Last week, workers’ advocates at the Southern Poverty Law Center and Nebraska Appleseed got the official word that OSHA will not develop new regulations to protect the men and women who do the dirty work of turning clucking chickens into boneless cutlets. It’s an industry where vulnerable workers—mostly women, immigrants, and folks geographically isolated from other job opportunities—face great hazards from the strains of repetitive motion. Some of the plants process tens of thousands of birds on every shift, and a recent NIOSH review of one facility uncovered evidence of chronic musculoskeletal injuries in more than 40 percent of the workers who took part in the evaluation. The industry has a problem.
Lobbyists from the Chicken Council will proudly proclaim that the industry’s injury and illness rates have been dropping for years. But those numbers simply cannot be trusted. The chronic pain that workers suffer doesn’t always meet the definition of a reportable injury because it can be treated with first aid and doesn’t necessarily require time away from work. So even if you’re the kind of company that’s inclined to report accurately, risking elevated workers’ comp premiums, workers’ experiences of pain and suffering don’t match up with the numbers.Full text
What’s old is new again. This week, competing bills to reform the 40-year old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) hit the Senate—one from Senators Vitter and Udall, the other from Senators Boxer and Markey. Both the environmental community and the chemical industry agree that TSCA is broken and must be fixed. This is a law that’s so poorly designed; EPA has been stymied in its efforts to ban asbestos. Yes, that asbestos. But where environmentalists and the chemical industry diverge is on the details of how to fix TSCA.
CPR Member Scholars and staff are still analyzing the bills, but one issue stands out as a fatal flaw in the Vitter-Udall proposal, and is addressed wisely in the Boxer-Markey proposal: the proposed safety standard. The “safety standard” is the focal point of the legislation: EPA’s central task under both proposals is to determine whether chemicals meet the standard. If a chemical meets the standard, then restrictions on manufacture, processing, and use will be limited. If it doesn’t, then EPA must consider tight controls, even banning the chemical. But the safety standard in this legislation is very problematic.
With colleagues from the environmental community, one dozen CPR Member Scholars sent this letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate EPW Committee to explain our concerns. Chief among them is that the Vitter-Udall legislation retains a key phrase, “unreasonable risk,” that has been the Achilles Heel of EPA’s TSCA program for decades. If Congress intends to fix TSCA, the statute must be rid of that phrase and amended to use a standard that ensures a ‘reasonable certainty of no harm’ from chemicals in commerce. Such a standard—found in the Boxer-Markey bill—is better for both people and the environment.Full text
This week, the Maryland General Assembly will review new legislation that could help ensure safer workplaces in the state’s construction industry. The proposal, which is a type of “responsible contracting” legislation similar to other policies being tested out in states and municipalities across the country, would require companies that put in bids for work on public works projects in Maryland to attest that they have workplace health and safety programs and that they would implement the programs in construction projects done on the public dime.
It’s an important piece of legislation, given the dangers in the industry. As we noted in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual,
"Construction is one of the most hazardous industries for workers. Frequent injuries and deaths from falls, electrocutions, and striking objects impose unbearably high costs on individuals, families, and local economies. Public Citizen estimates that, between 2008 and 2010, fatal and nonfatal construction injuries cost the states of Maryland $713 million, Washington $762 million, and California $2.9 billion in medical services, lost productivity, administrative expenses, and lost quality of life. The firms responsible for many of these injuries and fatalities, and those with histories of citations for unsafe practices, continue to receive contracts from state and local governments."
Today, the House Economic Matters committee will hear testimony on a proposal to use the Maryland government’s vast purchasing power as a tool for promoting safer construction work practices. I submitted testimony in support of the bill because it is a smart way to ensure workers are being protected in a state where the AFL-CIO estimates it would take 108 years for occupational health and safety inspectors to visit every workplace.Full text
Our intrepid colleague Celeste Monforton, who writes at the Pump Handle blog, recently passed along a neat example of a tool that we wrote about in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual. Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on the state’s regulatory protections for meatpacking workers. As we noted in the Winning Safer Workplaces manual, state-level oversight of government regulation can be a valuable tool for advocates who are fighting for stronger workplace protections. The results of new audits can clarify what is working—and what is not working—about the regulatory system, giving advocates critical information that they might use in new campaigns. The audit process itself, by focusing outside attention on programs that may be insulated from regular or public oversight, can also have positive effects for the programs’ intended beneficiaries (here, workers).Full text
In Kansas and Maryland, two states separated by geography and politics, Republican state lawmakers are touting plans that could seriously alter the institutions that workers in those states rely upon to keep them safe on the job.
Two weeks ago, Maryland Delegate (now State Senator) Andrew Serafini introduced a bill that would make drastic changes to the way the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency (MOSH) does its job. So drastic, in fact, that the feds would likely have to step in and take over the state’s program. The biggest problem with the bill is a requirement that the agency send employers a letter, warning them that MOSH inspectors are on the way. Tipping off employers is bad policy for an enforcement agency trying to regulate conditions that can be easily be disguised or altered. In many cases, it’s also a criminal act.
The bill has a few other features that likely wouldn’t sit well with the federal OSHA auditors, who annually review state-plan agencies’ policies and practices to ensure that they continue to operate programs that are at least as effective as what Fed-OSHA is doing in other states (not all states run their own state-plan programs). For example, the bill would prevent MOSH from issuing fines in a number of circumstances that would lead to citations in other states. Given the evidence that shows inspections and citations lead to safer workplaces, this kid-glove approach to enforcement puts workers at risk and creates a policy that is not as effective as the Fed-OSHA approach.Full text
Tomorrow, the House is set to vote on the Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act (SBRFIA), a piece of legislation that CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin has explained would “further entrench big businesses’ control over rulemaking institutions and procedures that are ostensibly intended to help small businesses participate more effectively in the development of new regulations.”
As Members of the House prepare for Thursday’s vote, CPR has something to add to their files: a new Issue Alert with details about how the Regulatory Flexibility Act is failing small businesses. In The Small Business Charade: The Chemical Industry’s Stealth Campaign Against Public Health, CPR President Rena Steinzor, Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin, and I explain how the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and other large trade associations manipulated the procedures outlined in the Regulatory Flexibility Act to protect their profits at the expense of the public interest—all while wasting taxpayers’ money and silencing legitimate small business input into the regulatory process. We take a close look at emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (h/t Center for Effective Government) and explore how ACC tried to manipulate OSHA’s ongoing efforts to better protect workers from respirable crystalline silica, a ubiquitous and under-regulated carcinogen.Full text
Last week on The Pump Handle, Kim Krisberg highlighted an interesting pilot program in Rockaway Township, New Jersey that puts an extra set of eyes on the lookout for workplace safety concerns that might otherwise have gone unnoticed by government inspectors. As she explains here, restaurant inspectors in Rockaway are pilot testing a simple modification to their inspection responsibilities—while they check refrigerator temperatures and cleanliness for food safety concerns, they’re now also looking for good practices that ensure workers are safe. Inspectors have a checklist of basic worker safety issues and they’re keeping tabs on which restaurants are making the grade.Full text
We are closing out the “Path to Progress” series for this year with a potential bright spot. In its Fall 2014 Regulatory Agenda, the Obama Administration set a target date of March 2015 for finalizing new rules designed to prevent and minimize the consequences of derailments in trains carrying crude oil and other highly hazardous materials. If the Department of Transportation is able to accomplish that feat, it would beat even our own proposed schedule—a welcome achievement. We are looking forward to seeing that entry on our arrivals board turn over to “arrived.”
We’re looking forward to it because crude shipments by rail continue to expand, and millions of us are living in a blast zone.
As our 13 Essential Regulatory Actions explains, domestic crude production is booming (at least for now) because of this administration’s regulatory acquiescence to—and the oil industry’s unbridled advances in—fracking and horizontal drilling. In North Dakota and elsewhere, oil companies are simply sucking so much oil out of the ground that the producers are looking for any possible way to transport it to refineries. One of the non-conventional methods is to load the crude oil on trains. But because the shipments originate in shale formations that are far removed from refineries, the risks of derailment are significant.Full text
Today, Nebraska Appleseed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and several allied organizations sent a letter to OSHA requesting a response to their petition for a rulemaking on work speed in poultry and meatpacking plants. The groups originally submitted the petition to OSHA over a year ago, and it’s been radio silence ever since. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of workers, most low-income and socially vulnerable, continue to work in conditions that lead to crippling musculoskeletal disorders.
The workers’ advocates who submitted the petition had the misfortune of dropping it in the mail just days before the 2013 government shutdown, so at the time some commentators cut the agency some slack, noting that 90 percent of the agency’s staff—including everyone in the standard-setting office—were laid off. But that excuse is no longer relevant, and evidence of the need for the rule continues to pile up.Full text
When 29 miners died at Upper Big Branch or 11 workers died on the Deepwater Horizon, when 64 people died from tainted steroids, or when hundreds got Salmonella poisoning from peanut butter, did you ask yourself, 'Why not send the people responsible to jail?'
You're not the only one. In her new book, Why Not Jail: Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction, CPR President Rena Steinzor asks the same question and concludes:
The criminal justice system is as important to the ultimate embodiment of a society's values as it is in keeping the public peace. ... When the vicious cycle of racially discriminatory mass incarceration of poor people is juxtaposed against the vivid descriptions of the crimes committed by well-heeled corporate executives, it is hard to imagine the contrast does not have a corrosive effect on people's confidence in government institutions. Quite apart from the intrinsic unfairness of the failure to prosecute white collar crime far more aggressively, we sacrifice the benefits of deterring events that harm ordinary people.
Why Not Jail is available now on Amazon (including a Kindle edition) and from the publisher, Cambridge University Press. It's a great read, using five case studies to explore the problems--and potential--for criminally prosecuting corporate malfeasance that harms public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. Order one now for yourself and your friends. 'Tis the season!Full text