Dispatches from the Front Line of the Battle for Workplace and Environmental Safety

front lineSee No Evil, Radiate No Evil: Nuclear safety advocate and form Department of Energy official Bob Alverez describes how Trump’s Department of Energy and Republican appointees on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board—which oversees and reports on safety practices in the US nuclear weapons complex — is attempting to undermine the agency.

With an annual budget of $31 million, the board oversees safety at 10 Energy Department sites that employ 110,000 people and occupy a land base larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. These sites store and handle some of the world largest and potentially most dangerous inventories of nuclear materials. Since its inception the board has been largely responsible, among other things, for:

  • Removing and safely packaging large amounts of unsafe nuclear explosive materials from several sites.
  • Reducing explosion and fire hazards, a dominant concern.
  • Increasing emergency planning and response to major nuclear accidents.
  • Upgrading antiquated safety systems at nuclear facilities.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have written Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) asking them to include language in the FY 2019 Appropriations Bill forbidding the agency to reorganize or reduce staff.

Weaponizing Transparency’ Poisoning Children: How do you know if chemicals are hurting people? It’s not ethical to feed pesticides to kids to see what happens to them, and many people dispute whether rat studies accurate replicate effects on humans.  But epidemiology — the science that studies disease trends in specific groups of people — has, for example “linked pesticides sprayed on fruit and vegetable crops with respiratory complicationsdevelopmental disorders and lower I.Q.s among children of farm workers.” Danny Hakim and Eric Lipton at the New York Times describe how Trump’s EPA is attempting to discredit epidemiology, thereby weakening efforts to control many of the pesticides and other chemicals the workers, children and the general public are exposed to.

They are undermining the science under the guise of transparency. The EPA’s proposal, launched under former administrator Scott Pruitt would ban many epidemiological studies, and other outside research, unless more data behind the studies was made public. But making that data public would divulge confidential personal information. This is the same strategy used successfully for many years by the tobacco industry. According to GW University Professor (and former OSHA head) David Michaels, ““The underlying justification for this ‘transparency’ proposal is a caricature of how science really works,” Mr. Michaels said at a recent hearing. “The cynical approach proposed by E.P.A. can be best described as ‘weaponized transparency.’”

Foxes Watching the Henhouse: It’s no surprise the EPA is working hard to ensure the safety of the nation’s polluters, seeing as Trump has been busy appointing former representatives of the polluting industries to high level positions in the agency that is supposed to be protecting the public from their former clients.  The New York Times Eric Lipton remains hot on the trail of conflicts of interest with an article about EPA’s top air pollution official, William L. Wehrum, who “worked for the better part of a decade to weaken air pollution rules by fighting the Environmental Protection Agency in court on behalf of chemical manufacturers, refineries, oil drillers and coal-burning power plants.”

Wehrum is now in charge of the “vast rollback of regulations on emissions from coal plants, including many owned by members of a coal-burning trade association that had retained Mr. Wehrum and his firm as recently as last year to push for the changes.” How convenient.

Prison Chicken: Michelle Chen at The Nation reviews a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) study that describes how poultry processing companies are hiring inexpensive prison labor to do dangerous jobs in their processing plants. Poultry work is far more dangerous than the average American job, and plant workers — often imovrished immigrants, many without documentation — are reluctant to complain.  Conditions are no better for prisoners. According to state records from Georgia and North Carolina, the SPLC found that “at least two dozen prisoners have been injured at their poultry jobs since 2015.”  In Alabama, the state deducts so many fees from the wages that prisoners earn, that they end up getting only 13 cents on the dollar. The state, on the other hand, finds the arrangement highly profitable . Meanwhile, as the Trump administration continues its crackdown on undocumented workers, the demand for prison labor has no where to go but up.

Get the Lead Out: Capital and Main reports that “at least 80 companies — including one that recently dismantled parts of the iconic  San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge — continue to have  workers in California who are lead-poisoned at levels high enough to cause birth defects, tremors and a variety of brain disorders.” The organization had previously “hundreds of workers at the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, had for decades been exposed to lead poisoning. Even worse, the state’s public health department knew about it but failed to act.”

Short Stuff

1 Comment

  1. Am familiar with prison labor in the poultry industry mentioned above since I used to work in the industry. In the facilities I worked, these individuals did the same jobs as other employees. The ones I met did not feel as if they were being taken advantage of. I thought the program was a positive one to help prepare them for life upon release. As far as being “far more dangerous than other jobs,” …ergonomically, poultry jobs can be very tough for people not used to manual labor. I have spent time in paper, chemical, and mining, and those industries were far more hazardous. Knives and blades in poultry, sure..but we had folks protected from head to toe. Unlike brutally hot plants where I have worked, people there were cool. And I was pleased to learn that employees in those poultry plants had good relationships with their supervisors, who would even work a line to relieve an employee. Don’t get me wrong, there were things about the industry I disliked…a lot. But, generally speaking, I found the employees working there to be happy and they were paid well above minimum wage. But some of the horror stories I had heard were definitely not true, at least not where I worked. It’s an easy industry to pick on and no doubt there are some poultry companies that operate unethically. Unfortunately, some of the people promoting the negative image have never worked in a poultry plant and don’t realize there are relatively safe poultry plants out there. Though they may not be for everyone, there are far worse places to work than the plants. I know that from personal experience. Maybe if some positive press was given to the poultry companies trying to do the right thing, it might help with their efforts to find local labor.

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