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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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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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Statement of CPR Executive Director Matt Shudtz on OSHA's Call for Dialogue on Chemical Exposure

Today, OSHA announced that it is seeking new ideas from stakeholders about preventing workplace injuries caused by exposure to harmful chemicals. The agency wants to identify new ways to develop Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), the basic standards for reducing air contaminants.  

CPR's Executive Director Matthew Shudtz responded to the development:

It’s great that Dr. Michaels is continuing to seek new ways to eliminate or manage chemical hazards in the workplace.  OSHA has been relying on outdated standards for too long. But rulemaking is not the only way to address these hazards.  OSHA needs to use the enforcement tools it has available, especially the General Duty Clause.  With the General Duty Clause, OSHA can cite employers who are lagging behind industry standards for chemical exposure.

Last year, OSHA released new web-based tools to help employers voluntarily limit the exposure of workers to hazardous substances. In a blog Shudtz noted that the agency could use the General Duty Clause within the OSH Act to compel low-road employers to protect workers from harmful chemical exposure. According to the blog:

As OSHA freely admits, the Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) found in current regulations are out-of-date and inadequately protective. Employers may expose workers to chemicals up to those limits without incurring fines for violating the standard, even though the exposures are patently dangerous. Most were adopted in the early 1970s and were based on scientific research from the 1940s through 1960s. In the late 1980s, the agency undertook an effort to set new exposure limits for hundreds of chemicals in one fell swoop, only to be thwarted by a court that wanted more detailed analyses of each individual chemical exposure limit. Since then, OSHA has initiated and finalized just one new PEL – as part of a comprehensive standard for hexavalent chromium exposure – but only after Public Citizen and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union petitioned the agency to do so and fought a protracted legal battle to get the rulemaking started and completed. In the meantime, non-governmental organizations have continued to update their own occupational exposure limits (OELs) for chemicals found in the workplace, which many employers implement voluntarily because they know that OSHA’s standards don’t do enough to protect workers.

The broad recognition that workers face significant hazards even when chemical exposures are below OSHA’s PELs presents an interesting question about employers’ duty to protect their workers. Fortunately, Congress foresaw the potential for such a problem and included in the OSH Act a provision known as the General Duty Clause (GDC). Under the GDC, “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

As interpreted by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) and federal courts, OSHA must prove four elements to establish a GDC violation:

1.     Employees are exposed to a hazard;
2.     The hazard is recognized by the employer or the industry generally;
3.     The exposure has caused or is likely to cause death or serious physical injury; and
4.     There is a feasible means of abating the hazard.

Elements (1) and (3) are not generally significant hurdles when dealing with toxic chemicals. The difficult points for OSHA to prove are that a chemical hazard is “recognized” and that there are feasible means of abatement. But with the new annotated table of exposure limits, employers are on notice that exposures below OSHA’s PELs and above other organization’s OELs present hazards that are recognized by the occupational health community and the industry generally. And the new substitute-chemical toolbox may provide feasible means of abating those hazards.


GDC cases are not easy matters for OSHA’s enforcement staff or the agency’s lawyers, so we can’t expect to see a flood of new cases in the wake of today’s announcement. However, selective use of this enforcement theory could create a ripple effect that would ensure better protections for the many workers who are exposed to dangerous levels of toxins.

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SBA Office of Advocacy Continues to Carry ‘Water’ for Big Business

Apparently undeterred by all the bad press it has received lately, the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Office of Advocacy has cast its controversy-attracting lightning rod ever higher in the air by issuing a feeble comment letter attacking the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pending rulemaking to define the scope of the Clean Water Act (“Waters of the US rule”).  The letter is just the latest evidence that the SBA Office of Advocacy has no interest in working to advance the unique interests of real small businesses—in accordance with its clear legal mandate—but instead is entirely focused on seeking to block those rules that are opposed by large business interests and their conservative allies.  

In its recent scathing report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) raised several disturbing questions about whether and to what extent the SBA Office of Advocacy is actually fulfilling its statutory mission of serving as a “voice for small businesses within the federal government.”  Of immediate relevance here, one of the key issues identified in the report was that the SBA Office of Advocacy was never able to provide any evidence of small business input it received to inform its decision intervene in rules or the substance of its comments letter.  In other words, the SBA Office of Advocacy could never prove that its interventions were every actually prompted by small business concerns.  As described below, the SBA Office of Advocacy’s comment letter on the EPA’s Waters of the US rule only adds to these questions—and its provides additional impetus for needed reforms and increased congressional oversight to ensure that the agency is not wasting taxpayer money and helping large businesses to the direct detriment of the small firms they are supposed to be helping.

 

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