What’s happening in the world of workplace safety and health? Lots. And lots of work to be done. Here are some short dispatches. If you know of other happenings that workers and public health advocates need to know about, let me know in the comments below.


OSHA COVID-19 Standard: Better Late Than Never

The permanent COVID-19 standard covering healthcare workers has finally gone to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for final review.  OIRA has three months to review final standards and regulations, although it can take longer or shorter than that time-limit. OSHA announced the standard last January, predicting that it would take six to nine months to finalize. OSHA standards never adhere to schedules, however, and this will be on the shorter end of OSHA delays if it’s released in the near future.  Republicans and the American Hospital Association are, of course, opposing the standard, labeling it government over-reach, inflexible and unnecessary. The text of the final draft has not been made public.

Meanwhile, in case you’re wondering why an OSHA COVID standard is still needed, CDC reports that total cases, deaths and hospitalizations are on the rise and 72% of counties in the country are experiencing high transmission rates, although at this point “only” 9% of counties have a “high” community level. (Community Levels to determine the impact of COVID-19 on communities and take action. Community Transmission levels are provided for healthcare facility use only.)

And serious cases still wind up in hospitals where they’re taken care of by healthcare workers who would rather not be infected.

We can expect the new Republican House of Representatives to look closely at OSHA’s new standard and a hearing might not be out of the question.


Deadly Countertops: “The dust never, ever stopped coming.”

Cutting and grinding synthetic engineered-stone countertops is killing workers. A great but tragic story from Public Health Watch journalists Jim Morris and Leslie Berestein Rojas describes how cutting of the slabs that are used as kitchen counters releases crystalline silica particles that can kill workers who inhale them. Even with lung transplants, these workers will  never go on to live a normal life and their longevity would be significantly limited.

At least 30 countertop fabricators in the Los Angeles area [have been] diagnosed with an accelerated form of silicosis since January 2016. It’s believed to be the largest cluster of the disease in the United States. All the victims are relatively young Latino men who worked long hours under harsh conditions without complaint.

The manufacturers know about the hazard. Some are successfully protection workers, but many aren’t. One worker sent a message to consumers: “Behind the kitchen, basically, there’s sweat and blood and, at the worst, even death.”


Merchants of Poison

Great story by Stacy Malkan of USRTK.org about how Monsanto influenced the science to hide evidence that Roundup (and it’s prime active ingredient, glyphosate) causes cancer. The article describes numerous examples from internal Monsanto documents,

showing how employees worked behind the scenes to shape the scientific record and influence regulatory reports to bolster one core message: glyphosate is safe. These strategies included courting friendly scientists to write papers favorable to the company — even ghostwriting scientific papers and influencing a meta-analysis — while keeping the company’s role hidden. The documents also show how the company used the scientific literature they had helped create to influence federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and tried to prevent a domestic ruling on glyphosate they feared would align with IARC’s.

This story parallels the numerous examples of undermining science detailed in Dr. David Michaels seminal work, The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception (now out in paperback which you should be purchasing for all the inquiring minds in your family this holiday season.)

Getting Serious About Workplace Violence

We have written frequently here about the epidemic of workplace violence suffered by healthcare workers in the United States (and Canada) and the failure of OSHA to move forward on a workplace violence standard. The good new is that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Center for Clinical Standards and Quality seems to be getting serious about the problem. CMS administers Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Health Insurance Marketplace..  CMS just issued a memorandum to State Survey Agency Directors stating that hospitals risk getting kicked out of Medicare and Medicaid for failure to adequately respond to and prevent incidents of workplace violence.

CMS states that healthcare providers that don’t address workplace violence problems are failing in their obligation to care for patients in a safe setting, train staff and to have policies and procedures aimed at protecting both their workforce and their patients and strategies for addressing emergency events.

OSHA has been working on a workplace violence standard since 2016, but has not made much progress. The House of Representatives has also passed legislation that would force OSHA to issue an accelerated standard, but the bill was never taken up in the Senate.

Workplace Death: Just a Natural Part of Life

Anyone following the soccer World Cup in Qatar is also likely aware of the huge number of immigrant workers who died building the stadiums and infrastructure for the games.  The Guardian recently reported that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago.
The latest death, last Wednesday, was a migrant worker from the Philippines who was killed at the training site for the Saudi national soccer team.
Showing a level of sensitivity that only the world’s soccer overlords can manifest, the chief executive of the Qatar World Cup, Nasser al-Khater, when asked by a Reuters reporter about the latest death of a migrant worker, replied “We’re in the middle of a World Cup, and we have a successful World Cup. And this is something that you want to talk about right now? I mean, death is a natural part of life, whether it’s at work, whether it’s in your — in your sleep.”
You know what else is a “natural part of life” for people who send workers to preventable deaths? Prison. Though probably not in Qatar.

Confined Spaces: Don’t Rush in

Before OSHA’s confined Space standard was issued in the early 1990’s, confined space deaths were soaring. But the most painful part was that the deaths of potential rescuers exceeded the deaths of original victims.  A worker would descend into a manhole or other confined space, get overcome by hydrogen sulfide or oxygen depravation, and then his co-worker would jump in a try to save him, only to pass out himself. Often a third and sometimes a fourth workers would attempt a rescue, all of them needlessly dying.
OSHA’s confined space standard went a long way to preventing those deaths by ensuring that the air in confined spaces was tested, the space was ventilated, and there was a means for non-entry rescue where the worker was attached to a line and could be winched out of the space if necessary without someone entering the deadly space to try to extract him.
Unfortunately, such deaths are not completely a thing of the past, especially for employers who don’t comply with the standard.  Last week, federal OSHA cited an Arkansas construction contractor failed to test oxygen levels in the confined space before two workers entered a sewer 20 feet below ground at an Edmond work site and died because of a lack of oxygen. Belt Construction Inc. was cited for six serious and two willful violations and proposed $287,150 in penalties after an employee “climbed into a newly installed sewer manhole to conduct testing when they lost consciousness. Trying to rescue the worker, a second employee followed into the manhole and lost consciousness. Both workers later succumbed to their injuries.”

Saving Public Employees’ Lives

We write a lot (way too much) about workers who get killed in trench collapses. Last week North Carolina OSHA cited the town of Waynesville for failing to properly shore up the sides of trench when repairing a sewer line. Five years ago a trench collapsed on a Waynesville worker, seriously injuring him and NCOSHA fined the town $69,000.  The town owns three trench boxes which can protect workers, but the city considers them “cumbersome to use.”
So why is this news fit for publishing in Confined Space?
Because this incident deals with the lives of the public employees — public works employees of Waynesville. If an unshored trench had been discovered in a town down the road in Georgia or up the road in West Virginia, nothing would have happened.  Those workers could just go on down into that trench (or into that confined space — see above) with no violation of the law, no one to penalize their employers for endangering their lives. Even if a worker in those sates had been killed in an unsafe trench, there would be no investigation, no citations and no lessons learned.
Because public employees in Georgia, West Virginia and 23 other states aren’t covered by OSHA. They have no right to a safe workplace. No right to come home to their families alive after a day of work.

West Virginia Republicans Forget Mine Disasters While Weakening Mine Safety Protections

As West Virginia goes increasingly Republican, there are still a few state legislators that are opposing current efforts to weaken mine safety laws by invoking the forgotten and neglected graveyards of miners who lost their lives in the state’s many mining disasters. “More than a century of overgrowth on this West Virginia hillside has erased any trace of the burial ground known locally as Little Egypt, the resting place for dozens of coal mine workers who died, in a 1912 mine explosion. ”

For Ed Evans, a state lawmaker and retired public school teacher

the burial ground is a reminder of the sacrifices by workers who inspired safety regulations when the coal industry was rapidly expanding in the early 20th century, the deadliest era for miners in US history. It’s more important than ever now, he said, amid a push to undo regulations as the industry declines.

Republicans in West Virginia’s have introduced multiple bills that would eliminate worker protections in an attempt to bolster the shrinking coal industry, including a sweeping overhaul of the state agency that inspects coal mines.


Huge Increase in Journalists Killed on the Job

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)  reports that 67 journalists and media staff have been killed around the world so far this year, up from 47 last year. That would be a 42% increase. The war in Ukraine, continuing conflict in Palestine, chaos in Haiti and drug wars in Latin America have contributed to the killing of media workers. The IFJ also reports that 375 journalists currently imprisoned for their work, with the highest figures in China including Hong Kong, in Myanmar and in Turkey, up from 365 incarcerated journalists last year. There were 12 media fatalities in Ukraine alone.

The surge in the killings of journalists and other media workers is a grave cause of concern and yet another wake up call for governments across the globe to take action in the defence of journalism, one of the key pillars of democracy,” said IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger. “The failure to act will only embolden those who seek to suppress the free flow of information and undermine the ability of people to hold their leaders to account, including in ensuring that those with power and influence do not stand in the way of open and inclusive societies. It is now time for the UN General Assembly to pass the IFJ Convention on the Safety and Independence of Journalists.”

You can find a list of journalists killed here.


And Finally…


Only 12 Days Until Christmas and 5 days Until Hanukkah

But still time to buy your favorite people some great labor and workplace health & safety books. If you just can’t figure out what to get the person who has everything, don’t forget to check out the Confined Space Holiday Book Shopping list.

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