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Corporate Crime Is Not 'Civil Disobedience'

Cross-posted with ACSBlog.

The Wall Street Journal recently devoted nearly two pages of its Saturday Review section to an editorial by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute urging American corporations to violate laws that they deem to be “pointless, stupid or tyrannical” as acts of civil disobedience.  The article, which is a capsule summary of his recently published book titled By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission,” betrays a profound misunderstanding of the concept of civil disobedience and a deplorable contempt for the laws that Congress and state legislatures have enacted to protect their citizens from corporate malfeasance.

This is, of course, the same Charles Murray who has made millions of dollars writing poorly documented books like The Bell Curve and Losing Ground, which were designed to allow conservative politicians to feel good about reducing welfare for the poor, limiting immigration from Latin America, and eliminating affirmative action policies.  If for no other reason than that Charles Murray is one of almost-candidate Jeb Bush’s favorite authors, his newest salvo bears close scrutiny.

The essential underlying premise of the article is that the Code of Federal Regulations is chock full of senseless regulations, the violation of which could not possibly lead to any actual harm to anyone.  This premise is an article of faith for critics of federal regulation, but it has little basis in fact.  The one actual regulation he cites (an OSHA standard requiring railings for exposed stairway floor openings to be 42 inches high) may be far more detailed in its specification than it needs to be, but it is by no means senseless.  As Murray recognizes, it is intended to prevent workers from precipitous falls.

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Federal Agency Inaction amid Growing Concerns about Health and Safety of Nail Salon Workers

Whether you are a frequent visitor to your local nail salon, or just an occasional passer-by, you are likely familiar with the offending chemical stench that emanates from within.  You may have even considered whether the displeasing fumes are safe to breath, especially for the clinicians who work in the store every day.  This is exactly what New York Times reporter, Sarah Maslin Nir, explores in her recent exposé of the nail salon industry entitled, “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers.” 

Nir explains that there is limited research on chemical exposure to nail salon workers, which makes it difficult to reach hard conclusions on the long-term or accumulated health effects.  Yet first-hand accounts of workers in the industry reveal that skin and eye irritation, breathing difficulty, and pregnancy complications are commonplace, and there is substantial data showing that the chemicals used by nail salon workers (like acetone, formaldehyde, and toluene to name a few) are hazardous, and are, in some cases, carcinogenic.  

So why is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doing so little to step in and protect nail salon workers from harm?  

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Workers Are Safer at Work, But Not as Safe as They Could and Should Be

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has reported that the occupational fatality rate of 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers for 2013 was the lowest reported rate since the BLS started using its current tracking methodology in 2006.  That’s good news, but we’ve got a very long way to go still. The simple truth is that workers are not as safe as they could and should be. Although the fatality rate is down, there were still 4,585 occupational fatalities in 2013. 

The principal method for making workers safer is regulation and enforcement by the Occupational Health & Safety Administration. While about 40 percent of the deaths resulted from motor vehicle-related accidents, which is outside of OSHA’s regulatory authority, OSHA has tried to address the job risks within its jurisdiction by targeting the most dangerous industries and imposing the maximum penalties in appropriate cases. No doubt these efforts have resulted in the reported fatality reductions. To do better, however, OSHA faces a number of challenges.  

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OSHA Rejects Petition to Better Protect Poultry Workers

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.

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Winning Safer Workplaces: Watchdogging State Agencies

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).

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Winning Safer Workplaces: The State-plan Switcheroo

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.

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New CPR Issue Alert: The Small Business Charade

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.

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Winning Safer Workplaces with Simple Changes

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.

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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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Center for Progressive Reform Announces New Executive Director Matthew Shudtz

The Board of Directors of the Center for Progressive Reform today announced the selection of Matthew Shudtz as Executive Director of the 12-year-old organization. Shudtz, who succeeds Jake Caldwell, has been Acting Executive Director of CPR since July of this year.

Shudtz joined CPR’s staff in 2006 as a Policy Analyst, and was subsequently promoted to Senior Policy Analyst. His work has focused on OSHA and related workplace health and safety regulations and toxic chemical control and reform. He has authored or co-authored more than 20 CPR reports and publications including, “At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions,” “Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform,” and  “Reforming TSCA: Progressive Principles for Toxic Risk Regulation.” He holds a J.D. from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and a B.S. in Earth and Environmental Engineering from Columbia University.  

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