Dispatches from the front lines of the battle for workplace safety and health: Short stuff
Posted with permission from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.
Death by Trench: Equipment World has just completed a special report on trench hazards and the dozens of preventable deaths that happen ever year. Most chilling is the piece on survivors who tell of the terror they felt being buried under tons of soil. And there are heros, like Jay Herzmark in Washington who worked with the Center for Progressive Reform to convince the King County (Washington) Prosecutor’s Office to file criminal charges against Phillip Numrich, owner of Alki Construction where Harold Felton was killed in a 10 foot deep trench in 2016. You really need to take some time to read this significant piece of work. Then make some copies and hand them out to any construction workers you see in unsafe trenches.
Lock ’em Up! And speaking of preventable trench deaths, I wrote two weeks ago about the tragic death of 20-year old Kyle Hancock who was crushed to death in an unprotected 15 foot deep trench outside of Baltimore Maryland. University of Maryland Professor Rena Steinzor argues that Hancock’s employer should be criminally prosecuted. OSHA fines are too low and not a deterrent. “Stopping this kind of gross negligence requires far more severe punishment. The best way to achieve justice in this case and to deter other companies in the construction industry from endangering lives while pinching pennies is to prosecute those responsible. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby should consider assigning her staff to open an investigation into Hancock’s death sooner rather than later, while evidence is still accessible and witnesses’ recollections still fresh.”
Say No Evil, Even If You See Evil: Bloomberg reports that the safety-challenged automaker Tesla is forcing laid-off workers to sign confidential severance agreements requiring them to acknowledge that they “had the opportunity to raise any safety concerns, safety complaints, or whistleblower activities against the company, and that if any safety concerns, safety complaints, or whistleblower activities were raised during your employment, they were addressed to your satisfaction.” Tesla dismissed more than 3,000 workers last week. The automaker is currently being investigated by Cal/OSHA and workers have described unsafe working conditions and failure to record injuries and illnesses accurately.
Right to Work = Right to Die: A paper published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine “demonstrates that the protective effect of unions on workplace safety at the micro level translates into large scale reductions in occupational fatalities.” Harvard University professor Michael Zoorob finds that “diminished union membership due to ‘right to work’ legislation has led to a 14.2% increase in workplace mortality.” According to Zaroob’s data, “Though worker fatalities have declined in the last two decades in the USA, this decline has been steeper in states with higher levels of unionization. Moreover, this study shows that RTW legislation, under consideration in many state legislatures and nationwide, may lead to greater workplace mortality through decreasing the percentage of unionized workers. Indeed, worker fatalities have climbed somewhat since 2008, a reversal from previous years, during the same period that several states adopted RTW. In light of these findings, policymakers in the USA and other countries might consider how declining unionization rates may impact worker safety.””
He concludes that “Policymakers should consider the potentially deleterious effects of anti-union legislation on occupational health.” Indeed
Shut It Down! The city of Berkeley averted a strike by the city’s clerical and maintenance workers employees, represented by SEIU Local 1021, earlier this week when the union voted to a contract that contained improved safety and health language. “City officials will allow maintenance workers to help evaluate situations when vehicles and equipment don’t work to prevent future worker deaths. Sanitation worker Johnny Tolliver died on the job in 2016 when he was pinned between his truck and a utility pole.” Cal/OSHA fined the city nearly $100,000 for Tolliver’s death. Ninety-nine percent of city workers who voted authorized their bargaining team to call a strike.
Methylene Chloride: Consigned to the Dust-Bin of History? Home Depot, world’s largest home improvement retailer, has become the third major retailer to announce that it would stop selling paint strippers containing methylene chloride. The retailer also announced that it would phase out a similar chemical, N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP). Methylene chloride is a well-known killer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that seventeen workers have died from breathing methylene chloride vapors between 2000 and 2015. But that’s just workers. If you add in people who picked up a can of stripper from the local hardware store, the Center for Public Integrity estimates that “at least 56 professionals and do-it-yourselfers have died suddenly after inhaling it since 1980.” EPA has been dragging its feet on moving forward with an Obama era initiatives to ban the hazardous chemical. Lowe’s, followed by Sherwin-Williams previously announced that they would phase out sales of methylene chloride.
Death of a Gig Worker: Pablo Avendano was on his bike in Philadelphia, picking up jobs for the food-delivering app Caviar when he was killed by an SUV. Avendano was a “Gig worker,” an “independent contractor,” with no health & safety protections Now his friends are trying to organize a union to treat gig workers as employees. “Since his death, Avendano’s friends have organized themselves into a group called The Friends and Comrades of Pablo Avendano, and they have demands. They want a union for Caviar couriers, a wage starting at $20 per hour, benefits including hazard pay, and for Caviar to reclassify couriers from independent contractors to W-2 employees.”
More TV Tower Deaths? 56 year-old Steve Lemay was killed last April when he and five of his co-workers came crashing to the ground when a television tower antenna collapsed during a maintenance operation in Fordland, Missouri. The Springfield News-Leader has been digging into the background of the incident and quotes experts who “fear TV tower accidents will be more common as broadcasters across the country scramble to keep up with FCC changes.” To clear the way for high-speed wireless internet providers, hundreds of TV stations will be required “to mount a new antenna on their existing tower so they can broadcast from the new channel without interrupting service.” This process, called the “repack” requires parts of the towers must be reinforced to support the additional weight of new antennas.
“For me, it’s potentially a recipe for disaster,” said Bill Hayes, director of engineering and technology for Iowa Public Television. “Adding time pressure to the mix and encouraging people to do inherently risky work faster than is really safe… it is a huge concern for me. I don’t think we should be pushing an unrealistic deadline if it puts people’s lives at risk.”
Protecting Workers Against The Sun: And not just sunburn. Despite Donald Trump’s promises to bring coal back, the real jobs seem to be in the solar energy industry. “The number of installation workers is expected to grow to 137,500 positions in 2018, a 213 percent increase from 2010 levels, according The Solar Foundation’s 2017 employment outlook.” And along with jobs come hazards: electrocution, falls from roofs, heat stroke — are all taking their toll on solar energy workers, according to Bloomberg news. Training among solar energy workers varies dramatically. Some employers require workers to have OSHA 10-hour cards, some don’t. American Board for Certified Energy Practitioners has voluntary guidelines for safety training, the amount depending on the position’s responsibilities. OSHA has fall protection and electrical standards, but no standard specifically applying to the solar energy industry. But at this point, no one really knows how dangerous the industry is. “There isn’t accurate federal information on fatality and injury rates in the solar industry because there isn’t a unique government identification code for solar installation companies. There isn’t accurate federal information on fatality and injury rates in the solar industry because there isn’t a unique government identification code for solar installation companies.”
But one company is having problems: “In a significant case against Vivint Solar Inc., headquartered in Lehi, Utah, OSHA alleges the company violated fall protection rules at a Philadelphia home construction site in May 2017, leading to a worker falling from a roof and breaking his pelvis. The agency is seeking a $136,708 fine. Vivint is appealing, OSHA records show. Across the country beginning in 2012, OSHA and state safety agencies have cited Vivint for 34 violations stemming from 23 inspections.”