Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Top Ten Workplace Health and Safety Stories of 2005

Another year has gone by, OSHA and MSHA continue to do a heck of a job protecting the nation's workforce and once again it's time for the eagerly awaited Top Ten Health and Safety Stories of the past year.

  1. BP Amoco Explosion: An explosion ripped through BP Amoco's giant Texas City refinery on March 23, 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. Faced with evidence that alarms and meters hadn’t been functioning correctly and that the plant had experienced previous similar incidents that had not been adequately investigated, the company took full responsibility by blaming the workers and firing six of them. All of the fatalities were in or near office trailers that had been placed too close to the unit that exploded.

    OSHA fined BP $21.3 million, the largest fine in OSHA's history, sending shockwaves through the company when it was discovered the fine amounted to just over 2 hours of BP profits. BP has established an independent panel to review safety systems at all BP facilities in the United States, at the request of the US Chemical Safety Board, which is conducting an thorough investigation of the explosion.

  2. Alliances and Voluntary Programs: Courageously confronting the rising number of workplace deaths, disproportionately high rates of workplace fatalities among immigrant workers, its growing budget problems and a monumental (if un-noticed) health and safety crisis among dog groomers, OSHA took the bold step of forming an alliance with the International Society of Canine Cosmetologists.

    Moving from the ridiculous to the tragic, in August, OSHA granted the prestigious "Star" Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) status to corporate killer W.R. Grace which was indicted earlier this year for knowingly exposing thousands of workers and community residents to deadly asbestos dust.

    Finally, the agency decided to lend a helping hand to the financially struggling American Chemistry Council by forming an alliance with the chemical manufacturers association that seemed intended to help the association bolster its plummeting membership numbers.

    And what, you may be asking, is OSHA in effect saying to the General Accounting Office which warned the agency in 2004 that there is no evidence that these costly programs are effective in reducing health and safety problems?

    "Bite me."

  3. Elimination of the AFL-CIO Health & Safety Department: After accusing the rival "Change to Win" coalition of attempting to rip the guts out of the AFL-CIO, Federation President John Sweeney ripped the guts out of the AFL-CIO himself by eliminating its highly touted Safety and Health Department, cutting half of its staff and moving the remainder into the Legislation Department. The bone-headed elimination of the department was allegedly intended to put more resources into organizing, although by weakening one of the major reasons for workers to join unions, it is more likely have the opposite effect.

  4. New OSHA and MSHA Directors: Suddenly remembering that OSHA and MSHA had been lacking permanent leadership for almost a year, President Bush finally got around to nominating a permanent director for both agencies on the same day: Edwin G. Foulke for OSHA and Richard Stickler for MSHA.

    Foulke’s chief claim to fame was his term as Chair of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission during the Bush I administration, but his years since those glory days have been spent heading up the OSHA practice at Jackson, Lewis, a huge law firm notorious for its aggressive union busting practice, and heading up the Greenville, South Carolina Republican Party in his spare time.

    Foulke will replace acting Assistant Secretary 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.

    Meanwhile, Stickler, who was most recently head of mine safety in Pennsylvania during the Quecreek Mine near-disaster, was notable chiefly for managing coal mines that had injury rates that were double the national average.

  5. Health and Safety Journalism: Although American journalists inexplicably failed to pick up on the crisis in the canine cosmetology industry, 2005 did produce a number of great workplace safety media stories. One of the best was the disturbing Sacramento Bee series by Tom Knudson and Hector Amezcuaon on the Pineros, the immigrant workers who work the pines, but end up paying the usual price in injuries and abuse, all under the watchful eye of the federal government. The series has already led to proposals for sweeping changes to better protect the Pineros from injury and abuse on the job.

    The Kansas City Star ran an excellent series by Mike Casey
    on the sham that this nation's attention to workplace safety has become while Dan Frosh penned an informative piece in AlterNet on the rising number of deaths in the steel industry.

    Unlike most articles about trench deaths, Heidi Shrager's article about a fatal Staten Island trenching fatality actually explored in-depth the employer's conscious decision to violate OSHA's trenching standard, sending an immigrant worker to his death. I don't know if Shrager's article gets the credit, but the case has resulted in manslaughter charges.

    And finally, that radical anti-capitalist publication known as the Wall St. Journal had a couple of good pieces on the failure of U.S. programs to regulate exposure to toxic chemicals, and corporate influence on the science that determines chemical regulations. If only the WSJ editorial staff would actually read their own newspaper...

  6. Hurricanes and the Unlearned Lessons of 9/11: A number of important lessons were learned from the cleanup operation following the destruction of the World Trade Center towers which left thousands of workers with serious long-term health problems. Reports over the past several years have faulted OSHA for failing to enforce OSHA standards at the World Trade Cener site, neglecting to ensure proper use of appropriate respirators and ignoring the health and safety problems of mostly low-paid immigrant workers who were exposed to toxic dust while doing cleanup work outside the main WTC site.

    With those lessons under its belt, OSHA then responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster by failing to enforce OSHA standards, neglecting to ensure proper use appropriate respirators and ignoring the health and safety problems of mostly low paid immigrant workers working with toxic molds and other hazards for employers who were not under FEMA contracts.

  7. Chemical Plant Security Legislation: After spending $13 gazillion, causing the needless deaths of over 2,000 American soldiers and tens of thousands Iraqi civilians without finding a single weapon of mass destruction, Congress and the Bush administration have failed for the fourth straight year to pass legislation that would address the 15,000 weapons of mass destruction littered around the United States. Faced with action by some states, a "compromise bill has been introduced into Congress that would impose new security requirements on the plants, but fails to include a requirement that they seriously consider the use of inherently safer technologies, which would not only reduce the threat of terrorism, but also reduce the threat of home-grown Bhopal-like "accidents."

  8. OSHA Deform Legislation: Responding to rising number of workplace fatalities, paltry penalties and skeletal budgets that would take OSHA 108 years to visit every American workplace, Senator Michael Enzi addressed the problem by introducing a conglomeration of OSHA bills that ease the "burden" on small business. One of the most important provisions would give busy small businessmen a "get out of jail free" card if they misplace their OSHA citations and miss the 15 day deadline for filing an appeal. While automatic extensions in the case of lost homework win the support of my kids, few experts expect it to have much impact on the workplace death rate. At the last minute, Enzi removed an planned provision that would have increased OSHA penalties, muttering under his breath, "Now, where the hell did that come from?"

    And apparently greatly impressed by OSHA's resolution of the health and safety crisis in the Canine Cosmetology industry, Enzi's bills would also encourage OSHA to increase its voluntary activities.

    And finally, Enzi's bills would allow OSHA for the first time in its history to penalize employees for not wearing personal protective equipment like hard hats and gloves. Neither OSHA nor Senator Enzi seem to be aware that by failing to issue OSHA's long awaited standard that would require employers to pay for workers' personal protective equipment, the agency is now penalizing employees for actually using the safety equipment.

  9. Penalties -- Carrying a Bigger Stick: Facing the fact that Congress refuses to deal with the problem of ridiculously insigificant OSHA penalties, more creative minds are dealing with the problem in other ways. Local jurisdictions are filing manslaughter and homicide charges against companies that willfully kill employees. In Arizona a water and sewer company was convicted of negligent homicide, aggravated assault, violating a safety standard causing the death of an employee in a confined space. A Michigan construction company was found criminally responsible for the death of an employee in a trench, and put "on probation," which meant that it could not bid on state contracts until 2013. Meanwhile, manslaughter charges were filed against a Staten Island construction company for the death of a worker in a trench collapse.

    On the federal level, prosecutors at the Justice Department have been indicting business owners using environmental laws that carry much stronger penalties than the OSHAct. W.R. Grace & Co. and seven of its current or former executives and department heads were indicted in February for attempting to hide the fact that toxic asbestos was present in vermiculite products at the company’s Libby, Montana plant. Grace had not only exposed workers at its plant, and the entire community of Libby, but also workers at plants across the United States where the vermiculite was processed.

    Following a puny $175,000 fine against Motiva Corporation for the 2001 death of Jeffrey Davis who was killed when a tank full of sulphuric acid exploded, the Justice Department fined the company an additional $10 million last year for knowingly putting workers in danger. (The company was aware that the tank was leaking explosive vapors.) The size of the fine was a result of enforcement under environmental laws that permit EPA to cite companies if employers knowingly commit environmental violations that also endanger or kill a worker. (Fish were killed in the acid spill). The lesson: If you're a worker who's going to die on the job, make sure you take a bunch of fish with you.

  10. LabourStart Launches Health and Safety Newswire: In a never-ending struggel to make the public aware that workers really do face serious health and safety problems on the job, LabourStart, the trade union news service and Hazards Magazine (edited by Rory O’Neill, the International Federation of Journalists’ health, safety and environment officer) launched a new newswire that provides health and safety news updated every 15 minutes. Check over on the upper right column of Confined Space for a sample. Click here for information on how to put it on your website.
And that's all for 2005 folks. Now on to the 2006, which I had hoped would be a better year until a little coal mine in West Virginia has sadly given us the first health and safety story of 2006.