Tuesday, January 04, 2005

2004 In Review: Top Ten Workplace Safety & Health Stories of 2004

In no particular order....

  1. Attempted NIOSH Reorganization: Apparently fearing that occupational safety and health was becoming far too important, Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding reorganized the agency, burying NIOSH deeper down the CDC hierarchy. Being truly a uniter, not a divider, Gerberding managed for the first time in memory to bring the entire health and safety and public health establishment -- labor, management, and professional associations -- together in strong opposition to the move. The proposal didn't even make much sense to Congress which ordered the CDC to maintain the old reporting relationships for NIOSH.

  2. Terrorism: Meanwhile, not wanting to be outshown by John Ashcroft, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made its contribution to the war on terror by firing two veteran employees (who happened to be Iranian citizens). Seems they had failed a security screening. The reason? Well, no one would say exactly. They had been working in Morgantown, West Virginia on such high security issues as latex allergies.

    OSHA, meanwhile, despite the appalling health effects on unprotected World Trade Center workers, announced that it will enforce emergency safety measures -- except in actual emergencies, when it would, instead, provide technical assistance.

  3. John Henshaw Rides Into The Sunset: If John Henshaw’s primary objective was to steer OSHA into obscurity and irrelevance, he can happily retire with mission accomplished. His main achievement was the creation of the Alliance program -- partnerships with his “business buddies” (but not with unions) -- that has replaced the development of standards. Happy trails, John.

    The Government Accountability Office, meanwhile, is not quite so passionate about Henshaw's babies. The agency has warned OSHA to slow down on the voluntary programs that are eating up a growing percentage of OSHA’s miniscule budget until their effectiveness can be objectively assessed.

    No word yet on who will replace Henshaw, but acting (in the truest sense of the word) in his place is Jonathan Snare, a Texas Republican political operative who, before coming to Washington, played a major role in the infamous Texas re-redistricting and made money defending Metabolife, whose main product, ephedra, was finally banned by the FDA after killing more than 150 people.

  4. Hispanic "Summit:" In response to disproportionately high numbers of Hispanic worker deaths in American workplaces, OSHA staged a Hispanic Summit, but all we got was a Republican press opportunity in an important swing state. Meanwhile, Hispanic workers continue to die in high numbers.

  5. OSHA Sets New Record in Do-Nothingness: The Bush administration is finishing the first four-year term in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration without issuing a single significant worker protection standard. In fact, the agency has gone backwards, not only repealing the ergonomics standard in 2001, but also removing from the regulatory agenda three dozen standards that were in progress, including a standard to protect workers against tuberculosis. And after four years, the agency has still not issued a standard requiring employers to pay for workers' personal protective equipment, four years after coming into office with the standard almost finished.

  6. Popcorn Lung: Several successful trials and settlements against the makers of diacetyl, a butter popcorn flavoring that disintegrated the lungs of untrained and unprotected workers, have once again proven the bankruptcy of our chemical regulation system which considers chemicals innocent until proven guilty and uses American workers as canaries.

  7. Asbestos Compensation: Despite good-faith efforts on the part of labor and trial attorneys to bring order to the chaos of compensation for victims of asbestos exposure, the insurance industry and responsible companies managed to persistently clutch failure from the jaws of success by trying to greedily suck every penny they can from any settlement. Or maybe they were just waiting to see if Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who opposed the industry bailout, could be beaten.

    Hmm. Maybe they weren’t so dumb after all.

  8. Reactive Chemicals: The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) gave OSHA a big thumbs down for refusing to act on the CSB’s two year-old recommendation that OSHA revise its Process Safety Management standard to include reactive chemicals. The CSB recommendation was based on a study showing that reactive chemical incidents had led to 167 serious accidents over 20 years, causing 108 fatalities and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. Instead of revising the standard, OSHA formed an industry alliance and put more information on its website. The CSB was not amused, calling OSHA’s half-way measures an "Unacceptable Response."

  9. Hexavalent Chromium Proposal: At the 12th hour of the court-ordered deadline, OSHA issued a proposal for a standard to protect workers against cancer-causing hexavalent chromium. Construction unions are unhappy that the standard leaves out hexchrome in concrete leaving workers vulnerable to serious skin problems. Industry, on the other hand, is upset that OSHA is proposing a new permissible exposure limit that that might actually protect workers. They fear OSHA will run them out of business. Where have we heard that before?

    And finally

  10. ReElection of George W. Bush: Exploiting the emotional red-herring issues of “values” and fear (of matrimonial homosexuals and brown-skinned terrorists), while trashing John Kerry with lies, corporate American managed to narrowly reelect their puppet man, Dick Cheney Karl Rove George W. Bush.

    Meanwhile, hiding behind the fear & values curtain was a major victory for corporate America's traditional campaign to increase its profit margins, strengthen its control over American society and continue the same old attacks on workers, consumers and the environment. There are now so many foxes guarding the chicken coop that chickens may have to be added added to the endangered species list.

    Maybe Bush and John Kerry should have debated workplace safety and health issues.
Let's try to make some better news in 2005.