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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: UWUA Members Take Control of Workplace Safety

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

While COVID-19 has made safety and personal protective equipment topics of discussion worldwide, workplace hazards are nothing new for utility workers. And members of the Utility Workers (UWUA) union deal with dangers every day they are on the job. In the latest edition of UWUA’s quarterly magazine, The Utility Worker, the union features an article that explains how many of its locals are implementing a range of effective safety models at work.

“This important piece shows there’s no wrong way to strengthen workplace safety culture,” said UWUA President James Slevin. “From employing full-time safety representatives (models used by Local 1-2, Michigan State Utility Workers Council and California Water Utility Council, for example), to a peer-to-peer model (used at Locals 127, 648, 369 and 335), or a statewide consortium (like that used by Locals 428, 397, 427, 425, 434), these locals are setting the bar high. I’m confident there’s something we can take and apply in our work from all of these examples.”

This was originally appeared at AFL-CIO on 04/04/2022.

About the Authors: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at AFL-CIO.

Aaron Gallant is the Internal Communications Specialist at AFL-CIO


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How Starbucks Workers Won in Mesa

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Starbucks Workers United (SWU) won its third store election February 28 in Mesa, Arizona. The vote was an overwhelming 25-3, with three additional contested ballots, despite heavy anti-union pressure from the company and in a state with only 5.4 percent union density.

“We led with kindness and care and just did our jobs in the face of union-busting from upper management,” said shift supervisor Liz Alanna, who helped lead the effort. Shift supervisors coordinate the day-to-day running of a store but are eligible for union membership because they don’t have hiring and firing power.

The Mesa store at Powerline and Baseline Roads became the first U.S. company-run store outside Buffalo to be unionized in the recent organizing wave.

Starbucks Workers United is now three for four in the elections held so far—and workers at more than 110 more locations have filed or announced their intention to unionize. A Canadian Starbucks also filed to unionize separately with the Steelworkers (USW) in January.

In Mesa, the company’s retaliation against a cancer-afflicted manager drove workers into the arms of SWU and Workers United, the Service Employees (SEIU) affiliate that has been supporting these union drives nationwide.

COLLAPSED ON THE FLOOR

‘It was just a huge slap in the face that our manager has leukemia, we never got support from another assistant store manager, and it was holiday season and we were getting slammed,” said Alanna.

The manager, 29-year-old Brittany Harrison, had been diagnosed with leukemia in October. Harrison requested paid leave, which was denied, and asked for an assistant manager to help at the store, which was also denied. She wanted to be able to make medical appointments and take care of herself as she coped with both the diagnosis and the illness.

But in November, when Harrison became aware of Starbucks’ planned union-busting strategy in Buffalo through a corporate meeting, she blew the whistle on the company. Harrison spoke anonymously to the media about a plan to send hundreds of managers to Buffalo Starbucks. She also made contact with Starbucks Worker United members in Buffalo.

Higher-ups stopped communicating with her. “I was getting ghosted by my supervisor and that sucked,” Harrison said. “My health was deteriorating.”

Starbucks company-owned stores are run by managers like Harrison, who have hiring and firing power and are not eligible to join barista unions. Above them are district managers who are responsible for multiple stores in the same area. Below them are assistant store managers, shift supervisors, and baristas, all of whom have been eligible to vote for the union. (NLRB regional directors so far have deferred the question of whether assistant store managers will ultimately be included in the bargaining unit to post-election proceedings.)

A bronchitis outbreak hit the store on November 10 and multiple workers called out. Harrison felt unwell November 11 and called out sick; the district manager told her that night she was not allowed to call out even though there were multiple shift supervisors present, and questioned her leadership ability.

The district manager went so far as to order Harrison to work the next day even though she had not been scheduled.

That night at 3 a.m., Harrison called her again to tell her she was too sick to work, but the district manager didn’t pick up her phone. Harrison even texted her photos of the temperature reader that showed she had a fever, but got no response.

The store was already short-staffed, and Harrison was forced to come in.

She ended up working until she collapsed to the floor after six hours. Unable to get up, she defecated on herself. Even then, she was forced to stay another hour because her district manager failed to send someone to cover for her in a timely way.

“This company will not be happy until I work myself to death,” Harrison remembers thinking. She put in her two weeks’ notice that day at the corporation she had once expected to retire at.

Starbucks fired her three days later, citing an “open investigation”; the charges were not disclosed to Harrison. Her Starbucks health benefits were cut off on November 16.

The coffee giant made $816 million in profits from roughly October through January and expanded by 484 stores in the quarter.

DON’T QUIT, UNIONIZE

Starbucks eventually tried to walk back the firing, claiming in a mass email to partners that it had never happened. By then, though, the cat was out of the bag.

When word spread through a group chat, “we were all really upset,” said Michelle Hejduk, a shift supervisor and worker leader. “People were talking about quitting. Somebody said ‘unionizing’—and everybody knew I was the main one that would talk about it with everybody.”

Hejduk had previously been an IATSE member in custodial work at Universal Studios in California and an SEIU member doing costuming at Disneyland.

She called Alanna that night; the two had talked politics before. Alanna remains a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists from her past work as an opera singer.

“Both of us were scared at first that we would get fired or lose our jobs,” Alanna said. She was pregnant and nearly due; she didn’t want to risk losing her family’s health insurance and owing thousands of dollars in hospital bills.

But after the pair talked with Workers United organizing adviser Richard Bensinger about legal protections for workers trying to unionize, they felt reassured enough to move forward.

By November 16, just four days after Harrison had collapsed in the store, the workers had enough cards to file for a union authorization election.

SWU raised $30,000 through crowdfunding to support Harrison, the uninsured and cancer-stricken whistleblower, in a striking display of reciprocal solidarity.

The Mesa store is not the only one where workers allege a retaliatory firing. In February, Starbucks fired seven unionizing workers in a Memphis store. Cassie Fleischer, a bargaining committee member, was also terminated from the Buffalo Elmwood location that was the first to win a union.

UNDERSTAFFING AND DISCRIMINATION

Like other Starbucks workers organizing around the country, Mesa baristas were motivated by understaffing, pressure to come to work sick, the company’s reluctance to stop accepting mobile orders when a store is overwhelmed, and a lack of worker voice.

“People who sit behind a computer do not know how to make a latte, do not know how to clean a toilet—we need to have a say,” said Alanna.

Many Starbucks workers around the country said that people tend to underestimate the amount of physical labor they’re required to do in an environment where there’s pressure to be efficient and customer-pleasing at all times. This includes everything from heavy lifting to being on your feet all day—in some shifts, for almost six hours with only a ten-minute break.

Another concern at the Mesa store was religious discrimination. Harrison, who is Jewish, filed a complaint against the district manager for anti-Semitism.

For example, when Harrison had a swastika painted on her house and the mezuzah torn off, the district manager suggested she should try to understand where the person who did it was coming from.

Harrison and workers in the store say that the district manager, whom Alanna described as “very Christian,” regularly prayed in meetings at which they were present.

“I’m Christian and even I find it very off-putting to have her reading a Christian story at the holiday meeting—I just think it’s weird,” Alanna said.

STALLING AND INTIMIDATION

There were 25 workers for the Mesa store the day they filed for election. But in a union-busting move, Starbucks started hiring. The number of eligible voters ended up at 43.

“They hired half the store just to say ‘no,’” Alanna said.

The company also flooded the store with management—another tactic it has repeated around the country.

Whereas when Harrison was diagnosed with cancer Starbucks wouldn’t add a single assistant manager to help the workers in Mesa, now it added three, plus two managers.

“We called them the babysitters,” Hejduk said. “We were not allowed to be there without them.” One day she was scheduled for the morning, but because a new manager couldn’t come in, the store did not open until 1 p.m.

The managers held captive group meetings (“listening sessions”) and one-on-ones to pressure workers over the union. One manager cried as she told a worker, “I want you to vote ‘no’.”

Hejduk found the episode “totally bizarre.”

“They’ve done so much wild stuff,” she said. “We’ve been desensitized to everything that’s happened.”

As it has done around the country, Starbucks argued to the NLRB that the appropriate bargaining unit would be the whole district, not just one store.

The company lost on this issue in a regional director’s ruling, but then filed an appeal with the NLRB’s head office. A ruling on the appeal was not made by February 16, the day the Mesa votes were to be counted, even though Starbucks had already lost on this issue at the NLRB in Buffalo.

As a result, the final vote count for the Mesa store was postponed pending a decision by the Board’s head office. It was eventually held on February 28.

The NLRB’s decision against Starbucks set the size of the bargaining unit at the store level rather than the district. This is expected to allow the Board to more quickly stop the company’s procedural delays on this issue moving forward.

NEW CAMARADERIE

As the organizing drive continues to build, SWU is building worker-to-worker contacts nationwide.

The day the Mesa workers filed their cards with the NLRB, they met over Zoom with Colin Cochran, a Buffalo-based SWU member, who told them what union-busting tactics to expect.

“Starbucks uses the same playbook everywhere and we know the ins and outs of it,” Cochran said over email. “It’s really fulfilling to be able to help other stores.”

And among the Mesa workers themselves, Alanna said the process of organizing has forged a new sense of community.

“Previous to this, night workers might never talk to day workers,” she said. Now they’re all on the same group chat, and are going out for food and attending parties together.

“I’ve worked in four different stores and I’ve never felt this kind of camaraderie before,” Alanna said.

Within weeks, SWU will know if it has managed to replicate the successes in Mesa and Buffalo through election wins in more stores and in other parts of the country. Next up: Seattle and Boston.

This blog was originally printed at Labor Notes on March 5, 2022.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.


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Workers Say They Breathe Polluted Air at “Green” Insulation Facility

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Kingspan employees in Santa Ana, California are demanding improved health protections—and a fair process to organize.

Mindy Isser | Author | Common Dreams

As the acceptance of climate change becomes increasingly commonplace, more and more companies will be created or adapted to ?“fight” or ?“solve” it — or, at the very least, minimize its effects. Kingspan Group, which began as an engineering and contracting business in 1965 in Ireland, has since grown into a global company with more than 15,000 employees focused on green insulation and other sustainable building materials. Its mission is to ?“accelerate a zero emissions future with the wellbeing of people and planet at its heart.” 

But workers at the Kingspan Light + Air factory in Santa Ana, Calif. don’t feel that the company has their wellbeing at its heart?—?and they say they have documented the indoor air pollution in their workplace to prove it. Differences between Kingspan’s mission and its true impact don’t stop there, workers charge: One of its products was used in the flammable cladding system on Grenfell Tower, a 24-floor public housing tower in London that went up in flames in June 2017, killing 72 people. Kingspan has been the target of protests in the United Kingdom and Ireland for its role in the disaster. Both Kingspan workers and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have called on the company to put public safety over profits.

Since the 1990s, union organizers say there have been multiple attempts from the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) union to organize employees at Kingspan, but none were successful. The company says its North America branch employs ?“1,600 staff across 16 manufacturing and distribution facilities throughout the United States and Canada.” Workers at the Santa Ana plant are tasked with welding, spray painting and assembling fiberglass to produce energy-efficient skylights. During the pandemic, when workers say Covid-19 swept through the facility, employees reached back out to SMART?—?not just because they wanted to form a union, but because they grew concerned about what they say is poor air quality in the facility. 

While SMART provided support for their campaign for clean air, the workers took control: In the summer of 2021, the Santa Ana workers came into work armed with monitors to measure indoor air pollution. Their goal was to measure airborne particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller (PM 2.5). Such fine particulate matter constitutes a form of air pollution that is associated with health problems like respiratory and cardiovascular issues, along with increased mortality. The workers found that the average PM 2.5 concentration inside the facility was nearly seven times higher than outdoors. (To put that in perspective, wildfires usually result in a two- to four-fold increase in PM 2.5.) The majority of monitors found PM 2.5 levels that would rank between ?“unhealthy” and ?“very unhealthy” if measured outdoors, according to Environmental Protection Agency standards, the workers reported. 

Because this is the air workers were breathing in for 40 hours per week, in October 2021, they went public with both their campaign to form a union and their fight for a safe workplace?—?a campaign that continues to this day. 

According to Jorge Eufracio, a welder who’s worked at Kingspan for six years, ?“The campaign started for safety, better wages, and respect. We signed a petition for workers at Kingspan, and we had a delegation give it to the boss. The petition was about our whole campaign?—?including a fair process to organize.” 

Kingspan employees told In These Times that management has ignored their plea for a fair process to organize, but in response to pressure has made some strides regarding health and safety, although the changes are inadequate. Jaime Ocotlan, a welder who’s been at the company for two years, said, ?“We have seen some small changes but we believe it’s not enough. They have given us some PPE, and recently they have started to give us some ear plugs. When they say they’re going to give us PPE, it needs to be fire safe. It’s not enough yet. It’s a band-aid. We need stuff that’s protective in the long run.” 

Over Zoom, Ocotlan showed In These Times how shards of fiberglass get stuck in his work clothes, leaving small holes in the fabric and making it possible for the shards to reach his skin. 

The workers have partnered with environmental justice organizations in order to pressure Kingspan to clean up the facility. An open letter signed by environmental groups in the Santa Ana area and nationwide states that ?“Kingspan is not an appropriate source for continuing education courses or sponsorships of events for the green building community, including those that touch on fire safety.” There are 45 signatories, led by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which brings together unions and union activists to fight for environmental justice. 

A coalition of environmental activists and workers is coalescing. Both Eufracio and Ocotlan told In These Times that most workers at this Kingspan facility live in Santa Ana, and mentioned that one coworker lives directly behind the facility. Ocotlan said workers are concerned not only for themselves but ?“for the kids and the elderly. The contamination is something you can’t see but we breathe every day, and causes a lot of pulmonary problems.” 

Ron Caudill, vice president of operations at Kingspan North America, told In These Times, ?“Kingspan has a long history of dedication to a safe working environment for all employees. In fact, as of today, it has been over 600 days since we had a lost time injury or illness, and we have never had an illness related to air quality.”

But workers at Kingspan are not only concerned with their own situation at work, or even at home: They’re also thinking of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. This past December, workers held a candlelight vigil in solidarity with a concurrent march in London to honor the 4.5 year anniversary of the fire. The British public inquiry into the fire found that Kingspan’s insulation product Kooltherm K15 was used in the cladding system on the Grenfell Tower. According to Kingspan, K15 only made up about 5% of the insulation layer of the system. But the U.K. government’s Grenfell Tower Inquiry unearthed a number of allegations concerning the company’s role in the fire, including the that workers kept secret the results of fire safety tests. Going forward, the government now demands that Kingspan and other insulation companies contribute a ?“significant portion” to the approximately £9 billion ($12 billion) in remediation costs.

Kingspan workers and victims of the Grenfell Tower fire are more than 5,000 miles apart, but they say they share a common interest: safety. Eufracio told In These Times, ?“We’re supporting Grenfell.” 

He added, ?“We want to avoid what happened there.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on 03/03/2022.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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5 Safety Tips To Remember When Managing A Construction Site

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One of the places where one cannot err on the side of caution is at a construction site. Danger looms around a construction site. Falls, hits from dropping items, the collapse of the edifice, and slipping off are all potential hazards of construction sites. Although unforeseen circumstances make it impossible to declare a construction site completely safe, there are still safety tips that will minimize the risk to the nearest minimum. Here are 5 tips to remember when managing a construction:

Note: These tips will include construction safety tips, their importance, and how to avoid injuries.

1. Personal protect equipment

Every personnel must have a PPE. Personal protective equipment will include:

  • Hard hat
  • Industrial boots
  • Gloves
  • Goggles
  • Mask

Hard hat  

Possible impact to the head due to falling objects obligates everyone at a construction site to put on hard hats. A hard hat is well reinforced to shield the head from fatal hits.

Industrial boots

Industrial boots protect the feet from sharp objects on a worksite. Additionally, industrial boots are designed to be non-slip to reduce slips and falls.

Gloves

Construction projects involve several fields. While the concrete and carpentry sections seem to need gloves to lift heavy objects, electricians also use insulated gloves to ensure safety. Tilt wall construction using an insulated concrete form(ICF) will require the use of gloves during installation as well as similar protective equipment.

Goggles

A pair of goggles is a protective gear worn to protect the eyes from debris while at work. It’s mandatory even for all workers to protect the eyes from sparks and other attendant hazardous materials present at a construction site.

Mask

A nose mask is essential to shield the noise from dust and debris in the construction of concrete based things like tilt-wall construction, drilling into bricks, flooring, etc.

2. Danger assessment and precautions

Managing a construction site requires a thorough assessment of the work area to spot danger zones and put safety measures in place. One such example is to fix fire extinguishers in strategic places to curb the spread of fire should it arise. For example, when fixing handrails along the stairs, the right safety guards must be in place to prevent accidents.

 Additionally, first aid must be available and easily accessible in the event of an emergency. This way, quick care can be administered before a transfer to a medical facility will suffice.

3. Appropriate use of equipment

Equipment must be used the right way, and for the purpose for which it was designed. For example, a ladder must be constantly checked to fix damages, and also importantly, it mustn’t carry more than the stipulated weight it can bear. Another instance is the use of proper hand gloves by electricians. Electricians do well to use insulated gloves only!

4. Remove dangers to reduce risks

All workers must be alert to their work areas. This enables everyone to spot hazards and get rid of them. For example, despite the use of handrails, spilled liquids should be promptly dried, ladders should always be dry, avoid overreaching for objects, and more. The eradication of risks from the work site makes it a safer place.

5. Proper spacing

Proper spacing is often overlooked at construction sites. Sadly, disregarding this often increases exposure to injuries which may be fatal at times. When a large machine is at work, only the personnel in charge should stand near. Others who are not part of the group should not become spectators amusing themselves with the view. Added to that, when a worker is busy with a large work tool, enough space is necessary to avoid risk; so, others should stay back.

All of the analyzed safety tips are essential to keep a construction site safe and prevent all forms of injuries that can hamper the wellbeing of workers or may result in death.

About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.


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This Amazon Grocery Runner Has Risked Her Job to Fight for Better Safety Measures

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This arti­cle is part of a series on Ama­zon work­ers pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

Courte­nay Brown spends her day mak­ing gro­cery runs for oth­ers in a foot­ball-field-sized maze of nar­row aisles and refrig­er­at­ed enclaves. At the Ama­zon Fresh unit in a Newark, New Jer­sey ful­fill­ment cen­ter, she works on the out­bound ship dock, help­ing direct the load­ing of trucks and send them off on local deliv­ery routes. Brown says that after near­ly three years at the e-tail empire, her job has been “hell.”

“Imag­ine a real­ly intense work­out, like you just got off of the tread­mill, no cool down, no noth­ing,” she describes one espe­cial­ly gru­el­ing day with a resigned laugh. “That’s how my legs felt.”

Ama­zon Fresh employ­ees often have to comb through huge stocks of var­i­ous chilled and frozen items, which means they need to wear full win­ter clothes to work. The stress and phys­i­cal exhaus­tion of the job tends to wear out many new hires with­in their first few days. “You don’t have that many that have last­ed here,” she says. “It’s so hard.”

With the pan­dem­ic keep­ing con­sumers indoors, Ama­zon gro­cery sales have rough­ly tripled in the sec­ond quar­ter over last year. The num­ber of deliv­ery trucks mov­ing in and out of the Newark ful­fill­ment cen­ter has jumped accordingly.

“Every day I come in, it’s just more and more and more and more,” Brown says. “Lit­er­al­ly every day we break the pre­vi­ous day’s record for the total num­ber of routes that went out for the entire day.”

“Once we get home [from work], the only thing we can do is show­er and dis­in­fect,” she con­tin­ues. “A lot of us [are] too exhaust­ed to eat. We pass out. Then we repeat the process the fol­low­ing day.” Some cowork­ers have end­ed up over­sleep­ing, she adds, and “end up miss­ing the whole day.”

For its part, an Ama­zon spokesper­son wrote in an email that while some jobs at Ama­zon Fresh are phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing, work­ers can choose less stren­u­ous labor.

“Imag­ine your stan­dard nor­mal super­mar­ket aisle, [then] cut that in half,” she observes. “You’re expect­ed to go through that aisle with oth­er peo­ple stock­ing the shelves, or clean­ing… it’s real­ly, real­ly, real­ly cramped.”

Ama­zon boasts mak­ing 150 oper­a­tional changes dur­ing the pan­dem­ic that include dis­trib­ut­ing mil­lions of masks at work­sites, adding thou­sands of jan­i­to­r­i­al staff, and rede­ploy­ing some per­son­nel to help enforce social dis­tanc­ing rules. While it has imple­ment­ed social-dis­tanc­ing rules, and even pro­vides an elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem to help keep work­ers sev­er­al feet apart on the ware­house floor, Brown says work spaces are still too crowd­ed: “It’s pret­ty much a show…Where I work on the ship dock, we’re all mashed up together.”

The tense atmos­phere has “def­i­nite­ly changed the rela­tion­ship” among work­ers, she con­tends. Her fel­low employ­ees were friend­lier before, but now “a lot of peo­ple snap at each oth­er a bit more.”

The threat of COVID-19 has only added to the psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den. “When the pan­dem­ic first start­ed, I remem­ber a lot of us were watch­ing the news,” Brown reflects. “I was talk­ing to man­agers and try­ing to get them [to lis­ten]. ‘Hey, you know, this is going on and we might want to start prepar­ing.’ And they [were] just [act­ing] like it [was] not that big of a deal. Peo­ple are dying, and it’s not that big of a deal?”

Although Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly enact­ed safe­ty mea­sures, Brown says she and her col­leagues spent “months com­plain­ing” about what they saw as sub­stan­dard pro­tec­tions, includ­ing inad­e­quate safe­ty gear and social-dis­tanc­ing mea­sures. An Ama­zon spokesper­son main­tains the com­pa­ny moved to pro­tect its work­ers at the out­set of the pan­dem­ic, and that masks were dis­trib­uted in ear­ly April.

But Brown bris­tles at the com­pa­ny’s claims, say­ing the response was slow and devoid of trans­paren­cy. Work­ers were espe­cial­ly upset, she recalls, when they received news of a COVID-19 infec­tion at their site two weeks after the indi­vid­ual had report­ed­ly tak­en ill.

Even­tu­al­ly, Brown con­nect­ed with oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers through an online peti­tion cir­cu­lat­ed by the advo­ca­cy net­work Unit­ed for Respect. Ear­li­er this year, she began work­ing with the Athena coali­tion to pres­sure Ama­zon to rein­state some work­er pro­tec­tions that were insti­tut­ed ear­li­er on in the pan­dem­ic and then dis­con­tin­ued. The work­ers are demand­ing the restora­tion of “haz­ard pay” for ful­fill­ment-cen­ter work­ers, as well as unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for those who opt to stay home to pro­tect their health. (Over the objec­tions of its work­force, Ama­zon end­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave and scrapped its $2 hourly “incen­tive” bonus in May.) The coali­tion is also push­ing for more trans­paren­cy in the report­ing of new cas­es, so man­age­ment will “actu­al­ly tell us the truth about the num­bers of peo­ple that are sick.”

In April, Brown par­tic­i­pat­ed in a media con­fer­ence call with Sen. Cory Book­er, D-N.J., to pro­mote an Essen­tial Work­ers Bill of Rights that would beef up health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, pro­vide child­care sup­port and uni­ver­sal paid leave poli­cies, and pro­tect whistle­blow­ers. More recent­ly, she was fea­tured in a New York Times video about the work­ing con­di­tions at Ama­zon. She claims her pub­lic cam­paign­ing has drawn the ire of management.

“I’m harassed every day, all day,” she says. One safe­ty super­vi­sor in par­tic­u­lar is “just watch­ing” to see if she vio­lates the company’s social-dis­tanc­ing rules.

Brown recalls a recent inci­dent in which she was speak­ing casu­al­ly with some co-work­ers about safe­ty issues when the super­vi­sor inter­vened, shout­ing at them to keep six feet apart. Although they were all main­tain­ing their dis­tance, she says, “he [yelled], ‘you’re in a group!’” They answered, “Yeah, but we’re all six feet apart from each oth­er with our masks on.” But she says the man­ag­er nonethe­less threat­ened to write them up and warned they could be terminated.

Ama­zon has stat­ed that it oppos­es retal­i­a­tion against employ­ees who voice their con­cerns about work­ing con­di­tions. But like oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers, Brown believes her treat­ment reflects a broad­er cam­paign aimed at dis­suad­ing employ­ees from organizing.

“What they’ll do is they’ll find an indi­vid­ual, and they’ll kind of make an exam­ple of you. And that scares every­body else,” she says. Her obser­va­tions are affirmed by a recent Open Mar­kets Insti­tute report that finds that Ama­zon has used sophis­ti­cat­ed work­place sur­veil­lance tac­tics to intim­i­date and sup­press work­ers who seek to union­ize or chal­lenge the company’s labor practices.

Brown, mean­while, is ded­i­cat­ed to improv­ing her work­place. This is not the first time she has faced hos­tile cir­cum­stances, both inside the Ama­zon ware­house and out. For a stretch in 2018, she had to live in a motel with her sis­ter, who also works at Ama­zon, because the two could not secure a rental apart­ment with the wages they were earn­ing deliv­er­ing food for the cor­po­rate behe­moth. “We were lit­er­al­ly starv­ing,” she says. “We weren’t mak­ing enough to be able to pay for the room, eat, and make it to and from work.”

Ama­zon has denied charges of employ­ee sur­veil­lance, dis­miss­ing the Open Mar­kets Insti­tute as “a peren­ni­al crit­ic that will­ful­ly ignores” the com­pa­ny’s record of cre­at­ing jobs with “indus­try lead­ing wages and ben­e­fits.” The com­pa­ny claims that it does eval­u­ate work­ers’ per­for­mance “over a long peri­od of time,” and pro­vides under-per­form­ing work­ers with “ded­i­cat­ed coach­ing to help them improve.”

Giv­en the dan­gers of speak­ing out, Brown some­times won­ders if she might end up home­less again. But she’s less fear­ful about los­ing her job than she is about the health haz­ards she faces every day as she fights to hold her employ­er account­able. “It’s real­ly ter­ri­fy­ing,” she says, “but if I don’t do this, then I could poten­tial­ly get sick and die.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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How Worker Safety Starts With Facilities Construction And Intelligent Design

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Worker safety is a top concern for facilities everywhere. While safety training and precautions can go a long way towards ensuring workers’ safety, safety really begins with a facility’s initial design and construction.  

If a facility is haphazardly designed, no amount of safety training can combat that. But what sort of design decisions make a work environment safer than another? In today’s work environment, workers regularly have to battle a wide range of various issues. 

From air pollution to privacy concerns, to mental health and traditional OSHA standard safety hazards, today’s workforce is fraught with dangers. While there’s no way to eliminate risks completely, there’s a lot we can do to mitigate them. 

It all starts with being proactive from the beginning. Using intelligent design, forward-thinking, and new materials, it’s possible to construct facilities that are aesthetically appealing, cost-effective, and safe. 

Let’s look at three areas where material, construction, and design choices can significantly impact workers’ safety. 

While glass doesn’t seem like the most pertinent part of a building’s construction, in many commercial offices, warehouses, and other structures, glass is a prevalent material. It’s a material, that if improperly handled during construction or underthought during planning, can present many safety hazards. 

Just at face value, broken glass presents physical hazards. Broken glass can be contaminated with chemicals. Plus, cuts and blood can promote the spread of infectious diseases. Anyone who has to handle broken glass should do so with gloves and take appropriate precautions. 

However, we’re talking about prevention. The best way to avoid broken glass is to design and purchase high-quality glass from the beginning. Don’t cut corners with cheaper glass for windows, dividers, and décor. 

But glass also prevents other safety hazards. Many office buildings use glass in their offices as walls. While it makes the building feel nice and open, it unfortunately eliminates privacy. Privacy, especially when dealing with personal information, is a worker safety concern. With thoughtful design, you can use things like Avanti glass office wall partitions, to ensure a high level of privacy for sensitive matters. 

Window Safety

While many things that we’ve said about glass can translate to windows, the windows deserve a section all on their own. Windows need to be correctly installed, because improperly installed windows can lead to some disastrous safety concerns. This is especially true with windows on the upper floors. 

However, windows are also crucial for bringing in natural light. It’s well-documented that one of the most significant hazards facing the modern-day worker is mental health safety. 83% of US workers suffer from stress-related to work. More shockingly, stress causes $190 billion in yearly healthcare costs and results in 120,000 deaths per year. 

It’s imperative to understand mental health’s impact on worker safety. One way to mitigate those risks is with wide-open windows. Studies show that natural light decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. So, it’s critical to design a building with plenty of windows for natural light. 

Additionally, windows are a prime area for air pollution to sneak into any facility. To mitigate these risks, it’s essential to design a building with something like AMC’s industrial louvers, which help to block air pollution. Louvers also help to dissuade direct sunlight. So, workers don’t have to worry about blinding sunlight to reap the benefits of some natural rays. 

Floor Drainage Safety 

You might be alarmed to know that 26% of nonfatal injuries in the workplace are because of a slip, trip, or fall. In fact, in 2016, falls caused 702 workplace deaths. While some of the issues were training issues or faulty machinery, some injuries are a direct result of standing water and slippery surfaces. 

These injuries could be avoided by proper planning in the construction phase. Namely, by incorporating proper drains and using flooring materials that prevent slips, a facility can be dramatically safer. For instance, having a driveway drainage system installed, like the one by SlotDrain, not only keeps your facilities driveway safe, it prevents erosion, foundation damage, and structural damage.

But, don’t stop with outdoor drainage systems, from the beginning of the design phase, if it’s appropriate, consider having drains inside the building, too. It’s also crucial to choose a non-slip flooring to maximize worker safety. 

Additionally, when it comes to drains, it’s imperative to keep them maintained and cleaned. Otherwise, you’ll run into a whole new slew of issues surrounding workers’ safety. 

Think Ahead to Prevent Worker Injury 

Everyone wants their facility to be a safe one. Whether you’re looking to design your facility, or you specialize in facility design, these three areas are fantastic starting points to get your brain thinking about worker safety from the beginning. Safety should be a preventative measure, not as a reactionary one. 

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the home building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.


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Fire Departments, Airports and Military Bases May Be More Toxic to Workers Than You Think

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elizabeth grossmanDrinking water supplies for at least six million Americans contain toxic industrial chemicals at levels that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommended safety limit. This number is likely an underestimate since the information available through the EPA does not include data for about one-third of Americans—those 100 million or more people who rely on private wells or the vast majority of public water systems that serve communities with populations of 10,000 or less. These are the conclusions of a new study whose authors include scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the University of California at Berkeley and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The study “is just showing us the tip of the iceberg,” says author Philippe Grandjean, Harvard T.H. Chan adjunct professor of environmental health and University of Southern Denmark professor of environmental medicine. What also remains largely undocumented is the extent of exposure to workers on the frontline of this chemical use.

While industrial sites were previously recognized as sources of these highly fluorinated, toxic and environmentally-persistent compounds, this is the first nationwide study to document that wastewater treatment plants, along with military bases and airports where these chemicals are used in fire-fighting foams, are also contributing significantly to drinking water contamination. The study reports groundwater and surface water near some of these bases and airports with concentrations of these chemicals 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory level for drinking water.

While the EPA’s May 2016 fact sheet says, “Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility for example, an industrial facility where these chemicals were produced or used to manufacture other products or an airfield at which they were used for fire fighting,” the new study shows the contamination is much more widespread. The study’s findings suggest that not only are far more people potentially exposed through drinking water than previously thought, but that the military bases and airports where these fluorinated foams are used may be hotspots of exposure. This means that in addition to runoff from these sites, exposure to those working with these foams may be a health concern, as suggested by recent testing that showed firefighters to have elevated blood levels of fluorinated compounds.

What are PFAS?

These synthetic chemicals (they don’t occur naturally) known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are used in waterproofing, stain and grease-resistant and non-stick coatings. They’re used in clothing, furniture, carpets, paints and food packaging, among other products. They are also used in plastics and computer chip manufacturing, and in the fire-fighting foams used in military trainings and at airports. These compounds have been so widely used over the past 60 years that theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found these chemicals in the blood of more than 97 percent of the Americans tested. These chemicals have also been found in newborns’ umbilical cord blood, an indication of prenatal exposure.

Given the well-recognized potential environmental and health hazards of PFAS and widespread exposure, the EPA has recently lowered its drinking water health advisory limit for PFAS.  But this is a guideline, not an enforceable standard. The six PFAS compounds that the EPA is now monitoring in drinking water standards are part of the agency’s Unregulated Contaminated Monitoring Rule program. This requires participating public water systems to monitor for certain contaminants and report on their presence. But it doesn’t require public water systems to ensure that the health advisory levels aren’t exceeded.

“Most wastewater treatment plants don’t remove these compounds,” explains study author Cindy Hu, doctoral candidate in environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“We’re concerned about these chemicals because they’ve been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects. And drinking water can be an important source of exposure,” says Hu.

Various PFAS have been linked to certain cancers, elevated cholesterol, immune suppression, obesity, low birth weight, reproductive system problems and hormone disruption. Levels of PFAS found in the environment have also been linked tosuppressed immune systems in children.

“These compounds are incredibly stable, so they can leach into the groundwater over many years and they stay there,” says Grandjean.

“Their half life is on the order of several years,” explained study co-author Laurel Schaider, research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute. “If you stopped being exposed, it would take a couple of years to reduce levels in your body by half,” said Schaider.

For this reason, says Grandjean, “Even the small contributions”–or exposures–“are what we worry about.”

Even though the EPA recently lowered what it considers a safe limit in drinking water, Grandjean worries that this level is not sufficiently protective.

“Unfortunately, I have to say, the EPA water limits are way, way too high,” he says. The concern is the large “number of people that are exposed to levels that we can see are associated with adverse effects on the immune system and carry risks of miscarriage,” he explains. These are, he says, “levels that we’re not protecting people against.”

Workers on the frontline

The fact that so people are likely exposed to PFAS through drinking water at levels of concern to scientists raises additional concerns for people–like firefighters– regularly exposed on the job.

Existing studies examining firefighters for the presence of perfluorinated compounds in their blood have shown elevated exposure after responding to fires. A study of California firefighters found such levels to be three times higher than that of American men tested by the CDC. That these compounds persist in the body and can produce adverse effects at low levels makes cumulative exposures a concern. For female firefighters there’s the additional concern that these chemicals can be passed on to a fetus or infant.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, there are about 19,299 airports in the United States, a number that includes both military and civilian airports. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are an estimated 137,300 U.S. workers employed in aircraft maintenance. But, to date, beyond the studies looking at blood concentrations of PFAS in firefighters, the limited occupational exposure studies for PFAS have largely been of workers at plants that manufacture these chemicals. And most such studies have been conducted or commissioned by companies producing the chemicals. Some ofthese studies have linked exposure to high blood cholesterol. Others have found links between exposure and some increased risk of prostate cancer. But overall, the industry-commissioned studies say there is not yet sufficient evidence to establish a causal link between PFAS exposure and adverse human health effects.

Yet, says Schaider, the studies that might begin to link PFAS exposure to specific health outcomes in fire fighters and others using these foams haven’t been done. Some are now just getting underway, through the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is examining impacts of these fire-fighting foams on women fire fighters. But she says, “Unfortunately, I don’t think this has been addressed yet.”

And while there is ample documentation of “highly polluted water” at airports and military bases where PFAS are used, “epidemiological data on the military is hard to come by,” says study author Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

The solution? For one, says Blum, “The military needs to needs to investigate alternative fire-fighting foams that don’t contain any highly fluorinated compounds.”

“My key message,” says Grandjean, is that because these chemicals “are so persistent and we are discovering more and more effects at lower doses, we need to vigorously reduce these exposures.” And, he says, for people “who’ve been exposed over a long time, exposures should get as close to zero as possible.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on August 11, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American,Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

 


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This New Rule Will Make Information About On-the-Job Injuries at Dangerous Workplaces Public

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elizabeth grossmanMore than 3 million U.S. workers suffer a workplace injury or illness every year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—numbers that are thought to be significantly underreported. But astonishingly, little or no information about at which workplaces these occur is made available to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency responsible for enforcing U.S. workplace safety. Neither is this information made public.

But under a new rule OSHA has just announced, employers in “high-hazard” industries will have to send this information directly to OSHA for posting on the agencies website. The rule also includes provisions to protect workers who report job-related injuries and illnesses from employer retaliation.

“Most people don’t realize that many employers don’t send this information to OSHA,” explained David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, on a call with reporters. “Just as public disclosure of their kitchens’ sanitary conditions encourages restaurant owners to improve food safety, OSHA expects that public disclosure of work injury data will encourage employers to increase their efforts to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses,” said Michaels. “High injury rates are a sign of poor management.”

The new rule will also “help workers choose safer workplaces,” Michaels explained. “If you are looking for a new job, would you want to work at an establishment where you have a high likelihood of being injured?”

“More attention to safety will save life and limbs,” he added.

The rule, which has been several years in the making, was greeted with enthusiasm by labor advocates. “The new OSHA recordkeeping rule,” said National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) acting executive Director Jessica Martinez in a statement, “is an important step towards transparency. By requiring electronic submissions every quarter and making the data public, this common-sense regulation will help us learn more about how workers are hurt and become sick on the job.”

In his statement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said, “We are pleased that the new rules also include important protections to ensure that workers can report injuries without fear of retaliation. For far too long, in an effort to keep reported injury rates low, employers have retaliated against workers for reporting injuries, disciplining them for every injury or creating barriers to reporting.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, called the rule “misguided,” saying “the agency’s excessive reporting requirements will lead to employers being falsely branded as unsafe and will not reflect a company’s commitment to maintaining a safe workplace.” The new requirements, said the National Association of Manufacturers, “could lead to public shaming.” Both business groups said the rule would create burdens for employers and expressed concern that it would lead to the release of proprietary information.

What does the rule require?

In fact the new rule does not require employers to collect additional information. Rather, it requires employers—only in what OSHA considers the most dangerous industries – to send OSHA information they’re already required to collect. These industries include agriculture, construction, forestry, hospitals, manufacturing that includes oil, gas and chemical plants as well as and food processing, and trucking.

“It does not add to or change employers’ obligations,” said Michaels.

As for the concern about the release of confidential data, Michaels explained that “before OSHA posts any information, it will remove any personal information.”

The rule, which becomes effective on August 10, will be phased in over the next two years with its first reporting due to OSHA in July 2017. Reporting requirements vary slightly depending on workplace size, but the rule will apply to all employers, except for those with less than twenty employees.

Having workplace injury and illness information reported directly to OSHA will help the agency “improve safety without additional inspections,” said Michaels. This data will help OSHA better “target” its limited enforcement resources, he explained.

Currently, OSHA has about 2,200 inspectors—some of these through state agencies—that are responsible for some 130 million workers at more than 8 million workplaces across the country. That means that there’s about one OSHA inspector for every 60,000 workers. The information OSHA gets about workplace injuries and illnesses under the new rule will help point OSHA toward where workers are most at risk.

For example, “We looked at the variation in injury rates in the same industry [but] in different establishments in the same city and found huge variations,” Michaels explained on a call with In These Times. In one North Carolina city, OSHA found that workers at one nursing home had a 1 in 45 chance of injury but a 1 in 9 chance of being injured at another, he explained. “We’re really trying to stress that workers have a right to know this. We think publication of this record will make employers work hard to improve,” said Michaels.

Protection against retaliation

While workers already have the right to report job-related injuries and illnesses, they are often discouraged from doing so—particularly at workplaces without union or other such representation. Under the new rule, retaliating against a worker for reporting a workplace injury or illness would be a violation of OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements, eliminating some potential complications for workers and for OSHA in responding to retaliation.

“We have workers who reported an injury and then were fired. This happens a lot,” explained Massachusetts Coalition for Safety and Health (MassCOSH) executive director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb. There’s also the issue of workers who fear for their immigration status if they take full advantage of their rights and speak out about injuries, she added.

Retaliation can also take the form of blaming the worker for the injury, United Steelworkers director of health, safety and environment Mike Wright explained. Michaels explained there were cases where injured workers were cited for “lack of situational awareness.”

Goldstein-Gelb and Wright both said the new rule would enable OSHA to take more protective action with fewer reporting complications for workers. Previously, retaliation cases could “only be handled as retaliation” cases, said Wright. “Now we can challenge this directly,” as a reporting violation, he said. In theory, the new rule should also make it easier for workers without union representation to report retaliation.

Retaliation against injury reporting “is widespread in the poultry industry,” says Oliver Gottfried, Oxfam America senior advocacy and collaborations advisor in a statement. “Poultry companies,” he explains, “use a variety of measures to deliberately avoid reporting injuries on their logs.” He welcomes the new rule but says it alone won’t “address the problem of widespread underreporting of injuries.”

Discouraging programs that discourage reporting

While the new rule doesn’t address such programs directly, OSHA says it should also help discourage are programs many employers have had that actively reward workers for not reporting job-related injuries and illnesses. According to examples provided by OSHA, these have included programs that put extra money in workers paychecks or given them gift cards and t-shirts for going certain number of days without reported injuries. One such program included drawings for flat-screen TVs. Another was described as “safety bingo” with monetary prizes.

Such programs have also been designed so that workers discourage each other from reporting injuries as the whole workplace loses out on rewards for injuries reported. Wright tells a story of a workplace where a worker was intimidated by co-workers who didn’t want to lose out on one of these programs so did not report slipping, falling and breaking his arm—only to have another co-worker later slip in the same place and suffer a head injury.

Eliminating fear of reporting and enabling OSHA to enforce non-reporting under this new rule could undercut such programs.

“The value of having this information is just enormous. Companies hate to have that dirty laundry aired,” says Wright. He explains that simply requiring companies to report adverse outcomes—as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did with polluters in the 1980s—has a big impact. “Just the fact that companies can’t hide this stuff,” could make an important different, he says. And Wright adds, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.


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U.S. To Increase Worker Protection From Deadly Silica Dust for First Time in More Than 40 Years

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elizabeth grossmanFor the first time in 45 years, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is poised to increase safety standards for worker exposure to the silica dust that can cause deadly and incurable lung disease. A rule that would cut in half the amount of silica dust to which most workers could be exposed—and limit levels further for construction and maritime workers—is expected to be finalized in February.

The industries that must comply with the new rule hoped to derail the new standard, including with an amendment to the 2016 federal spending bill that would have prevented any spending to implement the new rules and required more study of silica’s health effects. While in the bill up to the eleventh hour, this rider has been dropped from the budget released late Tuesday that is expected to be voted on later this week.

According to OSHA, silica exposure is a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 whose jobs involve stone cutting, rock drilling and blasting and foundry work. Workers installing and manufacturing countertops are also at risk, along with those at hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—sites where industrial sand is used in oil and gas extraction and has been found to expose workers excessively. OSHA estimates that the new safety limits will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. OSHA also estimates that when fully implemented, the rule would result in annual financial benefits of $2.8 to $4.7 billion, benefits that far exceed the rule’s annual costs.

“It’s often been said it’s a disease that’s been known since antiquity. The fact that silica causes cancer is more recent information,” Mike Wright, United Steelworkers director of health and safety, tells In These Times. “There’s no question the new standard would save lives. The longer it takes to get into place, the more people are exposed,” says Wright.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has considered crystalline silica—particles small enough to inhale—a human lung carcinogen since 1997. The U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens classified respirable silica as a known human carcinogen in 2000. In addition to lung cancer, inhaled silica dust can cause silicosis, a serious, incurable and potentially fatal lung disease. In the lungs, silica dust can scar lung tissue and reduce lungs’ ability to process oxygen and increase susceptibility to other lung diseases, including tuberculosis.

OSHA’s existing silica standard, what’s known as a permissible exposure level, has not been updated since the agency was established. The Department of Labor’s concern about these exposures goes back to the 1930s when Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins sounded the alarm about silicosis’ toll on American workers. The new rule, which would cut most workers’ permissible exposure levels to 50 micrograms per cubic meter over the course of an 8-hour workday from the currently allowed 100, was proposed in 2013. It followed reviews begun in 2003 by both the Department of Labor and Small Business Administration. Now, after public comment periods and meetings with industry and labor groups, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is ready to finalize the rule.

Blocking the new standard?

Despite this long history, support from the Department of Labor and research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showing ongoing adverse affects of silica, industry groups mounted vigorous opposition to the new safety standard. An amendment or rider to what’s known as the omnibus spending bill—the legislation that will fund the federal government’s 2016 budget—was introduced by Senator John Hoeven (R-North Dakota). (North Dakota is among the states with the most fracking sites.) It would have stopped the Department of Labor from spending any money to implement the new silica rule and, among other measures, called for a new study by the National Academy of Sciences to justify the reduced exposure level.

“The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA’s) proposal to reduce the current exposure limit is not supported by sound science and will create a tremendous financial burden for many industrial sectors,” said the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association in a statement posted to its website.

The association is among the industry groups and companies that have lobbied the White House on this issue, trying to persuade the administration that existing regulations are sufficient and that more stringent standards would be burdensome to business. Between March 2011 and 2014, OMB meeting records show 11 meetings about occupational exposure to crystalline silica. All but one were with industry groups.

In an emailed statement, Sen. Hoeven’s office explained that the amendment “would not only ensure that the latest science is used by OSHA, but also that the agency conducts a long-overdue study of the impact of current silica regulations on small businesses,” noting that the most recent Small Business Administration report on silica was completed in 2003 and that silica-related deaths dropped 93 percent between 1968 and 2007.

But as NIOSH itself has written:

There are no surveillance data in the U.S. that permit us to estimate accurately the number of individuals with silicosis. The true extent of the problem is probably greater than indicated by available data. Undercounting of silicosis occurs because there are no national medical monitoring surveillance programs, and there can be a failure to diagnose silicosis or record it as a cause of death on a death certificate. Silicosis often presents long after workers have left causative jobs. Such cases may not be detected in Bureau of Labor statistics as occupational disease and will not be detected if disease presents after retirement.

“We’re talking about people’s lives,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy. “What gets lost in so many of these discussions is that this is fundamentally about public health and safety protections that are genuinely in the public interest. They’re not going to be done by businesses on their own,” says Rosenberg.

“If you wait for this kind of evidence people will be dead,” he noted of one of the rider’s requirements.

But, says National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health acting executive director Jessica Martinez, striking a note of hope via email, “Given the overwhelming evidence about the hazards of silica, we are hopeful that the final budget agreed to by the White House and Congress will not interfere with OSHA’s scientifically sound, economically practical new silica standard.” Her wish was realized in the budget bill agreement reached last night that dropped the rider.

Additional riders’ impact on public and occupational health

But this is not the only amendment attached to the budget bill that would affect public and occupational health. Among the riders that would prevent environmental protections from being advanced is one that could keep scientists who receive federal research grants from serving on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science advisory boards. This could, for example, exclude scientists whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Another budget provision could add additional delays to regulation of harmful chemicals by requiring EPA to replicate science studies submitted as part of chemical assessments.

Both of these riders essentially replicate bills introduced last year by House Republicans that the OMB recommended the president veto. While on the surface both sound reasonable, close reading shows they could easily result in achieving the opposite of what they claim to. Versions of both appear to remain in the budget bill that will go to the full House for a vote.

“The SAB rider,” explains UCS’s Rosenberg, “tips the scale even further in the direction of industry by twisting the concept of conflict of interest on its head. It says that academics who get money from government grants have a conflict but industry-supported scientists don’t.”

And as the Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Daniel Rosenberg explains further via email, “The rider attempts to hold EPA hostage by halting all Science Advisory Board activities until EPA changes its policies”—and has these changes vetted by a Government Accountability Office report. Both riders could affect all future chemical regulation and how federal occupational protection standards are set.

So what’s likely to happen?

“We’re all hoping for a ‘clean’ budget bill,” said Wright earlier this week. The bill that emerged Tuesday night is not exactly ‘clean,’ and how these riders play out, assuming the bill passes in the form currently available, remains to be seen. According to The Hill, the House is expected to pass an additional stop-gap spending measure today, to keep the government funded through December 22nd with a vote on the $1.1 trillion budget bill anticipated on Friday of this week.

But when it comes to silica, “Millions of workers will breathe easier,” says Martinez, “if this important new rule goes into effect as planned this coming February.”

About the Author: The author’s name is Elizabeth Grossman. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on December 16, 2015. Reprinted with permission.


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Remembering Day Davis – and Standing Up for Temp Workers

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COSH-networkAt 3 p.m. on August 16, 2012, Duquan “Day” Davis reported to work at a Bacardi bottling plant in Jacksonville, Florida. It was his first day on the job, on assignment for Remedy Intelligent Staffing, a temporary employment agency. For Davis, 21, a recent graduate of the federal Job Corps program, the temp job at Bacardi was his first job ever.

Less than two hours after showing up for his first shift, Davis was dead. The young worker had been sent to clean out broken bottles that were clogging a palletizer. While he was out of sight, the machine was started up again, crushing him to death.

In Feb. 2013, OSHA cited Bacardi for 12 safety violations and proposed $192,000 in fines against the company, finding that the firm had not trained temporary employees – or its full-time employees – on the lock out and tag out procedure that could have prevented the start-up of the machine that killed Davis. “A worker’s first day at work shouldn’t be his last day on earth,” said Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health.

The fine against Bacardi was later reduced to $110,000. Remedy Intelligent Staffing – Davis’ actual employer – was never cited. The temp firm is part of the Select Family of Staffing Companies, America’s fourth-largest industrial temp agency, with $1.9 billion in revenue in 2012.

Davis’ story – and the heartbreak felt by the family and fiancée he left behind – is hauntingly told in the independent documentary “A Day’s Work.” The film was produced by David DeSario, himself a former temp worker. It features Barbara Rahke, executive director of PhilaPOSH and board chair of National COSH, and was screened at the National Conference on Worker Safety and Health in June of this year.

“A Day’s Work” is gaining attention at film festivals and from labor and safety audiences in cities across the country.  You can see the documentary at upcoming screenings  in Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, and Washington DC.

This year, some 14 million Americans will work on assignment to a temporary agency. Three years after Davis’ tragic death, only a few states have laws on the books that offer protections for temporary workers, among them Massachusetts and California.

  • In 2012, after successful lobbying by MassCOSH and other groups, Massachusetts passed the Temp Workers Right to Know Law. It requires agencies to key details of job assignments, in writing, to temp workers.
  • In 2014, following a push by WorkSafe, SoCalCOSH and other advocacy groups, the California legislature passed a law will requiring host employers and their staffing firms to take joint responsibility for the health, safety, and rights of temporary employees.

Too often, temp agencies and host employers still try to pass off responsibility for proper safety procedures. The host company says: “They’re not our employees.” The temp agency says, “It’s not our workplace.” As a result, workers fall through the cracks. A review of data in five states by the investigative news website ProPublica found that temps are 36 to 72 percent more likely to get injured at work than full-time employees.

That’s why safety advocates are calling for national standards. Recommendations from National COSH, the National Staffing Workers Alliance and the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association include:

  • A clear definition of responsibilities of host employers and temporary staffing agencies in complying with the health and safety laws
  • A written policy specifying health and safety training requirements for temporary staffing agencies
  • Increased and better tracking of injury and illnesses for temps
  • Improved protocols when OSHA investigates incidents involving temporary employees.

For more information on temp workers, see the National COSH Campaigns page.

Also, check out upcoming screenings of “A Day’s Work” in Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, and Washington DC.  To schedule a screening of “A Day’s Work” in your community, contact: TempEmployees@gmail.com

This blog originally appeared at Coshnetwork.org on August 13, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. “Preventable Deaths 2015,” a National COSH report, describes workplace fatalities in the United States and how they can be prevented. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.


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