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

Dispatches short stuffMichaels to Musk: Manage safety at Tesla and production will fall into line: Former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels has penned an article in the Financial Times calling on the safety-challenged automaker Tesla and its owner Elon Musk to learn the lessons of the safest companies. Musk has been plagued by production and safety problems, but as Michaels instructs, “worker injuries are evidence of a bigger problem. Properly designed, smoothly running production lines do not hurt people. At Tesla, worker injuries and product defects indicate the assembly lines are not functioning well.”

Instead of focusing on production and hoping safety will follow, Musk should understand that the process of making workplaces safer “also makes them more productive and more profitable.”  As for management incentives, “Managers and foremen must work collaboratively with line workers to ensure that work is always done safely, without exception. Managers’ performance bonuses should include indicators of safe operations, like the identification and elimination of hazards, not simply increased output.”

Killing Workers Is Costly: We’ve written a lot about workers killed in trench collapses recently (here and here) and how the currently OSHA penalties are too soft to deter employers from putting their employees into these deadly situations.  In 2014, Kirk Mitcham was killed in a twelve foot deep trench in Mint Hill, North Carolina. Mitcham’s employer, One Hill, was cited by North Carolina OSHA and fined $13,900 (later reduced to $11,120). Hardly a major fine for a completely preventable death — and of course, being as there were no willful citations, there is no opportunity for a federal criminal prosecution, which under the OSHAct requires a willful violation related to a fatality. And, of course, workers comp laws prevent employees or their families from suing a worker’s employer.

But never fear, Kirk Mitcham’s wife, Christy, filed a third-party lawsuit against the builder that hired One Hill, BB Carolina Holdings LLC (the legal entity formed after Indian Trail-based Bonterra Builders LLC was acquired by another home builder in 2015) and a jury awarded her $3.85 million. What she will actually receive is unknown because she reached a private settlement with the company shortly after the verdict. Nevertheless that verdict will hopefully send a strong message to construction companies throughout the state – a much stronger message than TNOSHA’s $11,120 fine.

Repeal The Congressional Review Act: That’s the advice from a report issued by the Center for Progressive Reform.  The Congressional Review Act (CRA) is the law that allows Congress to repeal any newly issued government regulation with a simple majority vote. Congress used it to repeal OSHA’s Volks rule as well as a number of other worker, consumer and environmental protections at the beginning of the Trump administration. The CRA was also used to repeal OSHA’s ergonomics standard in 2001.

As University of Texas at Austin School of Law professor Tom McGarrity says in the American Prospect, the 15 regulations repealed by Congress (and approved by Trump) in this administration “would have protected all of us from serious threats to our health and safety, our shared environment, and our pocketbooks. Unless Congress enacts legislation allowing those agencies to address those threats at some point in the future, the damage will be permanent. The best remedy for the harm wrought by the CRA would be to repeal it.”

The Toll of Silica: Photographer Thom Pierce traveled around South Africa’s Eastern Cape, into Lesotho and up to Johannesburg to find and photograph the 56 miners and widows named in a class action lawsuit against 32 gold mining companies in South Africa. The miners sued on behalf of all miners suffering from silicosis and pulmonary tuberculosis as a result of working in the gold mines. All 56 photos can be found here.

OSHA Cites FedEx: Tennessee OSHA has issued a $7000 serious citation against FedEx for the November 2017 death of Ellen Gladney, 60, who was run over and dragged by a motorized cargo lift as it was being moved into position to unload a Boeing 777F cargo freighter.  This death and citation are of some note considering that President Trump’s nominee to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently retired as head of safety for FedEx Ground. (Which is technically a different company than FedEx Express, where Gladney worked.)  Mugno has been MIA while the Senate fails to confirm him for the top OSHA job. Rumor has it he’s happily retired down in Florida.  Inquiring minds want to know if he might be having second thoughts about picking up roots and diving into the swamp of this administration.

Chemicals — Innocent Until Proven Guilty: One article we missed during Worker Memorial Day season was by David Michaels and Union of Concerned Scientists Executive Director Kathleen Rest about the failure of OSHA to issue adequate standards to protect workers from chemical exposures. “Of the thousands of chemicals in the workplace, OSHA has set only about 30 exposure limits, in addition to the 470 it adopted from industry that date to the 1960s or earlier. Many of these limits are dangerously unprotective.”

Furthermore: “OSHA cannot set an exposure limit for a new chemical until it has proven it poses a significant risk. In effect, chemicals are presumed “safe” until proven otherwise. Many health experts refer to this as OSHA’s “body in the morgue” requirement.  The result: in the last 20 or so years, OSHA has issued new regulations for only three chemicals.”

EPA, under its revised Toxic Substances Control Act, has a more effecive and faster way to regulate chemicals and Congress gave EPA the authority to use TSCA to protect workers. But now the chemical industry is pressuring EPA to defer to OSHA, knowing that OSHA is unable to issue more than a small number of chemical standards every decade.  Meanwhile, workers beware.

West Fertilizer Arsonist – “Complete B.S.” — Over five years have passed since the catastrophic fertilizer plant explosion in West Texas. And almost two years have passed since the Houston office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced that the cause of the fire that triggered the ammonium nitrate blast was “incendiary, a criminal act.”  The Houston ATF based that finding on the fact that they couldn’t find any other cause — a process that has been discredited by fire investigation experts.  Waco Tribune editor Bill Wittiker quotes lifelong resident and mayor pro tem Steve Vanek, mayor who says that “The consensus of the city is it’s complete BS, if I can say that. There is not a citizen in town I have talked to — and I’ve talked to many, many, many of them — who believes it was set.”

Someone should let the ATF know.  And someone should tell EPA head Scott Pruitt who is using the arson allegations to “reconsider” an Obama era regulation that would have helped prevent many of the deaths at West and other chemical plant incidents.

 

 

Chemical Standards Congressional Review Act David Michaels Environmental Protection Agency OSHA Short Stuff West Fertilizer Explosion

1 Comment

  1. Dr. M is spot on: Do your job the right way and safety follows (naturally). Some safety folks have it backwards with their safety-first dribble, but once you include everything into the job, safety is covered, production increases, quality gets better, etc. All good things happen. Norman

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