Celeste Monforton on CPRBlog {Bio}
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States and localities are where it’s at, opportunities to win safer workplaces

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

Luis Castaneda Gomez, 34 and Jesus Martinez Benitez, 32 were asphyxiated in June 2011 when they were doing repairs inside a manhole. Their employer, Triangle Grading and Paving, was hired by the City of Durham, NC to make water line repairs. The firm had a history of violating worker safety regulations. Worse yet, it was not the first time an employee of Triangle Grading was killed on-the-job.

Durham, like most municipalities, did not have effective policies in place to guard against giving business to safety scofflaws. But that changed in Durham when it adopted a policy in 2012 requiring all bidders to provide information on their safety performance.

This example and many others are described in Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform. Liz Borkowski and I wrote the guide, along with the Center for Progressive Reform’s James Goodwin, Michael Patoka, Matt Shudtz and law professor Rena Steinzor. The document includes more than a dozen ideas for reforms that would empower workers, make sure crime doesn’t pay, and strengthen institutions. Ideas contained in the guide came from worker safety advocates and experts, including those with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) and its network of COSH groups. Mary Vogel, the group’s executive director, welcomed the manual. “It’s exactly what’s needed to help strategize, advocate and win improved health and safety so we can prevent illness, injury, and fatalities on the job.”

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Democratic Senators eager to screw African-American and Hispanic poultry workers

Many Senate Democrats try to paint themselves as defenders of working people. They rail against their colleagues who are “in the pockets of corporations and the rich.”  But what they say, and what they do are two different things. This time, seven Democratic Senators are ready to screw poultry workers to please the owners of the poultry companies.

We’ve been writing for nearly two years on the USDA’s plan to “modernize poultry inspection” (e.g., hereherehere, here). It’s a plan that will give Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrims’ Pride and other poultry producers an additional $250 million a year in revenue. It will allow USDA to eliminate 800 inspectors, and it won’t improve, and could make worse, food safety. To “sell” poultry companies on the plan, USDA will allow them to increase line speeds up to 175 birds per minute.

The industry and USDA are well aware that poultry workers already suffer disabling repetitive motion injuries from the unrelenting speed of the dis-assembly lines. A recent study by the CDC revealed that more than 40 percent of poultry workers at one Pilgrims’ Pride plant suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. USDA’s plan will make this very bad situation even worse.

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USDA to poultry plant workers: no promise we’ll address line speed hazards

 “Es ridículo,” was the reaction of a poultry plant worker when he heard of the USDA’s proposal to “modernize” poultry slaughter. The agency’s January 2012 proposal (77 Fed Reg 4408) would allow companies to increase assembly line speeds from about 90 to 175 birds per minute, and remove most USDA inspectors from the poultry processing line. 

The Obama Administration should have heard the loud and clear opposition from civil rights, food safety, public health and the workers’ safety communities to the USDA’s proposal.  When the public comment period closed in May 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Nebraska Appleseed, the American Public Health Association and other groups were on record urging the Administration to withdraw the proposed rule.  The National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the U.S., put it bluntly:

“this proposed rule runs counter to what we would expect from an administration with a public commitment to protecting vulnerable workers.”

Although calls to withdraw the proposal have fallen on the Obama Administration’s deaf ears, poultry workers and their advocates have not given up. As Lizzie Grossman reported last month, their appeal now extends beyond just demands to withdraw the proposed rule.

Fifteen organizations, including the Coalition of Poultry Workers, Farmworker Advocacy Network, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, filed a petition with the USDA and the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA to issue mandatory standards on line speeds in order to protect poultry and meatpacking workers from disabling musculoskeletal injuries. The well-researched, 70-page petition concludes:

This petition has demonstrated that there is a compelling need for a standard that properly regulates the dangerously high work speeds in meatpacking and poultry plants. The close relationship among the relentless speed of work, repetitive motions, and the prevalence of crippling and debilitating injuries establishes that OSHA and USDA have an obligation to regulate work speeds in these industries.

SPLC and the other petitioners have not yet received a response to their petition from OSHA. I’ll  chalk up their delay to the government shutdown. (Ninety percent of OSHA’s staff is laid off, including everyone in the office responsible for developing new regulations.)

USDA, however, sent a response to the petitioners a few weeks ago.  The letter uses the mushy term “consider” to describe how it might address the evidence provided by commenters on the increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries with intensified line speeds.  USDA Secretary Vilsackcontinues to insist that worker safety matters are the responsibility of the Labor Department and CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  His agency makes no promise to accept OSHA’s and NIOSH’s recommendations for the rule on ways to minimize the risk of injury to poultry plant workers.

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Do you want overworked inspectors in charge of your meat’s safety?

More than 400 inspectors with the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) worked, on average, more than 120 hours each two-week pay period.    Those were the findings of the agency’s Inspector General in an report issued late last month.  Their investigation covered FY 2012, and included field work conducted from November 2012 through February 2013.

FSIS inspectors are assigned to more than 6,000 meat, poultry and egg processing plants in the U.S.  They are responsible for ensuring that the product sold by companies to consumers is safe and wholesome.  These firms process tens of billions of red meat and poultry annually.  With some USDA inspectors working many hours of overtime—not just a couple hours per week, but an average of 20 extra hours each week—can their senses stay sharp and can they do their jobs effectively?

The IG mentioned that overworked employees are more likely to commit errors.  They noted:

“Our analysis showed that one inspector averaged 179 hours, three inspectors averaged over 160 hours, and 14 averaged over 150 hours.   When OIG brought this issue to the attention of FSIS officials, they stated that they were unaware of this fact, and doubted that this extended overtime would negatively affect the agency’s inspectors.”

Funny how an organization that calls itself a public health agency, has such little understanding about how the work environment affects people’s health, safety, and performance.  We’ve written before about USDA’s insistence that its proposed rule to increase production line speeds in poultry processing plants won’t affect workers’ health.  Their perspective runs counter to the findings of researchers who’ve studied musculoskeletal disorders among poultry plant workers.  USDA insists that running production lines at as fast as 175 birds per minute will not take a physical toll on poultry-processing workers, and excessive overtime does not “negatively affect” inspectors.

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Pushing back against anti-regulatory forces, safety and environmental protections long overdue

Finally!  After far too much hullabaloo about the cost of regulations, there was a U.S. Senate hearing today on why public health regulations are important, and how delays by Congress and the Administration have serious negative consequences for people’s lives.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called the hearing entitled “Justice Delayed: The Human Cost of Regulatory Paralysis,” the first one conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s newly created Subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Action.  The witnesses included a parent-turned advocate for automobile safety, AFL-CIO director of safety and health Peg Seminario, and law professor Rena Steinzor of the Center for Progressive Reform.

Steinzor kicked off her testimony with a short litany of regulatory successes:

”One does not need to look far to see how essential regulations are.  Just ask anyone whose life was saved by a seat belt, whose children escaped brain damage because the EPA took lead out of gas, who turns on the faucet knowing the water will be clean, who takes drugs for chronic illness confident the medicine will make them better, who avoided have their hand mangled in machinery on the job because the emergency switch was there to cut off the motor, who has taken their kids to a heritage national park to see a bald eagle that was saved from the brink of extinction—-the list goes on and on.”

She went on to skewer industry lobbyists for the attacks on EPA’s efforts to regulate green house gas emissions, air quality standards, coal ash, stormwater runoff, PBDE’s and other chemicals.  Steinzor’s testimony is punctuated throughout with powerful prose, such as:

· [Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson] “did not take a trip to the basement of the building where the agency is housed and get drunk on her own whiskey, writing down her best fantasies for torturing industry.  Rather, she did her best–at long last–to satisfy congressional mandates instructing her agency to impose more stringent controls on power plants, automobile fuel, boilers, etc.”

· “The truth is that these rules, and the civil servants who write them, do not sweep industry’s hard-earned money into a pile and set it on fire for no good reason.  The regulations impose costs, but they also deliver tremendous benefits.  Ignoring those benefits has become standard practice in the House of Representatives…”

· “Self-rightous crusaders against regulators have become fond of railing against the “costs” that come with regulatory decision-making, but they conveniently ignore the most critical questions: Costs for whom?  Industry or the public that suffers from industry’s polluting activities?  By ignoring this question, opponents of regulation are free to continue pretending that if we dismantled the regulatory system, we would suffer no negative consequences and instead reap a windfall in saved money.”

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Legs of Two 17-Year-Olds Severed in Grain Auger, White House Sits on Young Worker Safety Rule

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

Tyler Zander, 17 and Bryce Gannon, 17 were working together on Thursday, August 4 at the Zaloudek Grain Co. in Kremlin, Oklahoma. They were operating a large floor grain aguer when something went terribly wrong. Oklahoma's News9.com reports that Bryce Gannon's legs became trapped in the auger, Tyler Zander went to his friend's aid and his legs also were pulled into the heavy machinery. Emergency rescue personnel had to cut apart the 12-inch metal auger in order to free the young men. They were flown 100 miles to Oklahoma City for surgery and they remain hospitalized.

The fatality rate for young workers performing hazardous tasks----like working with a grain auger-----is two times the fatality rate for all U.S. workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), administered by the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (W&H) stipulates dozens of work activities that are too dangerous for workers of certain ages. Individuals under age 18, for example, are prohibited from working most jobs in coal mines, from forest-fire fighting, and from operating meat slicers and cardboard balers in grocery stores. However, the safety rules governing young workers employed in agricultural jobs have not been updated for 40 years.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in December 2010:

"Protecting children and vulnerable workers abroad is a part of our overall efforts here at the Department of Labor."

In fact, just a few weeks earlier, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour division sent a draft proposed rule to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review. [Why they sent an economically non-significant proposed rule to OIRA is another matter, and one I've written about previously.] The draft rule proposes modifications to Subpart E-1 of 29 CFR 570, entitled "Occupations in Agriculture Particularly Hazardous for the Employment of Children Below the Age of 16." The proposed changes are based in part on evidence assembled several years ago by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on injuries and deaths among young workers employed in agricultural jobs.

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White House Transparency Doesn't Apply to Industry Meetings on Worker Safety Rules

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

President Obama received an award last week for his efforts to improve openness in federal agencies. Jon Stewart poked fun at it (see clip) and I actually thought it might have been an April Fool's joke because of what I'd learned earlier in the week.

The President's own Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has hosted two meetings with industry representatives who are opposed to an OSHA regulation on crystalline silica, but OIRA fails to disclose these meetings on its website (screenshot 4/11/11.) This is the second time in as many occasions that this OMB office has failed the transparency test when it comes to extra-curricular meetings on OSHA rules. OIRA did the same thing last summer on OSHA's proposed minor change to its injury recording log. Others have identified even more serious infractions by OIRA, but have yet to receive a response from the White House.

The practice of posting a notice about meetings between regulated parties and OMB staff began during the GW Bush Administration, not a group known for transparency. Even that very secretive Administration saw the value in informing the public promptly of such meetings. The Obama Administration's OIRA is now 0-2 when it comes to disclosure of meetings about OSHA rules. (Their performance may actually be even worse. For all I know they've had other meetings. We just don't know to look for them on OIRA's website.)

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With Friends Like These..... White House Throws OSHA Under the Bus

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

I was already tired of President Obama repeating the Republican's rhetoric about big, bad regulations, how they stifle job creation, put an unnecessary burden on businesses, and make our economy less competitive. He did so last month in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and in his State of the Union address. But yesterday, the White House went too far.

In advance of the President's speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the chief of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) threw two OSHA initiatives under the bus. Right after mentioning President Obama's January 18 directive that agencies reduce regulatory burdens on small businesses, the OIRA chief boasted that they were already making great progress toward that goal. He offered four examples, and two of the four----2 of the 4---involved initiatives to advance worker health and safety. It's a sad day when OSHA becomes the whipping boy for a Democratic Administration.

The two OSHA proposals have been a target for months of the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other industry lobbyists. But that didn't stop the White House from bowing to business. Neither meets the criteria of being outmoded, unnecessary, or duplicative. One is OSHA's revision to its existing injury recording requirements. As I've written before (here, here, here) the Labor Department has been working on a proposal to get better data on work-related musculoskeletal disorders like tendinitis, low back pain, carpet layers knee, trigger finger, and carpal tunnel syndrome. OSHA proposed a simple revision to its paper form---called the OSHA 300 log---on which just a fraction of U.S. employers are required to record work-related injuries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) collects a sample of these forms annually to estimate national rates of work-related injuries.

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MSHA Takes Bold Step to End Black Lung Disease, Proposes Tough New Regulation

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA asst. secretary Joe Main are proposing new rules to protect U.S. coal mine workers from developing illnesses related to exposure to respirable coal mine dust. The most commonly known adverse health effect is black lung disease, but exposure is also associated with excess risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, progressive massive fibrosis, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. The proposal, scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Oct 19,* takes a comprehensive approach to the problem. I've not had a chance to read carefully the entire lengthy document, but I see provisions to reduce the permissible exposure limit for respirable coal dust from 2.0 mg/m3 to 1.0 mg/m3 (phased-in over 2 years), change the way miners' exposure to coal dust is measured from an average over five shifts to a single, full-shift sample (consistent with standard industrial hygiene practice) and monitor of coal dust levels based on typical production levels in the mine. During the Clinton and the GW Bush Administration, MSHA proposed rules addressing these same problems, but they were never issued as final rules. I'm hopeful this third time will be the charm.

In August 2010, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) requested public comment on a compilation of the best available scientific information on adverse health effects from exposure to respirable coal dust. The document is a follow-up to NIOSH's 300+ page Criteria Document published in September 1995 which recommended that MSHA adopt an exposure limit of 1 mg/m3 for a 10-hour shift. In the draft NIOSH update, the agency reaffirms its conclusions from 15 years earlier:

**Exposure to coal mine dust causes various pulmonary diseases, including coal workers' pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
**These lung diseases can bring about impairment, disability and premature death.

See the faces and hear the voices of U.S. miners who have severe respiratory diseases because of their work in these video clips produced by the Louisville Courier-Journal.

*Note: the document is available on-line today at the Federal Register "public inspection desk" site.

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Obama's Reg Czar Feigns Transparency, Worker Safety Rules in Crosshairs

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

Is anybody else getting tired of hearing Obama Administration officials say "sunlight is the best disinfectant?" It was uttered again on Thursday (9/23) when the President's regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, was speaking at an event hosted by the Small Business Administration. His speech was loaded with all the transparency catch terms: "disclosure," "openness," "sunshine," "open government," "accountability," blah, blah, blah. The rhetoric was annoying to read because I'd been wrestling that week with OIRA's lack of transparency. I've been in the midst of trying to confirm whether representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other industry lobbyists met recently with the reg czar's staff about a pending OSHA rule. Setting aside that these meetings are outside the normal rulemaking procedures and undermine that process, I'm frustrated hearing a lot of talk about transparency, but not seeing it.

Someone checking the OMB/OIRA website earlier last week (screenshot, 9/20/10) would think that not a single one of this extra-ordinary meetings with OIRA staff about pending OSHA rules have taken place since the GW Bush Administration. When I learned last week from two sources that meetings about a revision to OSHA's injury log had indeed taken place, I contacted OIRA to find out why the meeting(s) were not divulged on OMB's website. (It was GW Bush's reg czar, John Graham, who began the practice in 2001 of disclosing on the OIRA website a few facts about these private meetings. His staff would promptly post the date, names and affiliations of participants, and the regulatory action of interest to them. If the outside parties provided a document, that was also posted on the OIRA site.) I heard back two days later from a helpful OMB public affairs officer.

She confirmed that representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups met with OIRA staff to discuss the pending OSHA rule on revisions to its injury log; another meeting was requested and held with individuals from the AFL-CIO. She indicated that information about such meetings are posted on the OIRA website, "though there is sometimes a brief delay." She added that the OMB/OIRA website would be updated the next day to reflect two meetings held about the pending OSHA rule.

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