The Labor Department released last week its semi-annual regulatory agenda and it’s full of disappointment for those expecting new worker safety regulations from the Obama Administration. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) doesn’t expect to publish a proposed rule to protect mine workers from respirable silica until April 2016. Six months ago, the agency suggested the proposal was imminent. OSHA doesn’t expect to convene a panel of small businesses to review a draft proposed rule to address combustible dust until February 2016. A year ago the agency said it would be ready for that step in December 2014. Even a rule that simply clarifies an employer’s responsibility to maintain injury records—a clarification made necessary by a judge’s ruling—is stuck in the regulatory black hole.
On top of that, delayed action is occurring on pre-regulatory steps. Last fall, MSHA indicated it planned to request information from the public in April 2015 on the adequacy of its regulations to protect workers exposed to diesel exhaust. MSHA said it wanted to hear from the public in light of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s designation in 2012 of diesel exhaust as a human carcinogen. Now MSHA projects they will publish a “request for information” in December 2015. Another “request for information,” this one on the adequacy of requirements for operators of metal and nonmetal mines (non-coal) to examine work areas for hazards, was expected to be published next month. Now it’s not expected until September.
I’ve written many times before about OSHA’s and MSHA’s regulatory agendas (e.g., here, here, here) and their questionable value. The document is supposed to provide the public with realistic information on what the agencies expect to accomplish on the regulatory initiatives they’ve identified as their priorities. For the most part, OSHA’s and MSHA’s regulatory agendas are fiction.
Get this: OSHA issued one major rule this year (and I predict it will be the only one) which will protect construction workers from confined space hazards. For five years—five years—the agency suggested in its regulatory agenda that work on it was nearly complete. In June 2011, the agency estimated the final rule would be published in November 2011. In January 2012, the agency estimated it would be issued in June 2012. In November 2013, the estimate was February 2014. How can those estimates—time after time after time—be so wrong?
Cole Stangler with International Business Times received this explanation when he asked this question to the Labor Department. They told him the regulatory agenda is
“more of a guidance document than a firm schedule, and although we try to meet the scheduled times, the timing of the actual regulatory process is influenced by many factors that are often difficult to predict.”
Here are two things wrong with that explanation.
(1) the regulatory agenda is not akin to a “guidance document.” Although I don’t expect agencies to be held firm to their estimated target dates for key action, the regulatory agenda is supposed to “promote predictability and reduce uncertainty.” Those are President Obama’s words, not mine. I can understand missing the mark on a projected target date by a few months, but not each and every time, and for each and every rule. It seems to me there is no serious effort made by the agencies to provide target dates to the public that are realistic.
(2) There’s no doubt that the “regulatory process is influenced by many factors.” Yes, staff come and go, agency decision-makers have busy schedules, new information and data becomes available, inter-agency squabbles develop. But these factors and others are not “difficult to predict,” they are par for the course and should be expected.
For two agencies with about 40 years of rulemaking history—and experienced staff who know many of the managerial, budgetary, legal and political factors that can (and will) develop—-the agencies’ target date estimates should surely be closer to the mark. Political foot dragging and lack of accountability allow the fiction to continue.
Study: Poor eye health prevalent across the U.S. South, where poverty and vision loss often go together
Another day, another study that finds poverty is linked to adverse and often preventable health outcomes. This time, it’s vision loss.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new data finding that poverty is significantly correlated with severe vision loss, which is defined as being blind or having serious difficulties seeing even with glasses. In examining data from the American Community Survey, researchers found that among counties in the top quartile for severe vision loss, more than 55 percent were also in the top quartile for poverty. The South is home to more than three-quarters — 77.3 percent — of U.S. counties in the top quartile for severe vision loss prevalence, followed by the West, the Midwest and the Northeast. More than 83 percent of the 437 counties in the top quartiles for both poverty and severe vision loss were located in the South as well. In CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), study authors Karen Kirtland, Jinan Saaddine, Linda Geiss, Ted Thompson, Mary Cotch and Paul Lee write:
Vision loss and blindness are among the top 10 disabilities in the United States, causing substantial social, economic, and psychological effects, including increased morbidity, increased mortality, and decreased quality of life. …A better understanding of the underlying barriers and facilitators of access and use of eye care services at the local level is needed to enable the development of more effective interventions and policies, and to help planners and practitioners serve the growing population with and at risk for vision loss more efficiently.
The study notes that about 4 million people ages 40 and older in the U.S. are blind or have vision loss, and the data suggests this number will climb to 10 million by 2050. According to Prevent Blindness America, the economic toll of vision loss and eye disorders was $139 billion in 2013, making them among the nation’s costliest health conditions. Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act only requires that insurers participating in the new marketplace cover pediatric vision care — adult vision coverage is optional (consumers can purchase a stand-alone vision plan, but such plans don’t qualify for subsidies, putting them out of reach for many Americans). Medicare only covers comprehensive dilated eye exams for people with diabetes and those at high risk of glaucoma.
The MMWR study examined Census data from 2009–2013 to calculate county-level estimates of severe vision loss and poverty among adults ages 18 years old and older. The authors noted that flushing out this data at the county level, as opposed to depending on existing state- and national-level data, can be extremely helpful, as related policies and interventions are often developed and put into action at the community level. Among the more than 3,100 counties studied, researchers found that eight states had at least 6 percent of their counties in the top quartiles for both severe vision loss and poverty — those states were Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Overall, researchers found “distinct geographic patterns” to severe vision loss, with the South home to a disproportionately high prevalence of people living with serious vision problems. County-level prevalence of severe vision loss varied across U.S. counties, ranging from less than 1 percent to 18.4 percent. None of the counties in the top quartile for both severe vision loss and poverty were located in the Northeast.
While the researchers noted that their study has some limitations, such as being based on self-reported data, their results do line up with previous studies on the associations between vision loss and poverty. For example, a 2013 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that the use of eye care services “decreased progressively” as socioeconomic disadvantage went up. In that study, researchers noted that among Americans who reported limiting their medical care visits during the recent recession, eye care was one of the most commonly skipped services. The JAMA study stated that access to regular eye care is needed to reduce the burden of vision loss among patients with age-related eye disease; however, people living in low-income households face real barriers, such as an inability to pay, high insurance deductibles and limited access to eye doctors.
Of course, widening access to affordable preventive vision care services would be an ideal way to narrow the eye health gap. But public health workers have a role in preventing and lessening vision loss as well. The MMWR study recommends that officials in counties with high rates of severe vision loss offer education on behaviors that support optimal eye health, such as maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, using proper eye safety precautions and learning about one’s family eye health history.
The MMWR study states: “Further investigations are needed to better understand the sociodemographic disparities of vision loss, how to minimize risk factors associated with vision loss, and how to improve access and use of eye care services.”
To read a full copy of the study, visit MMWR.
The above video courtesy Prevent Blindness America.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Factory farms in the US—the confinements that house millions of beef cattle, dairy cows, hogs and poultry— generate enough manure to fill the 102-story Empire State Building each and every day. That’s more than 13 times the sewage produced by the US population.
This factoid and many others are presented in Factory Farm Nation 2015, a report released this week by Food & Water Watch (FWW). The report describes the dominance of factory farms in US agriculture and its affect on the physical, economic, and social environment. It provides examples of consolidation within the beef, pork, poultry and dairy industry, with big players gobbling up the little guys, killing off local-community based independent businesses:
“The largest milk processing company, Dean Foods, controls over a third (36 percent) of the nation’s fluid milk supply. While Dean Foods is the most common source of milk in the dairy case, consumers might not see a Dean label because the milk is marketed under more than 55 regional brands, including Garelick, Alta Dena and Fieldcrest. Consumers at the dairy case see familiar labels that they have long associated with local or regional companies, but the company behind many of the labels is Dean.”
FWW’s 37-page report is filled with informative data for each animal, from inventory in the major producing states, to the share of all livestock residing in factory farms. There are sets of tables listing the sewage generated at factory farms in particular US counties compared to typical US cities. For example, factory beef feedlots in Haskell County, Kansas produce 10 times the sewage generated in St. Louis plus two times what is generated in Kansas City. Current EPA regulations and many state laws are inadequate to address the public health and environmental hazard of massive manure waste impoundments. The report provides highlights of major manure releases into communities, such as this 2014 event in Allegan County (Grand Rapids) Michigan:
“…an estimated 20 million gallon lagoon released an unknown amount of raw manure that polluted a local creek, leading to a health advisory to avoid any contact with the water.”
Accompanying the report is an interactive US map showing the location of factory farms housing heads of cattle, dairy cows, hogs and chickens. FWW has also produced an advocacy ad (#Loadofcrap) to draw attention to the impact of factory farms. The 15-second spot will be projected in Time Square, NYC for the next two months.
From packing materials made of mushrooms to buildings engineered to cool and power themselves, sustainable design can play a key role in helping people adapt to a changing planet. That’s a central message of the new book Designed for the Future, in which more than 80 experts in sustainable design — architects, journalists, urban planners, and others — are asked to point to a specific project that gives them hope that a sustainable future is possible. Their selections vary widely, from communities that leave no carbon footprint to cutting-edge technological research programs. An e360 gallery highlights a few of the projects they say have inspired them.
View the gallery.
For more than a decade, biologist Mariam Barlow has been working on the theory that administering antibiotics on a rotating basis could be a solution to antibiotic resistance. After years of research, Barlow had lots of data, but she needed a more precise way to make sense of it all — something that was so specific it could easily be used to treat patients. So, she joined forces with a team of mathematicians. And the amazing results could help solve an enormous, worldwide problem.
In a nutshell, the team of biologists and mathematicians developed a software program that generates a road map to reverse the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. In a study published earlier this month in the journal PLOS ONE, they unveiled a mathematical model that pinpoints optimal antibiotic cycling patterns with the highest probability of turning back the evolutionary clock of antibiotic resistance. Barlow, an evolutionary biologist and associate professor at the University of California-Merced School of Natural Sciences, told me that she and fellow researchers found cycles of antibiotics that could reverse resistance and drive bacteria back to a state observed in the 1960s — a state the researchers call the “wild type state.” So it’s not surprising that the software that makes it all possible was aptly named “Time Machine.”
“It makes sense that we would look for answers (to antibiotic resistance) in evolutionary biology,” Barlow told me. “Bacteria are so good at evolving — and they’ll probably find new ways we don’t even know about yet — but based on what we’ve seen, this is something we can deal with. Antibiotic resistance is something we can handle.”
The research comes at a time of widespread concern that without a coordinated, well-funded response to growing antibiotic resistance, medicine could lose some of its most effective, life-saving tools. Every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and at least 23,000 people die as a result of such infection. For example, last year, CDC described the development of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea as an “urgent public health threat,” warning that we may run out of options for treating the sexually transmitted disease. Also at the federal level, the White House recently released its first “National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria” and in his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal, President Obama recommended doubling federal funds to find solutions to antibiotic resistance to $1.2 billion (of course, that recommendation has to get through Congress). Everyone agrees that antibiotic resistance is a huge problem with fatal consequences.
Thankfully, Barlow and her colleagues may have found an answer that not only tackles resistance, but helps preserve the effectiveness of existing antibiotics. And here’s how they did it. Researchers created bacteria in the lab, exposed it to 15 different antibiotics and measured their growth rates. Using those measurements, the team of biologists and mathematicians computed the probability of mutations required to return the bacteria back to its harmless state. They tested up to six antibiotics in rotation at a time and computed thousands of measurements to find the most likely cycling strategies for reversing the development of antibiotic resistance.
Researchers eventually concluded that the Time Machine software and its mathematical foundations proved to be a promising way to quickly and more precisely generate an optimal antibiotic cycling plan most likely to reverse resistance. Simply put, the software is a matchmaker — it computes which antibiotic goes with which mutation at which point in time to best manage the evolution of resistance and ultimately, cure the patient.
And Barlow reminded me that this type of precision is not necessarily the norm in medicine. Even though incorrect antibiotic prescribing is a main driver of antibiotic resistance, the current dearth in rapid antibiotic-resistant diagnostics means physicians are often left with little choice but to start treating an ill patient before seeing any lab results. However, antibiotic cycling can help guide that process to make a better, more ordered treatment plan — “it’s an approach that can be accessible to any hospital and can help empiric therapy be more reliable,” Barlow said.
In the PLOS ONE study, authors Barlow, Kristina Crona, Portia Mira, Devin Greene, Juan Meza and Bernd Sturmfels write:
Efforts to remove resistance genes from clinical environments by either discontinuing or reducing the use of specific antibiotics for some period of time, either through general reduction of antibiotic consumption or periodic rotations of antibiotics (cycling) have not worked in any reliable or reproducible manner; indeed it would have been surprising if they had worked.
Since antibiotic resistance is unavoidable, it only makes sense to accept its inevitability and develop methods for mitigating the consequences. One reasonable approach is to rotate the use of antibiotics. This has been implemented in many ways and there are recent studies to model the optimal duration, mixing versus cycling, and how relaxed antibiotic cycles may be and still function as planned. However, none of those models have focused on developing a method for designing an optimal succession of antibiotics.
Which is exactly what the Time Machine software attempts to do. As the study mentioned, antibiotic cycling has been studied before, but it was the marriage of evolutionary biology and mathematics that made the difference, Barlow said.
“We took the theory of adaptive landscapes and used it as a foundation for organizing our data and with that style of organized data, a team of mathematicians was able to develop a model,” Barlow said. “It’s just one of those wonderful things that just falls into place.”
Study co-author Kristina Crona, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at American University, noted that the antibiotic cycling problem perfectly illustrates the role of mathematics in biology. Unfortunately, she told me, the two fields don’t have a strong tradition of working together.
“How can we use antibiotics as well as possible? What sequence of drugs would be best? How do we find the best treatment plan?” Crona asked. “These are all very quantitative problems. If we can move medicine and biology closer to mathematics, I think it would produce all kinds of advantages.”
Of course, the ultimate goal is to create a cycling protocol that physicians and health care providers can easily use in a clinical setting, Barlow said. To begin that translation process, Barlow and colleagues are collaborating with a hospital in Merced to collect resistant isolates and analyze the relationship between the development of antibiotic resistance and the antibiotics being prescribed by staff.
“I’ve gotten so many great responses (to the study), it’s almost overwhelming,” Barlow told me. “This idea that we’ve been working on for so long — to see it progress to a level that people can understand and get excited about is so rewarding.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Chicago organizers take on domestic worker health and safety: ‘We start with the idea that everyone deserves dignity and respect’
After 18 years as a professional house cleaner in the suburbs of Chicago, Magdalena Zylinska says she feels very lucky. Unlike many of her fellow domestic workers, she hasn’t sustained any serious injuries.
Zylinska, 43, cleans residences in the metropolitan Chicago area five days a week. An independent contractor, she cleans two to three houses each day. Fortunately, she doesn’t do the job alone — she always works with at least one other person, so they can help each other with much of the lifting and other types of repetitive physical labor that can often lead to preventable injuries and even long-term disabilities. But Zylinska is well aware of the hazards and abuses that frequently accompany the duties of domestic workers — the house cleaners, nannies and caregivers who work in unregulated workplaces with no employer oversight, accountability or standards. A workforce largely made up of immigrants and women from minority communities, domestic workers often face a level of workplace isolation that lends itself all too easily to exploitation and persistent, preventable dangers.
So when Zylinska heard an advertisement on Polish-language radio about a free training course specifically designed for domestic workers on occupational health and safety as well as green cleaning, she jumped at the chance. In late 2013, she took the training course and received a certificate of completion that she hopes to use in marketing her services. During the weekend-long training course, Zylinska and her fellow domestic workers also learned about their rights under wage and labor laws and how to negotiate a contract with a client.
The course Zylinska took was developed and organized by Arise Chicago, a local worker center that partners with faith communities to fight for worker justice and is one of many efforts across the country bringing much-needed health and safety training to domestic workers.
“We don’t really know what our rights are,” Zylinska told me. “We come from a different country, we don’t know what’s expected of us — a lot of (employers) will use that against us. …I wish more people could take this course.”
About four years ago, Arise Chicago began reaching out to domestic workers, but found that the isolating nature of the industry made it difficult to bring workers together, said Ania Jakubek, domestic worker organizer at Arise. Fortunately, Jakubek and her colleagues began making some real inroads after recruiting workers to participate in the first national survey of domestic workers, which was conducted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and findings from which were released in 2012. The experience solidified the need to organize Chicago’s domestic workers, Jakubek said, and so advocates began talking with workers about their personal and professional needs. Formal training and education quickly rose to the top.
“They wanted education related to their work,” Jakubek told me. “They said they didn’t feel like professionals and felt like they were undervalued.”
In turn, Jakubek partnered with researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health to develop a domestic worker health and safety curriculum that includes education on labor and wage rights. (Jakubek noted that Arise first tried organizing a know-your-rights training for domestic workers, but it wasn’t a great success. When the focus switched to health and safety, however, worker interest rose markedly.) The final training curriculum focuses on three main topic areas — chemical hazards and green cleaning, ergonomics and how to deal with work-related stress — and includes education in domestic worker rights and how to negotiate a contract. The curriculum, which draws inspiration from a guidebook developed at Berkeley’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, addresses many of the specific risks and conditions uncovered in the NDWA survey and report, “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.”
That report, which summarizes survey responses from more then 2,000 nannies, caregivers and house cleaners in 14 metropolitan areas and was conducted in nine languages, found that 38 percent of workers had suffered from occupational wrist, shoulder, elbow or hip pain in the previous year; 29 percent of house cleaners had suffered from skin irritation and 20 percent had experienced respiratory problems; and 29 percent of caregivers had suffered a back injury in the previous 12 months. The survey also found that 23 percent of survey respondents were paid below the state minimum wage, 35 percent worked long hours without proper breaks, and 25 percent of live-in domestic workers had responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep in the week prior to being surveyed. The great majority of domestic workers said they didn’t speak up about troublesome workplace conditions for fear of losing their jobs.
Veronica Avila, workforce development director at NDWA, said because most domestic workers are excluded from labor law protections and don’t receive proper health and safety training, worker centers such as Arise play a hugely important role. She said the alliance is currently working on creating an inclusive curriculum that can be easily adopted by worker groups nationwide, with the ultimate goal that comprehensive training will lead to increased negotiating power among domestic workers as well as higher wages.
“The home is a workplace that has real implications for the health and safety of workers,” said Avila, who noted that health and safety protections are a central piece of the alliance’s push for stronger legislative protections, such as the California Bill of Rights that went into effect last year. “It’s really about having an impact on the day-to-day life of workers.”
Health, safety and justice: ‘Domestic workers have to build power’
The Arise training, which is taught in Polish and conducted over the course of a weekend, begins with lessons in ergonomics, such as safe lifting, bending and carrying techniques, as well as tips on how to look for and assess hazards in the workplace. Education then moves on to chemical hazards and green cleaning, as many domestic workers work with harsh and potentially dangerous chemicals on a daily basis.
During this part of class, workers get some hands-on experience making their own cleaning products with more natural and less abrasive ingredients, such as vinegar, incense oil and plain soap. (Much of the green cleaning lessons draw from Vida Verde, which supports Brazilian house cleaners in making green cleaning a reality.) Marsha Love, an occupational health educator at the University of Illinois-Chicago who worked with Jakubek to develop the training, said the green cleaning demonstrations are among the students’ favorite lessons. In fact, one exercise has students developing an advertisement for the green cleaning products they create in class.
After ergonomics and green cleaning, discussions turn to stress — what causes stress on the job, how stress manifests, how to deal with stress collectively and as individuals, and how to address the organizational and systemic roots of domestic worker stress. This is where education on one’s labor rights and how to effectively negotiate with employers is especially important, as it’s often the lack of formal parameters and expectations in the domestic worker-employer relationship that are the source of worker stress.
“The personal stress relief part is so important,” Love told me. “The problem for many domestic workers, especially live-ins, is that time is not their own. So to find time for stress relief is a big issue.”
Jakubek said the training encourages workers to put together a stress relief “goodie bag” that they can carry with them. The goodie bag could include a piece of chocolate, a soothing aromatic pouch or a picture of one’s children. But, she said it’s education on how to put together a contract and how to negotiate with clients that really gets at the roots of domestic worker stress and empowers workers to celebrate and value their work. In addition, bringing together workers who typically labor in isolated environments is a form of therapy in itself, Jakubek said. At the end of each training weekend, workers who’ve completed the entire course receive a certificate and are offered a chance to join Arise and the growing domestic worker movement.
“The knowledge they’re getting is so important,” Jakubek told me. “They’re undervalued and they’re not protected by most laws. We need to change that — that’s one of our goals, to get them involved in policy change.”
As of late spring, more than 60 domestic workers had participated in the Arise training and received a certificate of completion, said Jakubek, who’s now working with her partners to develop a health and safety train-the-trainer curriculum. The completion certificate states that the worker has participated in health, safety and green cleaning training and is designed to help domestic workers market their services and secure fair employment.
“Once workers are in the room, they feel free to speak about their needs and share their experiences and we can use that as a basis for thinking about problems and taking action on them,” Love said. “It’s a very dynamic experience — the facilitator is them, not me.”
Arise isn’t the only Chicago worker center reaching out to domestic workers with education and training. Last year at Latino Union of Chicago, organizers trained more than 100 domestic workers in the span of four months — it was the union’s first such health and safety training for domestic workers. Building off a longtime partnership between the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Education and Research Center and the Latino Union, the center brought on an intern — industrial hygiene student Sheila M. Serrano-Serrano from the University of Puerto Rico — to develop a domestic worker health and safety curriculum. During focus groups with domestic workers, Serrano-Serrano found that even among workers who did not report a work-related injury, 75 percent still experienced pain after completing a work task.
Like the Arise curriculum, the Latino Union curriculum, which is delivered in English and Spanish, covers ergonomics, chemical hazards, hands-on green cleaning training, stress relief, labor rights and employer negotiations. Participants are offered contract templates and receive a certificate upon completion.
But unlike more traditional health and safety training, the Latino Union curriculum kicks off with a discussion on the history of women workers and their many accomplishments, said Joe Zanoni, director of continuing education and outreach at the university center. This year, Zanoni said organizers are now offering domestic workers CPR training as well — a skill that domestic workers had specifically requested.
“We start with the idea that everyone deserves dignity and respect,” Zanoni told me. “We offer some ideas, (the workers) offer some ideas and hopefully we can start a conversation in which workers can support each other. We want health and safety to be a natural part of their lives.”
Myrla Baldonado, domestic worker organizer at Latino Union, said she’s heard from many domestic workers who said the training empowered them with the skills and confidence to initiate conversations with employers and clients — “it lifts up their spirits to see that they can change their situations,” she said. The Latino Union is home to the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, which is devoted to advancing an Illinois Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
“Domestic workers have to build power,” Baldonado told me. “Right now, there are no rules — it’s a completely unregulated workplace.”
Zylinska, who’s experienced more than one wage theft attempt at the hands of dishonest employers and now works to organize domestic workers as a member of Arise Chicago, said she highly recommends the health and safety training to fellow workers. She also hopes the training course will facilitate the gathering of typically isolated workers into a larger movement for domestic worker rights.
“Maybe we can find the solution together,” Zylinska told me. “Together, we have the power to change the situation.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Milton “Tito” Rafael Barreto Hernandez work-related death could have been prevented. That’s how I see the findings of Federal OSHA in the agency’s citations against his employer, Scott Materials (Central Rock Corporation/ Southwinds Express Construction.) The 22-year-old was working in October 2014 at the company’s concrete crushing facility in Scott, Louisiana. The initial press reports indicated Hernandez and a supervisor were trying to remove debris that was jamming up a conveyor belt. The equipment was turned back on and Hernandez was pulled into the machine. I wrote about the incident shortly after it was reported by local press.
Inspectors with federal OSHA conducted an inspection at the facility following the fatal incident. The agency recently issued citations to the firm for three serious and one other-than-serious violation and proposed a $22,000 penalty. Among others, Scott Material was cited for failing to have an effective lock-out/tag-out program (1910.147(c)(4)(i)) and to ensure that workers are trained on it (1910.147(c)(7)(i)).
When some local press initially reported Milton “Tito” Rafael Barreto Hernandez’s death, they called it an accident. An “accident” suggests the circumstances were unforeseen or could not have been avoided. OSHA’s findings tell a different story. Call it cutting corners, call it poor management, call it breaking the law. Whatever you want to call it, Milton “Tito” Rafael Barreto Hernandez’s work-related death could have been prevented, it was no accident.
Last week OSHA announced citations and proposed a $99,000 penalty against DuPont for safety violations related to the November 2014 incident that killed four employees at its LaPorte, TX chemical plant. Wade Baker, 60, Gibby Tisnado, 48, Robert Tisnado, 39, and Crystal Wise, 53 were asphyxiated by methyl mercaptan because of gross failures in DuPont’s systems to manage highly hazardous chemicals. OSHA’s proposed penalty stems from one repeat, nine serious, and one other-than-serious violation.
What baffles me is why OSHA didn’t propose the $70,000 maximum for the repeat violation. OSHA gave DuPont a 50 percent discount, proposing only a $35,000 for the repeat violation. And this was not just any repeat violation. DuPont’s failure at the LaPorte plant was identified by OSHA in 2010 as a contributing factor in the death of another DuPont worker, Carl “Danny” Fish, 58. Fish worked at the company’s facility in Belle, WV. As the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, Jr. reported, Fish was sprayed with phosgene—a compound used as poison gas during World War I—a building block chemical used at the Belle, WV plant. In both the 2010 fatality and the 2014 fatalities, OSHA concluded that DuPont failed to ensure that each employee involved in operating a process be trained on the safety and health hazards of the process, safe work practices, and emergency operations ((1910.119(g)(1)(i)).
When determining a proposed penalty, OSHA is supposed to give “due consideration” to four factors:
- the gravity of the violation
- the employer’s past history of violations
- the employer’s size (i.e., reductions for being a small employer)
- the employer’s good faith.
“Gravity” means the severity of the hazard and the probability that an injury or illness will result.
The maximum OSHA penalty allowed by Congress for a serious violation is $7,000. OSHA proposed that maximum for the nine serious violations related to the four worker deaths at the LaPorte, TX plant. No discounts for gravity, size, good faith, or history.
For violations classified by OSHA as willful or repeat, OSHA is permitted to propose as much as $70,000. So why did OSHA only propose a $35,000 for the repeat violation? OSHA’s citations don’t disclose how the agency calculates a proposed penalty, so I looked for the reason for the 50 percent discount elsewhere.
OSHA’s Field Operations Manual (FOM) says that “history” and “good faith” discounts are not applied to repeat violations. With thousands of employees nationwide, DuPont wouldn’t receive any discount for being a small company. That just leaves “gravity” as the reason for the penalty reduction. It’s difficult for me to understand how a discount would apply given the severity of the hazard (i.e., death) and the probability of injury resulting (i.e., 100 percent—it happened.) I also noted that when DuPont was cited for this same violation at the Belle, WV facility, no discounts were applied for gravity. What’s different about this case in which four workers were killed?
Labor Secretary Tom Perez is on record saying that companies that put profits over safety should face hefty penalties. OSHA chief David Michaels and other OSHA officials complain that Congress has not updated OSHA’s penalty structure since 1991. In testimony before Congress Michaels said:
Swift, certain and meaningful penalties provide an important incentive to “do the right thing.” However, OSHA’s current penalties are not large enough to provide adequate incentives. …Clearly, OSHA can never put a price on a worker’s life and that is not the purpose of penalties — even in fatality cases. OSHA must, however, be empowered to send a stronger message in cases where a life is needlessly lost… We must not forget that a stronger message means stronger deterrence — and can therefore save lives. (emphasis added)
I agree that Congress must pass legislation to update OSHA’s penalties. The maximums currently allowed are chump change to many employers. But OSHA has the responsibility to use its authority to propose the stiffest penalties allowed. It should have made the case for the $70,000 maximum for the repeat violation. If DuPont contests the penalty, and a judge sides with DuPont, so be it. OSHA already is empowered to send a stronger message to DuPont, and it failed to do so.
A few of the recent pieces I’ve liked:
Robin Marantz Henig in the New York Times Magazine: The Last Day of Her Life
David Heath at the Center for Public Integrity: American Chemistry Council lied about lobbying role in flame retardants, consultant says
Maryn McKenna at Germination: The Avian Flu Epidemic: Massive Impact, Uncertain Future
Lydia DePillis in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog: The next labor fight is over when you work, not how much you make
Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker: The Plot Against Trains
Read the interview.
Do food assistance programs deliver more than food and nutrition? Can relieving the stress of food insecurity provide positive psychological benefits as well? A new study says yes it can.
In a study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers set out to examine whether participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly referred to as food stamps, was associated with better overall well-being and specifically, lower rates of psychological distress. In analyzing data from the SNAP Food Security survey, the largest longitudinal survey of SNAP beneficiaries to date, they found participating in the food assistance program did indeed decrease levels of psychological distress. Study authors Vanessa Oddo and James Mabli write:
Although research is limited, participation in food assistance programs may be particularly effective in modifying the relationship between food insecurity and mental illness. Certain nutrients, overall diet quality, and patterns of dietary intake may be important in reducing the prevalence of adverse mental health outcomes. By reducing households’ exposure to food insufficiency, federal nutrition programs, such as SNAP, may improve well-being by reducing the public health burden of mental illness among vulnerable populations.
In particular, the study found that psychological distress was less common among heads of households who had participated in SNAP for at least six months than among those who had just enrolled in the program — the percentages were 15.3 percent versus just more than 23 percent. Overall, the findings suggest that SNAP is associated with a 38 percent reduction in psychological distress among participating households.
In addition to improving food security, the researchers wrote that SNAP likely alleviates psychological distress by allowing beneficiaries to direct their limited incomes on basic needs outside of food, such as housing, utilities and health care. In other words, SNAP can help lessen a family’s financial strain and often provides a vital stepping stone for families struggling to get by in the current economy. The authors noted that their findings align with previous research on food assistance programs and improved mental health among adults.
“In light of the sizable variation in the monthly allotment of SNAP benefits across households, future studies should explore the role of benefit size on improving the well-being of program participants,” the study authors wrote. “In addition, a better understanding of the most effective pathways through which SNAP affects mental health and thus well-being in subpopulations of interest, including households with children or elderly persons, is warranted to inform future policy and intervention strategies.”
In 2014, SNAP helped more than 46 million low-income Americans struggling with food insecurity and hunger, with about 70 percent of SNAP participants living in families with children. Unfortunately, even though SNAP remains the country’s most critical anti-hunger initiative and has a solid track record of improving health outcomes and keeping people out of poverty, it’s regularly targeted for funding cuts. Just recently, members of the House proposed spending reductions that could cut off millions of families from food assistance.
To request a full copy of the SNAP and mental health study, visit the American Journal of Public Health.