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A Victory for Silica Dust Exposed Workers?

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Mike ElkToday, after a much-criticized delay on issuing a rule to limit workers’ exposure to cancer-causing silica dust, the Obama administration put forward a proposed rule for public consideration. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that once the rule is in effect, it could save 700 lives a year and prevent nearly 1,600 cases of silicosis annually.

In an OSHA press release, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, commented, “Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential. Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”

Workplace safety advocates applauded the decision. In a press release issued by the non-profit National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, executive director Tom O’Conner noted that workers who are most exposed to silica tend to be those least able to advocate for themselves.

“Low-wage immigrant workers and temporary workers are disproportionally represented in the industries with silica exposure—and are the most vulnerable to retaliation should they report potential hazards, injuries or illnesses,” O’Conner said. “This new rule will help to pull them out of the shadows and make them safer at work. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, deserves a safe workplace.”

However, some in organized labor say the fight to enact the rule has just begun, as it will have to undergo a public comment period before it is issued. In his response to the news of the rule, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka cautioned:

But this rule is only a proposal–workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued.  Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks. The AFL-CIO will do everything we can to see that does not happen. We urge the Obama administration to continue moving forward with the public rule-making process without delay. The final silica rule should be issued as fast as humanly possible, to protect the health and lives of American workers.

This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on August 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.  

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.


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28-Year Inspection Gap at Deadly Texas Fertilizer Plant ‘Stunning Indictment’ of OSHA’s Underfunding

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Image: Mike HallThe West, Texas, fertilizer plant, where a fire and explosion last week claimed at least 14 lives—including 11 firefighters and EMTs—and injured more than 200, was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985.

In 2011, the West Fertilizer Co. filed an emergency response plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said there was no risk of fire or explosion, despite the fact that as much as 54,000 pounds of flammable and toxic anhydrous ammonia could be stored on the site.

While the plant reported that it was storing up to 270 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to state authorities—Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh needed just two tons to blow up the federal building and kill 168 people—it did not report that fact to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In addition, several other federal and state agencies had pieces of the regulatory responsibility to protect the workers and community. The plant was surrounded by homes, a senior citizen housing project and a nearby school. But as Bryce Covert of Think Progress writes:

Many of these agencies have previously cited and/or fined the company. But they aren’t required to coordinate with each other, and small distributors like the one that exploded are part of a system that focuses more on larger plants.

While those state and federal agencies may inspect certain segments of a plant’s operations—emissions, for example—OSHA is the agency with the broadest mandate and authority to inspect a plant’s entire operations, enforce safety and health laws and, if need be, shut it down. But as the 2012 AFL-CIO report Death on the Job notes, OSHA is so understaffed and underfunded that federal inspectors can inspect each workplace on average of one each 131 years.

There are some 2,200 OSHA inspectors for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the past fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to Death on the Job.

In addition, says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, the West Fertilizer plant had just seven employees and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA.”

What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.

BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster calls the 35-year gap, since the last inspection at the West Fertilizer plant, “a stunning indictment” of OSHA’s underfunding.

While the Obama administration has increased funding for OSHA after nearly a decade of cuts under the Bush administration, the Republican sequester now in place “means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen.

Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy—and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect—has grown tremendously.

Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says, “This tragic explosion points to the need for more resources allocated to OSHA.”

With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites— like this fertilizer manufacturing plant—can be inspected and hazards abated.

But while workplace safety advocates have pushed for stronger health and safety standards—including chemical safety standards for facilities such as West Fertilizer, Covert writes:

Even with all of the evidence that the plant fell through a variety of regulatory cracks, an industry-backed bill with ties to the Koch brothers with the support of 11 congressmen would reduce the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.

For a more detailed look at the regulatory history of the West Fertilizer plant, see this Huffington Post report by Chris Kirkham and Ben Hallman.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 23, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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How the Poultry Industry is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

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Michelle ChenWalk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

“I shouldn’t say it’s work-related. If I say my pain comes from something I did at work, then I will be laid off without pay and three days later get fired. So, when I go to the nurse I tell her that I hurt my hands at home.”

In towns that lack decent job opportunities outside of the poultry industry, these workers face an oppressive workplace culture that undermines not only their health but their dignity. Workers reported “being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”

Conditions may soon worsen, the SPLC notes, because the Department of Agriculture is seeking to alter regulations to allow even faster line speeds. That means the already frenzied pace of production–whipping bird carcasses into hermetically sealed flesh pellets in a matter of seconds–might speed up even more under a controversial set of proposed changes to plant inspection protocols.

The planned reforms have been criticized as counterproductive because they transfer control of inspections from federal inspectors to company employees. The revamped inspection process would, according to critics, both give corporations more power to regulate their own henhouse while accelerating the already frighteningly hectic pace of production. Some USDA inspectors have criticized the proposal, warning that with the combination of sped-up lines and company-controlled oversight, these industry-backed efforts to “modernize” the production chain may create more safety risks. So safety standards for both consumers and workers might be further weakened. (Industry representatives dispute the SPLC’s research, insisting that the proposal would not harm safety standards.)

Underlying labor injustices have exacerbated the immediate workplace hazards. The mostly black and Latino workforce, which includes many documented and undocumented immigrants, generally have little recourse against abusive employers. Many saw their pay arbitrarily cut by deductions for housing expenses and other fees. Meanwhile, for female workers, sexual harassment was a commonly reported issue. Harsh immigration enforcement laws, which were recently tightened by state legislation that seeks to further criminalize undocumented Latino workers, has made them even more economically insecure and socially marginalized.

One structural problem making poultry workers especially vulnerable, the researchers argue, is that despite some general occupational safety guidelines for poultry plants, OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers,” which constrains workers’ ability to take legal action against unsafe working conditions or unfair treatment.

The report’s author, SPLC advocate Tom Fritzsche, says that while OSHA can enforce general workplace protections, regulatory gaps nonetheless enable the industry to structure its labor system around loophole-ridden standards for food production, which are not focused on worker safety. “This specific [line speed] rule from USDA is not really intended originally as a worker protection standard… The speed that they currently run at is based more on whether the inspectors can see the chickens, rather than how the workers can do the work safely,” he says. As a result of these regulatory lapses, “We’ve kind of ended up in a world where this is the only limit on speeds.”

Until state and federal regulators start prioritizing workers’ labor rights and health needs, the unsafe work environment, Fritzsche adds, “ultimately comes from the fact that the whole industry is just operating in this kind of race to produce as many chickens as they can in as little amount of time as they can. And so it affects every aspect of the worker’s job.”

But all those bitter hardships are stowed far away from the millions of super-clean, ultra-cheap drumsticks that will end up on American dinner tables tonight. Countless consumers will enjoy their meals without any conception of how perfectly the poultry industry masks the true price of its brutal efficiency.

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 21, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.


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What Wal-Mart and Lance Armstrong Have in Common

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Leo GerardOddly, the top international cyclist—Lance Armstrong—and the top international retailer—Wal-Mart—revealed last week that they have much in common.

No, not doping. 

It’s their dopey concept of the atonement process.

Armstrong, already punished for misdeeds he’d denied, took to television on Thursday to finally confess. But he didn’t apologize. He didn’t follow the redemption steps: admission and regret; a pledge to reform and a plea for forgiveness, then penance. Wal-Mart didn’t follow those steps either. Its CEO made national news last week when he announced the retail giant would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and buy $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10. But Wal-Mart has never admitted wrongdoing or expressed remorse.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But, like Armstrong’s admission, Wal-Mart’s announcement was met with skepticism because the retailer skipped atonement steps. Meaningless to the economy, The Atlantic wrote of the Wal-Mart promise. “A public relations stunt,” Time wrote.

Wal-Mart has much for which to atone. There is, for example, its leadership in blocking an effort to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh, where 112 workers would later die in a fire; its serial bribing of Mexican officials to circumvent regulations, and its snubbing of American warehouse laborers who are seeking better working conditions.

Let’s start in Bangladesh. There, Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion in garments each year. The lure is the lowest garment factory wages in the world—$37 a month. But that’s not enough. Wal-Mart and other garment purchasers demand such low prices from Bangladesh factories that managers cut costs in ways that endanger workers.

After two Bangladesh factory fires in 2010 killed 50 workers, labor leaders, manufacturers, government officials and retailers like Wal-Mart met in the Bangladesh capital. A New York Times investigation found that Wal-Mart was instrumental in blocking a plan proposed at that April 2011 meeting for Western retailers to finance fire safety improvements.

Just a little over 18 months later, 112 garment workers died in a horrific fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where inspections repeatedly had revealed serious fire hazards. The New York Times found that during those 18 months, six Wal-Mart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory. In fact, in the two months before the fire, the Times found that 55 percent of Tazreen factory production was devoted to Wal-Mart suppliers.

 A month after the fatal fire, a Wal-Mart executive promised the company would not buy garments from unsafe factories, but the giant retailer hasn’t offered any solution for improving conditions in Bangladesh factory fire traps, and a Wal-Mart executive has admitted the industry’s safety monitoring system is seriously flawed.

Now, let’s go to Mexico. There, Wal-Mart executives routinely bribed government officials to get what the retailer wanted—mostly permits to locate Wal-Mart stores, according to a massive New York Times investigation that involved gathering tens of thousands of documents regarding Wal-Mart permits. Times reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab wrote last December:

“Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance …It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.”

After being informed of the bribes by someone involved, Wal-Mart briefly investigated but then squelched that inquiry. Now Wal-Mart is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Here in the United States, workers at warehouses contracted by Wal-Mart in Southern California and Joliet, Ill., walked off the job last year protesting low pay, lack of benefits, unsafe working conditions and faulty equipment. Wal-Mart indicated it might discuss solutions with the workers, but last week, the retail giant rebuffed them.

Wal-Mart’s promise of 100,000 jobs for veterans is a good thing. Even if some of those jobs will be part-time. Even if the average Wal-Mart wage is $8.81 an hour —$15,576 a year—hardly enough for a veteran, or anyone else, to live on. Even if Wal-Mart will pay less than half those wages because the federal government will give companies that hire veterans tax credits of up to $9,600 a year for each veteran they employ.

Wal-Mart’s promise to buy an additional $5 billion a year in American-made products is a good thing. Even if $5 billion is a tiny number to Wal-Mart, which sold $444 billion worth of stuff last year. Even if Wal-Mart’s demand for ever decreasing prices from suppliers is the reason many say they moved factories overseas where laborers are overworked, underpaid and endangered and where environmental are fire safety laws are ignored. Even if Wal-Mart is buying more American not out of patriotism but because it makes sense financially with both foreign wages and transportation costs rising.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But Wal-Mart and Armstrong shouldn’t be surprised if their schemes don’t win them reconciliation with the American people. Armstrong’s failure to apologize reinforced the sense that he fessed up now only to secure the reprieve he wants from his punishment, from his banishment from certain sports. And Wal-Mart’s failure to even acknowledge that it has not been a perfect yellow smiley face of a corporation only evokes cynicism about its motives. No remorse, no redemption.

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.

This article was originally published by Working In These Times on January 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.


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Why Picket Lines Matter

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Photo courtesy of Caitlin Vega.   I spent so much time on picket lines as a kid that when I thought my dad’s rules were too strict, I would run to build a sign on a stick and try to talk the neighbor kids into marching around the house with me. I learned early on the power of a picket to protest unfair treatment.

That right is more important today than ever. As our economy has shifted toward a more contingent workforce, companies are increasingly hiring workers as part-time or temporary, or labeling them as independent contractors. This leaves workers more vulnerable to abuse while also shielding companies from accountability. When warehouse workers unpacking Walmart goods in a Walmart-owned warehouse were cheated out of their wages, the retail giant responded that those workers were hired through a temporary agency and are not the company’s responsibility.

These kinds of working conditions make it all the more important that workers be able to share their stories with the public. Consumers have the right to know about the kinds of labor practices they are supporting when they shop at a particular store. In this economy, where workers have so little bargaining power, the ability to picket an employer to expose unfair conditions is more important than ever.

That’s what makes the recent California Supreme Court decision in Ralphs Grocery Co. v. UFCW Local 8 so important. The court upheld two provisions of California law that protect the right of workers to picket. The Moscone Act protects peaceful picketing and communicating about the facts of a labor dispute on “any public street or any place where any person or persons may lawfully be.” Labor Code Section 1138.1 restricts injunctive relief to stop picketing unless a company can show substantial and irreparable injury, the commission of unlawful acts and several other factors. Ralphs sought to invalidate those state statutes, which would have silenced California workers from such peaceful protest.

In upholding California law, the court maintained a critical protection for working people. What is at stake here is far more than where in a shopping center picketers are allowed to stand. The picket line was—and still is—an essential tool in building the American middle class. Workers standing together, making their case in the court of public opinion, helped bring about the eight-hour day, the weekend, prevailing wage, anti-discrimination laws and so many other protections. It also helped working people win wages and benefits that allowed them to buy homes, send their children to college and give back to their community through taxes, service and time.

In essence, the picket sign has enabled generations of working people to achieve the American Dream. Given the economy we face today, it’s time for the next generation to start making signs and marching to demand those same opportunities.

Why Picket Lines Matter,” by Caitlin Vega, originally appeared on the California Labor Federation’s blog Labor’s Edge. You can also view it on AFL-CIO NOW, posted on January 7, 2013.


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The NFL Bounty Scandal Is a Labor Issue As Well As a Safety Issue

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Alyssa RosenbergIt’s awful to hear the news that the during their recent great years, the Saints were involved in a system that offered players bounties if they injured the players on opposing teams. The scandal is a setback for the NFL’s efforts to make football a safer, more sustainable game, showing that team and player cultures are fiercely resistant to that league-wide imperative. But it’s also a failure of the NFL collective bargaining agreement by the players who ought to be protected by it, and an illustration of the difficult web of financial incentives players negotiate.

The explanation of how the bounty system worked is a fascinating look at the financial stratification within NFL teams. The bounty system was organized by the Saints’ former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, and he kept running the system even after he was specifically ordered by the team to shut it down. But the bounties themselves were offered—and paid—not by the team but by Saints players to Saints players. And they worked as incentives because special teams players who are in a position to inflict those injuries make less than the teammates who offered them the bounties. And that doesn’t even always work out. As Deadspin pointed out, the fines Bobby McCray was assessed for a hit to Brett Favre probably cost him more than he made based on the report’s assessment of what he would have made in bounties.

But however complicated the financial interests are here—and even scarier than the fact the bounties were being offered in the locker room is the news that folks outside the team appeared to be ponying up money—it’s a worrisome illustration of how the league’s compensation patterns could make bounties seem worth reaching for, and could lead to them violating their own collective bargaining agreement. It’s hard to believe that the Saints or any other team would offer bounties in the expectation that they were the only team doing it. And if everyone’s ignoring the collective bargaining agreement’s ban on bounties, then everyone’s ramping up their own risk of being injured by participating in the system. I don’t envy the NFL and the players’ union the task of tweaking those incentives and enforcement to try to make the ban on bounties operative.

Especially since players are coming into the NFL after years of a training that incentivizes hard hits, even if there pride rather than money at stake. I do think that there is a difference between a reward for making a good play and a reward specifically for injuring someone. But I don’t know how meaningful that difference is. I love football, and I struggle with that love and my questions about whether the game as played can be made safer while still remaining exciting.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on March 5, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a B.A. in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American ProspectThe New RepublicNational Journal, and The Daily Beast.


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“Sitting Ducks” and “Walking Targets”: Risking Life on the Job

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Image: Adam KaderWe all know the phrase “going postal,” right?  It’s when someone becomes extremely angry to the point of become violent, usually in the context of work.  It came about in response to a number of horrific incidents of violence committed by postal workers in the 1980s and ’90s.*

But this past week the Chicago Tribune ran a revealing story about the risks of violence posed to postal workers just doing their jobs.  In a place like Chicago, the workplace for mail carriers–the outdoors–presents natural health and safety risks, such as heat illness.  Being in Chicago, extreme weather conditions can be expected and prepared for.  But when routes run through high-crime areas, carriers’ work can become life-endangering from human factors of violence.

In the Tribune story, mail carrier Khalalisa Norris tells her story of being nearly gunned-down in a drive-by shooting (watch a video here).  Rodney Nelson, another mail carrier, describes being taken into an alley and held at gunpoint to hand over his mail bag.  And Berenda Walker was assaulted while organizing mail in her truck.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that an average of 1.7 million people were victims of violent crime while working or on duty in the United States each year from 1993 through 1999 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that “Violence in the workplace is a serious safety and health issue. Its most extreme form, homicide, is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 521 workplace homicides in the preliminary count of 2009 in the United States, out of a total of 4,349 fatal work injuries.”  (For more information, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries summary).

More than simply a neighborhood safety story, the Tribune article shows that this is a workers’ rights issue.  Mail carriers have had to battle management to be transferred to other routes after being the victim of a crime.  And there is currently no policy that requires supervisors to inform carriers when co-workers are robbed or assaulted.   According to the Tribune, the carrier’s union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, (NALC) “is pushing for a better system of reporting incidents, more flexibility for carriers who have experienced violence, and a system that would notify all carriers after an assault, robbery or shooting.”

The story shows how local residents are not the only victims of neighborhood violence.  Norris reports that now some of the residents on her route will stay on their porches until she finishes delivery on that block, to ensure her safety.  This suggests the need for a coordinated effort between local community groups and worker organizations like the NALC.

* Despite this spate of tragedies, research has shown the phrase “going postal” to be unwarranted: “Researchers have found that the homicide rates per 100,000 workers at postal facilities were lower than at other workplaces. In major industries, the highest rate of 2.1 homicides per 100,000 workers was in retail. The next highest rate of 1.66 was in public administration, which includes police officers. The homicide rate for postal workers was 0.26 per 100,000.”

This blog originally appeared in Dignity at Work on August 21, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Adam Kader is the Worker Center Director at Arise Chicago.


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Commercial drivers & medical certification (and other alarming commercial transportation safety matters)

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Workers Comp Insider LogoOn Mother’s Day in 1999, Custom Bus Charters’ bus driver Frank Bedell veered off a highway near New Orleans, killing 22 passengers and injuring 20 others. Just 10 hours before this trip, Bedell was treated at a local hospital for “nausea and weakness.” He had been treated at least 20 times in the 21 months prior to the accident, and 10 of those times involved hospitalization for “life-threatening” heart and kidney disease. You can read more about this horrific crash, which remains one of the nation’s deadliest bus crashes, at NOLA.com: Loopholes let sick man drive, safety board says. Also of interest: Breaking the law went with the job.

This accident brought the issue of the medical competence of commercial drivers to the public attention in a dramatic way. In its subsequent report of the accident after the investigation, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that “…the probable cause of this accident was the driver’s incapacitation due to his severe medical conditions and the failure of the medical certification process to detect and remove the driver from service. Other factors that may have had a role in the accident were the driver’s fatigue and the driver’s use of marijuana and a sedating antihistamine.

The incident and investigation prompted NTSB to issue Safety Recommendations revolving around medical certification of commercial drivers.

How are we doing today?
Nearly a decade later, how are these safety measures designed to protect the public from medically unsafe commercial drivers working out? Not too well, according to a recent investigative report by News21, which was published by MSNBC in the article Truckers fit to drive — if a chiropractor says so: “From 2002, when the recommendations were made, through 2008, the last year for which data is available, there were at least 826 fatal crashes involving medically unqualified or fatigued drivers, according to a News21 analysis of the FMCSA Crash Statistics database.”

The article paints a scary portrait of a driver medical certification program that is pretty broken. Truck drivers can pop into roadside clinics to pick up certifications issued after a cursory examination by almost any health professional. And that’s a good scenario – drivers can also download online certificates and fill them out themselves or ignore the requirement entirely. Forgeries are a common occurrence. Being caught without a certificate might result in a slap-on-the-wrist fine. While there have been calls for a national registry for medical certification of commercial drivers, the idea has made little progress. It will probably take the next big incident to ignite public outrage to motivate any change.

For a resource on current regulations, see the US Department of Transportation Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Programs, which includes medical regulations and notices, including drug and alcohol testing.

The News21 story on commercial drivers is the third part in a series of four articles that deal with transportation and public safety. Here are the others:

Part 1:
Driving While Tired: Safety officials are slow to react to operator fatigue:
“NTSB does not track fatigue-related highway accidents on a regular basis. But in 1993, the board commissioned a study expecting to learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol on trucking accidents. Investigators studied all heavy-trucking accidents that year and made an unexpected discovery: Fatigue turned out to be the bigger problem. NTSB Crash investigators said driver fatigue played a key role in a bus accident in Utah in 2008 that killed nine people returning from a ski trip.
The study found 3,311 heavy truck accidents killed 3,783 people that year, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of those accidents were fatigue-related.”

Part 2: Video in the cockpit: Privacy vs. safety
In 200, the NTSB added a recommendation for video recorders to be installed in commercial and charter planes to its “most wanted” list. Pilot unions and other groups have lobbied this safety measure. See this story’s sidebar article: Shhhh! Your pilot is napping

Part 4: Outsourcing safety: Airplane repairs move to unregulated foreign shops
“More maintenance has moved overseas. Airlines are not required to use regulated repair shops. Foreign repair stations can go five years between inspections, and even then are often tipped off that inspectors are coming. Manuals are in English, but not all the workers read English. Drug tests of workers are illegal in some countries.
A News21 analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data showed that about 15,000 accidents or safety incidents in all aviation travel can be attributed at least in part to inferior maintenance or repairs since 1973, when the FAA started keeping such records. In these accidents at least 2,500 people died and 4,200 were injured.”

Most wanted list: transportation safety improvements
The NTSB keeps a most wanted list of transportation safety improvements, in which it makes recommendations for critical safety improvements for various transportation sectors. Recommendations are designed to improve public safety and save lives, but many have been on the list for years. In some cases, individual states may have requirements, but these recommendations are national in scope. While issues on the “most wanted list” are pending, individual employers might use the list as best practice guidance for safety programs to limit exposure both for workers compensation and other liability issues that might arise from commercial transportation accidents.

You can find more reports on transportation and public safety at News21, “a national initiative led by 12 of America’s leading research universities with the support of two major foundations” with a purpose of furthering in-depth and investigative reporting. In 2010, one of the main areas of focus has been Breakdown: Traveling Dangerously in America.

This article was originally published on Workers Comp Insider.

About the Author: Julie Ferguson is an insurance industry consultant with more than 20 years experience developing and implementing communications programs for workers compensation, workplace health & safety, employee communications, and general insurance programs. She founded and serves as editor for the nation’s first insurance weblog, Lynch Ryan’s Workers Comp Insider. She also founded and manages HR Web Café, a weblog for ESI Employee Assistance Group; Consumer Insurance Blog for the Renaissance Insurance Group; and is one of the administrators of Health Wonk Review, a bi-weekly health policy carnival. If you have a question for Julie, you can reach her at jferguson@lynchryan.com.


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The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.