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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Summer of discontent

September 2, 2008
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The Dark Knight,” the summer’s blockbuster gothic movie where heroes don’t always do right, bad guys don’t always pay the price, and the public panics, captures the current mood of workplace safety and health advocates pretty well. A long, dark summer — a culmination of years actually — of disappointments across the U.S. safety and health landscape has left advocates exasperated, angry, some immersed in state or global politics far from the Beltway, and most with very large chips on their shoulders the next administration will have to deal with.

Consider some of the events that have transpired:

No one is listening.

“The Jungle” déjà vu

On August 1, The New York Times published an editorial, “ ‘The Jungle,’ again.” Reports of filthy, dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, have piled up for years, you see, told by workers, union organizers, immigrant advocates and government investigators. In May, the feds rushed in and arrested hundreds of the workers for having false identity papers. The once-intimidated workers spilled the beans and told of abusive, slavish practices; rampant injuries and of exhausted children as young as 13 wielding knives on the killing floor. The company said in a statement it was at a loss to understand the investigation findings.

“A national disgrace,” The Times called it.

A disgrace not confined to Postville, Iowa. Earlier this year, The Charlotte Observer published a six-day investigative series on the North Carolina poultry giant, House of Raeford Farms. According to the Observer, the company has filed misleading injury reports and employees say injured workers have been ignored, intimidated or fired. The company issued a statement saying it “recognizes the value of all our employees and is dedicated to providing them with a safe and rewarding place to work.”

“Workers, many Mexican and Guatemalans, are being exploited, abused, then disposed of when they are injured in Carolina ‘pain factories’,” according to the Observer.

In steps Bob Whitmore, an expert in recordkeeping requirements at OSHA, who blows the whistle and charges that OSHA has allowed steel mills, shipyards, poultry plants and other hazardous industries to vastly underreport the number of injuries and illnesses their workers suffer to make national rates look good. “The students are grading themselves,” Whitmore says on PBS’s “Bill Moyer’s Journal.” OSHA denies any serious problem.

Combustible dust

Shifting focus to another industry, on June 8, 2008, “60 Minutes” interviewed OSHA boss Ed Foulke about dangers workers face when exposed to combustible dust. Many outside of OSHA’s “Cone of Silence” are demanding a standard. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill ordering OSHA to issue a combustible dust standard.

At a Senate hearing in July, John Bresland, chairman and CEO of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), called on OSHA to act on a November, 2006 CSB recommendation to adopt a standard regulating combustible dust in the workplace.

“I believe the urgency of a new combustible dust standard is greater than ever, he said, noting the CSB’s 2006 Combustible Dust Study identified 281 dust fires and explosions in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005, killing 119 and injuring 718 workers.

Even John Sheptor, the CEO and president of Imperial Sugar, slapped with a $8.78 million proposed fined by OSHA following a sugar dust explosion that killed 13 workers in a Georgia refinery earlier this year, said, “We think a clear and comprehensive OSHA standard that specifically addresses combustible dust would further workplace safety.”

Inside his Cone, Foulke said something on “60 Minutes” about more enforcement and reaching out. Nothing on a standard.

(Washington’s cones are more effective than the clear transparent plastic bubble The Chief would lower to shield top secret conversations with Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, on the ’60s TV show, “Get Smart.” The Chief and Smart couldn’t hear each other inside the Cone, but anyone outside could.)

Goodbye Dr. Howard

Then the day before the Fourth of July, one of the most brilliant minds in occupational safety and health was booted out the door by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding. NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, a straight-talking, far-thinking global visionary had expressed his desire to stay on, had received support from the New York Congressional delegation, the governor of New York, unions, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Most news accounts and the support for Dr. Howard focused not on his time at tiny NIOSH, but his advocacy for post 9/11 health monitoring plans, especially early after his appointment in 2006 as coordinator when there was no funding for plans, something he made plain to reporters.

Apparently CDC has a Cone of Silence, too, and Dr. Howard was summarily dismissed.

The New York Times weighed in with another editorial: “A Pointless Departure.” In part, it said, “We fear that without Dr. Howard’s leadership, the agency’s exemplary work on behalf of ground zero workers will stall.”

Rubbing salt in the wound, the Bush administration has proposed slashing NIOSH’s budget from $382 million to $271 million in fiscal year 2009. What, does health research and intelligence-gathering only delve into the possible risks of nanotechnology and job stress? Bad news can’t crack the Cone of Silence.

Risk assessment “reform”

Last month The Washington Post reported political appointees at the Department of Labor were secretly engaged in the time-honored tradition of outgoing administrations in trying to make an eleventh-hour end-run around published regulatory agendas and public scrutiny by going straight to the Office of Management and Budget with a proposal to tighten OSHA and MSHA risk assessment methods, making it longer and harder to issue health standards. Unions called it diabolical. The American Industrial Hygiene Association urged the Labor Department to take a step back from “rushing this proposal forward.”

So far, the Cone of Silence over Labor’s Francis Perkins Building has deflected all criticisms. Including yet another editorial from The New York Times: “Last-Minute Mischief for Labor,” which charges that the agency’s own staff experts challenged the proposal’s legality and science. The Times called what is now considered the department’s top priority “pathetic.”

You know it’s been a bad summer when The New York Times publishes three editorials lamenting the state of workplace safety and health.

Audit, what audit?

Another exasperating news item: BP’s top U.S. executive testified he is doing all he can to promote safety and was surprised that BP’s Texas City refinery where 15 workers were killed in a 2005 explosion still hasn’t put into effect recommendations from a recent safety audit, according to The Houston Chronicle.

Bob Malone, chairman and president of BP America since 2006, said he did not know about the safety audit conducted by AcuTech Consulting Group and required by OSHA. Perhaps BP’s boardroom has its own Cone of Silence.

Meanwhile, Walt Wundrow, a manager at the Texas City refinery, said publicly that budget cuts were a factor in the blast, according to The Chronicle.

Victims’ lawyers submitted a 22-page report to a federal judge in Houston this summer reviewing BP’s plea agreement in a criminal case arising from the explosion, according to Bloomberg News. A process-safety expert hired by the victims, Mike Sawyer, concluded that there were numerous “serious and life-threatening” deficiencies that could lead to “another major explosion, hazardous release or fatality at any time,” he said.

OSHA said last month that BP, the world’s third-largest oil company by sales, is in compliance with the settlement. It’s all good inside the Cone, a fine climate for industry alliances, by the way.

Sitting on a crane standard

Finally, a protest outside OSHA offices in Henderson, a fast-growing suburb of Las Vegas, by residential construction workers and their union representatives in late July, was reported by KVBC/DT Las Vegas. In a report just released, the Laborers’ International Union of North America alleged that SelectBuild, a major residential construction contractor in Las Vegas, has repeatedly violated worker safety regulations and unfairly terminated workers injured on the job.

After a spate of fatal crane collapses earlier this year, representatives of labor unions, crane manufacturers, crane operators, contractors, crane rental companies, builders, crane owners, billboard installers, insurance companies, electrical power line owners and safety experts called on OSHA to implement the updated crane standards that the parties had negotiated a consensus on in 2004.

After congressional hearings regarding a series of construction fatalities in Las Vegas and New York City, Democratic Senate leaders, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, penned a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao urging improved federal protection for construction workers, according to the Associated Press. The senators wanted OSHA to issue safety standards for cranes and to enforce requirements for safety floors or nets under workers using safety harnesses.

Apparently letters can’t slip under the Cone of Silence, and OSHA has not moved on the crane rule. Cones of Silence are to retract back into ceilings across Washington on January 20, 2009. At least for the short honeymoon. I think.— Dave Johnson, Editor

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