Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Top Ten Workplace Safety Stories of 2006

This is the fourth “Top Ten” list I’ve compiled. It’s always an educational experience for me because I get to look back at everything that’s happened over the past year. But something struck me this year: for thousands of people there was really only one top story of the year – the senseless loss of a husband or wife, daughter, son, father or mother, brother or sister, friend or co-worker. (See number 6 below). The rest is just commentary.

Nevertheless, as we here at Confined Space never tire of saying, workplace tragedies occur not as isolated, random incidents, but in a political and historical context. And if we’re going to change things, we need to understand those relationships.

So here goes…
  1. Sago: What else? The Sago mine disaster of January 2, 2006, catapulted mine safety into the nation’s consciousness like no other workplace disaster in decades. Subsequent mine explosions and fires in the Aracoma and Darby mines, as well as numerous other coal mine accidents, largely stemming from increased mine activity (as a result of higher energy prices), neglected maintenance, crumbling infrastruture and insufficient training led to 47 coal mining deaths in 2006, a ten year high and more than twice as many as in 2005. Faulty respirators, poor communication between miners and the surface contributed to the tragedies. But more important, the coal mine disasters of ’06 revealed the Bush administration’s abdication of its responsibility to ensure safe workplaces for this nation’s miners. Investigations by aggressive reporters like the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward showed how the Bush administration filled MSHA with industry insiders, deep-sixed numerous regulations that would have prevented or reduced the consequences of the mine accidents, cut the number of mine inspectors, failed to cite safety violations and failed to collect fines from those mining companies that were cited. The mining tragedies of 2006 revealed to Americans the human toll of this administration’s close ties to the industries it is supposed to regulate. No longer able to deny that the Emperor was as naked as a jaybird, Congress overwhelmingly passed the MINER Act which started the process of implementing needed improvements in the nation’s mine safety law. New mine safety laws were also passed in West Virginia and Kentucky.
  2. Richard Stickler: The Bush administration added insult to injury (and death) by nominating of Richard Stickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Stickler, nominated a few months pre-Sago, was perfect for that long-gone (and never really existing) era when MSHA was a forgotten dusty agency that no one noticed or cared about. But after the tragic first few months of ’06 and Stickler’s less-than-impressive performance at his confirmation hearing, it became vividly clear to almost everyone outside the reality-resistant walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that the former mine industry manager with a lousy safety record was manifestly unsuited for the job. Even the Republican controlled Senate couldn't stomach Sticker, forcing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to halt the vote on his confirmation. Then the Senate, in an unprecedented move, voted to return the nomination to the White House – a subtle hint that the President might want to consider a more qualified candidate.

    Bush didn't take the hint. In response, he launched the tennis game from hell, serving Stickler’s nomination back to the Senate, which duly returned it back to the White House for a second time. Bush then defiantly gave Stickler the job with a one-year recess appointment, and then for the third time lobbed his name back to the Senate for permanent confirmation where it rotted as time ran out on the 109th Congress and the Republican majority. Given the makeup of the new Senate, unless Stickler pulls some rabbit out of his hat, he’ll be heading back to retirement in West Virginia at the end of 2007.
  3. Ed Foulke’s Unimpressive Debut At OSHA: Coming from a union-busting law firm, Ed Foulke had a lot to prove when he took the reins of OSHA last March. Would he be able to overcome OSHA's hard-earned image as a tired, ineffective, moribund, anti-worker agency that had become almost totally irrelevant to workplace safety in this country?

    Apparently not. Foulke blew his honeymoon almost immediately with a series of speeches that seemed to blame workplace injuries and deaths on dumb workers who "do the darnedest things." Blaming employees for on-the-job injuries and fatalities is an all-too-common myth for those who don't understand that unsafe working conditions actually cause workplace deaths and injuries, but such ignorant rhetoric was more than a little surprising and unforgivable coming from the man who is supposed to be leading the nation's effort to make workplaces safe. In fact, Foulke’s follies were so notable that they even made the “Regulators” column in the Washington Post.
  4. OSHA’s Miserable Failure to Issue Standards: One of the jobs that Congress gave OSHA when it was created in 1970 was to issue standards that would protect workers from work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths. George Bush's OSHA seemed to have completely forgotten this role until, after years of regulatory infertility, the agency finally gave birth to its first major health standard in six years. But OSHA's new hexavalent chromium standard was not exactly the product of a loving and caring relationship between government and workers. In fact, it was conceived under duress by a union petition and lawsuit, and delivered by Caesarian section under a court order.

    The result, as might be expected, was a pretty darn ugly baby. The hexavalent chromium standard established a permissible exposure limit so high that it will allow hundreds of extra lung cancer deaths among exposed workers, and OSHA wrote the standard in such an obtuse and confusing way that it will be difficult for employers or workers to figure out exactly what must be done. Hardly a sterling effort for an administration that likes to complain about how difficult it is to understand government regulations. The new standard was issued less than a week after a report revealed that scientists working for the chromium industry had concealed data from OSHA that showed that even very low level exposures to hexavalent chromium can cause cancer.

    Meanwhile, unions have petitioned OSHA for two emergency temporary standards, one to protect workers against pandemic flu, and the other to protect workers against the lung-destroying effects of diacetyl, the ingredient used to provide butter flavoring for popcorn and other foods. OSHA has responded to neither petition. Oh, and then there’s the little matter of the proposed standard that would require employees to pay for workers' boots, gloves and other personal protective equipment required by OSHA standards. It was all ready to be issued at the end of the Clinton administration, but the deciders of the current regime have still not decided how to proceed. (Flash! Update here.)
  5. BP Texas City Explosion Aftermath: The massive explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 180 in March of 2005 barely caused a ripple in the nation's consciousness compared to the 2006 Sago tragedy despite the record $21.3 million OSHA penalty. Yet revelations throughout 2006 about BP's faulty safety system have raised major questions not just about the giant oil company itself and how seriously it takes the safety of its workers, but also OSHA’s failure to enforce refinery safety regulations.

    Preliminary reports of the Chemical Safety Board (whose final report will be issued in early 2007), as well as documents released as a result of the settlement with BP of a lawsuit filed by Eva Rowe, who lost both of her parents in the explosion, revealed a devastating picture of a company that cut back on its safety budget, delayed maintenance, failed to conduct training and ignored warnings by refinery management that all was not well at the plant. The BP story has been highlighted in CBS's 60 Minutes as well as numerous media reports about other problems plaguing BP. All of this was topped off by a massive pipeline leak in Alaska, more OSHA citations at other facilities, and civil and criminal investigations into illegal energy market manipulation. None of this stopped BP's CEO Lord John Browne from pulling down a cool $11 million in compensation last year.
  6. Families Go On The Offensive: From West Virginia and Kentucky to Texas, California and Maine, families of workers killed on the job are getting mad as hell and refusing to take it anymore. Frustrated by the small fines and weak penalties resulting from the preventable deaths of their loved ones, mine widows demanded better information about what happened to their husbands, picketed mines to keep their health care, and spoke truth to power by warning President Bush not to appoint Richard Stickler to head MSHA. Family members like Coit Smith, whose son was killed in a meat processing plant, Michelle Lewis, whose stepfather was killed in a trench collapse, and Tammy Miser, whose brother was killed in a factory explosion, and many others have launched campaigns to change the way workplace safety oversight works in this country, writing newspaper columns, putting up billboards, creating web pages, lobbying legislators and providing support to the families who have suffered similar losses.
  7. Union organizing victories: The organizing victories of janitors in Houston and the University of Miami, the successful campaign to organize the nation’s hotel workers and surging support for the Employee Free Choice Act that would require unions to be recognized by card check, rather than the failed traditional system of workplace elections, are not – on the surface – health and safety stories. But while a strong and active OSHA is necessary, anyone who’s worked a hazardous job will tell you that the best tool to make the workplace safe isn’t an OSHA inspection; it’s a well organized and knowledgeable union. In addition, health and safety issues can be a major reason that workers decide to organize as we’ve been seeing in the University of Miami campaign and UNITE-HERE's campaign to organize and win better contracts for the nation’s workers.
  8. Undercounting Injuries And Illnesses: OSHA broke open the champagne to celebrate a record low number of reported workplace injuries and illnesses last year, but the only thing bubbling to the surface is growing certainty that despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics on collecting workplace injury and illness data, no one really knows how many workers are injured and made sick on the job every year. One recent study estimated that the current national surveillance system for work-related injuries and illnesses may miss two-thirds of the total number of occupational injuries and illnesses. The reasons for undercounting are no mystery. Articles by ghost writer ERM Jr showed how and why companies cheat on their injury and illness reporting, and why OSHA prefers it that way. Meanwhile, a Confined Space series on KFM, the chief contractor on the San Francisco Bay Bridge project, revealed how companies are able to cook the books by discouraging workers to report injuries and illnesses.
  9. Chemical Safety Board Takes Up The Slack: With OSHA and MSHA struggling unsuccessfully to pass the oversight laugh-test, the tiny Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board seems to be the only serious workplace safety game in Washington at the moment. Among the six reports that the Bush-appointed Board has issued this year was a study on combustible dust explosions that recommended that OSHA issue a standard to prevent the often overlooked hazard that killed 14 workers in 2004, and killed 119 workers and injured 718 over the past 25 years. The CSB also issued a timely report on an incident at a chemical manufacturing plant in Georgia that had major problems in the way the city and county handled the emergency response, and how the state oversees emergency response efforts of the cities and counties. More significantly, the Board revealed disturbing preliminary findings of its BP investigation including an appearance by its Chairman Carolyn Merritt on 60 Minutes. (See number 3 above) And in December, the Board held a hearing in Daytona Beach, Florida concerning an explosion in the city’s wastewater treatment plant that killed two public employees – public employees who are not covered by OSHA in Florida (and in 25 other states), have no right to a safe workplace, and can die like dogs -- which seems to bother no one, except possibly the Chemical Safety Board.
  10. Confined Space Wins Koufax Award For Best Single Issue Blog: Yes, after a hard-fought contest, Confined Space won a convincing victory for the best single issued "lefty" blog, an award even more significant than being named Time’s Person of The Year. And Confined Space came in third in the running for LaborStart's Best Labor Website Of The Year.

    Bottom Line: You like me, you really like me!

    Real bottom line: There are a lot of angry people out there and Confined Space has helped them find a voice.
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