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

More Tesla: I wrote earlier this week about the health and safety issues, and under-reporting of injuries and illnesses at Tesla’s Fremont, California plant.  A couple of follow-up article have appeared: First, CalOSHA has opened an investigation following the Reveal article. And CalOSHA is investigating another incident involving a subcontractor who was hospitalized after a piece of factory equipment broke his jaw.  Meanwhile, CNBC reports a drop in Tesla stock due to the health and safety reports. And, of course, under-counting of workplace injuries and illnesses is nothing new. Former CalOSHA official Garrett Brown and I wrote about a particularly notorious example in California a few years back.

OSHA Means Business on Trenching Hazards: Never let it be said that I never say nice things about OSHA these days. Everyone who knows me (or reads Confined Space) knows I have a “thing” about trench collapses: They’re totally preventable, yet far too many construction companies ignore simple precautions, and far too many workers continue to die. I’ve often said that every trench death should result in willful citations and criminal prosecution because there is not excuse. To its credit, OSHA is taking trench hazards seriously: Just this month, OSHA has cited at least three employers from trenching violations (and issued accompanying press releases).  One, issue against Kamphuis Pipeline Company in North Dakota, totaled $454,750 and included 6 willful citations. The citation was actually the result of two separate inspections a week apart. It takes a lot of chutzpah, and less than a few brains to continue violating a OSHA standard a week after you were already inspected. The company is contesting the violations.

In March, OSHA cited Jax Utilities Management in Jacksonville, Florida for $271,606. For employers shaking in their boots, there is plenty of information about trenching hazards and what to do about them on the OSHA website.

We Were There! And So Can You: CDC’s “We Were There” program presents the original “Disease Detectives” provide first-hand accounts of historically important, CDC-led epidemiologic and laboratory investigations.  On April 24, participants will discuss the deaths of 3 employees of a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plant in Louisville, Kentucky, that were reported to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on January 22, 1974, The deaths were caused by a rare type of liver cancer, hepatic angiosarcoma. At the time, only 27 Americans a year were diagnosed with it.  CDC and NIOSH investigators suspected a link between the rare cancer and the PVC produced in the plant. Learn how an investigation that started with a small number of cancer deaths led to a dramatic revision of global PVC production, strengthened occupational protections, and spurred new thinking about environmental health and links to cancer.

Speakers for this session include: Henry Falk, MD; Philip Landrigan, MD; and Richard A. Lemen, PhD, MSPH. And you don’t have to go down to Atlanta to see it. The presentation will be webcast. More information here.

Another Communication Tower Death: OSHA might want to consider speeding up activity on its planned communication tower standard after another worker is killed in a communication tower incident. Stephen LaMay, 56 was killed and several workers were injured when a TV tower in Webster County collapsed Thursday morning. The workers were about 105 feet high at the time of the collapse. Last month, OSHA fined Tower King II Inc. $12,934 for the death of three workers who were attempting to install a new antenna on a communications tower in Miami. And earlier this month, another cell tower worker was killed after falling from a cell phone tower in central Mississippi. OSHA announced that it would not launch the first part of the rulemaking process until after next Fall. Why so long?

Ammonium Nitrate Death Week: Last Week was not just the anniversary of the 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion at West Fertilizer, but it was also the anniversary of the April 16, 1947 explosion of the French ship Grandcamp that killed nearly 600 people in Texas City, Texas.  The huge cloud of smoke created by the explosion caused many to fear that an atomic bomb had detonated. The ship was being loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer when a fire broke out.  Recently uncovered video from the incident shows that smoke and flames that raged in Texas City after the deadly blasts.

Facts? Information? Evidence? Bah! Who needs them? We wrote a while back that the Kentucky state legislature had passed a bill severely limiting how black lung reviews can be done. The law limits black lung reviews to just pulmonologists, but not radiologists. Now, NPR has learned that the state did not consult with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) before passing the legislation. NIOSH is the federal agency that trains, tests and certifies the physicians who read X-rays and diagnose black lung. The problem is that there are only six pulmonologists in Kentucky that have the federal certification to read black lung X-rays and four of them routinely are hired by coal companies or their insurers.  The two remaining pulmonologists have generally assessed X-rays on behalf of coal miners but one is semi-retired and his federal certification expires June 1.  The lead sponsor of the legislation, Republican Rep. Adam Koenig, told NPR he “relied on the expertise of those who understand the issue — the industry, coal companies and attorneys” during the 14 months he spent working on the changes.” Koenig added that “I’m not sure I was even aware of NIOSH.”

Don’t Mess With Our Beers or Our Backs: Beer Truck drivers working for J.J. Taylor Distributing of Minnesota have gone out on strike over safety and health conditions because the company is proposing to reduce delivery personnel from two workers to one. The drivers, represented by Teamsters union  Local 792, are concerned about back injuries. “These are the guys that deliver their beer on a regular basis and they’re not asking for money, they’re not asking for big wages…what they are asking for is safety on the job,” said Teamsters’ Edward Reynoso. “They are expected to pick up a 175 pound keg by themselves, and historically they’ve provided helpers and they’ve decided to change their whole delivery system to where these guys wouldn’t have these helpers,” Reynoso said. Twin Cities Business notes that”In response to the strike, J.J. Taylor hired temporary workers for the deliveries – and notably, each truck has gone out with two people.”

Blankenship Even Too Much For Republicans: The thought of ex-con Don Blankenship, jailed for a year in relation to the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch explosion, as the Republican candidate in the race to defeat West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin next November is apparently even too much for the Republican party. “Late last week, a newly formed super PAC generically dubbed the “Mountain Families PAC” began airing TV ads targeting Blankenship…. The national party isn’t promoting its role in the group, but its fingerprints are all over it.” Of course, it’s not the actual explosion or the safety violations that caused it, or even the business practices that led to the explosion that upsets the Republican party. It’s the fear that they might see another Roy Moore-type loss if the good people of West Virginia find they can’t stomach the coal baron unapologetically responsible for 29 deaths — as their Senator. You can watch the ad here:

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