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

dispatches OSHAThe Little Program That Refuses To Die: OSHA announced its 2018 Susan Harwood Grant Awardees last week. This is the $10 million life-saving training grant program that the Trump administration (and Republicans in the House of Representatives try unsuccessfully to kill every year. Happily they’ve been unsuccessful, because the grants go to groups that provide training to vulnerable and hard to reach workers, as well as workers in small businesses. A few of the groups that received grants this year include: the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), Timber Products Manufacturers, Inc, University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, Partners Against Trafficking Humans, Inc, Migrant Clinicians Network, Inc., New Jersey State AFL-CIO and the Port of San Diego Ship Repair Association.  These grants come from the Fiscal Year 2018 budget. Congress just approved the FY 2019 budget which also included funding for the Harwood grants.

Refinery at Risk:  Remember last April’s huge explosion that rocked the Superior Refining Company (Husky Energy) refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, causing the evacuation of a large portion of Superior, Wisconsin? Last week, OSHA issued a citation proposing $83,150 in penalties for the companies safety lapses. Superior received eight serious violations of OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standard.  Violations included failure to maintain worn out equipment, failure to involve employees in managing changes, failure to evaluate hazards, failure to design valves and relief systems safely and other violations.

The Chemical Safety Board is also conducting an investigation into the Superior/Husky explosions. In August, the CSB issued an update reporting that the initial explosion had occurred in the refinery’s Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit while the refinery was shutting down the unit for periodic maintenance and inspection. A piece of shrapnel from the explosion flew about 200 feet, and punctured a large, nearby, above-ground storage tank containing 50,000 barrels of asphalt, which spilled and ignited.

With large pieces of metal rocketing around the plant, there has been some concern about the 78,000 pounds of highly hazardous hydrogen fluoride (also known as hydrofluoric acid or HF) stored at the plant. HF is a highly toxic and volatile material and one of the most hazardous chemicals used in refineries. If released, HF can form a vapor cloud that can spread and cause organ failure and death in humans at extremely low levels. Environmentalists and safe chemical activists have been urging EPA and OSHA to require refineries and chemical plants to develop “inherently safer” alternatives to extremely hazardous chemicals like HF.

The Most Dangerous Workplaces: The American City Business Journals has some information that will surprise most Americans: The most dangerous workplaces in America are in hospitals and nursing homes. “Since 2012 nurses and health aides in state-run residential care and nursing settings have accounted for the highest rates of injury and illnesses tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry reported 164,300 employee injuries and illnesses in 2016 and racked up an incident rate that was roughly 30 percent higher than what was recorded by emergency workers in the nation’s police and fire departments.” Former OSHA official, Deborah Berkowitz (currently with the National Employment Law Project) points out the high risks of back injuries and workplace violence in these facilities.

The deadliest jobs include workers in the landscaping-services industry, roofers and highway and bridge-construction workers. “And while the construction industry had a lower rate of worker deaths than many others, reporting about 10.1 deaths per 100,000 workers, it made up about 19.1 percent of total reported deaths, the most of any industry.”  Meanwhile, Texas remains one of the deadlier places to do business and the city of Houston was home to the most fatal incidents. You can see a list of all 56 Houston work-related deaths since January 2017 here. And for those of you in Georgia, here’s a list of workers killed over the past year.

Better Late Than Never — OSHA Focuses on Ammonium Nitrate: More than five years after the catastrophic explosion at West Fertilizer that killed 15 persons and destroyed much of the town of West, Texas, two OSHA regions have announced an emphasis program focusing on Ammonium Nitrate hazards. Enforcement of safety around ammonium nitrate, anhydrous ammonia and other fertilizer hazards has been tangled in a political nightmare over the past five years as OSHA has as industry and Republicans in Congress have strongly opposed OSHA’s attempt to redefine the Process Safety Management standard’s retail exemption.  Ammonium nitrate (AN) is not covered under PSM, although there is a rather antiquated standard that addresses AN safety measures. Anhydrous ammonia is covered by PSM, but many facilities, like West, had been exempted from enforcement under OSHA’s previous definition of the retail exemption, and some industries (“Grain and Field Bean Merchant Wholesalers,” “Other Farm Product Raw Material Merchant Wholesalers,” and “Farm Supplies Merchant Wholesalers” ) are now exempted from PSM coverage under an April 30, 2018 memo.

The emphasis program began on October 1 with a three-month period of education and prevention outreach to encourage employers to bring their facilities into compliance with OSHA standards before the enforcement phase begins. More information can be found on OSHA’s  Fertilizer Industry Guidance on Storage and Use of Ammonium Nitrate webpage and another on its anhydrous ammonia standards, as well as its free consultation services.

You To Can Advise OSHA; But Is Anyone Listening? OSHA has come under considerable criticism for ignoring, and in some cases, killing its joint labor-management-government advisory committees. The committees, which normally meet two or three times a year, have not had a single meeting (with the exception of one telephone-meeting of the Construction advisory committee) in the first 21 months of the Trump administration and Trump has killed two of the committees that deal with federal employee health and safety, and whistleblower issues.  The memberships of all of the other committees (Construction, Maritime and the general “national” committee) have all expired. But now OSHA has suddenly announced that it is seeking nominations for its Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health. Why is that? Do they suddenly need outside advice on construction safety and health? Not quite. The problem is that there is a law that states that the construction committee’s consideration is legally required in order to move forward on any OSHA standards that affect the construction industry. And OSHA is in the process of revising several construction standards, including a few fixes for its Cranes and Derricks standard.

Hurry up and apply now. Nominations are open until November 16. No word on the other committees — at least the ones that still survive.

Caring for the Caregivers: Caring for people in their homes may be rewarding for the nearly 2 million home care aides (HCAs) in the U.S, but it’s not always safe. An article in the Pump Handle reviews the findings of a study of working conditions for home care workers.  The study found that 14% of the HCAs experienced at least one slip, trip, or fall in the past 12 months. Most happen outside, while taking out the client’s garbage or slipping on ice while leaving the client’s home, while some happen inside the home due to wet floors, stairs, rugs, cords, medical equipment, and clutter. Figuring the employer wouldn’t do much to help, most hazards weren’t reported. Instead, HCAs attempted to deal with the hazards by negotiating safer conditions with the client or the client’s family. And because most HCAs do not have paid sick days or personal days, they couldn’t take time off when injured. In order to improve their working conditions, the HCAs favored more hands-on training about home injury prevention and greater involvement in the care plans for their clients, and the authors advocated for more reporting to the employer. And, of course, in cold climates community-based snow removal would improve the safety of both HCAs and clients. The study was conducted by researchers at  the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health, Georgetown University School of Nursing, and the University of Maryland.

Working in Prison: Working in America’s prison system is never easy, and never particularly safe.  Adding to the fact that OSHA doesn’t frequently involve itself in prison safety conditions, most of public facilities in states where public employees aren’t covered by OSHA. As bad as all that is, conditions in America’s privately run prisons are even worse as the profit-seeking prison corporations cut corners on the safety of prisoners and corrections officers, skimp on training and don’t pay enough to keep quality staff. Mother Jones report Shane Bauer has written a book, American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment about the WalMartization of the American prison system which is reviewed here in the New York Times. Holiday season is approaching and this might be that gift you were looking for. Or just go out an buy it for yourself.  And while we’re on the topic of working in prisons, you might also want to go back and read Newjack, a book by Ted Conover who described the conditions at the famous “Sing Sing” (Ossining) prison in New York. (Shopping Tip: Shop at Powells, the union bookshop.)

Safety in the Shadow of Fertilizer Plants: We wrote earlier about attempts by the fertilizer industry to insert language into the Farm Bill that would make it harder for OSHA to enforce safe working conditions in chemical facilities.  The effort to better enforce safety in these facilities follows the 2013 West Fertilizer explosion in West, Texas that killed 15 people and destroyed much of the town.  Well it may be Texas, home of much of the country’s chemical industry, but the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise isn’t buying it. In a recent editorial, the paper states that “Members of Congress from Texas should be particularly aware of that folly and make sure it is removed from the bill.” But they don’t stop there: “Regardless of what happens in Congress, the Texas Legislature should consider better safety regulations in the upcoming session that begins in January.” Good luck with that.

 

Ammonium Nitrate Chemical Plant Safety OSHA Process Safety Management Short Stuff Susan Harwood Worker Training Program

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.