It’s always something: Dispatches from the front lines of the battle for workplace safety
Posted with permission from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.
Black Lung is Back: After almost being eradicated in the late 1990, black lung is back, with a vengeance. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say they’ve identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease ever reported, according to an NPR story. “When I first implemented this clinic back in 1990, you would see … five [to] seven … PMF cases” a year, says Ron Carson, who directs Stone Mountain’s black lung program. The clinics now see that many cases every two weeks, he says. Black Lung (or progressive massive fibrosis — PMF) is caused by inhalation of coal and silica dust at both underground and surface coal mines. Miners gradually lose the ability to breathe, as they wheeze and gasp for air. Lung transplants are the only cure, and they’re possible only when miners are healthy enough to qualify.
The epidemic, originally identify by an NPR investigation, “also found that the likely cause of the epidemic is longer work shifts for miners and the mining of thinner coal seams. Massive mining machines must cut rock with coal and the resulting dust contains silica, which is far more toxic than coal dust.” New coal dust regulations were fully implemented in 2016. The Trump administration recently announced a “retrospective study” of the new regulations, although in recent testimony, MSHA director David Zatezalo stated to roll back the standard.
Just when you thought it was safe to go home: For decades, the giant chemical company DuPont dumped solvents used to clean machinery into unlined lagoons near the edge of the company’s property. The toxic materials traveled off the companies site, and then vaporized up through the soil into the basements of nearby homes. The solvents remain today, more than 30 years after they were discovered. Now the Record and Northjersey.com have published a lengthy investigative piece “on how DuPont — the chemical giant that gave the world non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets, nylon and other ubiquitous products — worked behind the scenes for more than three decades to keep secret and then downplay the extent of overall contamination from the site and the potential health risks they posed.”
Disposable Workers: According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Mexican, Ecuadorean and Dominican men working for by employees of the New York & Atlantic railroad, the railway ran a two tier system: one for regular employees and one for “perceived immigrants.” The second group “was hired from Home Depot parking lots and told to enter the rail yard by scaling a fence instead of through a gate. Those workers, the suit added, were given a segregated and substandard changing area, subjected to racial slurs and denied protective equipment and training while working for unlawfully low pay in dangerous conditions.” The men righted derailed trains, maintained switches and cut thick railroad ties, and in return earnedg much less than white co-workers while being denied safety equipment and training. According to Kristina Mazzocchi, a lawyer for the workers, “They were treated as if they were disposable,” she added. “They were subjected to deplorable health and safety conditions.”
Imperial Sugar 10 Years Later: On February 7, 2008 a series of massive explosions ripped through the Imperial Sugar processing plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia, killing 4 workers and injuring 39 more. Fourteen of the injured suffered severe burns that kept then in the Augusta, GA Burn Center for months, having suffered burns covering as much as 80% of their bodies. The fuel for the explosion was combustible sugar dust. Federal OSHA issued a $8,777,500 fine, the third largest in its history at that time, and then Assistant Secretary Ed Foulke said that “I am outraged that this company would show a complete disregard for its employees’ safety by knowingly placing them in an extremely dangerous work environment. A Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program was implemented by OSHA. The Chemical Safety Board called for a new combustible dust standard in 2006, and the Obama administration committed to issuing a standard on combustible dust, but never got very far. The Trump administration has now removed combustible dust from the agency’s Regulatory Agenda.
But the anniversary did pass unnoticed in Georgia. The Savannah Morning News published several articles related to the anniversary, and reprinted articles that appeared at the time of the tragedy. The paper’s editorial stated that “We as a community need to demand the federal government do more. Carter’s focus is on ensuring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has ‘the authority they need to make sure the facilities are following the guidelines correctly.’ In this instance, more is more. Let’s push for the Combustible Dust Standard. We owe it to yesterday’s victims. And tomorrow’s, too.”
Save the CSB: It’s only been a few days since the Trump administration yet again proposed to abolish the Chemical Safety Board and already newspapers are publishing editorials describing the stupidity of the idea. The St. Louis Post Dispatch notes that “No other federal agency has the CSB’s level of expertise in enforcing industry safety standards. Last summer the agency’s experts deployed to a refinery explosion in Crosby, Texas, right after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area. They did likewise immediately after a massive 2013 explosion leveled the town of West, Texas. The agency has no regulatory mission; it’s primary function is to review industrial disasters and present recommendations on standards and practices to avoid future accidents.” St. Louis has a first-hand appreciation for the CSB. The Dispatch noted that “When a massive steam explosion last year at Loy Lange Box Co. near Soulard sent a steel tank rocketing through the air, killing four people, only one federal agency had the authority and expertise to enter the scene, conduct investigations and provide an expert assessment on how to prevent such future accidents. The agency was the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.”
At Least Exactly As Effective As: OSHA state plan states are required to enforce standards that are “at least as effective as” federal standards. But they can also be more effective than federal standards. But not for long in Kentucky. The Kentucky state House of Representatives has passed a bill authorizing the Secretary of Labor to “suspend, delay or
alter” a standard if the Federal government has suspend, delay or altered a similar federal standard. For example, federal OSHA is currently proposing to roll back beryllium protections for construction and maritime workers. Now the Kentucky Standards Board could say “screw that,” we’re going to protect our construction and maritime workers even if the feds aren’t. But in Kentucky — if this bill passes the Senate and in signed by the governor — the Secretary of Labor can roll back those protections to make Kentucky’s beryllium standard as (in)effective as federal OSHA’s. The sponsor of the legislation, Rep. James Allen Tipton, claims that his bill will reduce confusion. “Currently, Kentucky employers are subject to state and federal standards and it creates confusion and unnecessary double layers.” That statement is, of course, untrue. Kentucky employers are only subject to Kentucky law, which can be “at least as effective” or more effective than federal law.
Work, Health and Inequity: The American Journal of Public Health published several papers this month on work as a social determinant of health, as well as related commentaries related to safety and health. Emily Quinn Ahonen at Indiana University discusses how work is essential to understanding how inequities are created and progress is made toward health equity. Paul Landsbergis and others explore the reasons for neglecting work in studying overall public health and economic inequity. Adam Finkel (a former OSHA official and currently a professor at University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Philadelphia) describes the challenges facing OSHA and the damage being done by the Trump administration. He calls for more coordination between OSHA and EPA, and with industry to ensure that new technologies are required to protect workers, and that industry standards are enforceable. Celeste Monforton (a former MSHA and OSHA official and lecturer at Texas State University, San Marcos) looks at the history of workplace safety in this country and current developments, reminds us that: the most consequential health and safety improvements we have seen in the United States are not driven by OSHA. The essential ingredient has always been engaged workers who use their collective power to demand change.” And finally United Steelworkers union health and safety director Mike Wright describes the changing nature of work — the decline of manufacturing and rise of the service sector, the growth in temp and contract work, high tech industries, artificial intelligence, 3-D printers affect work-life balance and health disparities.