Matt Shudtz on CPRBlog {Bio}
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OSHA Urged to Pick up Its Pen for Poultry Workers

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. 

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Why Not Jail?

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!

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Support CPR this Giving Tuesday

This Giving Tuesday, I hope you'll consider donating to the Center for Progressive Reform. We've had a banner year and are looking forward to many great things in 2015.

Above all, CPR's staff and Member Scholars promote a positive and progressive vision for environmental policy and workers' rights. We need your support to continue that work.

Two days after the midterm elections, we released "Barack Obama's Path to Progress," an Issue Alert laying out an affirmative and politically realistic vision for real progress over the next two years. The Alert identifies 13 essential regulatory actions that the President can and should finish before he leaves office, steps that allow him to save thousands of lives, lock in significant environmental gains, and leave a solid legacy on the regulatory front. Importantly, finalizing these rules is entirely within the province of the Executive Branch, so obstructionism aside, he can get this done.

I hope you've seen the wonderful infographics and blog posts that staff have put together to accompany the Alert. We'll continue to provide regular updates on the Obama Administration's progress on the "Essential 13," and we'll also work with our allies to press the administration into action.

This year we also put forward a positive vision for reforms to state and local laws that would better protect workers' health and safety. Our "Winning Safer Workplaces" manual was a big hit with our allies, and now we're working to help turn the ideas from the manual into reality.

Developing these forward-thinking products is no easy task, but our staff and Member Scholars get them done and still find the time to coordinate advocacy with allies, host webinars, meet with decisionmakers to promote our ideas, write case briefs, and blog with thoughtful and incisive commentary on the latest developments in regulation, environmental policy, and workers' rights.

Your support will help us to continue this great work in 2015. I hope you'll make a donation.

Thanks very much for your support.

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Protecting Farmworker Kids

Next week in this space, we’ll ask you to think about the food on your Thanksgiving table and what FDA ought to do to keep it safe. Today, I want to focus on how the food gets there—in particular, the work children contribute to the farms where our food and other crops are grown. Many people hold on to the image of children gathering eggs in the yard or dumping a pail of slop in front of an appreciative sow as the true and full extent of child farm labor. But the reality of life on a farm can be much different. In fact, the awful truth is that hundreds of kids who enjoyed Thanksgiving with their families last year won’t be able to this year because they died in an agriculture-related incident in the last twelve months.

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Protecting Workers from Deadly Silica Dust

In 1997, when OSHA first placed the silica standard on its to-do list, Titanic and Good Will Hunting were hits at the box office and the Hanson Brothers’ “MMMBop” was topping the charts. Pop culture has come a long way since then. OSHA, however, has only made modest progress on the silica rule. It took until 2013—sixteen years—for OSHA to get from saying “we plan to create a new standard” to actually proposing the text. Now the agency is reviewing the mountain of public input submitted during the 11-month open comment period. Two million workers in the U.S. are exposed to the carcinogenic dust and public health experts estimate that every year more than 7,000 workers develop silicosis, and more than 200 die as a result.

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Big OSHA Fine for Wayne Farms Poultry Processor a Win for Workers

Today, brave workers at a Wayne Farms poultry slaughterhouse have a reason to celebrate a milestone in their struggle for justice. With help from lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center, they filed a complaint with OSHA in April. They blew the whistle on conditions that included dangerous work speeds that caused serious injuries, as well as denying subsequent medical treatment, and the firing of workers who reported their concerns.

The agency released some results from its inspection, proposing significant fines against Wayne Farms for the deplorable conditions the workers continue to face.

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USDA Submits Poultry Rule to OMB: The Facts

Yesterday, USDA submitted its draft final rule on poultry slaughter “modernization” to OMB for formal review.  This rule, as regular readers of CPR Blog will remember, would remove USDA inspectors from poultry slaughtering facilities, transfer some of their food safety and quality control duties to plant employees, and allow the plants to increase their line speeds to an astonishing 175 birds per minute.  On top of that, the rule allows each plant to develop its own testing protocols for E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and other food-safety concerns.  It’s the foxes guarding the henhouse, for sure.

Along with many of our allies in the worker health and safety and food safety communities, we have been urging USDA since early 2012 to go back to the drawing board with this ill-advised rule.  USDA published its proposed rule in January 2012 without consulting with its inspection advisory committee, without holding public meetings to solicit other stakeholders’ views, and – especially galling – without seeking input from OSHA.

In the two and a half years since USDA proposed the rule, we’ve seen a steady stream of bad news for the proponents of the rule:

  • April 2013: NIOSH releases an interim Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) report on a poultry slaughter facility that was attempting to get special permission to adopt the “modernized” inspection scheme before the final rule goes into effect.  Interim HHE reports rarely surface publicly, but this one had such striking results that its release was inevitable.  Among other findings, NIOSH discovered that 42 percent of worker-participants had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome and 41 percent of worker-participants worked in jobs above industry standards for hand activity and force.

  • April 2013: Kimberly Kindy, writing in the Washington Post, highlights the tragic story of a USDA inspector who died of kidney and lung failure potentially linked to the chemical brew that was used to disinfect chicken at the plant where he worked.  Plants are likely to increase the use of these chemicals if the rule goes forward.

  • September 2013: GAO criticizes USDA for failing to thoroughly evaluate the performance of pilot projects that USDA had initiated to test the validity of its “modernization” proposal.  In its characteristically dry tone, GAO concluded: “USDA may not have assurance that its evaluation of the pilot project at young chicken plants provides the information necessary to support the proposed rule…”

  • October 2013: Kimberly Kindy, writing in the Washington Post, highlights the potential for increased animal abuse problems if poultry slaughter facilities increase their line speeds as the rule would allow.

  • March 2014: NIOSH releases its final HHE report on the facility described above, noting an “alarming prevalence” of carpal tunnel syndrome among workers in the plant and cautioning that “increasing the number of birds processed per worker may result in an even higher prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome than seen in this NIOSH evaluation.”

  • April 2014: The NIOSH final report led to an “interagency throwdown,” in which USDA officials tried to downplay the findings only to have their claims repudiated by NIOSH’s Director, Dr. John Howard, who called USDA’s spin-attempt “misleading.”

For workers and consumers, this rule presents huge risks.  USDA has been operating in a black box since proposing the rule in early 2012, so it is unclear what changes might have been made to answer the concerns raised by the public interest community and other government agencies.  OMB should send this rule back to USDA with a “return letter” that instructs the agency to at least release the draft publicly, if not start from scratch.

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NLRB gets an earful on its “joint employer” definition

A coalition of occupational health and safety experts submitted an amicus brief to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last Thursday, urging the Board to reconsider its restrictive definition of “joint employer” for purposes of collective bargaining.  It’s a critical issue for workers as more and more are getting jobs through temp firms, staffing agencies, and other complex employment relationships.  The workers who got your last-minute Father’s Day gift from the Amazon warehouse to your front door, for instance, don’t all get paychecks from Amazon, but they all operate at “Prime” speed because Amazon demands it.

From a health and safety perspective, it’s important that laws like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) are interpreted broadly because the remedial purposes of those statutes – to ensure all workers can collectively bargain for better working conditions and to ensure that all workers are provided safe jobs – are best achieved when all of the employers with a connection to the job are at the table.

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Winning Safer Workplaces

Thousands of U.S. workers die on the job each year, the victims of unsafe workplaces. Countless more are injured, some permanently disabled, or exposed to toxic substances that could eventually harm or kill them. While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made progress to improve workplace safety since Congress passed the OSH Act in 1971, a new advocacy manual from the Center for Progressive Reform focuses on the progress on worker safety issues  likely to come at the state and local levels, far from the general dysfunction in Washington.

Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform, written by a team of lawyers and public health researchers, offers local advocacy groups a series of policy proposals, all ripe for enactment by state legislatures, city or county councils, or state or local agencies. 

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New NAS report breathes life into EPA’s IRIS program

The National Academies’ National Research Council released its long-awaited report on IRIS this week, and the results are good for EPA.  The report praises the IRIS program and its leadership, including Drs. Olden and Cogliano, for making great strides to improve how IRIS assessments are developed.

To get a real appreciation for how positive this report is, it’s important to put it in context.  In 2011, a different NAS/NRC committee led by the same chairperson went out of its way to criticize the IRIS program for creating what the committee viewed as overly ponderous, sometimes confusing documents.  That committee, which was organized to peer review a draft assessment of formaldehyde, went beyond its charge to complain about an IRIS assessment development process that it cast as not being fit for its weighty purpose (developing the scientific evidence upon which agencies regulate drinking water, Superfund cleanup, and other public health concerns).  The 2011 report led to much Sturm und Drang about the future of the IRIS program, controversy that was further stirred by Members of Congress beholden to the chemical industry.  In negotiations over the agency’s multi-billion dollar budget, the relatively puny IRIS program was singled out for special attention and EPA relented to sponsor the NAS committee that produced this week’s report.

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