Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Battle for Workplace Safety and Health: Short Stuff

DispatchesWe need to be protecting our workers as much as protecting our shores.”  So says former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels in response to a report by Reveal and PBS about fatalities and injuries at shipyards that receive billions in contracts from the US government. The reporters point out intentional, knowing violations of the law, and the minuscule OSHA fines they receive, compared to the billions of dollars they receive in Federal contracts. One would think there would be something the government could do about supporting companies that knowingly put their workers at risk. Well, actually they tried: “Former President Obama signed an executive order that required companies to disclose three years of safety violations when vying for large federal contracts. But a federal court blocked that order. ” Congress, meanwhile, passed a bill repealing the regulations that put that Executive Order into effect, and President Trump signed it. Oh well.

Made Betrayed in America: President Trump — the guy who ran as champion of American workers — rants and raves about US jobs being exported overseas, and has even named this “Made in America” week. But he seems to somehow have missed the fact that his daughter has a clothing line manufactured overseas, and worse, his proposed FY 2018 budget guts the Labor Department bureau that monitors the treatment of foreign workers. It’s almost as if he doesn’t realize that the best way to keep jobs in this country is to raise the wages and working conditions of workers abroad, which is exactly what the Labor Department program did. “Without the bureau’s efforts to improve workers’ rights oversees, ‘you’re saying, basically, that it’s okay for forced labor and child labor to run rampant, which undercuts our own labor force,’ said Nate Herman, a senior vice president for the American Apparel and Footwear Association.”

Upsetting the Balance: The Department of Labor may be slow on making appointments, but EPA is going full steam. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has just announced Michael Dourson, to head EPA’s office that oversees commercial chemicals and pesticides. Dourson  is a board-certified toxicologist and professor in the Risk Science Center at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.  He also comes with close industry ties which greatly concerns those concerned about the environment, like the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF points out that Dourson has significant conflicts of interest, having represented a number of industry groups, including  the Perchlorate Study Group (PSG), which is actually comprised of producers and users of perchlorate, the companies that produced the chemicals involved in a major 2014 chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia, and the American Chemistry Council where he set up and ran a website called “Kids + Chemical Safety. That website was “designed to look like a neutral source of advice for parents concerned about chemical safety, but instead mirrored industry talking points about its chemicals and sought to shift responsibility for ensuring safety to the consumer or parent and away from the industry.” Dourson is in charge of implementing the Toxic Substances Control Act revision that was passed last year, and EDF is particularly upset that Dourson may upset the careful balance that was struck when passing that law.

To VPP or Not To VPP: Gloria Gonzales of Business Insurance has summarized OSHA’s “How to revitalize VPP” meeting so I wouldn’t have to. (Anyway, you all now how I feel — and if not, you can read it here.) Gonzales points out that even OSHA understands the main problem: ““The current model for VPP is not sustainable with resource realities,” according to Tom Galassi, OSHA’s acting deputy assistant secretary.  AFL-CIO Health and Safety Director Peg Seminario, also raised the struggle to maintain the program’s integrity. “She also questioned why major corporations should be benefiting from the program’s limited resources.”  Good question. No new ideas emerged from the gathering, but if you have any, OSHA is accepting comments until September 15.

After 100 years, time for a penalty increase? Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has joined activists from the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MASSCOSH) to call on lawmakers to update the penalty for companies found responsible for death. The fine for corporate manslaughter is currently set at only $1,000 and has not been updated since 1819. A bill before the legislature would raise the “penalty for corporate manslaughter to a minimum of $250,000 and allow ‘the appropriate commissioner or secretary’ to forbid that company from contracting with the state for up to 10 years.” According to MASSCOSH coordinator Tolle Graham, the bill would “send a message to businesses that they cannot abandon health and safety.”

Crooks and Killers in Congress? We have written before about the failed jail-time rehabilitation of Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy who was convicted in 2015 of a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in southern West Virginia, where an April 2010 explosion killed 29 coal miners. Blankenship is unrepentant about the Upper Big Branch disasters, blaming it on an unavoidable “Act of God.”  The Courts differed, however, blaming the disaster on an Act of Man — one specific man. Tim Murphy, at Mother Jones, notes how Blankenship did not just own a coal company, but transformed the landscape and politics of West Virginia, helping lawmakers “win sweeping victories at the ballot box and used their mandate to roll back health and safety regulations while trumpeting the survival-of-the-fittest capitalism that was Blankenship’s gospel.” Now Blankenship has decided he has even more to give to his beloved state and announced on a radio interview that he is considering running for Senate as a Republican against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is up for reelection next year. Prior to last November, I would have laughed this off. But not any more.

No Such Thing As A Bad Employer? Congresswoman Virginia Foxs who is Chairwoman of the House Committee on Education & the Workforce was quoted last month as saying that she didn’t “know a bad employer.” And went on to explain  “I’m sure they’re out there, but I sure don’t run into them. I hear horror stories all the time from the other side, but the employers I know care about their workers.”  Celine McNicholas of the Economic Policy Institute, a very helpful person, helpfully sent a letter to the Chairwoman “attaching research that documents that employers steal billions from workers’ paychecks each year.” McNicholas pointed out to the North Carolina Congresswoman that “This report found that in the 10 most populous states in this nation (of which North Carolina is the sixth), 2.4 million workers lose $8 billion annually (an average of $3,300 per year for year-round workers) to minimum wage violations—nearly a quarter of their earned wages.”   Given her interest in identifying bad employers, I think I should also give her a free subscription to Confined Space and point out this and this and this and — you get the idea.

The Emperor’s New Wall: OSHA was gearing up last week to develop a new standard that would protect Border Patrol staff and others who may be at risk of being brained by 60 pound bags of cocaine being tossed over Trump’s beautiful wall on the Mexican border. President Trump pointed out this hazard last week and suggested one solution might be to make the wall transparent. Happily, however, the Washington Post has published an article showing that it is unlikely that someone would actually be able to toss such a heavy load that high. Clearly, in that case, a new OSHA standard would not have passed OMB’s strict cost benefit criteria. The transparent wall might still be an idea, however. In fact, I’m suggesting that we not build the wall, but just tell the Emperor President that the wall has been built, but it’s so transparent that you can’t see it.

Environmental Protection Agency OSHA Short Stuff Trump

1 Comment

  1. Massachusetts would be best served if the increased penalty for killing workers could be extended to public employers who seem to annually kill workers without consequences. Fox is willfully blind. She is not alone. We recently had a CSE/trenching fatality here in VA and I had a short discussion with a neighbor of the deceased. She said he was a great guy and his employers were good people. After offering my condolences, I pointed out that they had willfully violated the law causing his death. She was disbelieving and asked what law. I gave her chapter and verse. Silence. She’d never heard of OSHA.

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