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N95 masks pour in from unions, corporations, schools, churches … while the federal government lags

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Donald Trump keeps coming up with excuses for why the federal government is not providing medical professionals with the protection they need as they fight coronavirus. And other groups keep coming up with the N95 masks that are so badly needed. On Thursday, SEIU-UHW, a union representing healthcare workers, announced it had located 39 million N95 masks, which were sitting in a medical supplier’s warehouse in Pennsylvania.

The union made call after call until they found a company that had one of the pieces of equipment that’s so desperately needed. While, it cannot be emphasized enough, Donald Trump makes excuses.

The supplier with the 39 million masks is now selling them to the state of California, several California healthcare providers, and the Greater New York Hospital Association. In California, SEIU-UHW workers will benefit directly by having more of the protective gear they need. But, as the union’s president said in a statement, “While we are pleased with these initial results, we recognize they are stopgap measures in light of the estimated 3.5 billion masks that could be needed during this pandemic. We urgently need the federal government to step in and drive a coordinated national response to the PPE shortage.”

SEIU-UHW wasn’t the only organization stepping up to find masks. Building trades unions previously donated masks their workers use to protect themselves on the job. In Washington, D.C., the head stonemason at the National Cathedral remembered a stash of thousands of masks, which the cathedral donated. Goldman Sachs is the latest company to donate hundreds of thousands of masks out of its own disaster preparedness supply. And more local organizations are scraping together every last mask and other protective gear they can and sending them to their local hospitals—like Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, Massachusetts, which donated 215 masks along with safety glasses and other protective equipment.

Across the country and from the most massive corporations to small organizations, people are working to equip our medical professionals to stay safe and treat us when we get sick. And with the resources of the federal government at his disposal, Donald Trump just keeps failing to deliver that kind of care for public health and safety.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

OSHA Needs A Prescription for Safety Now

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Kimberly Delbrune-Mitter, a cardiac nurse, cares deeply about her patients and remains steadfast in her desire to help them, even as COVID-19 spreads across America.

What plagues her about the new disease isn’t that she might encounter it. It’s the lack of guidance, vital information that would help her balance quality care and her own health.

Medical professionals looking to the Trump administration for leadership will hear nothing but a resounding silence.

Instead, people on the front lines have to fight for their own health and safety even while they care for their patients.

A group of labor unions, including the United Steelworkers (USW), last week sent Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a petition demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implement an emergency safety standard to protect health care workers, first responders and others at risk of contracting the virus on the job.

The unions and the workers they represent want OSHA to specify the types of equipment employers must provide and the procedures they must follow to keep workers safe.

For hospitals, this could mean providing doctors, nurses and others with the most advanced facemasks on the market. It could mean minimizing the number of people who enter a patient’s room, screening workers for sickness at the start of their shifts or providing staff members with a vaccine when one becomes available.

So far, they’ve received no response.

While the Trump administration fiddles, hundreds of health care workers already are quarantined because of possible exposure to COVID-19, and many others have questions about how to do their jobs without contracting the disease.

“Do we need to wear eye shields? Do we need hair caps? Do we need gowns?” asked Delbrune-Mitter, president of USW Local 9620, which represents about 500 nurses in New Jersey.

Right now, each hospital, clinic and doctor’s office is largely free to take whatever precautions it wants. At some hospitals, nurses cite a lack of personal protective equipment like facemasks and say their employers haven’t even told them how to identify patients who might have the disease.

If large numbers of health care workers get sick or quarantined, the whole treatment system could collapse.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) struck Toronto in 2003, health care professionals became the biggest victims, making up 45 percent of those infected. A doctor and two nurses died. The city’s hospitals were so poorly prepared for infection control that they became breeding grounds for the disease, the very places where most people contracted it.

Clearly communicated safety precautions for COVID-19 will prevent a similar catastrophe limiting medical personnel on the job at a time they’re crucially needed.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time health care workers had to lead OSHA to provide common-sense protections in the face of a deadly disease.

HIV struck seemingly out of nowhere more than 30 years ago, battering patients’ immune systems before killing them. Unsure how it spread and fearful of the future, health care workers risked their own lives to treat the victims.

Research soon showed that HIV is spread through an infected person’s blood. Health care workers risked infection when they accidentally got stuck by a needle or when a patient’s blood got into a cut or scrape. Other serious diseases like hepatitis B are spread the same way, and workers demanded that OSHA set standards so they would remain safe on the job.

OSHA implemented those measures, known as the bloodborne pathogens standard, in 1991 and revised them several years later.

Workers made this happen.

Among other provisions, the standard requires that needles be equipped with safety devices that cover or retract them immediately after use.

Employers must provide gloves and other personal protective equipment to workers, decontaminate surfaces any time they’re touched by blood or other fluids, and track accidental needle sticks. Needles and other sharp objects must be discarded in puncture-proof containers. These provisions protect patients as well as health care workers.

Some hospitals opposed the bloodborne pathogen rules because they didn’t want to shell out a few extra bucks to keep workers safe.

But the standard’s effectiveness cannot be denied.  Since it was implemented, HIV and hepatitis B infections among health care workers plummeted.

Even after OSHA imposed the standard, health care workers continued fighting to make their workplaces safer.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick in New Jersey, that meant looking for new ways to further reduce the accidental needle sticks that can transmit HIV and hepatitis.

Nurses represented by USW Local 4-200 tested various syringes, lancets and IV insertion tips, then began using the ones they considered least likely to cause accidental sticks. Between 2010 and 2014, the hospital reduced needlestick injuries by 70 percent, an achievement that won the nurses recognition in a national health care journal.

These kinds of safety measures are the result of workers’ and unions’ relentless fight for health and safety.

The USW and other unions began pressuring OSHA for an infectious disease standard long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

Their demand for infectious disease controls goes back years, amid outbreaks of other diseases, including SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 flu in 2009, that exposed the nation’s lack of readiness for epidemics.

OSHA’s top officials finally put an infectious disease standard on their to-do list. Then Donald Trump, an enemy of industry regulation and worker safety, took office. OSHA suddenly put infectious disease control on the back burner.

That delay now haunts the nation. The federal government and health care organizations are as poorly prepared for an epidemic as workers knew they’d be.

Delbrune-Mitter said the lack of clear safety direction from federal officials leads some staff members to mine TV and the internet for information.

“We don’t really know what’s true,” she said.

This article was originally printed in Our Future on March 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).

Common Toxic Exposures in the Workplace

Toxic exposure can be presented in the home, at school, and even within workplace environments. For those who are in positions that consistently put them at risk for contact with harsh chemicals and carcinogens, there needs to be an emphasis on protecting workers from exposure. Among stress, fairness and equality, as well as the day-to-day responsibilities, harmful toxins should not be a concern. Yes, some jobs pose greater risks. However, employees should not anticipate negative impacts on their health, especially when most toxic exposure can be prevented.

Exposure to these toxic substances may be the result of occupations in construction, the oil industry, manufacturing, waste disposal, custodial work, and similar manual labor positions. To ensure that workers have limited exposure to any dangerous byproducts, they need to understand what these chemicals are and how to promote the safest environment.

Below are three common toxic chemicals to watch out for

  1. Benzen

BenzeneBenzene is a recognized carcinogen that has been proven to lead to leukemia cancer. Leukemia, aptly named due to its effects on leukocytes, otherwise known as white blood cells, develops in the blood or bone marrow. This indicates complications with white blood cell production.

There are both short and long term consequences of benzene exposure. When people are introduced to potent amounts of benzene short term, they may experience unconsciousness, confusion, headaches, and nervous system dysfunction. It may also aggravate other sensory areas like the eyes and skin. The long term effects of benzene exposure are anemia and a low white blood cell and blood platelet count.

It is important to note that benzene is not the major cause of leukemia, but a risk factor. Characteristically, benzene is a liquid–one that has a sweet scent and is both colorless and combustible. It is also highly favorable in many industries because it is an ingredient for producing other chemicals: detergents, drugs, rubbers, plastics, etc. Workers prone to coming in contact with benzene are steel-workers, firefighters, and gas station employees.

  1. Asbestos

Another known carcinogen is asbestos, a mineral popular for its flame, sound, and electricity immunity. There are six types of asbestos, but together they have the same qualities: the ability to break because of their tiny, fibrous crystalline structure.

The chief threat linked to asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, a cancer that can develop in the lungs, heart, and lining of the stomach. Distinctively to other cancers, mesothelioma is essentially the result of asbestos entering the body and embedding into any of these organs. Surprisingly, it is not diagnosed for long periods of time and may also cause other related illnesses, such as asbestosis and lung cancer.

As asbestos is useful in many processes, construction workers, those in the military around ammunition storage rooms, aircraft, boiler rooms, military vehicles, and mess halls, home renovators, engineers, and agricultural workers are all at jeopardy.

  1. Silica

Sourced from the earth’s crust, crystalline silica is fundamental to a variety of home and construction products. Natural materials such as sand, concrete, and stone have silica. A few products that employ these materials are ceramics, glass, and bricks.

Like asbestos, repairable crystalline silica is microscopic. When it deteriorates or is broken, it can be reduced to particles 100 times smaller than sand grains. Occupations that employ silica for stone countertops, pottery, concrete, or drilling for buildings, can expose this mineral.

While crystalline silica does not trigger mesothelioma cancer, it is also a toxin that can be inhaled and enter the body unknowingly. Silica can create serious health conditions, including lung cancer, silicosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What to know for keeping your work environment safe

These are only three of a list of toxins employees may be susceptible to. The good news is that with proper awareness and mandated regulations, workers are not left defenseless against exposure.

Every job should follow strict guidelines, either federal or state, which are implemented to protect workers’ rights. Fortunately, many places cannot operate without knowing and keeping up with these rules. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is ideal for this reason and rightfully enforces control over work-related toxins.

Thankfully, the efforts of organizations like OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and others specific to diseases from toxins and carcinogens encourage healthier job sites, where employees do not have to fear or expect toxins. Prevention is possible, and no one needs to be unnecessarily exposed or at risk.

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Colin Ruggiero dedicates his time to informing others about mesothelioma cancer and preventative measures that can be taken to avoid exposure to asbestos. 

The Coronavirus Outbreak Shows the Disgrace of Not Guaranteeing Paid Sick Leave

The United States is unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic given that many workers throughout the economy will have financial difficulty in following the CDC’s recommendations to stay home and seek medical care if they think they’ve become infected. Millions of U.S. workers and their families don’t have access to health insurance, and only 30% of the lowest paid workers have the ability to earn paid sick days—workers who typically have lots of contact with the public and aren’t able to work from home.

There are deficiencies in paid sick days coverage per sector, particularly among those workers with a lot of public exposure. The figure below displays access to paid sick leave by sector. Information and financial activities have the highest rates of coverage at 95% and 91%, respectively. Education and health services, manufacturing, and professional and business services have lower rates of coverage, but still maintain at least three-quarters of workers with access. Trade, transportation, and utilities comes in at 72%, but there are significant differences within that sector ranging from utilities at 95% down to retail trade at 64% (not shown). Over half of private-sector workers in leisure and hospitality do not have access to paid sick days. Within that sector, 55% of workers in accommodation and food services do not have access to paid sick days (not shown).

Of the public health concerns in the workforce related to COVID-19, two loom large: those who work with the elderly because of how dangerous the virus is for that population and those who work with food because of the transmission of illness. Research shows that more paid sick days is related to reduced flu rates. There is no reason to believe contagion of COVID-19 will be any different. When over half of workers in food services and related occupations do not have access to paid sick days, the illness may spread more quickly.

What exacerbates the lack of paid sick days among these workers is that their jobs are already not easily transferable to working from home. On average, about 29% of all workers can work from home. And, not surprisingly, workers in sectors where they are more likely to have paid sick days are also more likely to be able to work from home. Over 50% of workers in information, financial activities, and professional and business services can work from home. However, only about 9% of workers in leisure and hospitality are able to work from home.

Many of the 73% of workers with access to paid sick days will not have enough days banked to be able to take off for the course of the illness to take care of themselves or a family member. COVID-19’s incubation period could be as long as 14 days, and little is known about how long it could take to recover once symptoms take hold. The figure below displays the amount of paid sick days workers have access to at different lengths of service. Paid sick days increase by years of service, but even after twenty years, only 25% of private-sector workers are offered at least 10 days of paid sick days a year.

The small sliver of green shows that a very small share (only about 4%) of workers—regardless of their length of service—have access to more than 14 paid sick days. That’s just under three weeks for a five-day-a-week worker, assuming they have that many days at their disposal at the time when illness strikes. The vast majority of workers, over three-quarters of all workers, have nine days or less of paid sick time. This clearly shows that even among workers with access to some amount of paid sick days, the amounts are likely to be insufficient.

A version of this post originally appeared at the Economic Policy Institute

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Elise Gould joined EPI in 2003. Her research areas include wages, poverty, inequality, economic mobility and health care. She is a co-author of The State of Working America, 12th Edition.

America’s workers face an outbreak of uncertainty

Timothy NoahAmericans are going home — and creating an economic train wreck.

The coronavirus outbreak has U.S. companies starting to shutter offices and send workers home through layoffs, furloughs or directives to telecommute until health risks from the spreading virus recede.

The evidence is expected to show up through lost consumer spending, derailed business plans and swift damage to lower-wage workers across the nation. The extent of the damage will rest largely on how long it takes for businesses and consumers to gain confidence that the threat is under control.

“If workers can’t work … production and income go down,” Georgetown University economist Harry Holzer said. “That becomes a demand problem if workers lose income and stop spending.”

When that happens, “odds of recession can go way up,” Holzer said.

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all advised Seattle employees to work at home after workers at Facebook and Amazon were diagnosed with the virus. In Everett, Wash., ten workers were sent home from a Boeing plant even before it could be confirmed that a sniffling coworker had coronavirus.

Businesses are halting non-essential travel at a rapid pace and major conferences are suddenly canceling across the U.S. As airline bookings tumble, United Airlines announced it will next month cut international flights by 20 percent and domestic flights by 10 percent. It invited staff to take unpaid leaves of absence. Other airlines around the world are already furloughing workers and slashing schedules as they face the prospect of flying empty planes.

In some cases, employees are asked to vacate the very workplaces where the virus is treated. At the University of California, Davis Medical Center, 36 registered nurses and 88 other health care workers were sent home, according to the labor union National Nurses United, after a single coronavirus patient was admitted to that hospital. Hospital workers reportedly numbering in the dozens were sent home under similar circumstances by Kaiser Permanente’s Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Ore. — long before the Oregon governor declared a state of emergency on Sunday.

For workers, the consequences of being sent home depend greatly on the circumstances. Many white-collar professions can adapt with relative ease to telecommuting from home for a temporary period, but workers in the brick-and-mortar retail, restaurant and hotel sectors cannot. Hourly workers are likelier than salaried workers to be laid off.

The sudden darkening of the outlook comes against a long stretch of resilience for the economy — in an expansion now in its 11th year, the longest on record.

For now, official statistics show a robust labor market, with 273,000 jobs created in February, the Labor Department reported Friday, and an unemployment rate at a very low 3.5 percent. But economists are bracing for a weaker jobs report in March.

The first hints of trouble are expected to come in weekly jobless claims and gauges of the factory sector, which has been under strain from President Donald Trump’s trade wars.

The manufacturing industry, which employs about 9 percent of the U.S. workforce, was underperforming even before news of China’s coronavirus outbreak first surfaced in January. The international nature of supply chains in the global economy — domestic factories’ reliance on parts produced in other countries — spell a near-certain decline in U.S. factory hiring even if the coronavirus outbreak is contained within the U.S. In a potential early sign of trouble, the Institute for Supply Management’s index of national factory activity fell to 50.1 in February, down from 50.9 in January, bringing it back to the brink of a sub-50 reading indicating recession in the sector.

“The supply shocks from quarantined factories in Asia are weeks away from idling U.S., Canadian and European factories,” said economist Michael Hicks of Ball State University, “and the demand-side impact on tourism, travel, eating and drinking establishments is already being felt across the world.”

Economists are already urging policymakers to consider a stimulus program to cushion Americans from impending damage. Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, proposes a one-time payment of $1,000 to every adult American citizen or taxpaying adult.

“If the economic shock is small and stimulus proves to be unnecessary,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, “its negative effects are likely to be small. But if the shock is bigger and policy makers fail to act now, it will be harder to reverse the economic damage.”

Eleven states, including California, Massachusetts and New York, require employers to offer workers paid leave, as does the District of Columbia. But none of these jurisdictions explicitly guarantee the benefit to healthy workers on leave because a virus outbreak sent everybody home.

Fourteen Democratic senators last week wrote to leaders of the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to urge their member companies not to penalize workers for going home during the outbreak.

Paid sick days are particularly rare for low-income workers. Ninety-three percent of workers in the top tenth of the income distribution get paid sick leave, compared with only 30 percent of those in the bottom tenth, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

“People are already losing pay,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, citing flight attendants’ loss of overtime hours and per diems.

While Trump has been trumpeting his actions in fighting the coronavirus, Nelson blames him for increasing its economic cost — through widespread cancellations of business meetings and travel — due to his initial response. “Shutting down these public meetings, she said, “is the only way to stop the spread if you don’t have a way of identifying where the threat is.”

“It makes me very angry,” she said, “because it’s my members’ lives and their jobs.”

With all the uncertainties surrounding the U.S. outbreak, experts are reluctant to predict with any specificity the coming impact on workers. But comparable episodes from the past provide some guide.

After the 9/11 attacks, which suspended air travel and required much of lower Manhattan to be evacuated, about 115,000 workers were laid off by the end of that year, according to the DOL. Forty-two percent were in the airline industry, and 28 percent were employed by hotels and motels.

The U.S. economy was already in recession by that point — it started in March 2001 and ended in November. Still, economists say the widespread uncertainty after 9/11, the start of the war in Afghanistan and the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003 all restrained hiring by employers worried about the outlook.

A global outbreak similar to the Spanish flu of 1918-19 — the most commonly cited historical comparison — would produce “a short-run impact on the worldwide economy similar in depth and duration to that of an average postwar recession in the United States,” a 2005 Congressional Budget Office report estimated. The significant caveat is that the Spanish flu was deadliest to the young and healthy, whereas the coronavirus, like most epidemics, exacts its worst toll on the elderly and the infirm.

A 2007 report by the St. Louis Federal Reserve raised the gruesome possibility that a shortage of workers from a major outbreak ultimately would increase wages, as it seems to have done in 1918, though it noted that was less likely now, “given the greater mobility of workers that exists today.” (The coronavirus is also much less deadly to the working-age population.)

“Given our highly mobile and connected society,” the report concluded, any comparable pandemic in the future “is likely to be more severe in its reach.”

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on March 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Timothy Noah is the Employment & Immigration editor at POLITICO. Previously he was a contributing writer for MSNBC.com and a senior editor at the New Republic, where he wrote the “TRB From Washington” column. For a dozen years before that he was a senior writer at Slate magazine, where he wrote the “Chatterbox” and “Prescriptions” columns. Noah has also been a Washington-based reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek; an assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report; and an editor at the Washington Monthly. He is the author of “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It” (Bloomsbury, 2012).



Marriott’s ‘green choice’ isn’t so green, and it’s hurting workers

Why would environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and 350.org have signed a pledge that they wouldn’t use a hotel chain’s environmental program? Because Marriott’s “Make a Green Choice” program, in which hotel guests are asked to opt out of having their rooms cleaned during a stay, is a classic case of greenwashing, and one that hurts workers.

According to Sierra magazine, Marriott won’t disclose the environmental benefits of not having rooms cleaned as often, while UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh told the magazine that “when housekeepers do get into a room that hasn’t been serviced in days, they report needing to use more water and chemicals, and they experience pain and injury from having to push their bodies to the limit to get the job done.” At the same time, they’re losing work hours, and income, to people doing what they think is the right thing.

Marriott has pushed “Make a Green Choice,” but it hasn’t pushed larger environmental efforts. “Despite setting a goal of acquiring 30 percent of its overall electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2025, the hotel chain did not report purchasing any of its millions of megawatt-hours of energy from renewable resources in 2018” Sierra reports. “That same year, Marriott’s $33 million investment in energy savings initiatives like LED lighting retrofit projects were dwarfed by the $3.4 billion that Marriott returned to shareholders.” Marriott’s climate goals are also less ambitious than those of rival Hilton.

Meanwhile, 91% of Marriott housekeepers told the union that they’ve lost hours since “Make a Green Choice” was put into place, with some having lost so many hours that they’re no longer eligible for health care.

We should all be making green choices. This isn’t the one, though.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

As temperatures rise, the poor suffer most

As a heat wave bakes large pockets of the United States this weekend, it is society’s most vulnerable who suffer most.

Take the unnamed 32-year-old Ace Air Conditioning of Louisiana worker who died while installing duct work on July 20, 2017. The man began to show signs of heat exhaustion while working in the attic of a modest home in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Less than an hour later, he collapsed and died.

The company was fined a few thousand dollars because it did not “furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards.”

Or take the watermelon picker in Five Points, California, who collapsed on the way to his vehicle after a six-hour shift in temperatures above 100 Fahrenheit. No one on the team got a break that day, according to a colleague, despite state labor laws. When the man was pronounced dead at he hospital, his body temperature was 109 Fahrenheit. The company was fined $25,750.

These are just two examples of what outdoor workers face when temperatures rise.

The heat wave gripping much of the country has already been blamed for six deaths. As global temperatures continue to rise and heat waves become more common and extreme, it is the poor, the elderly, laborers, and people with medical conditions who will be at the greatest risk.

People over 65 are among those with the greatest risk of heat-related deaths, followed by men who work in outdoor occupations, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Any person can suffer from heat stress, regardless of age, sex, or health status,” the agency wrote in a 2016 report on heat-related illness. “Older adults and children, however, have a higher-than-average risk of becoming ill due to exposure to extreme heat. People working outdoors, the socially isolated and economically disadvantaged, those with chronic illnesses, and some communities of color are also especially vulnerable to heat.”

When a massive heat wave struck Chicago in July 1995, the city was ill prepared to deal with the crisis. That lack of preparation had deadly consequences: 739 people died, including Valerie Brown’s grandmother, Alberta.

“They put my grandma’s body in a refrigerated truck,” Brown told NBC News. “There is no death certificate. They just took her body away and put her in a mass grave.”

It wasn’t just the elderly who were hit hardest by the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, according to Judith Helfand, who directed a new documentary about the heat wave, Cooked: Survival by Zip Code.

“The people who died in 1995 were poor, and disproportionately black,” Helfand told NBC News.

“Racism kills people,” she added.

Research has shown that climate change and the resulting heat waves will hit large urban areas particularly hard, in part because the concrete, brick, steel, and glass these cities are built from creates “heat islands” that trap heat during the day then slowly release it overnight, preventing the city from cooling down once the sun sets.

That creates a dangerous situation for people like construction workers, the elderly, the poor, minorities, and the homeless, who tend to be concentrated in cities and may not have the resources to stay in air-conditioned buildings when temperatures soar.

Just three states have regulations in place to protect outdoor workers in extreme heat. The advocacy group Public Citizen launched a campaign last year to get the Occupational Safety and  Health Administration to put tighter rules in place to protect workers during heat waves.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has nominated Eugene Scalia — son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a lifelong opponent of labor regulations — to head the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA.

This article was originally published at Think Progress on July 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Joshua Eaton is an investigative reporter. His work has also appeared at The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, PRI’s The World, and Teen Vogue. Before joining ThinkProgress, Joshua was a digital producer at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (now The Eye) and WGBH News.

Contact Joshua at jeaton@thinkprogress.org or via Signal at 202-684-1030.

Number of workplace safety inspectors fall under Trump

Rebecca RaineyDespite assurances from Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta that he will boost the number of OSHA compliance officers this fiscal year, new data shows the number of inspectors has declined.

According to statistics that POLITICO obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the number of compliance safety and health officers tasked with conducting workplace inspections at the agency had fallen in April to 870. That’s down from the 875 safety inspectors that OSHA reported in January (in response to a FOIA request from the left-leaning National Employment Law Project).

In addition, data provided to POLITICO from OSHA reveals that since January the agency has lost two area directors responsible for training and supervising safety and health inspectors.

During the same month that OSHA recorded the 7-person decline, Acosta testified before a House appropriations panel that OSHA “expects to have a significant increase in inspectors in FY 2019.” The fiscal year runs from Oct 1 through September 30.

At that April hearing, Acosta noted that OSHA hired 76 new inspectors in FY 2018.

“These numbers are stunning,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA policy adviser now with NELP. “The agency now has the lowest number of inspectors in its entire history—it will now take over 160 years for the agency to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just once. This does not bode well for workers.”

The number of OSHA inspectors fluctuated throughout the Obama administration, rising to 1,059 inspectors from 2009 to 2011, then declining to 943 from 2011 to 2015, then rising again in 2016 to 952 inspectors.

Democrats and safety advocates blame the decline under Trump on retirements and on the federal hiring freeze ordered in early 2017

“This is a sign of erosion in OSHA’s ability to inspect workplaces,” Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at the AFL-CIO, told POLITICO. “Acosta has committed to strong enforcement, but their ability to do so is being hobbled and crippled by losing experienced staff.”

In total, OSHA’s compliance safety and health officers reached 949 in April, but that figure also includes 79 area directors, who do not conduct workplace inspections. According to January numbers obtained by advocates, the agency had 81 area directors on board at the time.

The Labor Department’s budget request for OSHA for fiscal year 2020 included more than $3.7 million to hire 30 additional compliance officers

Asked to comment on the decline in safety inspectors, a DOL spokesperson said that OSHA “has taken several steps to increase its federal enforcement staffing levels.” In 2017, the spokesperson said, Acosta granted OSHA approval to fill all its funded inspector positions.

“OSHA has also begun recruiting for a larger number of positions than available vacancies,” the spokesperson said, “to ensure there is a continuous pool of [compliance safety health officer] applicants for selection when future vacancies occur.”

Despite the decline in inspectors, the number of OSHA inspections rose in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 to above 32,000. But a March NELP report said that in both fiscal years the agency cut back on the number of more complex, resource-intensive, and “high-impact” safety and health inspections.

In making this calculation, NELP used the same metric created by OSHA under President Barack Obama. In 2016, OSHA stopped measuring its performance by the number of total inspections and instead started counting by weighted “enforcement units” to better assess the quantity of enforcement activity. Then-OSHA chief David Michaels concluded that a raw inspection count was misleading because one-day inspections were equated with more complicated five-month inspections.

According to NELP’s March report, in FY 2018 OSHA enforcement dropped by 352 enforcement units, to 41,478.

This article was originally published at Politico on June 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.

Facing rising temperatures and pollution, farmworkers are being left behind by Florida lawmakers

APOPKA, FLORIDA — An election is happening on Tuesday, but Florida’s farmworkers seem largely underwhelmed.

“I don’t think they care, to tell the truth, I really don’t think they care,” says Linda Lee as she sits in front of her small house near the sprawling Lake Apopka, just northwest of Orlando.

A former farmworker and vocal activist, the 66-year-old grandmother is hardly an apathetic presence. What happens in the state’s capital, Tallahassee — and in the nation’s further north in Washington D.C. — impacts Lee’s family and life. But years of silence from lawmakers have taught farmworkers in this area that if they want things to change, they’ll have to be the ones to drive the conversation.

For decades, farmworkers in the Sunshine State have waged war — against pollution and pesticides, against hardline immigration laws, against low wages. Now, amid warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns, they are increasingly turning their attention to climate change. And they plan to address the issue with or without the willing cooperation of lawmakers.

Orlando, the metropolis neighboring Apopka, is home to the sprawling tourist attraction Disney World. Where Orlando offers glitter and glam for millions of visitors every year, the area surrounding Lake Apopka is a study in contrasts. The area is traditionally home to farming country, with an emphasis on the citrus so often associated with Florida.

That claim to fame has a tragic coda. Pesticides associated with agriculture have contributed to making Lake Apopka one of the state’s leading cautionary tales. Pollution in the lake is overwhelming. Once a fisherman’s paradise, the area is now infamous for the deformities alligators and other animals have developed thanks to exposure to insecticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

What has happened to Lake Apopka’s wildlife is well-known, but the trauma haunting the area’s residents has largely been glossed over.

Exposure to pesticides has plagued Apopka’s farmworkers for generations, something people like Linda Lee know well. Lee lost both a daughter and a granddaughter to the inflammatory disease lupus, something she believes is likely the result of their proximity to pesticides in the area.

Their deaths have haunted her, but she remains committed to fighting for her community and for herself. These days, that means broadening the conversations farmworkers have about issues like pesticides, or the hardline anti-immigration policies that directly impact undocumented workers.

“We can’t stop God, for one thing,” Lee says, referring to climate change. “But I think that people, especially the people sitting up in Washington, they need to do more.”

Farmworkers have long been among the most vulnerable people in the United States, largely cut out of labor protections and provided few rights under the law. Most are Black and Latinx, many are immigrants, and virtually all are low-income. Their vulnerable status has often seen them left out of conversations surrounding issues like climate change.

That’s something people like Jeannie Economos want to change. Economos works with the Farmworker Association of Florida, or FWAF, an organization that has fought to protect the state’s farmworkers and advocate for them.

Much of her work with FWAF has been focused on “health and safety” concerns relating to pesticides, Economos says, but that’s changing.

“For the past few years,” she continues, “with the changing climate and hotter temperatures, we’ve been more concerned about [the] impact of heat stress.”

In July, FWAF joined a coalition of 130 organizations calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require employers to protect workers from the heat. Mandatory rest breaks, access to shade, and frequent hydration are among the demands included in a petition sent to the agency.

According to the petition’s analysis, heat has killed more than 780 workers across the country between 1992 and 2016, and seriously injured nearly 70,000. With climate change, heat stress is likely to get worse and put more people at risk.

Economos says joining the OSHA petition was a “no-brainer” for FWAF, but she emphasized that for local activists, the effort is only one part of a larger fight.

“We’re really concerned about the effects of both climate change and heat, in many ways, in Florida,” she says. “We’re concerned about the acute and immediate impacts of heat, the long-term impact of heat-exposure and chronic dehydration, [that it could] shorten a person’s work years and possible their life.”

But the sun isn’t the only problem. Climate change is also warming waters off of Florida’s coast, something that scientists say is exacerbating the intensity of hurricanes. And when those hurricanes hit, they destroy property along with agriculture, a dual blow for farmworkers.

“Hurricane Irma did a lot of damage to the crops in Florida,” Economos says, pointing to the major storm that hit the state last fall. “A lot [of areas] had damage, a lot of rental homes were impacted. And farmworkers, living in trailers, even if [the trailers] were damaged, they had to pay rent. The crop was also damaged. They had no work and they had to pay rent.”

Talking about climate change doesn’t mean advocates are abandoning their focus on other issues. But global warming is becoming a major focus of groups like FWAF. And they’re not alone — in the midst of a heated election year, climate issues have taken center-stage in Florida, with sea-level rise and a toxic algae bloom crisis emerging as major themes, along with long-standing points of contention like offshore drilling.

Whatever way the wind blows on Tuesday during Florida’s primary elections, Apopka area residents like Lee say they are ready to hold lawmakers accountable to the farmworkers they have long ignored.

“When they get in office, they close and lock their doors. You call them on the telephone, [their assistants say] they’re in Washington, they’re in Tallahassee, they’re never where you need them to be until it’s time to vote,” says Lee.

She smirks. “And it’s coming time to vote.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. Crunden is a reporter at ThinkProgress focused on environmental and world issues, as well as immigration and social justice in the U.S. South and Appalachia. Texpat. She/her, they/them, or no pronouns. Get in touch: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

Workplace Safety: Expect Excellence From Your Employer

You should expect your employer to establish a strong safety culture that results in an injury-free, healthy, non-hostile workplace.

Unfortunately, OSHA can only do so much to establish what “safe and healthy” means, or to enforce those protocols. Many people, like those at Public Citizen, recognize that “government protection of workers is far from adequate.”

This means that more must be done than just meeting government standards.

High Standards for Health and Safety Should Be the Norm

Each workplace is unique, so those in charge of safety must identify and mitigate their specific health and safety issues. Hazards also change over time, so safety protocols must be adapted.

The aim, after all, should be to make sure you stay safe and healthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. That means no workplace injuries, and certainly no fatalities, nor any disrespectful behaviors: expect respect.

What Is a Safe and Healthy Workplace?

In order to make sure you are in a safe and healthy workplace, it’s important to understand what that means. Consider some of the most common causes of workplace injuries: stress, fatigue, falling objects, lifting, collisions, and trip and falls. Are your safety managers addressing these issues?

The environment you work in should be healthy. That means clean air, a clean workspace, good lighting, and reasonable noise levels.   

Management should regularly provide information and training about how to stay safe and healthy. They should encourage and facilitate physical fitness, fatigue prevention, mental and emotional well-being, and healthy eating.

Your health and wellness, and that of your co-workers, are the foundation of a satisfying and productive work environment. Consider that your well-being is also contingent on your co-workers’ well-being. A fatigued or distracted workmate is more likely to create unsafe circumstances for others.

The more rested, clear-headed, and healthy the staff, the safer the work environment will be for everyone.

Be Proactive

You play a part in safety, too. Take moments to stretch, rest, and move as needed. When stress is high, reset with some deep breaths. And keep your workspace clean and free of hazards.

Offer help to other employees who are doing something unsafe. Be respectful of others and expect respect from them. If you see hazards, report them to your safety manager. Make suggestions to improve health and safety. Is there a vending machine with soda, candy, and chips? Request that your employer swap some (all?) of that out for healthier options.

Initiate a walking group or encourage others to join you in training for a local 5 km. Ask your employer if they’ll sponsor you. Get creative in helping to make your workplace a thriving environment.

Know Your Rights, Use Your Voice

Of course, the ideal workplace isn’t always possible in the real world. Some employers simply won’t prioritize employee well-being to the degree they should. When you experience a violation of your health or safety at work, write it down and report it to your employer. A paper trail is your best friend if you need to take further action.

If your employer doesn’t remedy the problem, contact OSHA. You can do this anonymously. You have rights and you should be aware of what they are. In his article “The 6 Reasons OSHA Will Inspect Your Workplace,” Gabe L. Sierra, the managing director of Prometrix Safety Consulting, states, “In many industries, employee complaints are the single most common reason why OSHA will conduct an inspection at a workplace.”

Are you afraid of your employer retaliating? Retaliation is illegal. You can report that to OSHA, too. If you experience discrimination or harassment, you can file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For extreme cases of health and safety violations, you can consult a lawyer and file a lawsuit.

Just don’t stay quiet. Speaking up can be frightening, but change doesn’t happen if people remain silent. Consider the recent shift toward intolerance of sexual harassment and assault in the TV and film worlds, and beyond, because people spoke up. By saying something, you’re part of the solution, even if that solution takes time to arrive.  

Your Excellent Work Environment

Let’s hope that you have a safety manager who will be receptive to your suggestions and want to work toward an optimally safe environment.

Most of us spend an enormous amount of time at work. Why wouldn’t we expect and contribute to it being as safe and healthy as possible?

About the Author: TJ Scimone founded Slice, Inc. in 2008. His priority has been design, innovation, and safety. The result is a unique line of cutting tools, all of which are ergonomic and feature finger-friendly® blades. Safety is a key aspect of the Slice message and the website features a weekly Workplace Safety Blog.

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