Dispatches From The Front Lines of the War For Safer Workplaces: Short Stuff

fatalities toll short stuffNominee Ping Pong: As 2017 expired, so did Scott Mugno’s nomination for Assistant Secretary to head OSHA, along the nominations of the DOL’s Deputy Secretary, BLS Commissioner and Wage and Hour Administrator. But don’t panic. According to Tyrone Richardson at Bloomberg Law, they have already been renominated and sent back to the Senate. Whether they still want to serve after reading reports of Michael Wolff’s new books on the dysfunction in the White House (or more precisely the main resident of the White House) remains to be seen. The Senate Help Committee is scheduled to meet on January 11 to re-vote on moving these nominations to the floor again.

Baby it’s cold outside. Employers must ensure that outdoor workers are safe from the effects of severe cold. OSHA has information its website for workers and employers.

Depends on your definition of “Safe”  The White House proposed yesterday to permit drilling in most U.S. continental-shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic, even though Republican and Democratic governors, and even the Pentagon have opposed similar actions in the past. And just to make sure that anyone can drill anywhere anytime without any restrictions, just before Christmas, the Wall St. Journal disclosed an Administration plan to roll back safety measures put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including removal of the word “safe” as a criteria for agency staff to determine the adequacy of a  company’s planned drilling margin when reviewing applications to drill. The new measures were implemented by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which regulates offshore oil and gas drilling. BSEE estimated that the revision would save the drilling industry $900 million over ten years. That may sound like a lot, until you realize that BP estimates the pre-tax cost of its 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill — which killed 11 workers and spilled  more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — will total $61.6 billion. (And still counting.)  According to the WSJ, The agency’s current director, Scott Angelle, said earlier this year… that the previous administration’s response to Deepwater Horizon had been too broad and didn’t account for the fact that other operators in the Gulf had learned from the economic pain BP PLC suffered in its aftermath. OK, as long as they pinky swear that they’ve really, really learned their lesson….

Mississippi —  Humbug for Workers: Just before Christmas, the National Employment Law Center and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights released a report showing that “Workers in Mississippi suffer high numbers of severe work-related injuries, and they face one of the highest workplace fatality rates in the nation, yet the government systems that are supposed to protect these injured workers are among the nation’s worst.” Mississippi workers are 75% more likely to be killed on the job than the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not only are thousands of workers injured and dozens killed on the job each year in Mississippi, but thanks to a recent gutting of the state’s Workers’ Compensation protections in 2012, they have to endure a “workers’ compensation system where benefits are so low that injured workers and their families are at risk of falling into poverty.”

University of Mississippi journalism professor Joe Atkins published a column in the Jackson Free Press comparing Mississippi’s leaders with Bob Cratchet in Dickens’ Christmas Carol:

In fact, no one really knows how bad workers have it here in Mississippi because this is one of the nine states that refuse to collect reliable data on serious workplace injuries. Yet hear [Gov. Phil] Bryant’s response to the 2012 Workers’ Compensation gutting—which added a host of hurdles for workers to jump before they can qualify for compensation: Mississippi has “the most job-friendly environment in America.” Friendly for whom? You know. Here’s another way to say it: Employers in Mississippi don’t have to worry about the “humbug” of being responsible for the safety of their workers.

 

Go To Work, Get Sick, Get Fired: In Iowa, we’re seeing an example of good, investigative journalism leading to action. Because who doesn’t love a story about workers being exposed to toxic chemicals, being given ineffective personal protective equipment, suffering debilitating disease and then getting fired while OSHA does nothing? The paper is the Des Moines Register. The company is TPI Composites and the harmful chemical is epoxy resin, containing isocyantes, used to glue fiberglass sheets onto wind turbine blades. Isocyanates can cause sensitization, a form of severe allergy.  One worker suffered tiny bumps and rashes on her skin. And then skin itching, watering and swollen eyes, open wounds on her eyelids, menstrual cycle irregularities and bumps, burns and rashes all over her body. When she stayed home because the doctor ordered her to avoid the epoxy resin, she was fired. Then the company sought to deny her workers’ compensation claim. Workers are given paper masks and overalls to protect them against the isocyanates, which in addition to causing sensitization, also cause cancer. To protect against this family of chemicals, DuPont, the chemical’s manufacturer recommends a nonwoven coverall, heavy-duty protection that resembles rubber or plastic, instead of the less expensive paper that the workers were provided.

Six former employees are suing the company, and logs of Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration show more than 300 recorded cases of skin injuries at TPI from the plant’s opening in 2008 through 2016. But OSHA has never cited the company for skin disease.

The good news is that following the Des Moines Register story, Iowa OSHA is investigating the situation. Even Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds is involved. “First and foremost, we want to make sure that Iowa workers are working in a safe environment — and that’s across the board,” Reynolds said. “So that’s our number one priority.”

Not Really an “Oops” Kind of Thing: Avid readers of Confined Space know I often go after stupid articles about workplace “mishaps” or “accidents” that are actually predictable failures of employers to maintain a safe workplace. Well Joseph Warhul is a comrade in arms.  Early in December, a construction company was trying to preserve the bell tower, or cupola on historic Roxbury School which was being torn down, when the cupola tumbled off a lift during the removal attempt, the whole structure collapsing beneath it. The Johnstown, PA,  Tribune Democrat quoted Karen Welsh of UpStreet Architects Inc. who admitted “the mishap was a setback, but expects to restore the cupola dome. ‘It was an “oops,”‘”

Warful, however, didn’t think it was so funny, as he wrote in a Letter to the Editor:

What this union construction worker saw was serious OSHA violations of rigging loads, a site not displaying safe work practices and a workplace accident that could have potentially killed workers. I ask The Tribune-Democrat, how can you see what happened and use the words mishap and oops when witnessing a severe workplace accident and not even use the words safety or accident? A simple call to OSHA or investigation of proper equipment and safety gear for such a lift are some things I would expect a reporter to ask about. The Tribune-Democrat dropped the ball while the construction crew dropped the dome.

You can even watch a video of the “oops” here. Pretty scary — especially for the workers standing almost right underneath.

Paying the Price for not keeping workers safe: The Chamber of Commerce and apparently some people currently working at OSHA don’t think press releases should be used to “shame” employers who endanger, injure or kill their employees and get caught.  But Lehighvalleylive.com thinks that workers, citizens and other businesses in the Lehigh Valley have a right to know. The website has published a list of a dozen companies who who have received large fines from OSHA since 2015, described what they did wrong and what the current status is. Maybe other jurisdictions should follow their example.

Short Stuff

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