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May 19, 2016 by Katie Tracy

The Silica Standard: A Case Study of Inequality in Worker Health and Safety Standards

Back in March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) finalized its long-awaited silica standard, requiring employers to reduce workers' exposure to the toxic, cancer-causing dust so common to construction and fracking sites, among other workplaces. OSHA estimates that the new standard will prevent more than 600 deaths and 900 new cases of silicosis annually. That is certainly commendable, but the kudos would be more heartfelt if the new standard had been adopted decades earlier and if it fully addressed the significant health risks to workers. 

The unconscionable delays and unjustified concessions awarded to industry at the expense of workers' health and safety are hardly unique to the silica standard; rather, they are the product of our broken regulatory process, which is riddled with analytical requirements designed to generate business-friendly outcomes. 

In the case of the silica standard, OSHA set the permissible exposure level (PEL) at 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) – the level recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1974. But despite clear scientific evidence of the significant risks to workers, OSHA took four decades to finalize the rule because of intense industry pressure to stop it. 

Industry leaders hired lobbyists to …

May 11, 2016 by Katie Tracy
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Can you imagine working for a boss who refuses you the dignity of taking a bathroom break? According to a revealing new report published today by Oxfam America, denial of bathroom breaks is a very real practice at poultry plants across the country, and line workers at these plants often "wait inordinately long times (an hour or more), then race to accomplish the task within a certain timeframe (e.g., ten minutes) or risk discipline." 

If you've never worked on an assembly or production line, you may wonder why workers need approval to use the bathroom in the first place. The processing line at a poultry plant moves rapidly, which means when one worker leaves the line, another must take his or her place to keep up with production. Typically, the employer will have a system in place for workers to signal when they need a …

April 28, 2016 by Matt Shudtz
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Today, a lot of numbers will be thrown around – the staggering number of workers who died gruesome deaths on the job last year, the paltry fines that employers responsible for those deaths paid, the months and years we've waited for Congress to revisit the Occupational Safety and Health Act to make it more relevant to our modern workforce.

There's good reason to reflect on those numbers. They tell us something important about our society and our relationship to work. They tell us that we have a long way to go before the real value of workers' time, effort, and dedication to their jobs is respected and honored.

40,000 Verizon workers are on strike. The contract dispute is complicated, but one of the core issues is the company's threat to move jobs from one location to another, like so many interchangeable, faceless component parts …

April 8, 2016 by Brian Gumm
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On April 6, U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger sentenced former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to one year in jail and a $250,000 fine for conspiring to violate federal health and safety standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. The mine exploded and killed 29 miners in April 2010. 

In an April 7 New York Times op-ed, CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, explained the significance of Blankenship's conviction and sentence and what it portends for other top managers and CEOs: 

"The first C.E.O. ever to be convicted of conspiring to violate industrial safety standards will soon take his place in prison. 

"The sentence is noteworthy, however, not because of the law, but in spite of it. The Mine Safety and Health Act, the statute …

April 6, 2016 by Rena Steinzor
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Today, U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger sentenced former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for conspiring to violate federal health and safety standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Upper Big Branch exploded and killed 29 miners in April 2010. CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, issued the following statement:

"Although Mr. Blankenship won't spend much time in jail, an outcome determined by a disgracefully weak law rather than the case against him, at least he will go down in the record books as the first CEO convicted and imprisoned for causing the death of his workers because he disdained the law. This case should send a shiver down the spine of every top manager who follows the approach described by one witness: 'Run, run, run until we get …

March 24, 2016 by Matthew Freeman
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NEWS RELEASE: New Manual Helps Workplace-Safety Activists Push for Criminal Charges in On-the-Job Tragedies

Washington, DC ----- Every year, thousands of workers across the United States are killed on the job — 4,679 in 2014 alone. Thousands more are seriously injured. Many of these deaths and injuries are entirely preventable when employers put in place basic safety measures. Some even result from company policies and practices that encourage and reward behavior that creates unacceptably risky conditions.

Ignoring workplace safety requirements is against the law, but a new manual from the Center for Progressive Reform notes that employers rarely face criminal penalties for endangering workers’ health and safety. Instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state labor agencies typically impose only small civil fines for regulatory violations. CPR’s manual, Preventing Death and Injury on the Job: The Criminal Justice Alternative in State Law, urges action at the …

March 24, 2016 by Matt Shudtz
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Decades in the making, OSHA’s new silica rule will better protect millions of workers from a highly toxic, cancer-causing substance that has killed thousands while the rule slowly worked its way through the regulatory gauntlet, administration after administration. Today, in quarries, foundries, building sites, and kitchen rehab jobs across the country, workers can look forward to breathing cleaner air.

But today’s announcement is far from the end of the story. Next comes the inevitable litigation. Following their tired playbook, special interest groups will beg a court to put a hold on the rule, hoping to delay or undo it. Workers have waited long enough for this rule. It is high time industry made an investment in the future by establishing the protections this rule requires. Investing now in tools and policies to better protect workers will save hundreds of lives every year. That’s not …

March 22, 2016 by Matt Shudtz
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Partisan efforts in Congress to roll back health and safety rules are common fodder on this blog. But last week, we saw a new twist, with a high-level Obama Administration official giving cover to a right-wing attempt to weaken protections for hundreds of thousands of workers in the poultry industry.

The workers in question are at the center of the highly industrialized process of turning live chickens into shrink-wrapped skinless parts. That puts them at a critical juncture in the vertically integrated industry, where major conglomerates like Perdue, Tyson, and JBS control the entire production chain from fertilized egg to boneless breast. More than 200,000 farms, producing 8.5 billion birds a year, all feed into about 300 federally inspected slaughter facilities. These facilities are a potential choke point in poultry companies’ distribution networks, which profit on speed and efficiency. And right at the front end …

Feb. 24, 2016 by Katie Tracy
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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has informally announced that it is unlikely to finalize its long-awaited rule to limit workers' exposure to respirable crystalline silica by the month's end, as the agency had expected. OSHA's deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, Jordan Barab, told Politico on Friday, Feb. 18, that he "can pretty much guarantee" the rule will be delayed, but he expects "it will be out soon."

The silica rule, which OSHA proposed in Sept. 2013 after 20 years of development, cannot come soon enough for workers and their families. Exposure to these tiny dust particles can cause an incurable and fatal lung disease called "silicosis," and other debilitating health effects. But will the final rule demand that employers' take genuine responsibility for workers' health by implementing effective controls to reduce hazardous silica exposures? Or will OSHA have …

Dec. 22, 2015 by Katie Tracy
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As the year draws to a close and the New Year approaches, people all around the world will be contemplating what they can resolve to do better in 2016. This year, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) seem to be celebrating the tradition as well. In a move akin to a “New Year’s Resolution” to do better by workers, the two agencies have just announced that they will be expanding their “worker endangerment initiative” to bolster criminal prosecutions against employers responsible for endangering workers’ health and safety.

The new initiative is an encouraging step toward punishing employers who make decisions that put profits over people and toward deterring others from violating federal labor laws. But the initiative—while it’s a beneficial supplement to the weak criminal penalties applicable to many labor violations—is also limited in scope …

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