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Winning Safer Workplaces: Responsible Contracting in Maryland

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.

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In North Carolina, Open Season on Poverty Advocates

Today I joined a group more than 40 environmental law professors and clinicians from institutions around the nation in a joint letter to the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors urging that they reject a recommendation to shutter the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, housed at the University of North Carolina Law School. That unfortunate recommendation arose from a special committee created by the board at the direction of the legislature to review all 237 of the state university system’s centers, in the wake of criticism of state anti-poverty efforts by the Center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol.

To be clear, the Center takes no money from the state, and hasn’t since 2009. It’s funded by private contributions. It’s being targeted not to save money, but because some in the legislature would rather not have to be reminded of poverty, and don’t have the stomach for criticism of their policies. And since Professor Nichol’s criticisms were a trigger for the special committee’s review, it’s no surprise that the committee has taken aim at the Center.

I’m not directly affiliated with the Center, but our Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources (CLEAR) at UNC Law has been looking to work with both the Poverty Center and the Carolina Law School’s Center for Civil Rights to try and address how to minimize the disparate impacts on the poor and minorities from climate change that are going to happen at the North Carolina coast.  But aside from my belief that the Poverty Center has much to contribute to advancement of environmental protection, I and my environmental colleagues around the country are writing because we find it hard to sit by while legislators seek to muzzle their critics in academia. Here’s what we say in the letter:

We represent a national group of environmental law professors and clinicians from over forty public and private law schools.  Our discipline has faced similar politically motivated criticisms in the past, and will likely do so again in the future.  We urge the North Carolina Board of Governors, and all regulators of institutes of higher education, to reject basing university decisions on the popularity of political positions.  We come to this position based on important experience in our environmental legal field.

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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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The Age of Greed: Toxic Chemical Control Is 'High Priority' Failure for Nation’s Government

Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reiterated its conclusion that EPA’s regulation of toxic chemicals is in crisis, unable to deliver badly needed protection to the American people.  These benighted programs are among a couple of dozen of “high priority” failures that cause serious harm to public health, waste resources, or endanger national security, and Congress is giving the report red carpet treatment, with House and Senate hearings on the report scheduled the very day it was released. 

In auditor speak, GAO says that “[b]ecause EPA had not developed sufficient chemical assessment information under these programs to limit exposure to many chemicals that may pose substantial health risks, we added this issue to the High Risk List in 2009.”  At the time, then-Administrator Lisa Jackson took clear steps to rescue the program. Since then, very little progress has been made, largely because the Obama Administration has narrowed its focus to climate change, and a major overhaul of initiatives swamped by chemical industry nitpicking does not seem to be in the cards until at least 2017.

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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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With State of the Union Address, Obama Begins Sketching Out a Positive View of Government

There were many highlights in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, but one passage in particular stuck out for us.  In this passage, Obama laid out his clear vision of the positive role that government can and must play in our society—and sharing this vision with the American public will be essential for successfully repelling the oncoming Republican onslaught against regulatory safeguards.  He cast his positive vision of government in the following terms:

But here’s the thing—those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making.  We need to do more than just do no harm.  Tonight, together, let’s do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.

In other words, we as a society benefit when everyone has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential.  The government is uniquely positioned to ensure that everyone is afforded opportunity; and, when the government is permitted to function effectively, it can and will fulfill this task successfully.  Individuals win.  Society wins.  And the government has a critical role to play in achieving these results.

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Killer Coal

Black lung has been the underlying or contributing cause of death for more than 75,000 coal miners since 1968, according to NIOSH, the federal agency responsible for conducting research on work-related diseases and injuries. Since 1970, the Department of Labor has paid over $44 billion in benefits to miners totally disabled by respiratory diseases (or their survivors). The annual death rate from mining accidents is 20-25 per 100,000, about six times the average industry. If you do the math, that means comes out to about six deaths per thousand workers over the course of a thirty-year career as a miner. This is actually an underestimate because the government figures include office workers employed in the industry.

Miners aren’t the only victims. There’s also air pollution. Even with the pollution controls in place in developed countries, coal remains deadly. According to a 2011 report of the American lung association, particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants causes about thirteen thousand deaths per year. Indeed, according to the report: “Coal-fired power plants that sell electricity to the grid produce more hazardous air pollution in the U.S. than any other industrial pollution sources.”

Of course, things would be much worse if it weren’t for EPA. Just look at China, which has done very little to control pollution from power plants. According to a recent study:

Air pollution causes people in northern China to live an average of 5.5 years shorter than their southern counterparts. . . .

High levels of air pollution in northern China – much of it caused by an over-reliance on burning coal for heat – will cause 500 million people to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years from their lives, the authors predict in the study, published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To put it in as few words as possible: coal kills.

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The Anti-Regulatory Crowd's Small Business Rhetoric Is a Scam

Just as The Sixth Sense makes more sense when you realize that Bruce Willis’s character has been dead the whole time, the Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act (SBRFIA)—the latest antiregulatory bill being championed by antiregulatory members of the House of Representatives—makes more sense when you realize that it has nothing to do with helping small businesses at all.  Rather, it’s all about helping powerful corporate interests increase their profits at the expense of public health, safety, and the environment.   The twist ending to this nightmare of a bill is that real small businesses—the very entities the bill’s sponsors claim to be helping—are left in a worse position than if the bill were never enacted at all.

Conservative members of Congress have long pretended to care about small businesses—at least, insofar as it helps advance their broader antigovernment campaign.  To this end, these lawmakers have succeeded in building a complex legal apparatus that purports to strengthen the voice of small businesses in the rulemaking process.  Under a series of laws starting with the Regulatory Flexibility Act, agencies must undertake various analyses of their rules’ impacts on small businesses, and their compliance with these requirements is overseen by a powerful agency known as the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Office of Advocacy.  As first detailed in a 2013 CPR white paper, however, the dirty secret behind this Potemkin’s village is that these institutions serve the interests of the large corporations that already dominate the rulemaking process to the exclusion of both small businesses and public interest advocates.

At the hub of this complex apparatus—making sure that everything continues to operate smoothly—is the SBA Office of Advocacy itself.  This small, under-the-radar bureau effectively functions as the antiregulatory sister to the much better known White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).  Like OIRA, it works on behalf of powerful corporate interests to attack crucial regulatory safeguards for protecting the public.

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Maryland Governor Larry Hogan Should Reverse his Opposition to the PMT

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan was sworn in earlier today and legislators, farmers, environmentalists, state agency staff, and scientists are waiting with bated breath to see whether he will act on his post-election promise to fight the proposed Phosphorous Management Tool (PMT). The desperately needed regulation would limit the amount of phosphorus-laded chicken manure farmers can spread on their fields.  

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for healthy waterways, provided it is present in the right quantity. Too much phosphorus, however, and algae growth explodes, devouring all the oxygen in the water and leading to “dead zones” that cannot support aquatic life. This past summer, the Chesapeake Bay dead zone was the eighth largest since record keeping began. Algae can also be toxic. Phosphorus fueled an outbreak of poisonous algae in Lake Erie last year that forced half a million people in Toledo and the surrounding Ohio communities to temporarily shut off their tap water.

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