Media poultry
Photo by Earl Dotter

One would think with monster hurricanes, threatened nuclear war with North Korea, plans to deport some of America’s best young folk to foreign lands, Russians undermining our already fragile election system and right-wing, family-values-defending Senators accidentally “liking” pornography on Twitter — little issues like workplace safety and health wouldn’t be getting much attention from the media. But if you thought that, you would be wrong.  There’s surprisingly high interest in worker safety, as evidenced by these most recent pieces (and all of them featuring ex-OSHA and DOL leadership.)

Fast Food: Faster Poultry Processing Line Speeds hurt workers argues Debbie Berkowitz on Marketplace in response to an industry push to allow poultry processors to increase their line speed by 25 percent.  But Debbie Berkowitz at the National Employment Law Project (and former OSHA Chief of Staff) points out that we’ve been there and done that. The USDA already rejected the same industry argument back in 2014. “They went through all that data and said there’s enough of a concern about worker safety that we’re not going to allow an increase in line speeds,” Berkowitz said. Listen here:

Chemical Safety Board: Marketplace also did a much shorter piece on the importance of the Chemical Safety Board, especially in the wake of the Arkema Chemical plant explosions following Hurricane Harvey. President Trump has proposed the elimination of the Board. USW Health and Safety Director Mike Wright, and your favorite health and safety blogger were interviewed. You can listen here:

OSHA Fines: Nicole Raz and Wade Tyler Millward at the Las Vegas Review-Journal has a long article on OSHA fines in Nevada’s OSHA State Plan State. First quoting me as saying that, for many employers,  “the cost of doing business,” former OSHA head David Michaels fills in the main purpose of OSHA fines:

“It’s not a punishment. It’s really to send a message out, to provide an incentive for other employers to prevent workers from being hurt,” said Michaels, who is now a professor in the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Michaels said fines alone aren’t enough.

“There’s pretty good evidence that talking about OSHA’s enforcement activities publicly influences other employers to prevent injuries, even when OSHA doesn’t do inspections,” he said. “It’s very important to keep fines high, to talk about those fines, and get press about them to get them into public awareness.”

Hurricane Recovery Workers: Casey Quinlan at Think Progress has a long article on hurricane recovery worker safety. And in addition to safety issues, wage theft, lack health insurance, retirement, life insurance, sick leave, and paid time off add to the burden faced by construction workers in Texas, many of whom are immigrants, and some undocumented.  And as I point out, the situation for public employees working on cleanup is worse. Texas and Florida “are two of a handful of states in the United States that don’t have workplace safety laws for public sector employees, said Jordan Barab, former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration.’Public employees are not covered in OSHA, except for states that are state-plan states. So, as far as you have states with [public] employees working as emergency responders, they don’t have OSHA protections,'”

And Sharon Block, currently executive director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program and former principal deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor noted that  “They don’t have real leadership in [OSHA],” Block said. “So having watched Sandy and the Gulf oil spill, these sort of unexpected disaster responses, even for an agency like OSHA, it’s really complicated and it’s really resource intensive.”Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective. “There is a lot at risk,” Block added. “Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”

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