Lot’s happening in the world of workplace safety and health. OSHA and MSHA are making progress on several standards and regulations. Lots of talk (but little action) on protecting workers from heat and smoke. Hazards of workign in warehouses and real estate. Corruption at the Chemical Safety Board. And much, much more.
OSHA (Re)Issues Recordkeeping Rule That Trump Repealed
Good news! OSHA has (re)issued an improved recordkeeping rule that requires large establishments to send OSHA information about every serious worker injury. The Trump administration had killed the original rule. Much of the data will be published on OSHA’s website, which will allow workers to compare the safety records of companies they might want to work for, and allows employers to benchmark their safety programs against others in their industries. Establishments with 100 or more employees in certain high-hazard industries must electronically submit information from their detailed Form 300-Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses, and Form 301-Injury and Illness Incident Report to OSHA once a year. Previously, these data were unavailable, even to OSHA (except during an inspection). These submissions are in addition to submission of the less detailed Form 300A-Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses that an Obama regulation also mandated. This information is also posted on OSHA’s webpage. Aside from OSHA’s two COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards, this is the only final rule issued by OSHA in this administration. And unlikely to see others. More information on this development on the Twitter feed of former OSHA head David Michaels here.
MSHA Issues Proposal to Protect Miners from Deadly Silica
More good news! At long last, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued a proposed standard to protect miners from exposure to deadly silica dust. Silica mixed with coal dust is creating a growing number of cases advanced black lung disease, known as progressive massive fibrosis. The standard is way overdue. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had recommended to OSHA and MSHA in 1974 that silica levels be significantly reduced, and OSHA issued an improved silica standard to protect construction workers and others in 2016. Consequently, currently mineworkers are legally allowed to be exposed to silica dust levels twice that of any other workers.
Department of Labor rulemaking has been slowed by the delay in the Senate confirmation of Julie Sue as Secretary of Labor. The United Mine Workers union was pleased with the announcement after recently citing the administration’s failure to move forward on a standard as one reason they would not endorse Biden for President at this time. MSHA will receive public comments and announce dates for upcoming public hearings in Arlington, Virginia, and Denver, Colorado. The big question is how soon the agency will be able to finalize the standard. If a Republican administration wins in 2024, it is likely that progress on the standard will stop. And even if MSHA finishes that standard during this term, it runs into the chance of repeal under the Congressional Review Act by a Republican Congress and President if it is issued after April 2024.
Ranking Member of the House Education and Workforce (sic) Committee, Bobby Scott (D-VA), hailed the announcement as a “an important step toward protecting the health and safety of workers and their families from life-threatening consequences of relaxed regulations on silica.” Under Scott’s leadership, the Committee held a hearing on the black lung crisis in 2019.
Walkaround Proposal Goes to White House for Review
I wrote last month about OSHA’s “Worker Walkaround Representative Designation Process regulation which will codify the ability of workers to choose their own “walkaround representatives” even if they work in a workplace with no union representation. Yesterday, OSHA sent the official proposal to the White House Office for Intergovernmental and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review before it’s published. The review is scheduled to take three months, but can move faster — or slower. Once it’s approved by OIRA, OSHA will call for written comments on the proposal. Because this is a procedural regulation and not a health or safety standard, hearings are not required. Given that procedural regulations are much easier and faster to finalize than health and safety standards, it’s possible that this important regulation could be issued by the end of the Biden administration. Republicans and the business community, of course, oppose the standard, falsely labeling it a give-away to unions.
Congress Must Act to Protect Workers From Heat and Smoke
Climate change is killing workers. Heat is the biggest climate-related killer in the world, and particularly affects construction, agriculture and other outdoor workers. Meanwhile, many areas in the US have been affected by wildfire smoke in Canada. Writing in the Atlantic, former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels explains that OSHA’s standard setting process is broken. Although OSHA is working on a heat standard, it takes OSHA years — and often decades — to issue major standards. But it’s not OSHA’s fault. “The problem lies with Congress, which has failed to update the weak law it enacted more than half a century ago creating OSHA, and has refused to provide the agency with anywhere near the resources it needs to fulfill its mission. This weakness has been compounded by court decisions that have handcuffed OSHA.” Michaels calls on Congress to act. “The current crisis demands stronger standards, and OSHA needs congressional help to respond adequately.”
Grain Handling Incidents/Deaths Are Up in 2022
Bad news. Injuries and deaths involving agricultural confined spaces rose nearly 41% in 2022, according to a report from Purdue University’s annual “Summary of U.S. Agricultural Confined Space-Related Injuries and Fatalities.” There were 83 cases in 2022, compared to 59 instances the year before. 24 were fatal. “More than half of the cases last year involved grain bins, which is the highest number of reported grain entrapments in more than a decade. Of the reported entrapment cases in 2022, nearly 36% resulted in a death, which is lower than the five-year average.”
As I’ve written before, grain silos are well known death traps that kill dozens of workers, often children, every year. When grain gets stuck, workers often go in at the top of a silo to loosen the grain or “walk it down.” But when the grain starts flowing, it can suck the worker down like quick sand causing suffocation. Often multiple workers die when others go into the grain in an attempt to rescue the first victim. OSHA’s grain handling standard requires employers to protect workers by training them, stop the conveyor system that moves grain at the bottom of the silo, use safety harnesses and provide a trained observer to respond to trouble. The standard also requires the air to be tested before entry and that the silo be ventilated.
Women Realtors at Risk, Alone in Houses with Clients
Realtors, mostly women, alone in houses with clients, are being harassed and sometimes raped & murdered, according to a New York Times investigation by Debra Kamen . Most realtors are “independent contractors,” which means they don’t have protection from Title VII or OSHA. In 2021, 25 realtor estate professionals died from violence on the job. The National Association of Realtors is resistant to require any sort of mandatory safety training. They prefer instead to relay on individual agents to create their own safety measures. But some real estate agents want more action: mandatory training, background checks on clients or giving female agents an option of an escort when meetings feel unsafe. Some agents are carrying pepper spray and even guns.
Former Chemical Safety Board Chair Misspent $90,000 on Travel and Furnishings
An Inspector General’s report has found that Trump-appointed former Chemical Safety Board (CSB) Chair Katherine Lemos misspent over $90,000 on illegal travel and extravagant office renovations. Lemos, who served from until she resigned in continued to live in San Diego California, instead of moving to Washington DC where here office was located, but she charged the agency $50,000 for trips to and from Washington. According to I.G., she was not entitled to travel expenses to and from her home in San Diego. But her rare appearances in her office didn’t stop her from requiring the finest furnishings. “Lemos also spent more than $22,000 to renovate her Washington office — despite not using it as her usual work station, the report said. The expenses far exceeded the $5,000 cap for typical renovations that do not require prior notification to Congress.” To top it off, Lemos’s 22 month tenure at the CSB was a failure. Staffing was inadequate, there were numerous leadership disputes and the agency completed few of the backlog of ongoing investigations during her tenure.
Protect Workers From Wildfire Smoke
It seems masks are back. Only instead of wearing them inside to protect against COVID-19, people are wearing them outside to protect against Canadian wildfire smoke that has been coloring the sky and plaguing the lungs of people througout the Midwest and East Coast of the U.S. George Washington University public health professors Susan Anenberg and David Michaels (former Obama OSHA head) have written an article noting that the climate crisis has made work much more dangerous for outdoor workers. Anenberg and Michaels are calling on legislators and regulators “to pass environmental and worker protection laws and regulations now so that we are better prepared” to address wildfire smoke.
“Hundreds of thousands employed in construction, agriculture, sanitation, mail and package delivery, and many other service jobs work outdoors and were unable to avoid working in the toxic environment without the risk of losing pay. They were exposed to organic carbon, black carbon, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and other hazardous air pollutants traveling hundreds of miles from the burning of vegetation.”
Workers need “access to clean rooms, frequent work breaks, access to N95s and other sorts of respiratory protection, and sometimes more. But it shouldn’t take the hospitalization of workers or the threat of a strike for employers to take the necessary steps to make the work environment and the worker safe. Most importantly, the burden of securing these basic protections during extreme weather emergencies should not be placed on the individual worker.”
OSHA Announces Program to Protect Warehouse Workers
Federal OSHA has launched a National Emphasis Program designed to protect the nation’s warehouse workers from hazards related to powered industrial vehicle operations, material handling and storage, walking and working surfaces, means of egress and fire protection, as well as heat and ergonomic hazards. OSHA notes that “in the past 10 years, warehousing and distribution centers have experienced tremendous growth with more than 1.9 million people employed in the industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows injury and illness rates for these establishments are higher than in private industry overall and, in some sectors, more than twice the rate of private industry.” In Congressional testimony, Sheheryar Kaoosji, Executive Director, Warehouse Worker Resource Center, Ontario, California, described heat hazards in warehouses. OSHA State Plans must adopt similar emphasis programs.
Dead from the heat at 24, San Antonio construction worker’s fate raises questions over new Texas law, San Antonio Express News
Forcing people to work in deadly heat is mostly legal in the U.S., Atlanta Journal Constitution, Washington Post
It’s hot. For farmworkers without federal heat protections, it could be life or death, Connecticut Public Radio
Don’t Like People Dying From Extreme Heat? Join a Union, Deceleration News
Weeks of Extreme Heat Strain Small Businesses and Economy, Wall St. Journal
In Heat and Smoke, Workers Fight Negligent Bosses, Labor Notes