Dispatches from the front lines of the battle for safe and health workplaces: Short stuff
Posted with permission from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.
The moral of this week’s stories is that if you find yourself eating pork chops at your fancy seaside hotel in a hurricane ravaged part of Florida, you need to re-evaluate your life.
Trumpworld to Government Scientists: No Science for You! This falls into “The Onion or Real News” category. Imagine my alarm when I read in The Intercept that “Republicans on the House Science Committee are accusing Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, of lobbying.” Lobbying, as any political appointee or high level government official can tell you, is strictly verboten for government employees. You can educate the public all you want about policy or scientific issues, but you are not allowed to recommend that people urge their legislators to vote for or against a specific piece of legislation. But imagine my relief when I realize that Birnbaum’s crime was not lobbying for any piece of legislation, but writing an editorial about how poorly chemicals are regulated in this country and how certain corporate interests influence research and government regulation of chemicals. No great surprise there for anyone who knows anything about hazardous chemicals and our nation’s weak laws, and increasingly weak enforcement of those laws. Birnbaum’s real crime, however, may not have been lobbying or even just committing science, but having the audacity to criticize Trump EPA’s refusal to ban the pesticide Chlorpyrifos, despite “evidence that organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos can damage the developing brain and impair cognitive and behavioral function through multiple mechanisms.” The Obama administration had proposed a ban in 2015, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has reversed that ban. As the headline of The Intercept reads, what’s really happening is “House Science Committee Wants to Investigate a Government Scientist for Doing Science.”
The Incredible Uniqueness of Florida: And while we’re focusing on stupid, Secretary of Interior Ryan “Raise the flag when I’m in the office” Zinke has finally explained why he exempted Florida from offshore oil drilling after Trump’s announcement that offshore drilling would be allowed everywhere, any time, no problem. Originally Zinke had explained that he was impressed with Florida Governor Rick Scott’s “leadership” and that the Florida (unlike, say California or North Carolina) is “heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.” Now he’s attempting to add “science” to politics by explaining that when it comes to Florida, “The coastal currents are different, the layout of where the geology is.”
OK. So let’s see if we can translate this into plain English. What Zinke is really saying is that Florida is a purple state that Trump barely won and there’s also a tight Senate race in 2018, so “We’d hate for the inevitable oil spills to screw up their tourist industry — and piss off the good
voters citizens of Florida.” Oh, and unlike other coastal states, “Florida’s coast has, uh, different currents, and geology and stuff…”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is our Secretary of the Interior.
Hotel Housekeepers: CalOSHA (and their union) to the Rescue: Hotel Housekeepers — most of whom are immigrants or people of color — have miserable jobs. Cleaning between 15 and 30 rooms a day, lifting 100 pound mattresses and dozens of huge pillows, bending to clean the floor and pick up towels, maneuvering 300 pound supply carts. It all takes a toll on the body, which is why the injury rate for hotel housekeepers was twice that for all workers in the United states according to a 2010 study. Now CalOSHA, driven by a push from UNITE-HERE, the union that represents hotel housekeepers, has issued a new standard on Hotel Housekeeping Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention. The standard requires hotels to have a Housekeeping musculoskeletal injury prevention program that requires a worksite evaluation that identifies addresses potential injury risks to housekeepers, and methods or procedures for correcting hazards in a timely manner. It also mandates training, program evaluation and participation by workers and their union. Hotels will be required to reduce injury risks for housekeepers and offer them tools such as long-handled mops or devices to help make beds. Housekeepers will also get training on injury risks and have the right to suggest solutions to those risks. UNITE-HERE Press Release here. (For a great description of the conditions under which hotel housekeepers work, check out Jonathan Karmel’s Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace.)
USDA – Helping Pork Producers; Hurting Workers: Here’s a great idea for shrinking government and reducing costs to taxpayers. Instead of USDA inspectors conducting food safety inspections, checking the meat for fecal matter and other contaminants, why not have the pork producers inspect their own hogs. And to reimburse them for this extra cost, USDA proposes to let them run their lines as fast as they want, eliminating the current about 1,100 swine head per hour. Just one thing they overlooked: the health and safety of the workers on the slaughtering line. What could go wrong? As Celeste Monforton writes in the Pump Handle, “The animal slaughtering industry already has the highest incidence rate of occupational illnesses than any other U.S. industry. Those numbers include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and other musculoskeletal injuries.” And a 2010 study of pork workers who suffered cuts cited being rushed as the main reason for their injury, and keeping up with line speed was the main reason for rushing. As former OSHA staffer, Debbie Berkowitz, said “By removing all limits on line speeds, this proposal is yet another example of the Trump administration rigging the rules against workers and being perfectly willing to sacrifice workers’ health to benefit corporate interests.” USDA is giving the until mid-March to comment on the proposed changes.
Fighting for the Workers Who Are Rebuilding Cities: A few things we know for sure. Due to climate change, we will be seeing more natural disasters such as the hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico last year. And as sure as hurricanes cause flooding, employers will exploit the mostly immigrant workers who rebuild the areas devastated by the storms. Wage theft and safety violations were rampant in Houston’s low-wage construction industry even before the storm. With the Trump administration’s attacks on agencies that are supposed to be defending workers’ rights to safe working conditions and fair pay, local workers groups have stepped up their activity to defend workers rights. An In These Times article by Bryce Covert describes, the work of the Workers Defense Project and Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Texas, and Make the Road in New York is helping workers understand and defend their rights. Covert writes that ultimately “the goal is to empower workers themselves. ‘We want workers to organize, to know their rights, to make sure that they claim their rights and … inform other workers about their rights as well,’ Mauricio Iglesias of the Workers Defense Project says.”
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