said.

John Lackey, 27, of Skyline Drive was treated at South Jersey Healthcare, Newcomb Hospital after the 7:15 a.m. accident at Surfside Products Inc., said Trooper Jamie Ablett of the Port Norris state police barracks.

Lackey was transferred to Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where he was listed in critical condition.

State police gave this account:

Lackey was working as a maintenance man at the Shell Road plant when he tried to free a frozen conveyor.

After the machinery began moving, a piece of his clothing got caught in the gears and both of his arms were cut off, Ablett said.
More here and here, if you really want to read it.

China: Privatization, Globalization and Hazardous Workplaces

Privatization and globalization have not been kind to workers in China.
Often residing in shacks on construction sites, earning about 30-50 yuan (US $3.90-$6.40) per day, and working in hazardous conditions, the world of migrant workers is described as one of “extreme hardship and loneliness.” Seen in context, their situation is perhaps a reflection of China’s widening gap between rich and poor. One telling statement in the Post story, for example, came from Zhao Daying, a lawyer representing one of the migrant workers. “What they [migrant workers] eat,” Zhao said, “is worse than what urban residents feed their cats and dogs.”

In addition to this, migrant laborers in the construction industry are usually only paid once a year, before the Lunar New Year holiday season.
Life for these workers is not only nasty and brutish, it may also be short:
The government also released this week its latest statistics on the number of deaths in the coal mining industry. Official figures from the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) show that over 2,110 workers were killed in 596 explosions in Chinese coal mines in 2003, a slightly lower figure than the previous year. Xinhua published a report about the subsequent National Conference on Industrial Safety, during which Vice-Premier Huang Ju conceded, “China still faces a stark and grave situation in the field of industrial safety, though the situation was improving as a whole from last year.”

John Chen, a labor researcher and writer in Hong Kong notes that Chinese authorities were being forced by the number of deaths and injuries, as well as the level of unrest, to address issues of urgent importance to workers in the country. These issues pertain not only to migrants and mine workers, Chen says, but also to workers in China’s rapidly industrializing areas, particularly the low-tech secondary industries in Special Economic Zones. “Corporate globalization and the rapid influx of capital to these areas,” he notes “Has increased the potential for astounding abuses of occupational health and safety laws, and workers’ rights."

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

This Is Why There's A Lockout-Tagout Standard

After you read this article, check out OSHA's Lockout-Tagout standard and other materials on the OSHA webpage.
A city sanitation worker was crushed to death yesterday after she got caught in the machinery of a front-loading garbage truck, police said.

Eva Barrientos, 41, was standing on the cab trying to release a garbage bag lodged in the truck parked in Brooklyn yesterday about 8 a.m. As she was doing so, the truck's mechanical arms pinned her to the vehicle, Sanitation Department officials said.


The truck, operated by Barrientos, had arms that lift trash bins around the front to dump out garbage. Mellis said when trash gets stuck in the truck, standard protocol allows workers to climb onto the truck and pull the garbage out.

"It's part of the operation," he said
After you read some of the materials on lockout-tagout, especially this NIOSH Bulletin, you may find it curious that the headline on the New York Times version of the story read:
City Sanitation Worker Killed in a Freakish Truck Accident

A city sanitation worker died in a freakish accident in Brooklyn yesterday after she was pinned on top of a garbage truck by a mechanical lever, city officials said.
Actually, there was nothing "freakish" about this accident. Hundreds of workers are crushed in energized machinery every year.

More Mail: Is Truth Political?

Once again, it’s time to read (and respond to) our mail. I enjoy getting comments, especially those that don’t necessarily agree with me. I get used to picturing my readers smiling and nodding when they read my gems of wisdom. It’s easy to forget that there are some people who wonder onto this site who aren’t left-wing pinko labor symps.

Which brings me to this comment, left yesterday by N. Johnson on my article about the lies of Dick Cheney
Did you listen to the David Kay interview on NPR Sunday morning? I don't think your comments fit with his remarks. Consider what everyone says and all the facts, instead of assigning "liar" to a person (Cheney) you dislike well ahead of the rest of the story.

Dear N:

Thanks for writing.

Yes I did hear and read and see David Kay. And I heard Dick Cheney, I considered all the fact and came to the conclusion that Dick Cheney is a liar. The only thing David Kay seems to have found are “weapons of mass destruction-related programs” (a.k.a. drawings and desires). He's been interviewed everywhere trying to say he didn’t find anything without trashing the administration too badly. Anyway, if you’re interested, I can provide plenty of news stories and analyses – including quotes from David Kay – confirming he didn’t find anything.

And even if you think that “weapons of mass destruction-related programs” constitutes “something,” it doesn’t come anywhere near Dick Cheney’s assertion that those trailers provide “conclusive evidence” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I won’t even go into the allegation that there is overwhelming evidence” of a Saddam – Al Queda connection. Even Bush and Colin Powell have said that no such connection exists. Either Cheney’s an idiot, delusional or lying – and I don’t think he’s and idiot or delusional. Which leaves…

I was a CSHO [an OSHA inspector] too. Unions are not the defenders of the helpless portrayed here. I investigated complaints put up by unions that were only contract negotiation "ruses". Citations fell apart for lack of cooperation from the union because they were getting a better deal on some other aspect of the contract. Left or right, people with power are easily tempted.

When they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, unions are not “defenders of the helpless,” they are organizers of the indivisually powerless. Despite the laws on the books and the rights that workers supposedly have, unless you have a union covering your back it's hard to use those rights -- or even know they exist.

I was not a CSHO at OSHA, I was a Special Assistant, dealing mostly with policy issues. But for sixteen years before that I ran the health and safety department for one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO. And I know first-hand, and spent too much energy fighting the fact that that health and safety issues often tend to get dumped in favor of more “bread and butter” issues like wages and benefits.

Sometimes health and safety issues get raised during organizing drives and contract negotiations that had never before seen the light of day. But these generally aren’t "ruses" or false issues that suddenly materialize; they’re real issues that have been ignored in the past. The fact that they are sometimes forgotten about after some of the “more important” issues are settled causes all union health and safety activists to tear their hair out. It’s not so much a matter of being “tempted” as much as it’s a (mis)perception of what’s more and what’s less important to the members.

I happen to think that many unions don’t put enough emphasis on workplace safety and health issues. And it becomes a vicious circle. Union officials compromise away health and safety issues because they don’t think they’re important to the members. The members, seeing that health and safety issues aren’t being addressed by the leadership, don’t insist that health and safety issues be put on the table. Or they’ve never been educated about the hazards and about their rights and aren’t even aware that the issues can be put on the table. And if the members aren't pushing the issues, the leadership ignores them.

Fighting this mentality – educating workers and union officials about the importance of workplace safety issues is one of the main purposes of this blog.

You have the privilege of publishing important H&S warnings to lists that are read by many influential stakeholders. What you say about H&S is too important to bog down in overly biased politics. Be straight. Listen to everyone. Truth is not political.

Truth itself may not be political, but how truth is revealed, how it is covered up and to what end the truth (or the lies) are used is what politics is all about in this country.

The repeal of OSHA’s ergonomics standard and nothing to do with the truth, and everything to do with politics. And millions of workers are paying the price in lost careers and lifelong disability.

Working people need more than just workplace health and safety resources -- fact sheets and health and safety manuals and Material Safety Data Sheets. All that is important, but they also need opinion and commentary on the politics of workplace health and safety, which is what this blog is about. Similarly, even safety and health in the workplace is largely dependent on the political/power relationships in that workplace. And most policy issues and standard are more a product of political compromise than a product of the "truth."

There is something very like a war going on in the occupational safety and health field right now. The regulatory process is all but dead, OSHA is on its way to becoming nothing more than an information clearinghouse, research is under attack by initiatives such as the Data Quality Act and associated rules, and regulatory protections are being overturned by a combination of lies and big money. And if we think that we can make workplaces safer by just distributing hazard warnings and fact sheets without talking about politics we'll be left on the sidelines of the very issues we seek to promote.

That being said, you raise a good point. Why are we reading about Dick Cheney’s lies in a health and safety blog?

Well, first, it’s my blog and I can write whatever I want. That’s why the subtitle of Confined Space is “News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics” The fact that this President (and Vice President) started a pre-emptive war based (at best) on faulty intelligence, or (at worst) on lies, makes me angry – especially when they continue to lie after the truth has emerged. Six American soldiers killed today, over 500 since the beginning of the war, thousands seriously injured and for what? Weapons of mass destruction-related programs? And when I’m angry I find it much more constructive to write about it than to kick the kids and yell at the dogs (or vice versa).

On a more serious level, however, if you re-read that posting, you’ll notice that the point I was trying to emphasize was the “very smart, very deliberate strategy” by Administration officials to mislead people and count on the fact that by the time the media catches up (if they ever do), people aren’t paying attention any more. Perhaps I could have been clearer, but these are the very same tactics used by the business community, Bush administration officials and more than a few of our Congressional representatives to fight OSHA standards or enforcement.

I’ve followed politics all my life, so the fact that our elected (sic) leaders often lie to us is nothing new. But when the lies are literally about life and death issues -- the need for war or the need for worker protections (as opposed to blow jobs) -- it’s important for all of us who know the facts to call a lie a lie.

Hope this all makes sense. Thanks for writing. And don’t forget to vote for Confined Space to win the Koufax Award for Best Single Issue Blog.

-- Jordan

Ergonomics Boycott, Continued

The Baltimore Sun has a good, indepth article on the boycott of OSHA's ergonomics research symposium. Meanwhile, the business types are escalating their attacks as well.

I've written previously about the boycott by the ergonomics experts, as well as the fits that the anti-ergonomics National Coalition on Ergonomics is having. The Baltimore Sun article quotes several of the ergonomics experts that are boycotting the conference.
"It's an incredible waste," said [Barbara] Silverstein, an epidemiologist who works for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

She's not the only scientist who feels that way: 11 of the country's leading ergonomists are boycotting the meeting, which begins tomorrow. They accuse the Bush administration of distorting science for political ends.
David Kohn, the author of the Sun article ties in other criticisms of Bush's science policies
This isn't the first time the Bush administration has angered the scientific community. Critics in several disciplines have accused the White House of censoring scientific reports that conflict with its policies, packing federal advisory committees with industry-friendly researchers and obstructing research that could lead to new or tougher regulations.
Could it be that the Bush Administration has some more suspicious motive behind this panel?
Under Bush, OSHA has focused on encouraging industry to create safer workplaces rather than on regulation. Critics suspect OSHA will use this week's symposium to further that agenda and conclude that the work-injury link is still too murky to warrant action.

"I think it's a political show, not a scientific meeting," said one boycotter, a university researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity, in part because he feared his federal grants might be denied. "It's using science in a very cynical way."
Read the rest.

Meanwhile, according to Inside OSHA, the anti-ergonomics National Coalition on Ergonomics (NCE) is accusing OSHA of stacking the panel with pro-ergonomics academics and scientists, making it into a pro-ergonomics pep rally. NACE is also accusing OSHA violating various administrative regulations because the agency allegedly accepted some proposals after the deadline published in the federal register -- a crime apparently far more serious running a worksite that causes back injuries. Seems OSHA just can't make anyone happy these days.

These guys are starting to become caricatures of themselves and its not worth staying up late to re-hash their idiocy. If you missed them, go back and read the two previous articles that I linked above. Meanwhile, I'll just re-quote my previous observation.
The moral of the story is, of course, that you can run from the truth, but you can't hide. Musculoskeletal disorders are a major workplace safety problem, and we know what to do about them. OSHA created its National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics and chose members who actually took their jobs seriously. They believed they were actually supposed to take a serious look at ergonomics, not just regurgitate the pre-digested anti-regulatory ideology of the business associations who have waged a very profitable decade-long war against workers who have had the gall to believe that OSHA should do the job that Congress gave it: protect American workers against workplace injuries and illnesses.
I'll give the unhappy NCE members one piece of free advice: get together with the Republican budget balancers, the small government wackos and the anti-immigration fanatics and go find a more pure Republican to run against George Bush. Where's Pat Buchanan when we need him?'

UPDATE: The Washington Post has also picked up on the story:
"We've had symposia on top of symposia followed by symposia, and all have arrived at the same conclusion . . . that there is a clear relationship between musculoskeletal disorders and physical loading in the workplace," said Robert Radwin, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

A business-backed panel has written to OSHA as well, saying the panelists at the symposium are too biased in the direction of supporting a "regulatory approach to ergonomics," said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employment benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He is co-chairman of the National Council on Ergonomics, which represents more than 250 private-sector trade groups.

"If OSHA decided to pull on the plug on the symposia, I don't think anyone would be upset," Johnson said in an interview.

In a letter to Carter J. Kerk, who is chairing the national advisory committee on ergonomics, Johnson said one panel included people who are "unabashed advocates" of what he called "the disputed theory that physical risk factors are a primary cause of musculoskeletal disorders."
"Unabashed advocates" of the "theory" that workplace conditions cause musculoskeletal disorders? Imagine thinking that lifting heavy patients all day might cause back injuries, or hanging thousands of live chickens above your head may cause shoulder or arm problems! Whatever are they thinking?
Pat [sic] Seminario, an AFL-CIO health and safety director, said business groups are raising questions about the scientific underpinnings of ergonomics research to avoid regulation of activity that causes injury.

"One of the tactics all along is cast doubt on the science, like the tobacco industry's efforts to question whether exposure to smoke causes cancer," Seminario said. "The industry line is being used to thwart any government action."
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Most Dangerous Jobs in New York? Three Guesses

Time's up. There are some interesting statistics in this article, Danger comes with the territory: Some workers risk injury, death daily.
  • New York's services sector — covering everything from the worker who puts the towels in your hotel bathroom to the pizza delivery guy — accounted for more private-sector injury and illness cases than any other division that year, according to a Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses conducted by the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry employed nearly 2.9 million New Yorkers that year, representing 41 percent of the workforce.

  • The most dangerous public-sector industry in New York state is public safety, including firefighters and police officers at the local level.

  • Manufacturing sectors — including lumber and wood products; stone, clay, glass and concrete products; and fabricated metal products — accounted for the rest of the top 10 hazardous industries in the state, along with transportation by air, general merchandise stores and food stores.

  • Fifty-nine percent of the state’s private-sector occupational injuries in 2001 were attributed to repeated trauma disorders, most associated with repetitive tasks found in many manufacturing industries. (!)

    According to NYCOSH's Jonathan Bennet,
    Back injuries, which Bennett said account for the most workplace injuries nationwide, are common in jobs that require heavy lifting such as health care, baggage checkers and stock clerks, while carpal tunnel syndrome is the top ailment among typists and cashiers.

    Muscle injuries in general — including to the back — are the single biggest injury among hospital workers, especially in residential facilities where patients have to be lifted and repositioned, some several times a day. Bennett said a recent St. Louis study found that installing mechanical lifting equipment in such instances dramatically reduced the number of back injuries.

    He said back injuries are costly to employers, and while the lifts are also expensive, they pay for themselves many times over in the number of prevented injuries.
  • Timber cutter — with a mortality rate of 118 per 100,000 workers nationwide — was the most dangerous job in the United States in 2002, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

More Shameless Self Promotion: Confined Space Makes The Finals

The Primaries Are Over. This is the Real Thing. Vote One More Time

You like me, you really like me! Well thanks to you faithful fans, Confined Space has been chosen as one of the eight finalists for the Koufax Award for Best Single Issue Blog.

And while you've heard people say this a few times before, it's true: whether I win or not, it's an honor to be nominated and a bigger honor to be a finalist.

But now it's time for the finals and I'm asking you to vote one more time. My co-nominees include some of the best blogs out there. Check them all out (as well as the nominees in the other categories.)

And then vote for the blog that you think deserves to win Confined Space. It's going to be hard to come anywhere close to winning this one. My competition gets on average between 50 and 1000 times as many "hits" every day as Confined Space gets. But with your help, Confined Space can become the Howard Dean Seabiscuit of the Blogosphere.

So, if you want to strike a blow for truth, justice, workplace safety, worker empowerment and everything else worth fighting for, forget those other elections happening this year, take a moment and click HERE. Then go to the "Comment" section at the bottom, and tell them what you think. (Or, if you don't want your comment to be public, email the sponsors here or here.)

You're the best. From the entire staff of Confined Space, thank you and good night.

Why Ergonomics Injuries are Underreported...

Worker Awarded $12 Million for Workers Comp Insurer Fraud

"We don't need OSHA enforcement because employers already have a financial incentive to make their workplaces safe -- workers compensation." This is one of the more popular myths spread by many in the employer community to justify their opposition to any new OSHA standards or stronger enforcement.

The myth was repeated over and over again during the hearings in 2000 over OSHA's proposed ergonomics standard, even though worker after worker described the difficulty in getting compensated for work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Generally the problem was that the employer and the workers comp company denied that the back injury or carpal tunnel syndrome was work-related. Far more likely that it was caused by workers playing tennis all night after a hard day of work at the meatpacking plant or nursing home. In addition, many states have passed laws making it nearly impossible for workers to receive compensation for MSDs.

Thus, it was no surprise when a South Dakota workers comp insurer denied a woman's carpal tunnel syndrome claim.

Now, normally workers compensation is an "exclusive remedy" for job-related injuries and illnesses, meaning you can't sue your employer if you are injured on the job.

Unless, as Workers Comp Insider points out, there is "bad faith on the part of the insurer. A successful bad faith suit might be triggered by an insurer's nonpayment of claims, mass denial of claims, or the like. " In other words, workers comp fraud by the insurer:
This week, a woman in South Dakota just secured a $12 million award for a bad faith claims practice, most of it in punitive damages. The claim involved the denial of about $8,000 in medical bills for a carpal tunnel injury. The original grounds for denial centered around compensability and whether the injury arose out of and in the course of employment.

Her insurer said the denial occurred because "there was a lack of proof that her hand problems were caused by her work" and further suggested that "her hand problems were likely the result of a 1998 home injury, not her work in the kitchen of the nursing home."

A determination of work-relatedness and compensability are huge issues in many repetitive stress injuries, and if this claim dispute had ended there, the claim might have stayed within the realm of the state workers comp authority to uphold or deny. But in this case, the insurer's claims handling practice was the smoking gun that gave rise to a charge of bad faith, opening the door to a suit.

" ... the case centered around a Travelers Insurance incentive program that offered bonuses to claims workers who lowered payouts on claims. Called the Claim Professional Incentive Program, it offered workers end-of-year bonuses of as much as 20 percent of their pay if they reduced overall payouts from one year to the next.
It's no wonder that OSHA has determined that musculoskeletal injuries un underestimated by half."

The lesson here for insurers, according to Workers Comp Insider, is
that managing a workers compensation claim is not simply the exercise of processing paper in the most cost efficient way possible, but the response to a human event. In our experience, keeping the focus on the person rather than the dollars generally results in the most favorable outcome by whatever measures you use for success

By the way, you should definitely check out Workers Comp Insider, "Lynch Ryan's weblog about workers compensation insurance, risk management, workplace health & safety, occupational medicine, and related topics." It's full of valuable information and it frequently links to Confined Space. Check it out.

Are We Feeling Safer Yet?

Terrorist Incident at Chem Plant?

Amazing how a tiny little article buried deep in the paper can be enough to send shivers up your spine, especially after watching 60 Minutes and reading numerous newspaper stories about reporters waltzing, unchallenged, onto chemical plants. Thank God the Bush Administration is trusting the chemical industry to police its own security (scroll down):
HOUSTON -- U.S. and Texas law enforcement agencies are investigating the shooting of a security guard outside an ammonia terminal on Texas's Gulf Coast, authorities said. A security guard at the BASF Corp. ammonia terminal in Freeport was shot late Friday by a man in a pickup truck parked outside the terminal's fence and within sight of a multistory ammonia tank. The guard, who was hospitalized in good condition, said the gunman had a heavy Middle Eastern accent, police said.
What do we need to assure the safety of the weapons of mass destruction right down the street? Mandatory regulations or voluntary industry guidelines. More on the chemical plant security debate here, here and here.

Daddy, Where Do Baseballs Come From?

Daddy: Good question, little Billy. All of the baseballs in the major leagues come from one factory in a country called Costa Rica where workers stich each and every ball together by hand.

Little Billy: They must make a lot of money. A major league baseball costs about $15 in the store.

Daddy: Well, actually, they get paid about $.30 a ball, which comes to about $2,750 a year.

Little Billy: Hmm. Hmm. So who get's the rest of the money?

Daddy: The owners of the company who provide the jobs.

Little Billy: Oh, I see. Is $2,750 a lot of money? How much to professional baseball player make a year?

Daddy: Oh, a little over $2 million, on average.

Little Billy: Oh. Hmm. But it must be fun making baseballs.

Daddy: Well, kind of. Although it gets kind of hot. Sometimes it gets up to 95 degrees and workers feel like they're suffocating.

Little Billy: Ewww. But they must be really good with their hands to make balls. Right?

Daddy: As long as they can still use their hands. Have you ever heard of something called "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?"

Little Billy: Daddy, can you tell me a different story? This is making me sad.

Daddy: OK, sure. What else do you want to know, Little Billy?

Little Billy: Where do my sneakers come from?

The whole story is here.

Even Corrections Officers Deserve To Come Home Alive

Throughout the 1990's a group of unions primarily representing health care, social service and retail workers, lobbied federal and state OSHA's for guidelines and enforcement action against employers whose employees were killed, hurt or threatened by preventable assaults. We made some progress at federal OSHA in health care and late night retail. OSHA issued guidelines and cited a handful of employers. Several state plans -- including California, Washington, Minnesota and Indiana -- made similar efforts in the health care and retail sectors.

One sector in which we never could make progress was corrections. "Hey, prisons are inherently dangerous places to work. They're full of people who want to kill you. How can you cite a prison for violence?" they laughed. "That's like citing a beach for getting wet."

Well, actually, no. Corrections officers should be able to say, just like every other worker, "We just came to work here, we didn't come to die." There are good procedures that, if enforced, are designed to minimize or even completely prevented assaults on corrections officer. So then why shouldn't OSHA be able to cite an institution if such recognized practices are not being followed, just as it could cite any other workplace for not providing safe working conditions?

Unfortunately, we have an example of how a preventable death can result from non-compliance with working procedures. Last June I reported about the death of Darla Lathrem, 38, at the Charlotte Correctional Institution in Florida. Lathrem, who was armed only with pepper spray and a radio, was attacked and killed by three inmates who then attempted to escape. Her body was discovered stashed in a locked closet amid the chaos of the attempted breakout.

A report on Lathrem's murder has just been released and showed that a number of prison procedures had not been followed that night:
  • Staff members failed to have two officers supervising the inmates who were working on the dormitories.

  • With inmates working at 10 p.m., no one was making sure that manpower was being utilized properly beyond normal hours at the construction site.

  • No one was enforcing the policy which mandates all employees wear a body alarm.

  • The inmates were not restrained during movement.

  • Policies regarding key control were not followed.

  • Policies regarding sensitive tools were not followed.

  • Security checks were not in place or monitored to make sure policies were enforced.
Now, given that a number of the institution's own safety policies were not being followed, is there any more reason that this workplace should not be cited by OSHA than any other workplace that isn't following safe working procedures? (Overlooking the fact that this is a state prison in Florida, one of 26 states that don't provide OSHA coverage for public employees.)

I also want to point out one more item in this report that may be of value when investigating accidents in your own workplace. Lathrem was not wearing a body alarm even though prison policy mandates that a body alarm be worn at all times. How many times in similar situations have you seem accident reports that list "Worker not following [whatever] procedure" as the cause of the accident?

But not in this case. Instead, the report correctly concluded that "No one was enforcing the policy which mandates all employees wear a body alarm." Even though prison department policy requires that all officers wear the alarm when inside the secure perimeter, the report noted that the majority of the officers on duty that night were not wearing the device. What we have is a management system failure -- a failure to enforce safe working procedures -- rather than a "blame the worker" for not following procedures.

More here and here, and an article about Darla Lathrem's family here.


Ed. Note: I was made aware of the existence of this report by an observant reader. Believe it or not, I don't have the time to read every newspaper in the United States, and depend on many of you (yes, YOU) to bring information to my attention. Thanks and keep it coming.

-- Jordan.

Who's A Deserter? Just the Facts Ma'am

Those of you who watched last week's Democratic Debate in New Hampshire saw Peter Jennings attack Presidential Candidate Wesley Clark for not disavowing Clark- supporter Michael Moore's statement that our President is a deserter. And you may have also noticed the press tsk tsking that Clark didn't know whether the statement was true or not. Imagine! Our fearliess leader being accused of being a deserter. How unpresidential.

Well, we're experts on workplace safety, not military law. So make up your own mind. The facts are at Michael Moore's Website (which has links to all of the news accounts of Bush's military service) and the Daily Howler which also has some interesting things to say.

The Weekly Toll

Woman Killed in Spraying Machine

Williamsport, MD - GST AutoLeather near Williamsport was running on a limited production schedule Thursday as Maryland Occupational Safety and Health personnel investigated the death of a woman who was killed Wednesday while operating a spraying machine at the plant.

Deanna L. Stottlemyer, 37, of Martinsburg, W.Va., died Wednesday afternoon when she got caught in one of the rollers on spraying machine No. 3 at the Clear Spring Road plant, Dr. Edward Ditto III, the deputy medical examiner for Washington County, said after the accident.

GST AutoLeather has incurred 45 violations of Occupational Safety and Health Administration codes, half of them serious, since 1988, a number the company said is meaningless since it has corrected each of the infractions. Huh?

Worker dies in fall through roof of job site

A 47-year-old worker died after he fell through the roof of a Salt Lake City recycling plant Friday afternoon. David Bird, of West Valley City, was one of three contractors working on top of the Weyerhaeuser Recycling building. (Scroll Down).

Man Killed in Conveyor Belt

Harnett County (NC) man died Friday after his arm got caught in a conveyor belt at a concrete plant, authorities said.

Karl William Perry, 42, of Broadway somehow became entangled in the belt at the Thomas Concrete operation near Fuquay-Varina. There were no witnesses.

Fatal industrial accidents being probed
Forklift driver, roofer killed

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and area law enforcement agencies on Friday were investigating two industrial accidents that claimed the lives of two men Wednesday in Brown County, WI.

Matthew Murphy, 22, of Seymour was putting shingles on a Wrightstown home when he apparently lost his balance and fell about 15 to 20 feet to the frozen ground, said Al Klimek, interim Brown County medical examiner.

In the second accident, Mark Kreuser, 40, of Green Bay died after being crushed while using a forklift to unload a truck at Valley Cabinet in De Pere at 8:25 a.m., Klimek said. Investigators weren’t sure how the accident happened.

Golf course worker, 61, dies in accident

A 61-year-old Upstate golf course maintenance worker, Karl Phillip Anken, died after a machine he was riding flipped on a hill and pinned him, authorities said.

Anken had been riding the sprayer near the course's 10th hole when he tried to turn on a steep hill, causing the machine to fall on top of him, maintenance worker Travis McMahan said

Two Die In Fall From Scaffolding

Walking out on a wooden plank more than 40 feet above the ground at a Hartford construction site Thursday, Luis Mendes and William Kelly put their faith in a scaffolding system being overseen by a Vernon contractor that has been cited for numerous labor violations in recent years - including two last year for erecting unsafe scaffoldings.

But the joist holding the plank in place suddenly failed about 9:30 a.m., officials said. The plank flipped up, plunging Mendes, 47, the owner of a Terryville roofing subcontractor, and Kelly, his 48-year-old employee, to the ground and their deaths.

Resident evicted from Canton YMCA kills worker, self

Canton, OH - A YMCA maintenance worker was shot and killed Thursday by a resident who was being evicted for violating shelter rules, police said.

The resident, Jeffrey Marshall, 69, shot and killed himself after shooting Charles P. Hinton Jr., of Canton, about 10:30 a.m., police said.

Worker killed when vehicle plunges into rock quarry

One worker was killed when a chunk of land plunged into a water-filled rock quarry, taking two men and their vehicles with it.

The men, whose names were not released Wednesday, were working for Finley Properties on a project to fill in the quarry, Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Capt. C.W. Mardis said.

Worker dies at RadioShack site

FORT WORTH - A construction worker died Monday afternoon when the elevated equipment he was working on at the future RadioShack headquarters tipped over, fire officials said.

The 38-year-old victim was identified as Robert Fitts of Dallas.

Worker dies in paper mill accident

MIDDLETOWN, OH -- A paper mill worker who went alone to fix a torn roll of paper was found dead underneath the machine minutes later, police said.

Kenneth Johnson Jr., 27, of nearby Carlisle, was pronounced dead shortly after the accident at 1:40 p.m. Saturday at Bay West.

Man killed by machinery at FedEx terminal

A Shaler, PA, man was killed while working the overnight shift at the FedEx Ground delivery terminal in Neville Island, apparently after a piece of his clothing got caught in a conveyor belt.

Ed Seelhorst, 37, of Fall Run Road, was found dead at 4:15 a.m. Thursday in what is believed to be the first fatal accident in the company's history.

Worker Killed After Pulled Into Machine Mixing Cement

ALABAMA -- A worker was killed in south Phoenix after he was pulled into a machine that mixes cement.

The Phoenix Fire Department said the victim was doing maintenance on the machine while it was running and became trapped in the rollers of the machine.

The accident occurred at a company called Ameron International, which makes concrete cylinders and drainage pipes.

Accident kills construction worker

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, NJ - A worker was killed Tuesday morning when a steel beam being put into place at a home under construction here fell on him.

The worker, Jaquenane DosSanto, 27, suffered injuries to his face, neck and chest area, and was pronounced dead at the scene.

According to authorities, the worker was part of a team installing the 20-foot support beam in the area of the home's partially completed basement section at about 7:45 a.m. The worker reportedly was standing on a ladder below ground when the beam fell, dropping on him and causing him to tumble to the basement floor.

Lifeboat plunge kills worker

Portland, ME -- One man was killed and two co-workers were injured Tuesday when a lifeboat they were testing fell from chains attached to a giant oil rig and plunged into Portland Harbor. Andrew J. Caldwell, 49, was pronounced dead at the scene. More here.

Driver killed while unloading truck

VISTA, CA– A truck driver was killed yesterday when he was pinned under metal storage racks that he was helping unload at the future site of a distribution center for golf products, authorities said.

The driver, identified as Tex Ramey, 65, of Kingston, Tenn., died at the Sycamore Vista Business Park site at 9:41 a.m., the Medical Examiner's Office said. Ramey drove for Mercer Transportation Co., which is based in Louisville, Ky.

Carryout Worker Murdered

Two days after a North Toledo carryout worker was killed during a robbery, city officials yesterday urged small businesses to improve their security measures, with Mayor Jack Ford saying he may use loans or grants to help pay for the upgrades.

City officials called Misada Shalan's murder inside Tamara's Carryout senseless, brutal, and vicious and offered a $5,000 reward - matched by a local carryout owner - for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers.

Worker Killed After Fall Down Elevator Shaft

BALTIMORE, MD -- Baltimore fire officials say a construction worker died Tuesday morning after falling inside an elevator shaft.

Fire spokesman Kevin Cartwright said emergency crews were called to a building under construction on North Howard Street around 7 a.m.

He says the man was working on the elevator when it jolted. The man lost his balance and fell from the 10th floor to the 7th floor.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Heart Attacks and Workplace Death

When I was working at OSHA, I received monthly copies of the "FAT-CAT" report, short for "Fatalities and Catastrophes." The fatalities always contained a number of "natural cause" deaths, usually heart attacks, that were never investigated by OSHA. I always wondered what one might find if one investigated them. For example, are there more "heart attacks" during hot weather that may actually have been heat-related? Did workers ever have heart attacks who might also have been working near toxic chemicals? Did anyone ever actually go out to the worksite to check out the circumstances?

I was reminded of workplace heart attack problem when I came across an this article about OSHA fining a company for the confined space death of Rodney Jones from hydrogen sulfide exposure in a unmonitored manhole last August. Manholes are notorious for confined space hazards -- hydrogen sulfide, methane or oxygen deprivation -- and OSHA has a confined space standard that requires monitoring, ventilation and an attendant to prevent such deaths.

I went back to read the original article about the incident. Jones' co-worker and friend Mike Radford climbed down to try to rescue him and was also overcome by the gas. Both were rescued and taken to a hospital where Jones died a couple of days later.
"His big ol' heart couldn't take it anymore," Radford said.

Radford said Jones suffered from heart attacks in the past, and that's what killed him Sunday night. He believes it was triggered by the poisonous gas.
Heart attack or workplace-related fatality? I'm not even sure how this was recorded by OSHA, but it's pretty clear that Rodney Jones would be alive today if the confined space standard had been followed.

Lies and the Lying Vice Presidents Who Tell Them

I created this blog to write about health and safety issues and a little politics, but there are plenty of blogs that go much deeper into the screwed up politics of the country. But this story about our "leader" lying about Iraq is worth discussing though because the lying is becoming pathological and it has implications for everything the Bush administration touches.

Anyone listening to Morning Edition the other day may have been started out of their morning reveries when they heard Dick Cheney -- apparently with a straight face -- persist in claiming that we had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that there was "overwhelming evidence" of strong links between Saddam Hussein and Al Queda. Unfortunately, the interviewer, Juan Williams, did not pursue the obvious lies with follow-up questions.

The Los Angeles Times did, however, follow-up on Cheney's lies:
  • "We've found a couple of semi-trailers at this point which we believe were in fact part of [a WMD] program," Cheney said. "I would deem that conclusive evidence, if you will, that he did in fact have programs for weapons of mass destruction."

    That view is at odds with the judgment of the government's lead weapons inspector, David Kay, who said in an interim report in October that "we have not yet been able to corroborate the existence of a mobile [biological weapons] production effort."

  • There's overwhelming evidence there was a connection between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government," Cheney said in an interview on National Public Radio. "I am very confident that there was an established relationship there."

    That assertion appeared at odds with the recent words of other senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who said in an interview this month that he had "not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence" of connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

  • Since the war, as the administration has sought to deflect charges that it exaggerated the Iraqi threat, Cheney has appeared reluctant to give ground. On occasion, this has created public relations problems for the White House.

    After Cheney implied in a television interview in September that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush was forced to acknowledge days later that the administration "had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved" in Sept. 11.

    The White House had no comment Thursday on Cheney's remarks.
So , is Cheney dumb? Misinformed? No, according to Kevin Drum at CalPundit,
What he is is a vice president. And a smart politician. And he knows perfectly well that most people pay only vague attention to what they hear and pay no attention at all to the followups from serious reporters. Millions of people turned on the radio and heard Cheney say that we've found both WMD and al-Qaeda links, but only thousands read the LA Times and discovered that he's pretty much the only person who thinks so.

Net result: millions more people believe the WMD and al-Qaeda fantasies. Cheney's boss, of course, will never say anything this direct — even though he had a chance just three days ago — and if this heats up the White House will simply issue a low-key "explanation" of Cheney's remarks that will be published on page 23 of most major metro dailies.
This is a very smart, very deliberate strategy. Don't ever believe otherwise.
Let me repeat that one line: "most people pay only vague attention to what they hear and pay no attention at all to the followups from serious reporters." And not just about Iraq, they will lie about every important issue and we can't depend on the media to follow up or for people to notice the follow-ups. That leaves it up to you, who are reading this. You've been appointed to the truth squad. We've got about 10 months to get the truth out there. Go do it.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Yet Another Trench Death

But a good article

I was having a drink with a friend and colleague earlier this evening and we were complaining about how the excellent series of workplace safety articles by David Barstow in the NY Times had not yet seemed to inspire other reporters to do more indepth articles when workers die. We generally get three or four paragraphs describing the death, the mourning family, and the company SHOCKED that such a freak accident could have happened. And then maybe six months later there's a short article about the OSHA fine.

And, as usual, I come home, turn on the computer and find the same old story of yet another preventable death in a 12-foot deep unshored trench makes me want to scream:
Donald DeHart knew the trench he was working in was dangerous, and he feared for his life, his wife said Wednesday.

"He had told me a few days before that - two, three days in a row - that it was going to happen," Wanda DeHart said. "He told me, he said, `If it caves in I'm not going to make it.'"

A partial collapse covered his feet in the days before the one that buried him in a 12-foot-deep trench Monday, DeHart said. It took rescue workers 11 hours to recover his body.

Because her husband worked as a day laborer, his wife will get no workers' compensation for his death.
The only silver lining to this tragedy was a very good article in the Ashville Citizen Times:
The death of Donald DeHart leaves a bereft family and a number of unanswered questions about why he was at the bottom of a ditch 12 feet deep that hadn't been shored up.

OSHNC standards require that any trench deeper than 5 feet must be shored up on its sides or sloped to reduce the danger of collapse. Such a trench must also have ramps, runways or other safe methods of access and egress, according to Juan Santos, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Labor. After DeHart was found, David Walker, public information officer for Garren Creek Fire Department and Fairview Fire and Rescue said, "It just seems the trench could have been made safe. I work for the U.S. Forest Service and we have a saying: `You have a right to a safe assignment.' I think everybody should have that right."

The accident that claimed DeHart's life reminds us that OSHNC regulations are not just another way for a government bureaucracy to harass employers and workers. They are in place because obeying those rules saves lives. If the ditch that collapsed on DeHart had been constructed according to OSHNC standards, DeHart would almost certainly be alive today. Yet, both employers and employees often ignore OSHNC regulations because complying would cost extra money or take additional time. The price for not doing so can be far more dear than an OSHNC fine.
This is the kind of writing that needs to appear in every local newspaper and television news whenever a worker is killed in this country. People need to be educated over and over again that these deaths are not inevitable, they're not really even accidents. They are crimes and should be treated accordingly.

The Real State of The Nation

Burlington (PA) County Times columnist Suzanne Blanchard exposes (and documents) some of the myths of Chimpster's speech. Among them
Small business owners and employees" need "relief from needless Federal regulation."
  • Nearly 8 million higher wage workers will lose their rights to overtime pay under a Bush administration regulation.

  • The administration touts 1.3 million low-income workers who will gain overtime pay under the proposition.

  • The Department of Labor is actively advising employers how to avoid paying those newly-qualified low-income workers overtime.

  • President Bush advocated for and signed the first ever legislative repeal of a work safety standard (on ergonomics), though the rule took more than ten years to develop.

  • The Bush administration withdrew or halted action on 16 pending Occupational Safety and Health Administration and 13 pending Mine Safety and Health Administration safety actions.

  • OSHA delayed implementation of rules protecting workers from exposure to tuberculosis. (Ed. Note: Actually he dropped the proposed standard.)

  • The 2004 Bush administration budget cut $3 million from OSHA safety and health standards development, federal enforcement, worker safety and health training grants and safety and health statistics, while adding $7.2 million for employer-controlled compliance assistance.

  • The 2003 Bush budget took $29 million out of funding for the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health. The 2004 budget took $27 million more away.
Read the rest. And there are more myths and facts about the State of the Union here.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

I've Got Mail!

I don't get a lot of comments on this site, and almost all of those that I get are very supportive. How boring. So it was with great interest that I read a note from Kurt Hartle today who had a few things to say about my posting on Labor and the Iowa Caucuses.
It's just like you "died in the wool" democrates to think that your own constituancey is too stupid to make the "right decision".

Dear Kurt:

Thanks for your note. I'm glad you're reading Confined Space. Unfortunately you seem to have completely missed the point I was trying to make. So let me try again.

First, I've done a word-search and I never even mentioned the word "stupid."

In the article above you admit to having to tell union employees, "who to vote for"

Actually, that's not at all what I said. In fact, I said just the opposite. What I "admitted" was that "Following the disastrous 1994 election, the labor movement finally realized that it was no longer adequate to just tell members who to vote for. They wanted to decide for themselves, based on the issues."

That's because they're smart, not stupid.

and then when that didn't work, you were serving up a plater of propaganda

I don't think I mentioned the word "propaganda" either. What I actually said was "The secret was to educate union members about the issues [and] tell them where each candidate stands."

Let me explain what I meant. Pollsters have found that white men who belong to unions have roughly the same opinions about political issues (health care, education, taxes, etc.) as white men who don't belong to unions. Yet, in the 2000 elections, a majority of white men voted for George Bush, while a majority of union white men voted for Al Gore. Why was this?

It was because most who watch T.V. (especially Fox) only know what George Bush says, unions educate people about what George Bush actually does. For example, ask people whether they're in favor of George Bush's tax policy where 40 percent of the tax breaks, hundreds of billions of dollars, to go to the top 1 percent, or whether those breaks should be spread around more fairly and be used for education or lowering the deficit. I'd bet most white men would say they should be spread around more fairly, yet they voted for George Bush.

Ask Americans whether millions of people should lose their overtime pay. I bet almost all white men would say no, but most say they'll vote for Bush. Ask people whether they like our health care system (especially the 47 million who don't have insurance). I bet most would say no, but lots of those would still vote for George Bush.

and "then hope like hell they put it together and vote correctly" - (Your words, not mine).

Yes! Finally. My exact words. You're right this time. Two out of three ain't bad.

May be it's not them or the Repbulicans that are so stupid. You own a mirror?

Actually, I own several mirrors, but I never get to look at myself because my daughters are always in front of them.

And I don't think anyone who votes for George Bush or the Republican party is stupid. They just believe the lies they are told. When they are told the truth by the unions they belong to, they tend to vote overwhelmingly for the candidates who best represent their interests -- the Democrats.

As Adlai Stevenson said
I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends...that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.
Thanks again for writing.

-- Jordan

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Intro to Death By Trench Collapse

I reported last month about the death of James Randal Helton in a trench collapse. You may remember that the owner of the company claimed that "his crews were doing everything correctly."

Apparently the firefighters who recovered Helton's body came in for some criticism
Gwinnett firefighters were scolded by some workers and media last month when a 20-year-old construction worker was buried under tons of dirt in a trench collapse in Buford. Firefighters worked for seven hours before they were able to recover James Randal Helton's lifeless body. Some onlookers felt the rescuers were moving too slowly, according to Capt. David Dusik, spokesman for the Gwinnett Fire Department.
In order to impress upon people how trenches kill and safe rescue must be done, the Gwinnett Fire Department simulated trench rescue in order to educate people about trench safety.

Fire Department Spokesman Capt. David Dusik explained that
all the precautions are necessary because 60 percent of fatalities in trench rescues involve would-be rescuers. Soil that has already been disturbed is unstable, and the risk of secondary collapse must be eliminated before firefighters can risk entering a trench.
Which reminds me of a story (that I've told before, but it's my Blog, so I'll tell it again.)

A few years ago, humorist Dave Barry wrote a column making fun of OSHA for citing a company whose workers had jumped into a collapsed trench to (successfully) rescue workers from another company who had been trapped when the trench collapsed. Barry cited it as another example of government stupidity.

Although I thought the OSHA citation in this case was probably unnecessary (and was later dropped), as it was another company's employees trapped in the trench, I sent a letter to Barry defending the principle of the citation and the OSHA standard, and describing the frequency of deaths among rescuers in confined space and trenching incidents. I also enclosed some news clips and a NIOSH report. He wrote me back, replying "Yeah, well if it was your friend, I bet you'd jump in too."

Yeah Dave, and there's a good chance I'd die....

Anyway, back to the story. Dusek also made the point that each foot of soil weighs between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds, which means that
a person buried alive would lose consciousness in approximately one minute and would die within five minutes. Even those buried only partially can suffer hypothermia if the soil is too cold or be compressed so much that they later die from internal injuries.
All of which makes these guys incredibly lucky.

Another Wasted Life; Another Employer Avoids Jail

OSHA fined Triram Corp. $52,000 for killing a worker who was blown off an asphalt tank after they told him to weld on it.
Christopher Lyon, 31, of Brooklyn, Conn., was killed in the accident.

Investigators at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Triram Corporation instructed Lyon to work on the tank without telling him what was inside, or the dangers of working near heated asphalt's flammable vapors.

That amounted to a "willful" violation, OSHA said, meaning it was committed with intentional disregard or plain indifference to OSHA requirements.
Add another one to the NY Times list of employers who got way cheap after knowingly putting workers into a situation that killed them.

The company boasts that
The products and services offered by Triram Corporation, an affiliate of the Hudson Asphalt Group, proudly reflect our enduring commitment to providing superior customer service at all times.
Too bad they don't have an "enduring commitment" to provide a safe workplace for their employees.

More here.

Snake of the Nation

For the first time in three years, I actually watched an entire Chimpy speech. Normally I get nauseated after fifteen minutes of Dubyanocchio, but I figured this is Smirky's last SOTU, so....

If you missed it, others have characterized it much better than I would be able to. (All I can do is splurt and sputter and pray that I'll wake up and it will be the morning of November 8, 2000 and, and this will all have been a long nightmare and, and....)

Thanks to Susan Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla, you can read Al Franken's account here and Susan's outrage below. Calpundit has the play-by-play here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Labor and the Iowa Caucuses

Predictions of the demise of labor's electoral clout as a result of the Iowa caucuses are premature. Labor unions were successful yesterday in getting the vote out. 23% of Iowa caucus attendees were members of unions -- a disproportionately high figure compared with the 13.6% of Iowa workers who belong to unions.

(While the labor turnout amounted to one-third of caucus attendees in 2000, the overall turnout yesterday was over 60% higher than in 2000. This, in addition to the fact that labor density has fallen significantly in Iowa since 1999 probably means -- according to my calculations -- that labor turnout was equal to, or greater than the 2000 turnout.)

Where the unions didn't succeed was in selling one (or two) specific labor candidates-- because there weren't one (Gephardt) or two (Dean) candidates who stood head & shoulders above the others on issues important to labor. In fact, all the Democratic candidates had good labor positions.

Following the disastrous 1994 election, the labor movement finally realized that it was no longer adequate to just tell members who to vote for. They wanted to decide for themselves, based on the issues. The secret was to educate union members about the issues, tell them where each candidate stands, get them to the polls (by firing them up & addressing logistics), then hope like hell they'll put it all together and vote correctly.

And this is how labor has been successful lately -- especially in 2000. It didn't work so well in 2002, because members weren't fired up by the weak Democratic response to Bush & stayed home.

In Iowa yesterday, union members came out in large numbers, but made up their own minds, based on the information they had (much of it supplied by the unions), about who to vote for.

Contrary to the Iowa caucuses being a loss for labor, I think this bodes well for labor's influence in November as long as the education process goes well AND the Democratic candidate presents a real alternative. On the other hand, while the results of the Iowa caucuses were not necessarily bad for labor in general, they were bad for the individual unions that put a lot of resources into individual candidates, perhaps leaving AFSCME's Gerald W. McEntee (and SEIU's Andy Stern) the angriest men in America (to paraphrase Mark Schmitt at the Decembrist).

The real issue that the defeat of Dean and Gephardt in Iowa raises is a serious question about the advisability of committing significant resources to primary contests where there are a number of viable labor-friendly candidates. While it is important for unions to keep the pressure on the Democratic candidates to push for issues important to working people (health care, jobs, etc.), perhaps in this situation (where all the Democratic candidates are acceptable) it would have been better for unions to keep their powder dry until the Democratic dust settles, the stark differences between the Democratic and Republican candidates are more evident, and the real battle for the future of this country begins.

Warm Up For Snake Of The Nation

Susan Madrack at Suburban Guerrilla pointed out these two articles, both today, in the NY Times. One is about a single mother whose children were sent temporarily to foster care until she dealt with anger and parenting issues. But now that she's been ruled fit to parent, she can't get them back because she can't find an apartment big enough to satisfy Social Services. Meanwhile, back at the ranch,
The Bush administration, which created a record budget deficit partly through tax cuts for the rich, is threatening to make up some of the difference by cutting desperately needed programs aimed at the poor. One candidate for the chopping block is Section 8, the federal rent-subsidy program whose main purpose is preventing low-income families from becoming homeless.
As Susan says, "Apparently no one thought to make a connection between them. But then again, who's working at the Times who even gets such things? They write about sweaters."

Meanwhile a colleague (what would I do without my staff of readers?) pointed out another pre-SOTU NY Times article about Caroline Payne:
Caroline Payne embraces the ethics of America. She works hard and has no patience with those who don't. She has owned a house, pursued an education and deferred to the needs of her child. Yet she can barely pay her bills. Her earnings have hovered in a twilight between poverty and minimal comfort, usually between $8,000 and $12,000 a year.

She is the invisible American, unnoticed because she blends in. Like millions at the bottom of the labor force who contribute to the country's prosperity, Caroline's diligence is a camouflage. At the convenience store where she works, customers do not see that she struggles against destitution.
I can hardly wait to see how he's going to handle these problems. I'm sure they're on the top of his list. I'm sure of it.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Workplace Violence: Fashionable vs. Unfashionable

I used to be one of the nation's leading experts in workplace violence. But I was into workplace violence before it became fashionable. And even then, I was mostly interested in the unfashionable kind of workplace violence.

Unfashionable workplace violence happened when mental health or social service workers got beaten up or killed working in understaffed institutions or making house calls in neighborhoods that the police wouldn't go into with guns drawn. Late night retail clerks who were victims of robberies -- often poor brown-skinned types -- were also on the unfashionable side of the ledger. It was largely these incidents that led workplace violence to become the second leading cause of death in the workplace in the mid 1990's.

The more fashionable kind of workplace violence focused the demented, mentally unstable worker (aren't they all?) -- often postal workers -- who would come into work armed to the teeth and blow away their bosses and a few co-workers for good measure. These were fashionable because, unlike the unfashionable crowd, they got lots of press and provided fodder for armies of consultants who would scare employers into paying large sums for how to screen job applicants (or current employees) who might turn violent. And for good measure, they'd also counsel employers on how to fire people in a way that would minimize the chance that they might come back in and blow you away.

Instead of generating profit-making consultants, unfashionable workplace violence focused on boring issues like staffing levels in institutions, lockdrop safes and windows in retail establishments that left a clear view to the street, and locked doors and security guards for social service agencies. Instead of making money, these preventive measures cost money.

The problem with the fashionable workplace violence, is that it was largely a myth. So-called "worker-on-worker" or "internecine" violence never amounted more than about 7% of all workplace violence, even though it received close to 97% of the press.

A lot of the controversy and false claims have died down over the past few years. So I reacted with a combination of nostalgia and nausea when a colleague showed me a headline in Occupational Health and Safety Magazine that read "defusing the explosive worker," accompanied by a photo of two hands in handcuffs.

But the article didn't start out too bad. After leading with the fact that fatalities from workplace violence are falling, although it still remains the second leading cause of workplace death, the author noted accurately that

Robbery remained the primary motive of job-related homicide, accounting for 85 percent of the deaths. Disputes among co-workers, customers, and clients accounted for approximately one-tenth of the total. Factors that might increase a worker's risk for workplace assault as defined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are: 1) contact with the public; 2) exchange of money; 3) delivery of passengers, goods, or services; 4) having a mobile workplace, such as a taxicab or public cruiser; 5) working with unstable or volatile persons in health care, social services, or criminal justice settings; 6) working alone or in small numbers; 7) working late at night or during early morning hours; 8) working in high-crime areas; 9) guarding valuable property or possessions; and 10) working in community-based settings.
The article also noted the two OSHA guidelines (for health care workers and for late night retail), and correctly identified many of the engineering and administrative controls that have proven successful in preventing violent incidents. These include physical barriers (such as bulletproof enclosures), pass-through windows in late night retail, or deep service counters, alarm systems and panic buttons, elevated vantage points, clear visibility of service and cash register areas, bright and effective lighting, adequate staffing, arranging furniture to prevent entrapment and cash-handling controls, such as using drop safes.

I was about to figure that this was yet another episode of "When Bad Headline Writers Meet Good Articles," when I read the following paragraph:

Studies by The Workplace Violence Research Institute of Palm Springs, Calif., show an armed intruder is not the chief threat workers face. The institute's definition of workplace violence is "Any act against an employee that creates a hostile work environment and negatively affects the employee, either physically or psychologically. These acts include all types of physical or verbal assaults, threats, coercion, intimidation, and all forms of harassment." (emphasis added)
Now that's a pretty broad definition of workplace violence -- one that would in some ways fit almost any workplace in America, and a definition that many workers could use to describe the work environment imposed by management.

Then the article moves to the favorite -- and most discredited -- pastime of workplace violence consultants: the worker profile. And employers whose workplace has characteristics that fit the above description (and whose doesnt?) had better pay attention or else face "huge liabilities" for "negligent hiring" or "negligent retention."

Negligent hiring occurs when prior to hiring, the employer knew or should have known a particular applicant was not fit for the job. Negligent retention occurs when an employer becomes aware of an employee's unsuitability and fails to act. (emphasis added)
What's the problem with profiling? Looking back at violent incidents, almost every perpetrator of a violent incident in the workplace fits one or more of these characteristics, but so do millions of others who, while perhaps being irritating, would never commit a violent act.

I've listed a number of the "pre-incident indicators" that the employer had better know. Note that many of them include characteristics of what many would consider to be an active union representative. An employer who really is "out to get" someone can easily find ways to match him or her with these warning signs.

  • an unexplained increase in absenteeism; (which could be a workplace health or stress problem, or a disease that the worker would like to keep confidential)
  • depression and withdrawal;
  • unprovoked, explosive outbursts of anger or rage; (perhaps a bit more stress than usual?)
  • threats or verbal abuses of co-workers and supervisors; (this, like other items, may be an indicator or the general workplace environment.)
  • frequent vague physical complaints; (or, we could have not repealed the ergonomics standard)
  • behavior suggestive of paranoia; (just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you -- especially if you're a union activist.)
  • having a plan to "solve all problems"; (of course, in some workplaces this might be welcome)
  • resistance and over-reaction to procedural changes; (like it would be overreacting to resist mandatory overtime or violations of the contract)
  • empathy with individuals committing violence; (don't even think about making Bush/Iraq jokes here)
  • repeated violations of company policy; (There's always some company policy that is being violated at any given moment
And don't forget to watch out for these dangerous characters:
  • white male 35-45 years of age;
  • a migratory job history; (hear that brown-skinned folk from south of the border)
  • a loner with little or no family or social support; (see above)
  • chronically disgruntled; (Don't worry, be happy)
Anyway, you get the idea. At best, articles such as these prey upon employers' irrational fears of gun-toting angry workers and massive lawsuits, as well as their desire for an easy test to resolve the "problem." At worst, it provides employers with a justification for getting rid of any worker to tries to rock the boat, stand up to arbitrary supervision, raise workplace health problems, or -- horrors-- organize other workers.

On the other hand

Do not, however, mistake my hostility toward profiling as a minimization of the need to address workers who harass, threaten or assault other employees. I made the mistake when I was at ASFCME of assuming that we could ignore "worker-on-worker" violence because it resulted in relatively few fatalities compared to more serious causes. I'll never forget getting a call from a steward relating how he had celebrated "saving" the job of a worker who had been accused of threatening other workers. The problem was that the other members of the union were really pissed off. "The guy really was a menace. We'd been trying to get rid of him for years, and then you save his job!"

I won't go into the solutions to this problem here, but if you're interested in a union approach, check out AFSCME's handbook on Preventing Workplace Violence, especially Chapter 5. For a reasonable employer approach, check out the federal Office Personnel Management's Dealing with Workplace Violence.

Also, my objection to "profiling" doesn't mean that there aren't certain indicators of increased risk of serious violence that workers should be aware of. These indicators focus not on personality characteristics, but on actual behavior, such as actually making threats against people, bringing a weapon into the workplace, or drug and alcohol abuse.

The bottom line is that any workplace violence policy should focus on the real risks of violence. It does little good to start profiling workers in a futile attempt to predict when one may go over the edge, while in the real workplace, workers are actually getting attacked by clients or clients. Second, any attempt to address workplace violence should be addressed jointly by management and the union.