President Obama’s approval rating is up to 50 percent for the first time in two years after a stellar period of national reconciliation and the safeguarding of Obamacare, his signature, and truly momentous, achievement. The president, in fulfillment of his noble promises to help the middle class, is about to put his weight behind a Labor Department rule that would hike minimum earnings needed to earn overtime pay, a proposal that would affected 5 million Americans. These accomplishments remind people why they voted for him in the first instance and returned him to office by a very comfortable margin.
But for those of us who believe that people should be able to go to work without getting sick or dying, a remarkable series of stories by the Center for Public Integrity can only strengthen the despair that has been building slowly since the president took office. The series describes an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) so impotent with respect to pervasive workplace hazards that it is fair to ask whether this 45-year old institution is fundamentally irrelevant to most American workers.Full text
Last week, OSHA issued noteworthy citations against a poultry slaughtering facility in Delaware. The agency is using its General Duty Clause to hold Allen Harim Foods in Harbeson, Delaware responsible for ergonomic hazards that plague the entire industry—hazards involving the repetitive cutting and twisting motions that lead to musculoskeletal disorders like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
This case follows another from October of last year, when, in response to a complaint by workers and their advocates from the Southern Poverty Law Center, OSHA cited Wayne Farms in Jack, Alabama for General Duty Clause violations, also related to ergonomic hazards. As it turns out, the Wayne Farms case was a shot across the bow for an industry that subjects its workers to punishingly repetitive work in a variety of situations. Today’s announcement may be evidence of a trend developing in OSHA enforcement.Full text
Regular readers of this blog are already well acquainted with her, but for everyone else, CPR is pleased to introduce our new workers’ rights policy analyst, Katie Weatherford.
Weatherford joins CPR after several years with the Center for Effective Government, where she was a regulatory policy analyst and advocated for strong regulations to protect public health, safety, and the environment. “Katie is insightful, thorough, and poised to be a great fit for CPR,” says Executive Director Matthew Shudtz, “along with our Scholars, I’m looking forward to working with her to fight for stronger worker health and safety protections.”
Among her achievements at CEG, Weatherford produced a report examining OSHA’s whistleblower protection program and proposing model state legislation to protect workers from retaliation. Her expertise on the subject will be invaluable as she takes on the job of working with CPR’s allies to help promote the policy reforms outlined in our groundbreaking manual, Winning Safer Workplaces: A Model for State and Local Policy Reform.Full text
A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that contingent workers earn lower pay, receive fewer benefits, have less job security, and may be at greater risk of on-the-job injuries compared to standard employees.
While there is no official definition of “contingent workers,” according to GAO, labor experts generally agree that it includes workers with variable schedules and without job security, such as temporary workers, day laborers, and on-call workers. Although some in the labor movement would define contingent workers more broadly to include self-employed individuals, independent contractors, and part-time employees, GAO chose to base its findings on the narrower group, which it describes as the “core contingent workforce.”Full text
OSHA has finally promulgated a Confined Spaces in Construction rule. The agency waited 25 years after it had issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) to issue a rule. Administrative law academics have been concerned for some time about the ossification of rulemaking due to a set of regulatory hurdles imposed by regulatory opponents. Proponents say these hurdles are necessary to ensure the accuracy and reasonableness of regulations, but they also deny workers and others of regulatory protection for years and years — a quarter century in this case. In short, perfection has become the enemy of the good, a pattern that has real consequences for the workers who depend on OSHA to issue rules in a timely way.Full text
This past Sunday, the Houston Chronicle published an opinion piece by CPR Scholar and University of Maryland Carey School of Law professor Rena Steinzor entitled, "With Dupont, OSHA's Tough Talk Falls Faint."
She takes OSHA to account for the small penalties the agency levied against Dupont and notes, "Despite ample evidence that gross and reckless neglect of fundamental safety protocols caused the tragedy, OSHA could only muster alleged violations totaling $99,000 in civil penalties, an amount that DuPont could pay out of petty cash. Penalties this small relative to a company's size and revenues do not deter future misconduct by DuPont or its competitors. Instead, they are written off as a mere cost of doing business."
Steinzor acknowledges that OSHA is left with a statute that is far too weak when enforcing stiffer penalties, but lays out a potential path to holding Dupont leadership accountable:
As the poisonous vapor spilled from the valve, the worker standing nearby radioed for help and others ran to assist her. But the plant lacked enough emergency oxygen masks for rescue purposes. Later, two masks lay abandoned near two dead workers. Managers never set up an incident command center. They never called for help from a highly trained industry-sponsored response team organized to respond with specialized equipment. Most incredibly, no one called 911 until a full hour after the leak began. Even then, shift supervisorJody Knowles lied to the 911 operator, claiming that the public was not at risk when DuPont had not yet measured exposure at the plant's fence line. Firefighters sent to the site risked their lives because DuPont never filed an inventory of hazardous chemicals.
All these details suggest that the possibility of sending someone to jail for this pattern of reckless neglect should still be on the table. If the federal government is too intimidated to bring a criminal case, maybe Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson could step into the breach. She has the authority to charge responsible managers with reckless manslaughter when people die preventable deaths.
To read the entire piece, click here.
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.Full text
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?Full text
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.Full text
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