So much happening, so little time to write about it. What’s been going on in the world of workplace safety over the past several weeks. Here is a little taste:

Silica Keeps Killing; California Acts

The Cal/OSHA Standards Board has unanimously adopted revisions to its silica standard to protect workers from the life-threatening hazards of engineered stone . Those are the fake stone countertops in so many of our kitchens.

The move comes as silicosis cases continue to come to light from fabrication of the increasingly popular engineered stone for countertops. To date, 95 California employees in this industry have developed silicosis, four have received lung transplants (with five under evaluation) and 10 have died. Many more cases of this incurable disease are expected, says occupational physician and former Standards Board member Dr. Robert Blink. The state features about 1,000 fabrication shops. In coming years, DOSH projects there could be 1,000 silicosis cases.

And a couple of weeks ago, Australia outlawed the sale and importation of engineered stone.

The new protections in the ETS trigger when employees perform “high-exposure trigger tasks,” including any dust-creating work with artificial stone containing 0.1% crystalline silica by with, or natural stone with 10% content. Specific requirements include:

  • Exposure monitoring at least every 12 months to assess the effectiveness of controls;
  • All high-exposure trigger tasks to be conducted in a clearly designated area with warning signs;
  • Wet methods to be used “without exception”;
  • Dust-containing waste materials must be properly handled, and dry sweeping and compressed air are prohibited;
  • Powered air-purifying respirators or equally protective alternatives required;
  • Communication and training on the hazards of silica and the control measures; and
  • DOSH required to issue an Order Prohibiting Use “when dry operations are observed.”

Worker Action

We wrote earlier this week about an SEIU petition to OSHA asking the agency to withdraw South Carolina’s OSHA program.  SEIU has also been busy in Colorado where cargo handlers at Denver International Airport walked off the job over workplace safety concerns. The workers, employed by the international airline services company Swissport because “Our warehouse is just kind of a chaotic mess with broken equipment,” said Andrew Guttman, a cargo agent.  Cargo handling, wheelchair pushers and other workers at airports across the country are attempting to organize primarily to improve workplace safety conditions: vehicle and forklift incidents, heat and lifting injuries an other hazards plague the airport workers.

More Amazon Workplace Safety and Health Issues

We’ve written before about unaddressed workplace safety hazards at Amazon — heat, lifting, machinery — as well as the company’s policies of discouraging workers from reporting injuries or seeking help. Now there’s information about unaddressed chemical spill hazards in the company’s warehouses and the failure to train or equip workers to safety clean up the hazardous chemicals. The chemicals that include include pesticides, cleaning products and even some shampoos, often leak through their packaging, exposing employees to potent odors that cause dizziness, nausea, skin irritation and, in some cases, vision loss.

Warehouse workers at some of Amazon’s facilities have to handle potentially hazardous materials every day…. In January, L&I inspectors cited Amazon’s Spokane warehouse for failing to properly train workers on how to handle hazardous chemicals or ensure employees wore appropriate eye protection, according to a previously unpublicized citation.

Amazon, of course, denies the problem, stating that “all front-line employees receive safety training that includes information on chemicals and how to read labels” and reassuring the public that “There’s nothing more important than our employees’ health and safety.”

Washington OSHA has found workers without eye protection or training in how to identify and safely clean up spills.

Dairy Worker Deaths Go Uninvestigated

One of the many travesties in the world of workplace safety and health is 50 year old Congressional language forbidding federal OSHA from investigating hazardous conditions, injuries or deaths on small farms — those that employ ten or fewer workers.  Farms are incredibly dangerous workplaces, but somehow Congress, year after year, falls for the agriculture industry’s lies that safe farm workplaces will kill the family farm and destroy the American agriculture industry. Yes, OSHA would not only kill jobs, but enforcement of safe farm workplaces would cause worldwide starvation.

There is one exception to the prohibition — small farms that also have “temporary labor camps” for farm workers.

ProPublica reporters Melissa Sanchez and Maryam Jameel recently published a devastating investigative piece describing the deadly hazards on small dairy farms and OSHA’s failure to consistently enforce safe working conditions even on farms that have temporary labor camps.

Since 2009, at least 17 workers, most of them immigrants, have died on Wisconsin dairy farms. Twelve of the deaths happened on farms with fewer than 11 workers. OSHA did not inspect eight of those 12, each time citing the small farms exemption.

Records reviewed by ProPublica and interviews show that the agency may have more power to open an investigation into these farms than even its own leaders seem to be aware of.

How OSHA interprets and applies its definition of a temporary labor camp — and whether it should consider dairy workers temporary when farms produce milk year-round — has significant implications for the safety of thousands of workers in one of America’s most dangerous industries.

It is the difference between workers’ deaths, injuries or safety complaints being investigated or ignored

You can also listen to an interview with Sanchez here and a follow-up article here.

Didion Milling Gives Up Challenge to OSHA Citations After Killing 5

I wrote in October about how a Wisconsin jury convicted current and former Didion Milling Inc. officials of workplace safety, environmental, fraud and obstruction of justice charges as a result of lying about events leading up to the deaths of five employees in a 2017 grain dust explosion.  The convictions come a few weeks after Didion Milling pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay $1 million in criminal fines and $10.25 million in restitution to victims of the explosion.

Didion had contested a $1.8 million OSHA citation, but last week the company settled with OSHA for the full amount and agreed to the following actions:

  • Develop a corporate-wide safety and health management system within six months with input from management and workers and create a safety committee.
  • Meet with OSHA at least yearly to discuss safety and health issues.
  • Work with third-party experts to ensure mechanical integrity of key pieces of equipment.
  • Conduct hazards analyses on grain dust and the need for flame-resistant personal protective garments.
  • Provide time, equipment, staffing and training related to combustible dust housekeeping and mechanical integrity equipment inspections, tests and preventative maintenance.
  • Develop a management of change program and procedure overseen by a qualified person knowledgeable in the fire and deflagration hazards of agricultural or food dust.
  • Review changes to grain processing equipment including mills, dryers, dust collector filters and bucket elevators for safety compliance.
  • Create an incident-reporting and investigation system to identify incidents such as severe near misses, severe injuries, combustible dust fire, deflagration and explosion events, and material releases.
  • Conduct emergency planning and response training with the local fire department annually, if practical.
  • Train employees on the updated safety and health management system within 30 days of implementation.
  • Conduct training in languages understood by employees.

Meanwhile, convicted company officials await sentencing.

Poultry Plant Deaths “Completely Preventable”

The Chemical Safety Board issued a long-awaited report investigating a deadly nitrogen gas leak that killed six workers at a  Foundation Food Group poultry plant in Gainesville, Florida- in January 2021. The report pulled no punches:

According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), the horror unleashed in the Foundation Food Group plant was “completely preventable.” It disproportionately affected the North Georgia immigrant community that powers the region’s poultry industry, accounting for five of the victims.

“This is an incredibly damning report,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and a current fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

The six victims died by asphyxiation when a pipe likely bent during maintenance disrupted the control system of an immersion freezer, allowing the freezer to fill with an unsafe level of liquid nitrogen, which overflowed and vaporized into a “deadly cloud.”

The severity of the incident was exacerbated by Foundation Food Group’s inadequate preparedness and safety training, which according to the CSB report resulted in at least 14 employees entering the freezer room or the surrounding area to investigate what had happened or attempt to rescue their colleagues. Investigators also cited the company’s failure to install air monitoring and alarm devices, which could have warned workers about the dangerous vapor cloud and prevented them from entering the freezer room.

In addition,

Foundation Food Group had allowed the job responsible for safety management to remain vacant for over a year prior to the incident. The company failed to inform, train, drill, or otherwise prepare its employees for a release of liquid nitrogen. There was no personal protective equipment in the plant that would have allowed safe entry into an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.

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