Thursday, November 30, 2006

More Foxes Infest OSHA's Chicken Coop

The Bush administration is still being, well, the Bush administration.

We have a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration who thinks that ergonomics hazards are caused by obesity, accidents are caused by negligent workers and we don't need OSHA investigations of farm deaths because the sheriff and country coroner can take care of the problems.

Last week, Assistant Secretary of Labor Ed Foulke (who came to OSHA directly from the notorious union-busting law firm Jackson-Lewis) appointed two new Deputy Assistant Secretaries at OSHA. Deputy Assistants are the next level down from the Assistant Secretary (just a heartbeat away). One of the new Deputies is C. Bryan Little. As the OSHA press release says, Little is
formerly of the Department of Labor's (DOL) Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs (OCIA).

Little served for more than four years as a senior legislative officer in OCIA managing Congressional contacts for activities of OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and immigration-related issues relevant to DOL. Prior to arriving at the Labor Department, Little served for six years as senior director for government relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The American Farm Bureau calls itself the "voice of agriculture." Its legislative priorities include exempting farms from environemental regulations, opposing action to address climate change, and supporting Rep. Charlie Norwood's OSHA deform legislation. Most recentlythe Farm Bureau has been known for strongly favoring repeal of the estate tax, claiming that it has dire consequences for family farms and small businesses. But as the Center For Budget and Policy Priorities reminds us:
the American Farm Bureau Federation acknowledged to the New York Times that it could not cite a single example of a farm having to be sold to pay estate taxes.
While at the Farm Bureau, Little was involved in issues closer to the hearts of Confined Space readers: opposing the ergonomics standard.

A press release issued by the Farm Bureau in 1997 repeated the tired old claim that there was no science to support an ergonomics rule and quoted Little about the National Academy of Science study that the Republican Congress mandated in an effort to stall the ergonomics rule:
"It is good news for farm employers, because there is no way to reasonably redesign dozens of jobs on farms across the country to eliminate what OSHA says are ergonomic hazards."
Little went on to minimize the hazard, saying:
"Until scientists can figure out how to give farmers eyes in the backs of their heads, those driving tractors will have to turn their heads in order to safely operate a variety of towed farm equipment. When the driver's neck gets sore from doing this, a standard like that envisioned by OSHA will require farmers to somehow redesign that job. This will not be possible at a price agricultural producers, and therefore consumers, can afford."
Little didn't have much good to say about the OSHA inspectors he'll be working with either. In a June 2000 interview, Little responded to a Congressional effort to pass an amendment that would have stopped OSHA from finishing the ergonomics standard.
Depending on what side of bed the OSHA inspector got out of in the morning, you might or might not be in compliance, and that's bad regulatory policy. You ought to give the regulated community an opportunity to know exactly what they need to do in order to be in compliance.
He then went on to claim that ergonomic problems are due to obesity. The ironic thing was that Clinton's ergonomics standard didn't even cover agriculture. But Little claimed that it did cover "agriculture" that didn't occur in the fields, "like packaging and processing and things like that" - in other words basic manufacturing processes.

The Farm Bureau went on to join a lawsuit against the standard after it was issued in November 2000, and actively supported efforts to repeal the standard in March 2001.

And it gets worse. Every year Congress adds language to OSHA's budget bill prohibiting the agency from conducting any enforcement activity on farms that employ fewer than 10 people. In 1998, following the death of Rhode Island teenager who was killed in a tractor accident, Rhode Island Senators Jack Reed (D) and John Chafee (R) proposed a change to law that would permit OSHA inspectors to investigate fatal accidents and prepare a report on the causes of the accident.

Predicting that an OSHA investigation (even without citations!) would certainly lead to the fall of Western Civilization, Little sympathetically explained that
Unfortunately, accidents are going to happen where you mix people with heavy machines and large animals.”
Hey, shit happens.

And anyway, we don't need no stinkin' OSHA inspectors. A little common sense and the local sheriff will do:
Little questions why the proposal is necessary when local authorities already conduct accident investigations. “No fatal accident is going to occur on a farm where the sheriff and the county coroner don’t look into it. Safety in agriculture is not complicated, and serious negligence will be clear to anyone with a little common sense. You don’t need someone from Washington to tell you to keep your loose clothing out of an auger or PTO shaft.”
Damn straight. And you don't need someone from Washington to tell you not to fall off a building or get crushed in a trench collapse or get electrocuted by a live wire or get poisoned by chemicals either.

Oh, incidentally, Bryan, they make shields for PTO shafts. They cost about $50. But I guess the local sheriff knew that already.

Anyway, welcome to OSHA. You'll fit right in.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Happy Blogoversary To Effect Measure

While I was still recovering from my Thanksgiving gluttony, my mysterious friend Revere over at Effect Measure went and had his second blogoversary. I had he opportunity to have a cup of coffee with Revere at a very early stage of his blog-life and tried to warn him that it would take over his life. He didn't listen, and now, two years later he's undoubtedly wishing he had listened to me. Not really. Like me, he loves blogging -- when he's not hating it.

And that's a good thing, because during this period of unending attacks on our public health system, we need a provocative independent voice that will ask the questions that need to be asked. Effect Measure has become an indespensable resource for anyone following pandemic flu issues and the preparations that this country needs to make..

Go read his blogoversary essay. In addition to saying some very nice things about me, he talks about the influential people reading Effect Measure, and why we blog:
The "who is reading" is important to us because it goes to part of what Effect Measure is about. We didn't want to just have a conversation with the blogosphere, although we are delighted one has developed. Our aim was to change the conversation within public health. We didn't think most public health professionals were going to agree with everything we said or even most of it. But we wanted to legitimize saying it, making the topics we brought up and they way we talked about them part of the conversation in public health. It's not just the topics like war and religion that are usually not considered part of public health. It's public health topics that we talk about in a particular way. When we talk about pandemic influenza preparation, for example, we emphasize community mobilization, cooperation and collective action. We're not interested in individual prepping, although we don't say it is unimportant. It's just not on our blog agenda. We also push transparency and honesty and credibility as cardinal virtues of public health practice. All of those things have political correlates and we aren't shy about pointing them out.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

GAO Suggests Subjects For Workplace Safety Oversight

The Democrats will soon be in control of Congress, and as we've noted, after 12 long years (with a short exception in the Senate) they'll have an opportunity to organize oversight hearings concerning how the Bush administration has been operating the federal government.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has started contributed to the discussion with a report about needed oversight subjects. One target for near-term oversight, according to the GAO is "Review the Effectiveness of Strategies to Ensure Workplace Safety." The GAO says that Congress should:
  • Determine how well the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) enforcement program has adapted to changes in the workforce, including demographic changes, work arrangements, and the use of new technology.

  • Assess the effectiveness of OSHA’s recent efforts to provide assistance to employers in improving the safety and health of workers through compliance assistance programs, such as the Voluntary Protection Program and alliances with employers.

  • Examine the impact of recent efforts by the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to protect the safety and health of mine workers, particularly those who work in underground coal mines.

  • Assess the preparedness of federal agencies to protect their employees in emergencies, such as a pandemic, while relying on a multi-sector workforce to perform its essential operations and return to normal operations.
The GAO footnotes previous reports, including a 2004 report that states that there is no evidence that OSHA's voluntary programs are effective, in addition to a 2003 GAO report on MSHA's effectiveness and a 2005 report on safety in the meat and poultry industry.

The report notes that there have been significant changes in the demographics of the national workforce and changes in the nature of work itself
For example, traditional work arrangements are giving way to alternatives such as temporary employment, blended workforces, and teleworking. Industries such as meatpacking have had large increases in the number of immigrant workers, and membership in organized labor has declined.
And this is an interesting statement, when you think about it.
Now more than ever, it is important to find the right balance between ensuring the safety and health of workers and employers’ needs to increase productivity in an increasingly competitive global environment.
Looking closely, this statement seems to contradict the rhetoric spewing regularly from OSHA -- namely that there is not conflict between safety and productivity; on the contrary, they go together.

The GAO, on the other hand seems to be saying that safety and product are a zero-sum game -- like a teeter-totter, when one side goes up, the other goes down. Perfect safety means lousy productivity. Maximum productivity means lousy safety. The mission is to balance the two. And if this is, indeed the case, it speaks more for the importance of strong enforcement -- to force the balancing act -- as opposed to more voluntary activities, which would seem to contradict employers' naturaly inclination to increase productivity and profit -- at the expense of safety.

But why "now, more than ever?"

Mass. Explosion: Chemical Safety Board Joins Investigation

Cooler heads have prevailed and the Chemical Safety Board has been allowed to join the investigation of the massive explosion at a CAI, Inc., that destroyed part of a neighborhood in Danvers, Massachusetts last week. A statement released jointly by the CSB along with the the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Danvers (MA) Fire Department, the Executive Office of Public Safety and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said that:
Consistent with its authority and jurisdiction under the federal Clean Air Act, U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators are currently on the site of the November 22 explosion in Danvers, Massachusetts, along with teams from the ATF, Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, Massachusetts State Police assigned to the Office of the State Fire Marshal, and the Danvers Fire Department. All parties have agreed to cooperate in executing their different missions. The CSB and ATF will coordinate to ensure the integrity of the ongoing civil and criminal investigations during the access to the site.
The agreement followed a meeting among the parties this morning.

More newspaper editorials chimed in as well. A Boston Globe editorial, calling the dispute an "egregious" example of counterproductive turf wars, said that
It's understandable that local firefighters who risk their lives responding to chemical explosions might take a proprietary approach to such sites. But cooler heads, such as those from the State Fire Marshal's office, are supposed to recognize the immediate value of a federal team that includes chemical and mechanical engineers with decades of investigative experience, blast modelers, and combustible dust experts. And unlike local officials, federal investigators not only examine the factors contributing to the blast but also analyze and publicize their findings to prevent similar explosions across the country. Stiff-necked local fire officials have no cause to interfere with such work.
The North Andover Eagle Tribune also chimed in:
Fire Chief James Tutko has assembled a team of investigators from his department and other local and state agencies to go through the ruins of the CAI and Arnel manufacturing operations at 126 Water St. But his refusal to allow the federal Chemical Safety Board similar access in the days immediately following the incident was puzzling to say the least.

Unlike the locals, for whom this is (we hope) a once-in-a-career event, the federal agency has plenty of experience investigating this type of industrial mishap. There had to be a way of allowing the various investigative agencies to look at the scene without interfering with each other or trampling on evidence.

Danvers residents expect and deserve answers as to the cause of this catastophe. The unseemly turf battle simply raised more questions about what may have occurred.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Fire Chief To Chem Safety Board: 'Take A Hike'

Imagine a plane crashes into a small town in Massachusetts and the local fire chief tells National Transportation Safety Board investigators that their services are not needed, thank you very much. "We'll handle this..... "

When two hundred residents of Danvers, Massachusetts were rocked from their beds last week by a massive explosion at a CAI, Inc., a nearby industrial paint and ink factory, most were probably unaware that pagers and cell phones soon started beeping in the bedrooms of investigators from the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

The CSB, a small independent government agency that recently rocketed to fame with its revelations on CBS's 60 Minutes about the investigation of the massive 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery, was commissioned by Congress to perform independent investigations of chemical plant accidents. The Board, created by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, identifies the root causes of incidents and makes recommendations to companies, associations and state and local government agencies in order to prevent similar accidents from happening. Since its creation eight years ago, the Board has conducted around 40 investigations.

But not everyone is pleased by the pleased with the CSB's mission. Danvers Fire Chief James Tutko is refusing to allow CSB investigators on the site, allegedly because the site is still a crime scene:
Tutko has said the federal team was "uninvited" and "unwelcome," but CSB spokesman Daniel Horowitz said his agency has statutory authorization to enter the site and gather evidence under provisions of the federal Clean Air Act.

"Our chairman has made it clear we're not going away," Horowitz said. "We're going to be talking with the state fire marshal tomorrow (Monday) and we're looking at a range of legal options."
The Boston Globe isn't buying it, noting that the Board's role to identify steps that might be taken to prevent future disasters sometimes rubs local officials the wrong way.
The feds may find, for example, that inadequate local fire codes contributed to a fire. They may find that inspections were not up to par in some regard. They may also produce findings that differ from those of local officials, who are accustomed to investigating fires together -- and, in some cases, covering each other's backs.

"Our role is to determine the root causes and make those public, so other communities in Massachusetts and elsewhere are protected from this kind of devastating accident," Horowitz said.


Its investigators need to see evidence before it has been picked over by several other investigators. Otherwise, the safety board investigators' ability to reconstruct the fire could be severely compromised .

One of the last things anyone needs at this point is a turf battle. A fire has displaced hundreds and wrecked the peace of a city. When a plane crashes, local investigators do their work, and federal investigators do theirs. That is the way to serve the public interest, and frankly there's no good reason any of this should be up to the Danvers fire chief.
Some of the Board's reports have highlighted the inability of fire departments to oversee and enforce the large number of industrial fire codes that states have adopted. The CSB's recent combustible dust study, for example, found that local fire departments generally do not have adequate resources to inspect most industrial facilities, nor the expertise to oversee complex industrial processes. Those industrial inspections that do take place focus mainly on "life safety" issues like fire extinguishers, sprinklers and emergency exits.

Meanwhile, OSHA, which has primary responsibility for industrial safety, is far too understaffed to inspect more than a handful of industrial facilities every year. CAI Inc. has never been inspected by OSHA, according to the agency's website. An AFL-CIO analysis shows that it would take OSHA 124 years to visit every jobsite in Massachusetts at least once .

International Agency Says US Has Insufficient Number of Labor Inspectors

2.2 million people are killed in workplaces around the world every year. According to the Interational Labor Office , a crucial part of addressing this crisis is a sufficiently staffed labor inspectorate. The International Labour Office is the permanent secretariat of the International Labour Organization, which is part of the United Nations.

In order to do that work, each country must have “sufficient number” of inspectors. What's a "sufficient number?" The ILO says that "industrial market countries" like the United States should have one inspector for every 10,000 workers. ("Transition economies" should have on per 20,000 workers, while less developed countries should have one inspector per 40,000 workers.)

So where is the United States? The US has 2,100 labor inspectors, or about one inspector for every 70,000 workers -- not even close to the ratio needed for a less developed country.

So, to come up to ILO expectations, the US would have to hire somewhere around another 12,600 inspectors, which would come add (very) roughly, another $1.5 billion per year to OSHA's budget. Sounds like a lot until you look at Liberty Mutual insurance company's estimate that employers pay almost $1 billion per week to injured employees and their medical care providers.

When Borat makes his second visit to the United States, he may want to look into this problem. The ILO reports that Kazakhstan has 1 inspector for every 24,000 workers.

"Do what you’re told, or take the chance of being fired."

If you listen to the rhetoric spewing forth from OSHA and MSHA these days, you'd think that all employers and workers need is a little more information on how to work safely. A few more fact sheets, a couple more web pages, maybe a speech or two, and all will be well.

Actually, in all too many workplaces, that's not how it happens. Workers are given the choice between doing the job unsafely or losing their jobs, also known as job blackmail -- your job or your life. In these situations, people often blame the workers: "Well, if he knew it was dangerous, why didn't he just quit?"

Here we have a story about the preventable death of mine worker Steven Bryant who was crushed to death when the truck he was driving overturned.
It was Bryant’s first time behind the wheel of the truck, which carried 8,000 gallons of water weighing more than 33 tons. Investigators found that Bryant had not been trained by his employer, Miller Brothers Coal LLC, to operate the vehicle, also a violation of law.

The truck came to rest at the bottom of the nearly mile-long road in fourth gear, higher than an experienced driver would have used. Using that gear would have caused the truck to travel at an unsafe speed, taxing its regular, wheel brakes.

Investigators determined that those brakes also were defective and improperly maintained — yet another violation.

A working engine brake would have helped slow the truck. Such a brake helps reduce wear and tear on a vehicle’s wheel brakes and typically is installed on heavy trucks hauling on mountain roads.

Workers, especially young and inexperienced ones, sometimes face a difficult choice at relatively small, nonunion coal mines: Do what you’re told, or take the chance of being fired, said longtime mine-safety advocate Tony Oppegard.

“If he has a family to support, he’s either going to do what he’s told to do and risk his own safety, or else get fired and not be able to support his family,” Oppegard said. “A lot of miners will take the former option (perform the unsafe task).”

Miners who are fired because they refused to do something they thought was unsafe can file suit seeking reinstatement and back pay. But even if they win, the process may take several years. Meanwhile, they may be out of work.
MSHA found that the employer violated federal and state laws when he knew that a company water truck had a defective engine brake but told an employee to drive the vehicle anyway. MSHA issued four citations to Miller Brothers Coal in July, including one accusing the company of “high negligence” for telling Bryant to drive the truck when they knew about the faulty engine brake.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Cops: Let's Be Careful Out There

When you think of police officers dying on the job, you think of shootings. But actually, more died from some sort of motor vehicle-related accident. Out of 75 officers who died on the job during the first six months of this year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund:
Thirty officers were shot to death, while 22 died in motor vehicle accidents, according to the survey. Eleven died from job-related illnesses, and five officers were killed when struck by automobiles while outside their vehicles. Four officers died in motorcycle accidents, while two officers were killed in helicopter crashes and one officer died in a bomb blast.

The survey notes that the number of law enforcement officers killed in automobile crashes has increased by 40 percent over the past 30 years, and by 22 percent in the past year.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Immigrants In Meatpacking: Not Much Help From OSHA

The Dallas Morning News ends a three part series about immigrants' lives in the town of Cactus, Texas with a story about hazardous work in the meatpacking industry. It's a familiar story: exposure to fast lines, sharp knives, ergonomic hazards and chemicals by immigrant -- mostly undocumented -- workers afraid to complain and unknowledgeable about their rights, all amidst the backdrop of consolidation of the industry into four giant corporations, relocation to rural areas, and a drop in unionization.

At the Cactus plant, inspectors said employees weren't familiar with information about health hazards on the site.

In the fall of 2003, for instance, workers in the "Slaughter and Blood Pit Area where the stun and stick operation takes place" complained about chlorine mists, OSHA reported.

The calcium hypochlorite solution led to bloody noses, vomiting, headaches and irritation to their eyes, nose and throat, the report said.

Employee interviews found that Swift "had not provided training" on the hazards from the solution, OSHA said.

Twenty-six former employees of the Swift plant are suing the company for wrongful termination, saying they were let go as a result of filing workers compensation claims after being injured on the job. The workers list injuries ranging from slipping on greasy floors to falling off ladders to being struck by a forklift.

Swift has denied the charges in the suit, which was filed in a Dallas County court.
Many workers simply accept the risks even in dangerous situations, critics say.
Some immigrant workers, whether legal or illegal, hesitate to file complaints. Workers often don't know their rights or fear getting tied up with immigration authorities.

"We don't have a choice but to put up with it. Or let them fire us. We have too many years invested," said the longtime worker.

The article also spends some time on OSHA's failure to enforce the law -- what laws there are -- and the agency's inability to accurately assess how big a problem there is -- particularly since the 2001 repeal of OSHA's ergonomics standard and changes in its recordkeeping rules.
The industry also maintains that total "recordable" injuries have declined 70 percent since 1990, a figure that critics say doesn't account for the full extent of problems inside plants.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees worker safety at U.S. companies, does not collect injury figures for every plant.

Although manufacturing facilities must log worker injuries at the plants, they are only required to do so if the injuries can be proved to have occurred onsite.
OSHA inspectors can request the records during inspections; otherwise the log sheets aren't collected. The agency inspects about 75 of the more than 5,000 meatpacking plants each year.

"It's been a long time since OSHA's been here," said one longtime employee at the Cactus plant who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "When OSHA is here, everything moves nice and slow."


OSHA figures show a decline in meatpacking injuries and illnesses in 2002, the first year of new record-keeping that omitted a special category for repetitive-motion injuries.

The percentage of workers injured dropped to less than 12 percent, from 20 percent a year earlier.

"The reporting is really going underground," said Ms. Nowell of the union. "This is the biggest category of injury that's happening across the board in this country, and we're not recording it as such."
Industry experts aren't confident of major improvements in the near future.
Industry critics say the safety of workers needs as much attention as food safety. And pressure from consumers, much like a century ago, is the only way to force the industry and regulators to make faster improvements, said [Donald] Stull, the University of Kansas anthropology professor.

"There isn't the public outcry," he said. "The general public, as long as their food is cheap, as long as it's safe, as long as the workers aren't really that much like them, they can look the other way."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Aracoma Mine: Forgetting The Lessons From The Dead?

New information has emerged on the causes of the fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine last January that killed two miners. Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette reports that because of understaffing, the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training did not complete its sheduled inspection of the mine in the quarter preceding the fire. By law, West Virginia mines are supposed to be thoroughly inspected four times a year. In addition the state inspector was not able to see many parts of the mine because Massey, the mine's owner, refused to provide transportation to the inspector, in violation of state law.

A report earlier this month found that a missing wall contributed to the deaths of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield
The missing ventilation wall, called a stopping, allowed smoke from a conveyor belt fire to enter the Aracoma Mine’s primary escape tunnel.

By law, such escape tunnels are supposed to be kept isolated from conveyor belt tunnels because of the dangers of fire and smoke that belts create in underground mines.

During the Jan. 19 fire, a crew of workers hit smoke during an attempted escape and had to find an alternate route
Brag and Hatfield became separated from the group and died of smoke inhalation.

In another Gazette article, Ward reveals that two Massey foremen knew about the missing wall before the fire. The two foremen, in addition to a number of other Massey supervisors received citations from state authorities for not evacuating the mine in a timely manner, allowing non-certified workers to perform safety examinations in the mine, failing to provide an accurate mine map, and not reporting the fire to state authorities for two-and-a-half hours.

Finally, a Charleston Gazette editorial explains how overlooking mine safety laws means we're forgetting the lessons from those who have died in the mines:
Richard Stickler, new head of MSHA, talks smart and tough on mine safety. He says America has more safety laws than it now uses, that it has tools to shut down unsafe mines, get the attention of bad operators and straighten them out. Also, Congress has added money to MSHA’s budget to restore inspectors that the agency needs. We hope Stickler carries out these strong plans.

Every safety rule was passed because of miners’ deaths. Every law about ventilation, roof supports, spreading rock dust to prevent explosions, building walls to block poisonous fumes — all were created after miners died by tens or hundreds.

Each time a mine operator or the larger society, represented by state and federal regulators, fails to practice these lessons from the past, they forget the people who died before.
More mine stories here.

More On Houston Janitors Victory

By now, you've heard and read about the amazing organizing and contract victory of janitors in Houston Texas, represented by SEIU. If you haven't, check out my article at Firedoglake.

Following up on that is a piece by Steve Lerner, the lead strategist for SEIU's Justice For Janitors campaign, published over at My DD.

Building Boom Dooms NY Construction Workers

In workplace safety circles, 2006 will generally be known as the year of Sago, the year when coal mine fatalities more than doubled over 2005. But another lesser known tragedy has also erupted this year in the City of New York:
Fatal construction accidents have grown at an alarming rate in New York City, rising 61 percent in the year that ended on Sept. 30, amid a continuing building boom, officials said yesterday. Many of the 29 victims were Hispanic immigrants working for small contractors in nonunion jobs.


In the 12 months that ended on Sept. 30, 17 of the 29 construction workers who died in work-related accidents fell to their deaths. In the previous year, 18 construction workers were killed, 9 in falls.

Richard Mendelson, OSHA’s area director for Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, said the “dramatic increase” in fatalities was preventable.


Of the 28 incidents in which the 29 workers were killed, 19 involved companies with 10 or fewer workers and 21 involved workers who were immigrants or had limited English proficiency and 24 involved nonunionized workers.
The rise in fatalities mirror a rise in construction activity in the city making it increasingly difficult for underfunded and understaffed state and federal enforcement agencies to do their jobs.
Joel A. Shufro, the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said enforcement of building safety requirements has been feeble at best.

“The administration has moved forward to finally consider this epidemic of fatalities, and it’s about time,” he said. “Whether they have the political will to move aggressively to perform inspections and impose strong fines on employers remains to be seen.”
Not surprisingly, it's the non-union sites that are the most dangerous.
Mr. Mendelson said that unionized workers were not immune from accidents, but had a better safety record. “There’s no reason why nonunion workers should have a lower level of protection,” he said. “Obviously there’s a disparity here.”
Well, maybe nonunion workers shouldn't die more often, but they do -- and for good reasons: less training about safety, less training about rights, and less protection for those who complain.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, federal OSHA is swinging into action:
Edwin G. Foulke Jr., the assistant secretary of labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the agency has set up a Web site and a telephone hotline for Spanish speakers and arranged for translators whom agency inspectors can reach by cellphone.

“We’re also going to more pictorial-type information,” Mr. Foulke said. The images, he added, “will highlight what the hazard is and what is the proper way to avoid those hazards.”
As we've always said, worker education is good, particularly in the language that workers understand. But where we have a situation where we have mostly immigrant employees working in unorganized workplaces for unscrupulous employers who cut corners on safety and fire anyone who complains, sure, strong enforcement and meaningful penalties are the only way you're going to significantly reduce the number of accidents.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving Greetings From Elaine!

Chao, that is. Your Secretary of Labor, and her hubby, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

This was sent today to all Department of Labor employees:

From: Secretary Elaine Chao
Sent: Wednesday, November 22, 2006 11:57 AM
Subject: Thanksgiving Message from the Secretary

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones! I hope you’ll have a relaxing and fun holiday weekend with family, friends and loved ones. Last weekend, I was in my neighborhood grocery and learned that the couple who ran it for decades are facing health challenges. I thought of them as I composed this email and am reminded how grateful we are to have the friends, colleagues, and family who enrich our daily lives. I hope we’ll also remember our men and women in uniform this Thanksgiving. And once again, thank you for your service to our country.

Happy Thanksgiving!
Well, how could one not respond to that?

From: Jordan Barab
Sent: Wednesday, November 22, 2006 11:57 PM
Subject: Thanksgiving Message from Confined Space

Happy Thanksgiving to you too and thanks for your note! But I'm afraid I can't figure out what the hell you're talking about!

You say that "Last weekend, I was in my neighborhood grocery and learned that the couple who ran it for decades are facing health challenges."

What the hell does this mean? What's a health "challenge"? Is their health "challenged" or is their ability to pay for their health care challenged?

I'm glad you have friends, colleagues, and family "who enrich our daily lives." Friends, family and colleagues are certainly good things, but when it comes to enriching, I have a feeling a universal single-payer health plan would be far more useful for your grocery couple.

And what's the point of bringing them up in the first place? Are you saying that you're sure glad you're not in their shoes? "Gosh, I sure am glad that Mitch and I aren't health-challenged [as opposed to morally challenged -- see below?]"

And when you say that "we" are grateful to have friends, colleagues, etc., are you implying that your grocery couple doesn't have friends -- unlike you and Senator Mitch, who have lots of friends (particularly Senator Mitch, although he has about 6 fewer friends/colleagues than he had before November 7).

Finally, yes, Elaine, I certainly do remember our men and women in uniform. I mean, how can I forget? I particularly remember the thousands buried in their uniforms, and the tens of thousands permanently disabled -- physically and mentally -- and their families who aren't exactly having a Happy Thanksgiving! And for what?Most of all, I remember that they were sent there for absolutely no reason, thanks to your boss and your husband. In fact, Elaine, in addition to remembering them and thanking them, you should be falling down on your knees and apologizing to them.

(Oh, and by the way, my holiday "weekend" would be more fun and relaxing if I didn't have to work on Friday.)

Happy Thanksgiving To You And Senator Mitch Too!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Thanksgiving Basket Of Juicy Workplace Safety Nuggets To Read About

My internet has been down, I just got back from my kid's hockey game, and I'm heading out of town tomorrow for Thanksgiving, and I've got a huge, long list of things I haven't written anything about, so you do some work for a change. Here's your holiday reading list

(Uh, sure Aunt Sally, I'd love to discuss how those metrosectuals are ruining the country, but I've got some, uh, work to do. Yeah, that's it, important work. Be right back.)

The Galveston Daily News looks at Chemical Safety Board preliminary findings regarding the cause of the March 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 180 and wonders whether CSB recommendations will be effective or if the company must actually be compelled to do the right thing.

The president of the New York City Building Trades Employers' Association tells the Daily News that the reason there are so many construction fatalities in New York is the high number of non-union contractors.

And speaking of construction in New York, Mark Dittenhoeffer at Tort Deform Blog notes that "Folks have been falling from scaffolds like leaves from trees lately," yet every year the construction industry descends upon the legislature

with increasing force and finance to urge upon our representatives wholesale changes in New York’s Labor Law to remove, repeal, restrict, retrench or reduce those Labor Law sections authorizing a private cause of action against offending worksites.
Meanwhile, things are even dirty in the laundry industry where workers in Connecticut are trying to organize New England Linen. They even have health and safety problems:

Workers have also complained about unclean and unsafe conditions at the company. In March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for 19 violations of standards, including flammable liquid storage, training, record-keeping, basic housekeeping and machine guarding to prevent accidents and amputations. New England Linen was fined $24,500 for the 19 violations, but later reached a settlement to pay $14,070 on 18 of them.
So do other laundries, as evidenced by an $83,700 OSHA citation against Northern Health Care Linen Services Inc.

But make sure you don't get hurt on the job, especially in California where the California Medical Association surveyed its members who have treated workers under Workers Comp reforms passed in 2004 and found, as one physician said, "It is a terrible system. It's fraud."

And while we're in California, we have a "funny" situation where the Governor has bought the entire bill of goods regarding the benefits of voluntary partnerships based on the the theory that employers will do the right thing if they just have good information. Then he goes and vetoes a bill that would have allowed the state to identify which employers use harmful chemicals (like diacetyl, which causes popcorn lung) so that state authorities can address the problems.

And finally, as if I didn't have enough to do, you can check out my piece at Firedoglake about the amazing contract victory won by janitors in Houston. Yes, that would be Houston, Texas.

And the funniest thing is that someone actually asked me a while back how I can possibly find enough to write about every day. If only....

Have a very happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Is this any way to run an election?

The Republican candidate, Vern Buchanan was declared the winner by 6 votes in this Florida district where thousands of votes may have been lost by electronic machines that did not register more than 18,000 votes.
The Republican, Vern Buchanan, won by 369 votes in the Nov. 7 election, according to results confirmed by the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission, which is made up of Gov. Jeb Bush; Tom Gallagher, the state chief financial officer; and Senator Daniel Webster of Winter Garden, all Republicans. The results, which fill the seat given up by Representative Katherine Harris, a Republican, were confirmed in a machine recount and a manual one.
How long is the world's leading democracy going to let elections be handled by one political party? Would election observers in a third-world country declare the elections to be free and fair if one of the political parties was in charge of the entire election apparatus and also in charge of judging the honesty and accuracy of the outcome?

I think not.

Monday, November 20, 2006

OSHA Pressures Scientist To Weaken Asbestos Warning

An estimated 60,000 workers die every year of occupationally-related disease, many of which are due to exposure to asbestos. And if the asbestos industry and its friends in government get their way, the bodies will keep piling up.

Baltimore Sun
journalist Andrew Schneider has uncovered evidence that OSHA has threatened to fire an agency scientist for not softening warnings to auto mechinics about the dangers of cancer-causing asbestos in brake linings.

The problem of asbestos in brake linings is so little known that when Washington Senator Patty Murray asked OSHA nominee Ed Foulke at his confirmation hearing last January whether he thought it would be a good idea to ban asbestos, Foulke replied that he wasn't aware that the cancer-causing product was used anymore in the United States. Murray sharply corrected him, listing automobile brake pads as one of the many products in which asbestos can still be found.

Foulke could probably take some comfort in knowing that most Americans are just as ignorant about the hazards of asbestos-containing brake linings as he is. But finally last July, after six years or pressure by public health and labor activists, as well as Senator Murray, OSHA finally issued a bulletin on Asbestos-Automotive Brake and Clutch Repair Work. All's well that ends well? Not quite.

Three weeks after the bulletin was issued, former OSHA head John Henshaw called on the agency to make changes in its warnings, according to documents obtained by the Baltimore Sun. The order went out through OSHA, according to Schneider:

But Ira Wainless, an OSHA scientist who wrote the advisory bulletin about asbestos in brakes, refused, according to agency documents. Wainless cited dozens of studies, including work at his own agency, to show that his presentation of the medical risk to mechanics was solid.

Last week, David Ippolito, an official with OSHA's Directorate of Science, Technology and Medicine, told Wainless that he would be suspended without pay for 10 days if the changes weren't made, according to documents.

Wainless refused again, and the advisory bulletin remains online.
According to Ed Stern of Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees
OSHA wants the July 26 advisory to include studies, financed by the auto industry, that say that asbestos in brakes does not harm mechanics.


The union rebuttal letter noted that former OSHA chief Henshaw worked with two consulting firms run by Dennis Paustenbach, ChemRisk and Exponent. These firms, according to Stern and documents obtained by The Sun, have been paid more than $23 million since 2001 by Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler to help fight asbestos lawsuits brought against them by former workers.
Amazingly, Henshaw said that the warning wasn't needed because asbestos is no longer used in the United States. This despite evidence (also reported by Schneider) from experts who estimate that there has been an 83 percent increase in imports of asbestos brakes and brake material into the United States over the past 10 years. Dr. Barry Castleman, a former Baltimore County health officer and a leading researcher on medical and legal issues involving asbestos, estimates that thousands of workers die every year from exposure to asbestos from brake pads.

But this shouldn't be any secret to OSHA, according to Schneider,

an Aug. 31 internal OSHA memo on the brake warnings to agency chief Edwin Foulke Jr. stated: "Some domestic automobile manufacturers continue to use, in certain models, asbestos brake pads and linings."

Despite this information,

In the agency's suspension notification to Wainless, it faulted the industrial hygienist, who is an expert on the recognition, evaluation and control of hazardous materials, with failing to have adequate scientific documentation to support the claim of asbestos' danger. Yet the internal memo to Foulke lists 35 studies and reports.
In that memo, OSHA allows that asbestos can cause cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, but it plays down the risk to brake mechanics.
The war against warning auto mechanics about asbestos has been going on for a number of years. In 1986, EPA issued and distributed thousands of copies of the so-called "gold book: Guidance for Preventing Asbestos Disease Among Auto Mechanics. In November 2003, the lawfirm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, representing asbesetos manufacturers, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency "to stop distributing warning booklets, posters and videotapes that give mechanics guidance on the need to protect themselves from asbestos." Senator Murray as been urging EPA to re-issue the publication.

Last year, OSHA officials acted to stop publication of the OSHA bulletin on asbestos in brakes. An OSHA spokesman said that release of publication of a safety and health information bulletin "is not warranted." At that time, Joel Shufro of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health stated that "It borders on criminal negligence for OSHA to have produced a new alert addressed to mechanics but refuse to publish it because it does not conform to a so-called guideline."

Pressure from Murray finally forced the bulletin out last July. According to Occupational Hazards magazine,
Murray placed a legislative "hold" on the nomination of Stephen McMillin for OMB deputy director when she learned OMB ordered OSHA to shelve the publication which was due to be released on March 25, 2005 in fear of potential lawsuits against auto and parts manufacturers for asbestos-related diseases.
Medical experts, needless to say, are outraged and disgusted with this entire story:
"Asbestos causes cancer, whether it is pulled out of a mountain, scraped off a steam pipe or shed from a brake shoe," says Dr. Michael Harbut, who has examined thousands of autoworkers for asbestos disease under a project funded by the Occupational Health Legal Rights Foundation, which is financed by units of the AFL-CIO.

"To withhold these warnings to mechanics who have no knowledge of asbestos or believe it's banned is unconscionable," said Harbut, co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit.
The only good news is that this information is being released at a time when something can actually be done about it. How do Congressional oversight hearings sound?

Related Articles

Slow Line Speeds In Meatpacking

The Nebraska Appleseed Center has called for the federal government to issue regulations slowing the pace of meatpacking production lines in to improve the safety of workers and food.
Swift-moving production lines processing 400 head of cattle per hour are the major cause of worker injuries and put food safety at risk, said Milo Mumgaard, executive director of the public policy center.

“The simple truth is that it all happens too fast,” he said.

Mumgaard urged Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns to “require the industry to slow down.”

It is Johanns’ job to “ensure our hamburgers -- and the workers who process them -- are as safe as they can be,” Mumgaard said. “Slowing down the line is a great place to start.”
The industry counters with it usual disingenuous argument that production line pace is already regulated.
Janet Riley, spokesperson for the American Meat Institute in Washington, D.C., disputed Appleseed’s conclusions.

Line speed already is regulated by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors, she said.

“Inspectors are in our plants every minute we operate and they are fully empowered to take action” if line speed adversely affects food safety, Riley said.

Production lines are allowed to move only at a speed that “permits compliance with federal rules,” she said.

“It’s not so much the speed of the line,” she said, but whether the production line is adequately crewed.
The fact is that the inspectors are concerned about the quality and safety of the meat, not the safety of the workers. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last year,
Line speed is regulated by USDA to permit adequate inspection by food safety inspectors. According to USDA, when the maximum speeds were originally set and when they are adjusted by the agency, the safety and health of plant production workers is not a consideration.
Not to worry:
Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson said: “Appropriate staffing for a production line is set by industrial engineers who conduct studies to determine the number of people needed to safely, yet effectively, process certain product mixes.”

Key factors in establishing staffing levels are “protecting the safety of our team members as well as the quality of our products,” Mickelson said.

Related Articles

Sunday, November 19, 2006

November 19, 1968: Today In Workplace Safety History

November 19, 1968, an explosion in the Farmington, West Virginia, Consol No. 9 mine kills 78 miners. More information here and here, and a recent NPR report here.

Major mining disasters such as the Farmington coal mine explosion in 1968 and the Sunshine Mine fire in 1972 led to the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act of 1977.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Update On The Class War: Houston TX and Tarheel NC

Stories about the Houston janitors strike and the walkout at the Tarheel North Carolina Smithfield meatpacking plant that I wrote about yesterday are making their way through the blogosphere.

To update both stories, the 1,000 Smithfield workers who walked off the job Thursday to protest the recent firing of immigrants are back at work and Smithfield officials say they won't be disciplined.
The agreement to return to work came late Friday after Smithfield representatives met with leaders from a Roman Catholic Church to discuss the workers' grievances.

Among those who returned to work were workers who had been fired, said Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman. The company is giving the employees more time to sort out problems with Social Security documents, which prompted the firings.

But Pittman said Smithfield is still committed to following immigration laws.
Meanwhile, the day after Houston police on horseback brutally broke up a demonstration of striking janitors and their supporters, the two sides are back in negotiations, according to SEIU spokesperson Lynda Tran.
"It's probably not a coincidence that during a week of historic civil disobedience, when the eyes of the country and the world are on Houston, cleaning companies came back to the negotiating table," Tran said.

The union says several people were injured Thursday by mounted police who were trying to break up their blocking of an intersection. The union has halted all acts of civil disobedience until it completes an investigation into the incident, Tran said
Meanwhile, several blogs are covering the issue:

Matt Stoller at My DD has photos and a video, and makes a plea to politicians:
I don't care if you don't like unions. This is insane. And if you are a politician reading this site, or a 2008 candidate, now's your chance to stand up and issue a strong statement condemning these actions and demanding that Chevron and Hines Interest pay these people responsibly.
Ezra Klein points out that this is what class war looks like and has eyewitness commentary from a striker.

Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise has a first-hand account by Union organizer Anna Denise Solis and another post about the striking Smithfield workers where she notes that
I think the truth is that the Democratic victories and the resurgence of organized labor are part of the same phenomenon. Americans are sick and tired of the divisive, racist, union-busting status quo, and they're making their voices heard at the ballot box and on the street.

Digby educates us about life in America (or at least in Texas:
In an unprecedented transparent attempt to severely limit the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech of low-wage Houston janitors and their supporters, a Harris County District Attorney has set an extraordinarily high bond of $888,888 cash for each of the 44 peaceful protestors arrested last night.


The combined $39.1 million bond for the workers and their supporters is far and above the normal amount of bail set for people accused of even violent crimes in Harris County. While
And Susie Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla wonders
Is it the job of police officers to maintain order - or to act as bullies for corporate interests? There’s a long and dishonorable tradition of the latter in this country, and it sure looks like the good old days

Friday, November 17, 2006

Petrochem Companies Blame Workers For Cancer

Workers at Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. in Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, who were exposed to benzene caused their own cancer because they
voluntarily used the chemicals knowing the dangers and risks, and they failed to take precautions which could have avoided injuries.
And also, there were warnings on the chemicals and they were complying with industry standards and anyway the cancers were due to unavoidable accidents or by "abnormal or unintended uses" of the products.

Those are the excuses that 16 defendants including Exxon Mobil Corp., Sun Petroleum Products Co., Texaco, Standard Oil Co., Shell Canada and Shell Chemical are using to defend themselves against
nine former workers at the defunct tire factory who were exposed to dangerous levels of benzene, benzene derivatives, rubber solvents and other toxic and hazardous chemicals. Two the plaintiffs are dead.

According to the American Cancer Society, studies have linked benzene exposure to cancer, including myeloma, among rubber workers.

Myeloma is a progressive blood disease that affects the plasma cell, an important part of a body's immune system in the fight against infection and disease.


The lawsuit started when two women in their 50s who had worked together at Uniroyal in the 1970s discovered they both had multiple myeloma. The women began to research their illnesses and contacted a California law firm with experience in lawsuits related to toxic exposure.
All of their excuses about "complying with industry standards" might be amusing if we weren't talking about cancer. Amusing how? Benzene was first identified as a myelotoxin (meaning it's to bone marrow) in 1897 and leukemia in 1927. As early as the 1940's the American Petroleum Institute noted in the 1940s benzene caused leukemia noted that any level of exposure to benzene posed risks. Esso Oil's medical research division wrote an internal memo about the health effects of benzene in 1958 that said that "Most authorities agree that in light of present knowledge, the only level which can be considered absolutely safe for prolonged exposure is zero." Dow Chemical testified at OSHA's 1977 hearing on development of a benzene standard, but did not reveal that its own study had shown chromosomal damage at low levels of exposure until after the hearings were over. And the chemical industry fought OSHA's 1977 benzene standard all the way to the Supreme Court.

So cry me a river guys. And then pay up.

Related Stories

Workers Fired Up, Can't Take No More

American workers are getting mad as hell -- and they're not taking it any more.

First in North Carolina:
In a move highly unusual for nonunion workers, more than 500 employees walked out yesterday at the Smithfield Packing Company’s hog-killing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., the largest pork-processing plant in the world.

Workers involved in the walkout said it was fueled by anger over Smithfield’s recent decision to fire several dozen immigrants who the company said had presented false Social Security numbers in applying for a job.

Several of the workers said their action had largely crippled production at the plant, which employs 5,500 people and slaughters 32,000 hogs a day. But Smithfield officials said production had merely been slowed a little.

The walkout coincided with a big push by the United Food and Commercial Workers to unionize the Smithfield employees in Tar Heel, about two-thirds of them Hispanic immigrants. A number of workers said the discontent stemmed not just from the recent firings but also from brusque treatment, the speed of the production line and widespread injuries.

“They were tired of the working conditions,” said Gene Bruskin, director of the union’s organizing drive. “They want a permanent solution to the problems there.”
And in Houston:
An early-evening demonstration by SEIU janitors blocked a downtown intersection for more than an hour Thursday, resulting in the arrests of about 40 union officials and janitors, most of whom were from out of town.

Traffic was backed up for several blocks as police rerouted commuters around the three-hour demonstration.

Since Oct. 23, janitors have marched in front of office buildings throughout Houston, blocked streets and invaded a Galleria-area office in to bring attention to their cause.

The Service Employees International Union represents about 5,300 janitors who make an average $5.30 an hour and want a boost in pay to $8.50 an hour and health care benefits from the city's five largest cleaning companies.
The union's website reports that workers' lives were endangered as mounted police use horses to break up the demonstration. An 83-year old female janitor hospitalized.

Smithfield has become notorious in recent years for the dangerous conditions in its plants and its illegal union busting tactics. Earlier this year, a federal court decided that Smithfield had repeatedly broken the law in fighting the UFCW's attempt to organize its pork-processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C. nine years ago. UFCW is trying to convince Smithfield to agree to "card check" recognition of the union, instead of the marred, company friendly NLRB elections that the company abused before.

The Houston janitors went on strike last month for higher pay, more guaranteed work hours and health insurance. The 5,300 janitors, who currently earn $5.50 per hour, were organized by the Service Employees International Union last year in what was the largest union organizing campaign in the South in years. The janitors want their wages raised to $8.50 an hour, along with longer hours and health insurance. Currently they earn the lowest wages and benefits of any major city in the United States, according to the union.

Stickler ReReRenominated To Head MSHA

No, my computer is not stuttering. Welcome to "Night Of The Living Dead Bush Nominees."

Like a punch drunk fighter whose who thinks he's winning the fight even when he's lying bleeding on the mat, President Bush -- for the fourth time -- nominated Richard Stickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Stickler, you may recall, is the former mine industry official with less than sterling safety record who was rejected by the Senate and twice sent back to the White House only to be renominated again.

Stickler was finally put into the position last month by a recess appointement, which the President is able to do when Congress is out of session. The only problem is that a recess appointment only lasts one year -- hardly long enough to unpack the boxes.

Stickler was joined in the same announcement by the renomination of Wal-Mart attorney Paul DeCamp to head the Wage and Hour Division at the Department of Labor. The only problem, as the AFL-CIO Today points out, is that DeCamp's record
includes urging the weakening of the Fair Labor Standard Act’s (FLSA’s) overtime pay and other protections. He even argues for changing the law to prevent millions of workers from becoming eligible for overtime pay. Strangely enough, he also said that it would not be “in the interest” of the workers to obtain overtime eligibility.
Stickler and DeCamp join the other doomed nominees like John Bolton (recess appointed to UN Ambassador) and Ken Tomlinson to head the Broadcasting Board of Governors which oversees Voice of America and other American oversees radio networks. Tomlinson, who was first apponted to the Board in 2001, was found to have abused his position and effectively defrauded taxpayers. Tomlinson was was forced to resign from the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Corporation last year after he was found to have engaged in highly unethical behavior. Stickler's in good company.

As the AFL-CIO blog says, "this is a very puzzling and odd way to demonstrate bipartisanship. Isn’t it?"


John L. Lewis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jesus

Must-read article in the Washington Post today about the difficulty the United Mine Workers are having organizing young miners in today's "second coal rush."

The older miners understand the value of retirement benefits like health insurance and pensions, as well as the job protections that come with unionization.

Middle-aged union supporters say younger workers are naive to think they won't face supervisors who underestimate danger or play favorites in assigning work, or try to deny their rights if they are injured or lay them off without explanation. They say they've seen all this and more.

The younger workers, on the other hand, are so pleased with the good money they're suddenly making that they don't want to rock the boat. That and high unemployment in the coal fields puts them a world away from the older miners:

The miners here come not only from different generations but different worlds. Those in their 50s mostly began mining as union men from union families, following grandfathers, fathers and uncles.

Their towns erected memorials to men who died in mine accidents alongside memorials for fallen soldiers. They relied on the union to protect them in a dangerous workplace and were raised to revere John L. Lewis, the longtime UMWA president.

"I have three pictures side by side in my house: John L. Lewis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jesus," said Jack McReynolds, 70, a retired miner eating lunch recently at Lola's Uptown Restaurant in West Frankfort, once home to seven coal mines, all now closed. "I draw Social Security on account of FDR. I draw a pension on account of John L. Lewis, and I'm going to Heaven because of Jesus."

The UMW's current stuggle to organize Peabody coal is symbolic of the problems the union is having. In the 1980's Peabody was 80% union. Then the highly unionized eastern mines close as mining moved to the non-union west. Now that the eastern mines are reopening, Peabody is 85% "union free." They pay union wage, provide 401(k) plans and pay generous bonuses.

With all that, union organizers have their work cut out for them:
Back at Lola's Uptown Restaurant, [27 year old Carl "Bubba"] Vincelette recalled that he had listened with an open mind when a UMWA organizer visited him recently. The organizer said union coal miners elect safety committees that have authority to shut a mine if they judge it unsafe. But Vincelette said he trusted Peabody to be vigilant about safety.

The organizer also said that with 20 years in a union mine, Vincelette would get retiree health insurance for life. But 20 years sounded like an eternity.

"The way everything's going -- wars and stuff like that -- it's hard to think long term," he said.

McReynolds, the retired UMWA miner with John L. Lewis's picture in his living room, listened from across the table in pained silence.

When the young miner left, McReynolds rose slowly from his chair and straightened his Mason's hat bearing a UMWA pensioners' emblem and a gold pick-and-shovel pin the union gave him. "That young man has no idea what he's talking about," he said.
More on the Justice At Peabody organizing campaign here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

ILO Calls On Bush Administration To Stop Violating Screeners' Right To Organize Unions

The International Labor Organization has found that the Bush administration has violated the fundamental rights of American workers to form unions by denying unionization rights to the 56,000 passenger screeners at U.S. airports. The screeners were denied the right to organize a union and bargain collectively in 2003 for "national security reasons." The Bush administration claimed that it needed create a nimble work force capable of responding to today's threats.

The ILO was ruling on a three-year old complaint by the American Federation of Government Employees.
The ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association, which considered the case, said it was "concerned that extension of the notion of national security concerns for persons who are clearly not making national policy that may affect security ... may impede unduly upon the rights of these federal employees."

The United States is a member of the ILO, which sets global labor standards, but there is no mechanism to enforce its decisions within any of its member countries.
That wasn't the only union-busting action the Bush administration took in the name of national security, according to the AFL-CIO Today:
The Bush administration has used the same national security argument in its bid to deny collective bargaining rights through new personnel rules to more than 700,000 U.S. Defense Department workers and 160,000 employees in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Federal courts have ruled against new personnel rules in both cases. Congress also has weighed in against the Defense Department’s so-called National Security Personnel System. But the Bush administration is appealing the Defense Department ruling in the suit brought by United DoD Workers Coalition made up of more than 30 unions that represent department workers.
Despite the Bush administration's orders, AFGE has been attempting to win bargaining rights for the screeners. One thousand screeners have signed cards expressing their desire to become members of a union. Despite the fact that they can't bargain, the union can represent them in disciplinary hearings, discrimination cases, and takes their case to the media.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and AFGE President John Gage issues a joint statement calling on the Bush administration to immediately grant collective bargaining and all other labor rights to TSA workers.
The AFL-CIO and AFGE join the international community in its recognition that national security and worker rights are not mutually exclusive. At a time when airport screeners need a voice on the job to highlight where improvements can be made in our national security, the Bush Administration continues to stifle dialogue. Today’s decision further calls into question the Administration’s policy of using national security to justify the denial of basic worker rights.

The decision by the ILO amplifies the growing voices heard around the country and the world that are calling on the Bush Administration to recognize internationally accepted workers’ rights standards.
TSA has no plans to change its policy:
Spokesman Darrin Kayser on Nov. 16 reiterated the department’s stance that collective bargaining would hurt TSA’s ability to make quick changes to respond to threats.

“Given the critical national security mission of our security officers, collective bargaining is not appropriate,” Kayser said.

Related Stories

Daughter Of Two BP Victims Settles Lawsuit

Eva Rowe, whose mother and father were killed in the March 23, 2005 BP Texas City explosion along with 13 other workers has reached a settlement with BP last week. Rowe's was the only case involving a fatality that had not been settled. She had said that she was suing the company to find out the truth behind why her parents are dead. Although all the terms of the total settlement was not released, some details are known:
Also as part of the settlement, all claims against contractor J.E. Merit Constructors., which employed Rowe's parents, and Texas City plant manager Don Parus were dismissed.

In memory of James and Linda Rowe, $1 million will go to the cancer center at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, a favorite charity of the Rowes, and to Hornbeck High School in Louisiana, where Linda Rowe had worked as a special education teacher's aide before moving to Texas.

BP also will make another $30 million in donations on behalf of the Rowes and the other 13 people who died in the explosion.

The biggest payments will be $12.5 million each to the burn unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which treated 23 people injured in the first six hours after the Texas City blast, and to the Texas A&M University Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, which works to prevent workplace injuries in the petrochemical industry.

The College of the Mainland in Texas City will receive $5 million for safety and process technology training for refinery and chemical plant workers.
But most important for Rowe was BP's promise to make potentially damaging records public.
Though every other wrongful death case against BP was settled in the past 18 months, Rowe had gone ahead because she wanted to hold the company responsible for the deaths of her parents, she has said.

She also said she wanted potentially damaging documents about BP safety practices to come to light during the trial.

Coon said, as a term of the settlement, those records will be made public. The process for releasing them is still being worked out, he said, but attorneys from his firm and BP will negotiate their disclosure.

The lessons learned from those records will set new industry standards and prevent future accidents, Coon said.

Rowe's attorney said she may have made peace with BP, but that doesn't mean she has forgiven them.

"I'll probably never say BP is a good company," she said.
More BP Texas City Explosion Stories

Wal-Mart: Wrong Turn On Ergonomics

Gotta hand it to Wal-Mart. They certainly know how to spin the press. They're happy all the time, they help people save money, they have "associates," not employees, they're the new environmental champions, and now they've apparently become a leader in ergonomics.

Of course, as usual, Wal-Mart's view of a good ergonomics program doesn't exactly match the experts' view of a good ergonomics program. According to the Bureau of National Affairs Occupational Safety and Health Reporter (paid subscription), Wal-Mart's program provides "lifting visual targets." They're called "Badge Backer" rules because they're posted on the back of each associate's identification badge. Pretty nifty.

The "Badge Backer" rules tell employees to:

  • face the work (to eliminates twists);
  • lead with their feet (also to eliminate twists);
  • keep the shoulders square (to prevent side twists);
  • keep the load close to the body (to reduce fatigue);
  • "fly like a bird," (keep the elbows low and in);
  • use a 90 degree bend (to keep the back vertical);
  • do not hold (to reduce fatigue); and
  • use a momentum swing (do not throw).

In other words, what they're promoting is "safe lifting techiques." Nothing wrong with those, unless they're all there is to the program, which apparently they are. The problem is that the best way to prevent back injuries is to lift less -- smaller packages, less frequent lifting, using engineering controls like mechanical lifts. "Safe lifting" doesn't reduce the weight that's being lifted, although it can help workers lift with less stress on the back -- unless the packages are difficult to grip, or you have to twist in order to get the box from one spot to another, or if you have to lift from too low or too high, or, or, or.

But Wal-Mart consultant Bill Mullen ensures us that if the associates follow all of these good ideas, "they can still go dancing after work." Or at least after their second job. Of course, during OSHA's ergonomics hearings during the Clinton administration, people suffering from serious musculoskeletal injures were more concerned with being able to pick up their children, vacuum the carpet and just living a normal life than "dancing after work."

Of course there are a few problems, according to Wal-Mart. Like if you use the nifty "momentum swing" with eggs, they're likely to scramble. And then there's the specially developed Wal-Mart "pull hook," which makes "pulling boxes more comfortable, eliminates awkward climbing, and makes the task easier." Except that there's still a problem with "catching and pulling freight at the same time," which I think means that you have to be careful not to pull boxes down on your head. The good news, however, is that each "pull hook" only costs one dollar.

And next year, Wal-Mart has in store ergonomic lifting videos and monitoring improvements in the use of "pull hooks."

Get ready to dance.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

NYC Honor System, Weak OSHA Enforcement Contributing To Epidemic of Worker Deaths

A painter in Queens became the 99th fatality resulting from a fall in New York City since October 2001. Stupid workers? How about the city's "honor system" and weak OSHA enforcement that are allowing unscrupulous contractors and architects to get away with murder, both figuratively and literally,.
The doomed man was trying to attach scaffolding to the building from the roof, but the hookup failed and the apparatus crashed to the ground with him on it just after 11:30 a.m., authorities said.

His partner, who was standing on the roof, called 911. The injured painter was pronounced dead at Elmhurst Hospital Center minutes later.

Investigators said the dead man wasn't wearing a safety harness at the time of the accident. A permit was not required at the site, but the workers should have been supervised by a foreman, according to a Buildings Department spokeswoman.
Many more have been injured. How many is hard to tell, according to a special investigation by the Daily News.
Between 2001 and 2005, OSHA investigated 68 "catastrophic accidents" citywide, meaning at least one worker died or three were seriously injured.

Because the vast majority of mishaps occur on nonunion jobs involving immigrant laborers, numerous additional cases are believed to go unreported.

"When a union guy is injured, reports are filed," said David Perecman, a personal injury lawyer who represents many immigrant workers. "But when they are illegal aliens, the boss tells them if it still hurts in the morning go to the hospital and tell them you tripped and fell."
And the problem is getting worse in the city, partly as a result of the biggest building boom in recent history, and partly because of New York City's construction "honor system" which is allowing unscrupulous contractors to build illegal buildings and ignore zoning and safety rules:
"There are contractors who ... are doing it on purpose because they want the adjacent building to fall down or be vacated," Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster said of the shoddy excavations.

In an interview with the Daily News, Lancaster refused to name names. But this much is certain: At the heart of the problem is a cadre of well-known scofflaw developers and shady architects who abuse the Buildings Department's flawed honor system, which allows them to self-certify their work for zoning and building code compliance.

According to the Mayor's Management Report, 43% of all building plans in fiscal 2005 were self-certified. Of those, only 18.9% were audited. And of those audited, 16% had permits revoked.
Two of the "poster boys for building boom boondoggles" are architects Robert Scarano and Henry Radusky who have not only been accused of ignoring zoning rules or building codes at no less than 26 Brooklyn apartment buildings, but three workers have also died on their projects.

The penalties, however, are not exactly cruel or unusual.
Both Scarano and Radusky have settled Buildings Department charges and have agreed to drop out of the self-certification program. But you'd never know that if you visit the department's Web site. Their names are not included on the list of disciplined architects.

Indeed, of the 34 architects and engineers who lost self-certification privileges this year and last, only four are named on the Web site. The rest have escaped public exposure in plea bargain-like deals, Lancaster admitted.

Moreover, none of them has been barred from practicing.

Few ever are.

Since 1995, the Buildings Department has asked the state Education Department, which licenses professionals, to discipline 132 architects and engineers. Only 31 have been fined or had their licenses suspended or revoked.

This year, the Buildings Department announced a pilot program to audit all self-certified plans. But it is limited to zoning conformity outside Manhattan. Building code compliance will continue to be audited randomly.
Meanwhile, OSHA isn't doing too much to pick up the slack according to CWA Local 1180 Vice President and NYCOSH Co-Chair Bill Henning.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that enforces the job safety and health law, has been starved for funds and staff for so long that the chances of a violation being identified by a random OSHA inspection are almost nil. OSHA’s staff is so small that it can barely inspect five construction sites a day in all of New York State. Even if such inspections uncover violations of safety standards, OSHA penalties are laughably small.

After a violation causes a fatality, the typical penalty is less than $5,000. In almost all cases when a worker is hurt or killed on the job, the only recourse is workers’ compensation, which pays tiny cash benefits.
Just to put that in perspective, last year the city issued 111,283 permits for demolition or construction, and this year the number is expected to reach 130,000.

The only thing working in employees' favor is the the scaffold law section of the labor law in New York which contractors have been trying to repeal:
The "strict liability" contained in that section of the law allows a worker (or the worker’s survivors) to sue an employer for damages when killed or hurt in a fall as a result of an employers negligence.

An employer who violates the scaffold law and kills a worker faces considerable liability, which is why contractors have been trying for years to get the law repealed.

Each year contractors tell the legislature that the scaffold law makes it too expensive to operate in New York State, when the truth is contractor negligence makes it expensive.
There's only one thing that's fairly certain here: fatality number 100 is right around the corner

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What's OSHA Doing About Refinery Safety? Not Enough

And while we're talking about Congressional oversight, a prime subject might be OSHA's weak efforts to ensure safety in our nation's petrochemical industry and how increased funding and inspection strategies might address the problem.

One finding of the US Chemical Safety Board's investigation into the March 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers is the contribution of OSHA's lax enforcement.
The board’s chairwoman indicated that OSHA’s approach to workplace safety might be a bit shortsighted.

“It’s just like BP was focused on trips and falls and lost work-time incident rates,” said Carolyn Merritt, who chairs the Chemical Safety Board. “OSHA focused on that, and they’re not going to recognize, for instance, if (a company) cuts too far back in maintenance.”

Merritt said OSHA’s approach does not recognize the long-term potential for disaster due to poor maintenance or other lax process-safety measures.
TJ Aulds, writing in the Galveston Daily News notes that U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao recently released a report showing workplace injuries and illnesses to be at an all-time low, and credits "compliance assistance from the regulated companies, health and safety partnerships with labor groups and targeted, “aggressive” enforcement against bad actors" for the improvement. (More on that here.)

Although OSHA's inspections of petrochemical facilites has picked up recently, that increase is a result of the catastropic BP explosion and other small incidents. In fact, according to Aulds, it may be OSHA's reliance on self regulation that's causing the problems.
Department of Labor statistics obtained by The Daily News show that in OSHA’s Region 6, which includes Texas and four other states, the agency conducted 123 inspections of petrochemical facilities in three years, from Oct. 1, 2003, through Sept. 30, 2006.

The vast majority of those inspections would not be considered preventative. In fact, 91 were conducted as a result of an accident, referral or complaint.

The rest were either follow-ups to previous inspections or related to an accident, complaint or referral.

Forty-eight of all of the Region 6 inspections during that same three-year period were conducted by the Houston office, which has oversight of the petrochemical facilities in Galveston County.

From those inspections, OSHA issued only four non-injury or non-incident citations.

However, the rate of inspections has picked up dramatically in the Houston region since the blasts at BP.
The root cause of this problem is, of course, not lazy OSHA inspectors, according to Merritt:
“Listen, they are understaffed, under-funded and overworked,” she said. “It’s simply a big job, and OSHA doesn’t have the resources to do much more than it already is.”
And the cause of that problem lies in Washington D.C.

Nevertheless, OSHA has it's opinion and it's sticking the script, no matter how ridiculous it sounds:
“A strong, fair and effective enforcement program is a key part of OSHA’s overall approach to workplace safety and health,” said Elizabeth Todd, a spokeswoman for OSHA’s Region 6 office. “We have the resources we need to be effective. Our balanced approach to workplace safety and health is succeeding, and it’s validated by workplace injury, illness and fatality rates that are at their lowest levels, even as the work force continues to expand.”
Blah, blah, blah. Not everyone is fooled though.
That response drew a chuckle from Glenn Erwin, who heads the United Steelworkers workplace safety initiatives.

Erwin, a former Texas City resident and BP — then Amoco — employee, is also a member of the panel led by James Baker that is reviewing the safety culture of BP.

“There is never an incident that happens that doesn’t have precursors or warnings before it happens if industry and (regulators) would investigate,” said Erwin, a critic of programs that emphasize investigations only when injuries are involved.

“Companies should be required — and OSHA actively force them — to investigate every incident, no matter what the size and even if no one gets hurt or loses work time.”

Erwin said such measures wouldn’t likely take hold unless Congress gets involved.

Fewer people were killed in the Sago Mine accident “and it sent shock waves all the way through Congress,” said Erwin.

“They even had hearings on mine safety. BP didn’t have that shockwave. There were no hearings until you had that problem with Prudhoe Bay, (Alaska).

“Why was it there were not hearings on Capitol Hill as to why (the Texas City) incident was allowed to happen? It’s a double standard.”

Erwin credits the Chemical Safety Board with putting pressure on BP as well as on federal regulators.

“Had it not been for the CSB calling attention to this last year, Terry Shiavo would have been the only news, and we would have been a footnote,” he said. “Congress was so worried about that one woman’s life, but didn’t get at all bothered that 15 people were killed.”
Amen brother.