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

Short Stuff Alan White OSHA
COSH Community Activist Award Winner Alan White

COSHCON17 — The Young and the Active — : The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, the umbrella group of all the nation’s COSH groups held its annual conference last week and I was privileged to be able to chair a very moving panel on “Lessons from Workplace Fatalities” with some of my heroes:  family activist Katherine Rodriguez, whose father, Ray Gonzales was killed in a fire at BP Texas City in 2004, Tonya Ford, director the United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, whose uncle Robert “Bobby” Fitch  fell to his death at an Archer Daniel Midland plant in 2009, and Jonathan Karmel, author of Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace.

I was also able to introduce lunchtime speaker Rick Engler who has been fighting for workers rights as a member of the US Chemical Safety Board, and I attended a workshop given by five OSHA Labor Liaisons who educated the attendees about how to work with OSHA when they, or the workers they represent, have health and safety problems in their workplaces. (And in case I’m ever falsely accused of never saying anything nice about OSHA in this administration, I want to thank the OSHA front office and Regional Administrators for allowing the Labor Liaisons to attend the conference. I will admit that I was surprised to see them there. Pleasantly surprised.)

And finally I was happy to participate in the introduction of Alan White, winner of the COSH Community Activist Award. Alan is a USW member who has silicosis from his work in a foundry and played an instrumental role in the development and issuance of OSHA’s silica standard. In his acceptance speech, linked here, Alan talked about his work, how his doctor sensitively informed him that he had silicosis, a disease that would eventually kill him (“Oh my God! You’ve got silicosis!!”) and how he became an activist fighting to make sure that no more workers would be needlessly stricken with this preventable disease.

But despite the fact that I was only able to attend one day of the three-day conference, , I was impressed by not only the large size of the conference, but the number of young people and the diversity of those attending. For those of us nearing the end of our careers and wondering why all of our hair is the same grayish color, it was heartening to see that two of the night’s awardees, youngsters Marianela Acuña Arreaza, Executive Director at Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston and winner of the COSH Activist Award, and Fernando Tapia, UFCW staffer and winner of the COSH Educator Award were young, energetic and Latino.

These are tomorrow’s leaders, and make me feel better as I join my aging co-conspirators (like the legendary Jim Howe, winner of the Tony Mazzocchi award for outstanding contributions to health and safety) who are fading slowly, quietly into the sunset…..Ok, maybe not quietly. And very, very slowly. And we’re not exactly fading, either. But you get the point.

“It’s essentially the Tinder economy. When a temp worker is done with his or her shift, the boss swipes left and claims to have no further obligation.” — Jessica Martinez

The Tinder Economy: And while we’re talking about the COSH groups, check out this interview with National COSH co-executive director, Jessica Martinez about the working conditions and hazards faced by workers in the “Gig Economy,” including food delivery workers and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft: “‘Workers who work in the gig economy are making money but missing out on other standard benefits of having jobs: health care primarily but also paid sick leave and worker’s compensation,’ she tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. ‘It’s essentially the Tinder economy. When a temp worker is done with his or her shift, the boss swipes left and claims to have no further obligation.'”

BP Killed Katherine’s Dad: And speaking of Katherine Rodriguez (see above), strategist, organizer, activist, commentator and writer, Jonathan Tasini has a searing and touching podcast conversation with Katherine, who keeps her father’s memory alive by campaigning for safety and health in the workplace.  I defy you to get all the way through it with dry eyes.

Absolute Lies: Seattle’s King 5 News has uncovered a web of “Absolute lies, outright lies” given to OSHA and the station’s investigators concerning workplace hazards and chemical exposures suffered by workers at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS).  According to the investigation, the shipyard managers lied to OSHA about exposures that workers had experienced, and lied to King 5 News about testing that had been done, inspections that had been made, health effects that workers had suffered and engineering safety systems that allegedly protected workers. The investigators found that “overflowing tanks, leaking pipes and chronically broken safety systems put workers in harm’s way.” The PSNS is the biggest shipyard on the West Coast, employing roughly 13,500 civilians who overhaul, repair and decommission ships and submarines. “(This was) worse than misleading. Absolute lies, outright lies,” said Darrick Freeman, a veteran shipyard worker who spent four years in the wastewater treatment plant prior to his retirement in 2015. “It’s a cover up.”

Donny, Donny, Pants on Fire:  Politifact rates West Virginia Senate Candidate Don Blankenship’s new commercial “Pants on Fire” for his accusations that MSHA shredded document and “fixed” its report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster where 29 miners were killed. Blankenship, you may recall, was the CEO of Massey Energy, which owned the UBB mine and was convicted in 2015 of a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards at UBB. He spent a year in prison, before emerging to announce his candidacy against WV Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. According to Politifact, “There is no substance to this claim and the campaign did not provide anything that would back it up. We rate it Pants on Fire.”  Aside from his lies, year in jail and trail of dead miners, Blankenship may have another problem. He has consistently told the courts that his home was in Las Vegas, Nevada — not West Virginia.

Still Milking Dairy Workers: Carly Fox and Rebecca Fuentes of the Worker Justice Center of New York,, in an OpEd in Syracuse.com, call on the nation to get serious about job safety after the death of Ryan C. Ouellette, a New York dairy worker who was killed when his head became trapped in a manure separator machine.  Ouellette’s death follows numerous cases of New York dairy workers getting injured or killed on the job, and other workers being retaliated against for reporting unsafe conditions.  Fox and Fuentes are co-authors of MILKED: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State, a study issued last year that reported that nearly half of the workers said they were bullied or intimidated by their bosses, and two-thirds said they’d suffered at least one injury.  In 2015, OSHA’s Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany Area offices launched a Local Emphasis Program focusing on dairy farm workers, despite a storm of furious protest by NY dairy farmers. That LEP expired in late 2016 and OSHA has not yet renewed it, despite the fact that problems remain, as Ouellette’s death shows.

See No Problem; Fix No Problem: OSHA is currently deciding whether to amend it recent “Electronic Recordkeeping” regulation that, among other things, prohibits employers from punishing workers for reporting injuries. Industry associations have been urging OSHA to rescind those protections. But a recent Des Moines Register article underscores the importance of that anti-retaliation language.  “City of Des Moines public works employees are reporting fewer injuries, and at least one worker thinks that’s no accident. The anonymous worker contacted Iowa OSHA last month, complaining that public works employees were being written up after they reported getting hurt on the job. ‘This practice is preventing employees from coming forward with injuries or illnesses,’ the informal OSHA complaint read. ‘Employees believe they are being discriminated against when they report injury or illnesses to the employer.'” According to the Register, Iowa law authorizes the city manager to discipline an employee “due to any act or failure to act by the employee that is in contravention of the law, city policies, or standard operating procedures” or otherwise unfit for employment. In other words, the City Manager gets to decide whether employee negligence caused an accident, a procedure hardly favorable to encouraging employees to report injuries. And if employees don’t report, the causes can’t be identified and fixed. Result: More workers will get hurt.

 

 

COSH Groups MSHA Short Stuff Temporary Employees Whistleblowers

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