Occupational Safety and Health Issues
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New Report Reveals Human Toll of Relentless Line Speeds in Poultry Plants, as USDA Prepares to Crank Them Up Even Further

A report released yesterday by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice offers a devastating glimpse into the world of Alabama poultry workers.  Forced to hang, fold, gut, or slice more than 100 carcasses each minute, these workers suffer injuries at astounding rates:  of the 302 workers interviewed, almost three-quarters have experienced a significant work-related injury or illness, from deep cuts and debilitating hand pain to chemical burns and respiratory problems.  More than anything, these injuries are a result of the punishing line speeds that workers have to keep up with—lines that never slow or stop when a worker is in pain, but only when a piece of chicken becomes lodged in the machinery.

Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers is a sobering report, especially since it comes at a time when the Department of Agriculture (USDA) is preparing to finalize a proposed rule that would allow poultry plants to raise line speeds to a staggering 175 birds per minute (up from current limits of 70-140 birds per minute) and would leave only one federal inspector on each line.  In other words, workers would have only one-third of a second to spend on each carcass, and the inspection duties previously handled by USDA inspectors would be turned over to company employees.  As disturbing as that looks on paper, the real-world implications are even worse in light of the working conditions described in this report.

The new report describes how the relentless pace of the processing line creates a frenzied work environment that affects every aspect of the job.  Not only do workers face greater injuries from performing their tasks, they are also denied necessary breaks as supervisors insist that they stay on the speeding line.  Some literally run to the bathroom on slippery blood-streaked floors, racing back to the line to avoid getting in trouble.  Because workers are not given the time to sharpen their knives, they are made to use dull knives, which require them to strain their muscles even harder to cut through meat and bone.

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Two Years Later, OSHA's Rule to Protect Workers from Deadly Silica Still in White House Review

[[Ed. Note: This post is a reprint, with minor updates, of McGarity’s post one year ago on the first anniversary of the proposed silica rule arriving at OMB. Little has happened on the issue in the past year – except more people have been sickened or killed by silica exposure.]]

Today marks the second anniversary of an event that received little media attention, but marked a major milestone in the progression of a regulation that is of great importance to thousands of Americans whose jobs bring them into contact with dust particles containing the common mineral silica. Exactly two years ago today the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) completed a proposed rule requiring employers in the mining, manufacturing and construction industries to protect their employees from silica dust particles as they engage in such activities as sandblasting, cutting rocks and concrete, and jackhammering.

Silica dust is no newcomer to the growing list of workplace hazards. Public health professionals have known for more than one hundred years that exposure to airborne silica dust can cause a debilitating disease caused silicosis.

In 1929, as the nation entered the Great Depression, hundreds of workers made their way to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia to work on the Hawk’s Nest diversion project, a massive digging operation that created a three-mile long tunnel through Gauley Mountain to divert the flow of the New River for a Union Carbide power generation facility. Before the project was completed, more than one hundred workers had died of silicosis, and many more faced the prospect of slow and painful deaths as a result of their exposure to silica dust.

The Hawk’s Nest tragedy inspired public health officials to establish limitations on workplace exposures to silica dust, but they did not prevent workers from contracting the dreaded disease. Scientists estimate that thousands of workers still contract silicosis, resulting in hundreds of deaths, every year. And silica dust exposure has been linked to other diseases, like cancer, as well.

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A Victory for American Coal Miners; A Small Measure of Justice for the Victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster

Yesterday, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) finalized the long overdue Pattern of Violations rule, a measure that will enhance the agency’s enforcement authority by making it easier for the agency to hold scofflaw mines strictly accountable for repeatedly and needlessly putting their workers at risk of chronic illness, severe injury, or even death.  The deterrent effect of this enhanced enforcement authority will discourage delinquent mine operators from cutting corners on health and safety, a development that will produce significant benefits for America’s miners.  MSHA estimates (see page 6) that the rule will prevent nearly 1,800 non-fatal injuries over the next 10 years, in addition to reducing instances of illnesses and fatalities.

The Pattern of Violations rule was one of the high priority regulatory actions that MSHA announced in response to 2010’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, in which 29 miners were killed in a massive mine explosion.  Several investigations of the incident revealed that the explosion was precipitated by a deadly combination of hazardous conditions including improperly maintained mining equipment, inadequate ventilation, and insufficient rock dusting; the Upper Big Branch Mine had had been repeatedly cited for many of these kinds of hazards in the months prior to the disaster.  Between 2005 and the time of the explosion, MSHA had cited the Upper Big Branch Mine for 1,342 violations.  In 2009 alone, the agency cited the mine for 515 different safety violations, around 200 of which MSHA deemed to be “significant and substantial,” or violations that could reasonably be expected to lead to a serious injury or illness.  The Upper Big Branch Mine’s operator—the now defunct Massey Energy Company—also had a long history of operating mines with similar health and safety violations.

Under the existing rules, delinquent mines that in practice had a long pattern of violations could avoid official “pattern of violations” status—which would enable MSHA to order the mine to withdraw workers from any part of the operation that it subsequently finds to have a significant and substantial violation—by appealing the citations.  The Massey Energy Company had resorted to that tactic with Upper Big Branch, and MSHA had also made an error that stopped the company from moving a step closer to receiving a pattern of violation notification.  Had a proper Pattern of Violations rule been in place, and had MSHA properly implemented it, the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster might have been prevented.

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CPR Report: Rise in Contract Labor Brings New Worker Safety Threats, Demands New Government Policies in Several Dangerous Industries

Just how accountable is an employer to an employee if the employee is only working for one day?

In areas from construction to farm work, warehouse labor to hotel housekeeping, contingent work is growing or already common. Rather than hire permanent, full-time employees directly, many employers hire workers indirectly through 3rd party agencies, or on contracts as short as a day. Too often, workers in these fields see little job security, low wages, minimal opportunities for advancement, and, all too often, hazardous working conditions. Contingent workers are disproportionately racial minorities and often come from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds.

A new CPR report released today, At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions, looks at the hazards in these four work areas and the unique safety challenges that arise from contract-based work.

The report argues that safety dangers are magnified because contingent workers don't always get the training they need, and high injury rates are acceptable to many employers since the employees are non-permanent, effectively expendable. Employers who hire workers on a contingent basis do not directly pay for workers’ compensation and health insurance, and are therefore likely to be insulated from the insurance premium rate increases that would ordinarily follow frequent workers’ injuries.

The report issues a set of recommendations for improving safety specifically for contingent workers. Congress can amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include a private right-of-action that allows any person to bring suit in federal court against any other person who violates provisions of the statute or its implementing regulations. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should take a number of steps, including establishing rules to require employers to provide better training; strengthening enforcement in industries where contingent work is prevalent; and issue ergonomics standards in the industries in which contingent workers suffer high rates of musculoskeletal injuries.

The report was written by CPR Member Scholars Martha McCluskey, Thomas McGarity, and Sidney Shapiro, and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz.

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Mercatus Center OSHA Report Rehashes Discredited Free Market Nostrums

This post was written by Member Scholar Thomas O. McGarity and Senior Policy Analyst Matt Shudtz.

The Mercatus Center has recently published a report on OSHA that simply rehashes the same old discredited arguments that industry apologists in academia and think tanks have been making for thirty years.  Not surprisingly, they reach the conclusion that voluntary compliance programs and worker education efforts are better uses of OSHA’s limited resources than rulemaking and enforcement.

The report contains no original research, and (with one exception) it relies exclusively on studies finding little or no correlation between OSHA activity and reductions in worker injures. At the same time, the report ignores much of the evidence tending to show OSHA regulations and enforcement are effective.  The simple (and frustrating) fact of the matter is that it is almost impossible to design a study using available occupational injury statistics to measure with much confidence the extent to which enforcement of OSHA standards is or is not associated with a reduction in workplace injuries or deaths.  It is therefore not surprising that the studies reach mixed results.  The Mercatus report ignored some reports showing a positive correlation and belittled a recent study showing a highly positive correlation.

By law, the agency has reviewed a number of standards issued over the last forty years.  The cotton dust standard virtually eliminated byssinosis, at a cost to industry far less than expected.  The standards controlling exposure to ethylene oxide resulted in reduced risk to employees and lower-cost sterilizers available to employers, even as industrial production of the chemical increased.  OSHA’s inspections have also been proven effective, with studies (among others, here, here, and here) indicating that injuries and standards violations decrease following the inspections – by as much as 50 percent.

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An Incident Almost Every Day: Louisiana Bucket Brigade Reports on 2011 Refinery Accidents

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

The good news is that in 2011 there were 53 fewer reported refinery accidents in Louisiana than there were in 2010. The bad news is that the 301 refinery accidents reported to the state in 2011 released nearly 50,000 pounds more air pollutants and nearly 1 million gallons more contaminants to soil and water than did the 354 accidents reported in 2010 – this according to a new report released Monday by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and United Steelworkers. “Our aim is to collaborate with the refineries to solve the problem. Unfortunately that day hasn’t come yet,” said Louisiana Bucket Brigade founding director Anne Rolfes on a call with reporters. “Refinery managers continue to act as if they don’t have an accident problem. Until they face the facts, the oil industry, our economy, our environment and our health will suffer,” said Ms Rolfes.

The report’s release comes less than three weeks after a fire and explosion on an oil platform off the Louisiana coast killed three workers and injured 9, three seriously – and while a Shell Chemical in Norco, Louisiana continued to flare as it had for more than 30 hours.

The report, which is based on refineries’ reporting of accidents to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), found that in 2011 the state’s 17 refineries reported to the state 301 accidents that released more than 1 million pounds of air contaminants and more than 1.3 million gallons of pollutants to soil and water. Among these emissions are sulfur dioxide, benzene, hydrogen sulfide, 1,3-butadiene, and miscellaneous other volatile organic compounds. These substances are all associated with potentially serious adverse health effects, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases; neurological, immune and respiratory system impacts; and cancer. According to US Census figures and the report’s analysis, more than 200,000 people in Louisiana live within two miles of a refinery. This industry is “clearly externalizing its costs on Louisiana,” said Ms. Rolfes.

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DOL and HHS Secretaries Should Press USDA to Put Brakes on Poultry Rule that Would Harm Workers' Safety

In January, USDA issued a proposed rule that would allow poultry slaughter facilities to increase the speed of their slaughter and evisceration lines as part of an effort to “modernize” the slaughtering process.  Today, I attended a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) and asked for the committee’s help in stopping the rule, given its threats to workers’ health and safety.

The gist of the rule is that it would remove most USDA inspectors from the slaughter lines and shift their inspection responsibilities to company employees.  Because these changes would require costly alterations to the lines and potentially increase companies’ food safety liabilities, USDA had to sweeten the pot to entice companies to take advantage of the new system.  So, USDA proposed allowing companies to increase line speeds from an already astounding 90 birds per minute to a dizzying 175 birds per minute, which is predicted to deliver companies added profits of a few pennies per bird.  Of course, in an industry that processes billions of chickens per year, the pennies really add up.

Others have covered the troubling food safety implications of forcing USDA’s remaining inspectors to “inspect” (if you can call it that) 175 birds per minute.

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Obama Event Monday Honoring Farmworkers Comes Just Months After Administration Jettisoned Key Farmworker Safety Rule

President Obama travels to Keene, California, on Monday to designate the home of César E. Chávez as a national monument—a worthy honor for a key figure in the ongoing push for safe working conditions and fair pay. One thing the President is unlikely to raise in his remarks is that just a few months ago, his administration took the side of big agriculture against the safety of farmworkers.

In April, White House staff jettisoned a key Department of Labor (DOL) proposal establishing safety protections for young agricultural workers – teenagers working in very dangerous jobs.

That’s rather important context going into Monday’s event.  The White House’s press release rightly notes that “Chávez played a central role in achieving basic worker protections for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers across the country, from provisions ensuring drinking water was provided to workers in the fields, to steps that helped limit workers’ exposure to dangerous pesticides, to helping to establish basic minimum wages and health care access for farm workers.”

The Administration has recognized the danger of this work before, and the DOL proposal would have updated 40-year-old “hazardous orders” designed to protect hired children. Last year, announcing the proposed changes, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said: "Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America.” And: “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach."

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CPR White Paper: The Next OSHA -- Progressive Reforms to Empower Workers

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is one of the surviving monuments of the era of progressive social legislation (extending from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s) during which Congress enacted the nation’s foundational health, safety and environmental laws. That statute empowered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to write safety and health standards designed “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” A separate “general duty clause” required every employer to provide a workplace that was “free from recognized hazards” that were likely to cause “death or serious physical harm.”

During the ensuing four decades, OSHA’s efforts to implement that statute have brought about substantial reductions in workplace injuries and illnesses, but far too many workers are still hurt or killed.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. private sector employers in 2010 reported nearly 2.9 million injuries and around 200,000 workplace illnesses. The actual numbers are likely much higher because some employers underreport workplace injuries, and doctors frequently fail to inquire into the likelihood that particular diseases, like cancer, have a workplace origin. A total of 4,690 workers died on the job, which represents a fatality rate of about 3.6 deaths per 100,000 full-time employees. These rates declined slightly during the recession of 2009, but were on their way back up in 2010

The sad fact of occupational life in the United States is that OSHA has not lived up to its potential, primarily because for the 30 of the past 40 years, OSHA has been the subject of unrelenting attacks by the business community. These attacks have rendered OSHA largely incapable of promulgating new occupational safety and health standards and only barely able to enforce existing standards the general duty clause. In 2010, the Center for Progressive Reform published a report detailing serious regulatory dysfunction in OSHA due primarily to a lack of resources, a weakened regulatory process, intrusive review by the White House, and an outmoded statute.

Today we publish The Next OSHA: Progressive Reforms to Empower Workers, offering a wide variety of suggestions for how Congress, OSHA, and workers themselves can make the nation’s workplaces safer and healthier. I co-authored the report with fellow CPR Member Scholars Martha McCluskey, Sidney Shapiro and Rena Steinzor, and CPR Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz.

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Administration's Decision to Throw Young Agricultural Workers Under the Bus Fails To Sway Some Critics

When the Administration withdrew a rule last month prohibiting young agricultural workers from performing some particularly dangerous tasks, the Department of Labor’s statement didnt't just say it was tabling the proposal, or reconsidering it, or even starting over from scratch. It went an extra step, adding: “To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

Given that farm accidents are a very real concern, it's hard to read such an unusually vocal commitment to inaction as anything other than a political gesture. Indeed, the Administration won plaudits from big ag and its supporters. But if the White House actually thought that throwing young agricultural workers under the bus would truly satisfy  the appetite of the opposition – and change the politics of the issue – it was wrong.

Here was Janet Fisher, West Virginia’s Deputy Agriculture Commissioner, speaking to the Register-Herald of Beckley: “They had so much of an outcry from farming communities around the country they decided to back off, for now.” The Texas Farm Bureau said that “cooler heads have prevailed–for now.” And here was the editorial page of the Boston Herald: “Take the proposed nanny-state farm-worker regulation withdrawn (but not killed) by the Labor Department last month.”

If you're thinking the Herald might suffer consequences for just making stuff up, don’t hold your breath.

The decision to back off this regulation is a true profile in cowardice. The White House could and should have stood up to the dishonest assertion by industry that the reg would stop family farmers from putting their children to work in the family business. For better or worse, they were exempted from the proposed rule. That notwithstanding, the Administration surrendered, quashing the proposal in an attempt to appease the opposition. In post-truth politics, giving the other side what they want doesn’t necessarily yield much, if anything, in the public debate. The Boston Herald editorial page just doesn’t care. Condemning young agricultural workers to more severe injuries, in other words, is not just bad policy, but is unlikely to win over many of the voters it was targeting.

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