Dispatches from the front of the war on worker safety: Short stuff
Posted with permission from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.
Major, Radioactive Oops: More than 30 nuclear experts inhaled uranium after radiation alarms and ventilation systems at a Department of Energy weapons site were switched off. The incident raises significant questions about safety in the nation’s premier nuclear labs: “not only were the labs’ procedures and responses riddled with errors, but even after attention was called to these incidents, other safety mishaps occurred. And the financial penalties imposed by the government didn’t seem to have a major impact on the labs’ conduct,” problems that the Center for Public Integrity is looking into in a series of investigative reports.
DOL Starved for Input in how to exploit workers: Despite the fact that the Obama Labor Department received hundreds of thousands of comments from the public about raising the overtime salary threshold to $47,476 from the $23,660 level that has been in place since 2004, the Trump administration has decided that it needs still more input. Are we being overly suspicious in thinking that even without yet more input, they’ve already decided to lower the salary threshold? Former Labor Department executive Sharon Block doesn’t think so: “The effect of this unnecessary procedure is simply to delay and thereby extend the time in which hard-working Americans who make as little as a poverty wage of $23,660 can be exploited and forced to work countless unpaid hours.”
Monkey See, Monkey Do: Kentucky OSHA has decided to follow the example of federal OSHA in delaying enforcement of the Silica standard. OSHA announced on April 6 that it was delaying enforcement of its silica standard in the construction industry for 90 days. Originally scheduled to begin June 23, 2017, enforcement will now begin Sept. 23, 2017. Kentucky is not required to delay enforcement just because the feds did. Kentucky is one of the 21 states that enforce their own private sector OSHA programs. Their standards have to be “at least as effective” as OSHA’s standard. But they can also be more effective — or come into effect sooner — if they really want to protect workers.
Ice Cream Headache: Migrant farmworkers in Vermont are getting tired of being abused and exploited. Working with the ‘Milk with Dignity’ program, a movement of farmworkers and activists, they are calling on companies to put an end to rampant industry abuses. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to get Ben and Jerry’s to formally sign on to a grassroots initiative, despite Ben & Jerry’s progressive reputation and stated commitment to social causes, according to In These Times. Hmm, this could put a crimp in my Cherry Garcia consumption.
See No Injury; Record No Injury: High Plains Public Radio in Kansas covers a new GAO report that show that while meat workers’ injuries and illness rates seem to be improving, “Meat workers sustained a higher estimated rate of injuries and illnesses than poultry workers.” But the report also notes that injuries in the meat industry are also likely to be underreported because serious injuries suffered by many workers who clean machinery in the plants are not always counted with meat and poultry industry data because many work for third-party contractors. Some of these workers have been killed on the job or suffered amputated limbs and severed fingers. GAO also found a phenomenon that OSHA had identified in the poultry industry: plant medical staff who repeatedly send injured workers back to the line without referring them to a doctor (or recording the injuries.) “These limitations in (the Department of Labor’s) data collection raise questions about whether the federal government is doing all it can to collect the data it needs to support worker protection and workplace safety,” the GAO report said.
For the Birds: Meanwhile, moving to poultry, a group of House Democrats, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), is urging Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to reject a renewed call to increase line speeds in poultry-processing plants. In a letter sent June 29, the group states that a recent request from Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) to bump maximum line speeds to 175 birds per minute from 140 “would have serious detrimental effects to food, worker and animal safety.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that poultry workers had an injury rate nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. These are mostly due to musculoskeletal injuries from line speeds that are already too fast.
Blame the Worker, Part 6,403: Four years ago, a runaway freight train pulling 72 tank cars loaded with crude oil crashed into the downtown core of Lac-Mégantic in Canada, killing 47 people. In its report into the derailment, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded that 18 factors contributed to the catastrophe, blaming Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway for its “weak safety culture” and Transport Canada for failing to ensure safety breaches were fixed. Three of the railway company’s employees, two of whom belong to the United Steelworkers Union are set to stand trial in September on 47 charges of criminal negligence causing death. Now, I haven’t studied this incident (yet), but my general experience is that when you blame a conductor for a major catastrophe that had been blamed on a “weak safety culture” and known problems that hadn’t been fixed, you’re just looking for a scapegoat, not a real solution. For those in the Washington DC area, there will be a “Music Benefit for Safe Rails and Sustainable Communities” on Sunday to raise funds to benefit the defense of the scapegoated Lac-Mégantic Rail Workers. Friend and neighbor Joe Uehlein and his band, the U-Liners will be performing.
Psst! Hey, Wanna Buy a Poster? The Utah Department of Labor has warned employers about shady businesses trying to sell OSHA posters and threatening them with inspections and fines if they don’t pay up. Actually, the posters are free on line. Apparently the helpful solicitors are contacting Utah businesses “by phone, letter, or personal visit and claim to be an OSHA compliance officer. They threaten employers with inspections, citations, and fines if they don’t immediately pay for health and safety training, consultation services.” Buyer beware.
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