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

Captives on the Kill Line:  Hiring immigrant workers — even undocumented workers — can be a headache. They get rounded up in immigration raids, move away or move on to better-paid jobs.  A much better and more profitable bet are prisoners on work-release. The Southern Poverty Law Center tells the story of one worker, Frank Dwayne Ellington, who was dragged into a machine he was cleaning — even though it was still operating — and crushed to death.  But hiring work-release prisoner is profitable for employer and the state: “The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) continues to send hundreds of prisoners to work for private companies, generating nearly $11 million a year for the perennially underfunded agency”  For prisoners, the plants may be safer than prison conditions and a work release program can help a prisoner show a parole board that he or she has been rehabilitated. But they can’t move away or look for a better job. And if they complain about being in pain, or get injured, it’s back to prison for the captive workforce.

Railroad DispatchesAll The Livelong Day: Working on the railroad used to be so dangerous that in 1889, one in every 35 railway workers was injured each year and one out of every 117 workers died on the job. In fact, they were so dangerous, according to a fascinating article by Sarah Laskow in Atlas Obscura, that “In the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, companies hired ‘railway surgeons’ to staff private hospital and health care systems. An on-call doctor could rush to the scene of an accident, or be ready to receive a bleeding, injured worker sent to them by train.” And what they found was pretty grim: “Their patients were often in bad shape, according to accounts that Gillespie dug up—’tied up with rope, old rags, soiled handkerchiefs, or anything else lying about.’ By the time the patient arrived, an injured limb might look ‘like nothing but bloody rubbish,'”

Save the Children: 47 Democratic lawmakers have sent a letter to the Department of Labor and the White House Office of Management and budget asking them not to weaken child labor protections without first reviewing the science and data on risks to young workers. The lawmakers fear that the Trump administration might be moving to let teenagers work in health-care jobs that involve “hazardous” machine-operated patient lifts, without relying on updated scientific research about the risks. The Wage and Hour Division, and not OSHA, determines how many hours teens can work, and what machinery they can work with safely.  Wage and Hour is considering a new rule that is likely to ease the current regulatory restrictions on teens’ use of power-driven patient lifts in nursing homes and hospitals. The letter asks the Labor Department not to proceed until the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) review current data and scientific literature as DOL has done prior to previous changes in similar rules.

Slow Chick: Congressional representatives and 12 national organizations representing poultry workers, worker rights advocates, workplace safety experts, and consumer health advocates have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), asking the agency to reject four requests from chicken processing companies that they be allowed to circumvent a 2014 rule and increase their line speeds. The organization’s letter argues that the request “is inconsistent with the Department of Agriculture’s waiver regulations, undermines the rule making process, violates the Administrative Procedure Act, as well as endangers workers and consumers alike.”  What’s wrong with faster chicken production? The letter cites “overwhelming evidence supports the conclusion that allowing poultry processing establishments to operate with faster line speed limitations would dramatically worsen the already unsafe worker conditions in poultry plants”

Meanwhile, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) sent a letter to Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy undersecretary for food safety, urging FSIS to abandon its new policy for waiving rules limiting line speeds for certain plants, citing greater risk to workers.

Baby It’s Hot Out There: Sarah Okeson at DC Report.org discusses deliberations of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission about a 2012 OSHA citation resulting from the heat-related death of construction worker Mark Rainey. Because OSHA doesn’t have a heat standard, the agency must cite under the General Duty Clause which requires the hazard to be “recognized” and a “feasible” method of eliminating or reducing the hazard. OSHRC has three members, two of whom are Republican appointees. At a hearing last month, “James Sullivan Jr., a Trump appointee who previously represented a roofer, questioned OSHA using publications such as a National Roofing Contractors Association safety guide to show that Sturgill knew there was a hazard. ‘Has this had a chilling effect on employers?’ asked Sullivan”

Acosta: No Friends in High Places: We’ve said some nice things about Labor Secretary Alex Acosta in the past. We may not see any major new standards coming out of OSHA, and DOL is rolling back parts of others, but he does seem to believe in enforcing the law which is more than some Trump cabinet secretaries.  But it seems that the former Heritage Foundation economist, and current White House labor adviser James Sherk is not a big fan of Acosta. According to Bloomberg Law,  “the labor secretary avoids actions that would be perceived as overtly hostile to workers or could land him on the losing end of a lawsuit, whereas Sherk is viewed as a hardliner, pro-management voice who favors aggressive deregulation and government downsizing.” And relations are apparently a bit on the cool side: “A DOL official told Bloomberg Law that Sherk is one of the “low-level staffers” at the White House whose “temper tantrums” distract from the president’s agenda.” According to former Labor Deputy Secretary Seth Harris: “Sherk seems very much aligned with a deregulatory, anti-institutionalist, anti-union take on labor. The opposite of that within the Republican pantheon is Alex Acosta.”

Last Gasp for Studies by Independent Scientists: Last November we reported that he entire 22-member Editorial Board of the International Journal of Occupational and Environment Health had resigned after a months-long struggle with the Journal’s new owners who “acted in a profoundly unethical fashion” and had moved the worker-oriented publication to a more corporate focus. Now we learn from Retraction Watch that the publisher has decided to call it quits for the journal, one of the relatively few places that provided an outlet for “scientists whose work is independent of the corporations that manufacture chemicals,” according to epidemiologist and former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels.

CSB Preliminary Report on Husky Explosion: The Chemical Safety Board has released a preliminary report and animation of a recent explosion at a Husky refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, causing 36 injuries and evacuation of a large part of the town of Superior. Happily, the explosion occurred at break-time, so most of the workers were outside of the danger area.  One nerve-wracking observation for plants that contain tanks of highly hazardous materials: “One piece of debris from the explosion flew about 200 feet, and struck a large, nearby, above-ground storage tank containing about 50,000 barrels of asphalt. The side of the tank was punctured, resulting in the release of over 15,000 barrels of hot asphalt into the refinery.”

Methylene Chloride – And the Largest Shall Be Last: We’ve written a lot about the deadly hazards of methylene chloride and the success of groups convincing  Lowe’s, Sherwin-Williams, and The Home Depot to stop selling dangerous paint strippers. Now the groups are moving on to Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer. Now Safer Chemicals, Healthy FamiliesChange.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council recently sent a letter to the company asking them to stop selling the products and started a petition drive.

Alex Acosta Chemical Plant Safety Chemical Safety Board Heat Short Stuff

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.