I’ll be looking to the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. to keep me apprised of the upcoming trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. The trial is scheduled to begin on April 20. That’s just a few weeks after the 5th anniversary (April 5) of the massive coal dust explosion that killed 29 mine workers at Blankenship’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia.
Ward reports this week on Blankenship’s appearance on March 24 before a US magistrate. He plead not guilty (again) to three felony counts, including a conspiracy to thwart federal mine safety inspections. Ward explains how this revised indictment differs from the one brought by the Justice Department in November 2014. He also describes some of many pre-trial motions filed by Blankenship’s attorneys to delay the trial and/or exclude evidence, and at Coal Tattoo, Ward posts the legal briefs for 20 of them. These documents are now available to the public because his newspaper and other media organizations challenged a gag order imposed by the federal judge hearing the case.
Blankenship’s legal team and lead attorney have filed motions that run the gamut from asking to disqualify certain federal judges to claims of a vindictive prosecutor. One motion asks the court to dismiss the indictment because
“the government has charged him and singled him out for prosecution in retaliation for his release of a documentary film entitled “Upper Big Branch — Never Again.”
[I blogged here when the film was released last year and urged people boycott it.]
The motion continues:
“That documentary, an exercise of Mr. Blankenship’s First Amendment rights, excoriated the federal government and accused the Mine Safety and Health Administration of being negligent and wrong about the cause of the Upper Big Branch disaster and standing in the way of mine safety. The prosecution constitutes a vindictive and selective prosecution in violation of the First and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
I think this and the other motions are a sign of things to come—-long, drawn out litigation.
As the family and friends of the 29 men who were killed in the Upper Big Branch mine prepare to mark the fifth anniversary of the disaster, I know that some are finding comfort that the man ultimately responsible for it is being held to account. I’m glad we’ll have Ken Ward Jr. and others from the Charleston Gazette reporting on the trial for us.
Read the interview.
In a joint investigation from the Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle, reporters looked into workplace safety at oil refineries 10 years after an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, left 15 workers dead and injured another 180. Unfortunately, reporters found that “though no single incident has matched the 2005 devastation, a two-month investigation finds the industry’s overall death toll barely slowed.”
In the four-part series, reporters chronicle what went wrong at the Texas City refinery, explore the aftermath and talk with survivors, and analyze data showing where and how refinery workers continue to lose their lives on the job. Among the investigation’s top findings: 58 workers have died at U.S. refineries since the 2005 Texas City explosion, which is just slightly fewer than in the decade before; federal officials have documented about one fire every week at refineries in the past eight years; and regulators don’t have the data they need to accurately track fatalities and monitor safety within refineries.
In the series’ fourth installment, “A Deadly Industry,” reporters Jim Malewitz, Jolie McCullough, Ben Hasson and Lise Olsen offer an exhaustive list of worker deaths at refineries culled from OSHA records, government investigations, newspaper archives and legal filings. They write:
The public can easily search data at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which records deaths and injuries reported across all industries. But typing the code for “Petroleum Refining” — 2911 — into the agency’s query tool only reveals a small fraction of all who died at refineries.
Oil refiners have increasingly contracted out some of their most dangerous jobs to companies that are classified elsewhere in the federal system.
The many categories include “3443, Fabricated Plate Work,” “1799, Special Trade Contractors, Not Elsewhere Classified” and “1629, Heavy Construction, Not Elsewhere Classified.”
In the 2005 Texas City blast, for instance, all of the 15 workers killed were contractors. None of their deaths show up in the federal government’s annual tally for the refining industry.
To read the full series, visit the Texas Tribune.
In other news:
EHS Today: Last week, McDonald’s employees filed OSHA complaints against 28 McDonald’s restaurants in 19 cities, claiming the fast food giant and its franchisees are overlooking serious safety risks, such as greasy floors, minimal protective equipment and no access to basic first aid kits. The workers said understaffing and pressures to work too fast are contributing to safety risks and injuries, writes Sandy Smith. With the support of Fight for $15, a grassroots movement to raise wages in the fast food industry, workers spoke at a news conference about their experiences, telling reporters that management had told workers to use condiments such as mustard to treat hot oil burns. During the news conference, organizers also released a new survey of fast food workers, finding that 79 percent have been burned in the past year. Smith quoted McDonald’s worker Brittney Berry of Chicago: “My managers kept pushing me to work faster, and while trying to meet their demands I slipped on a wet floor, catching my arm on a hot grill. The managers told me to put mustard on it, but I ended up having to get rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.”
Huffington Post: Today, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with former UPS worker Peggy Young, who sued the company for violating pregnancy discrimination laws. According to reporter Dave Jamieson, the Supreme Court threw out a lower court’s ruling that had blocked Young’s lawsuit, in which she said UPS refused to lighten her physical work duties to accommodate her pregnancy. Jamieson writes: “Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said the question the lower court needed to ask was ‘why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?'”
Los Angeles Times: Reporter Richard Marosi writes that one of Mexico’s biggest harvests destined for the U.S. is in the balance as farmworkers in Baja California go on strike for safer and fairer working conditions. In some instances, the protests were turning violent, with Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights sending observers after protestors complained of arrests and police mistreatment. Marosi reports: “Labor leaders say that growers haven’t given raises in years, refuse to pay overtime and government-required benefits, and allow crew bosses to sexually harass female workers. They are asking agribusinesses to triple wages, now about $10 per day, and comply with all labor laws.”
USA Today: Mike Snider reports that San Francisco officials have unanimously voted in favor of requiring the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency to review a shuttle bus company’s labor practices when issuing permits to use official city bus stops. Snider quoted Scott Wiener, a member of the city and county Board of Supervisors: “Employee shuttles provide an important transportation service for many San Francisco residents and reduce the number of cars on our streets. It’s important to ensure that the drivers of these shuttles are treated fairly in terms of wages and working conditions. This resolution puts the Board of Supervisors firmly on record in support of these working men and women.”
Pittsburgh Business Times: OSHA has issued U.S. Steel a “willful violation” citation and seven serious violations in the wake of a September explosion at its plant in Fairfield, Alabama, that injured one worker and killed two, writes reporter Ethan Lott. According to the article, OSHA found that opening and closing a high-pressure valve while a furnace was operating at the direction of management caused the explosion. Lott quoted local OSHA director Ramona Morris: “Management knew that attempting to operate the valve while the furnace was still running placed workers at risk, yet they allowed them to do it because they didn’t want the production line down for hours. This employer chose productivity over the safety of its workers, and two people died as a result of this decision.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
- The incident happened around 3:30 p.m.
- According to the Lea County Sheriff’s Office “workers were loading oil field related materials into perforated pipe, which was being installed into the drilling pipe when an explosion occurred.”
- “The oil field site belonged to Mesquite SWD.”
- Mr. Harrison, and another worker who was seriously injured in the incident, were employed by Warrior Wireline.
Sarah Matott of the Carlsbad Current-Argus reports:
- Emergency services from both Lea and Eddy counties, as well as from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, responded to the incident.
- An Eddy County official said the source of the explosion was believed to be “a tank battery fire.”
Each year, about 50 workers in New Mexico are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 53 work-related fatal injuries in New Mexico during 2013 (preliminary data, most recent available.) Nationwide, at least 4,405 workers suffered fatal traumatic injuries in 2013.
The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:
- New Mexico OSHA has 9 inspectors to cover more than 43,000 workplaces.
- The average penalty for a serious workplace safety violation in New Mexico is $998.
New Mexico-OSHA has mid-September 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole James Harrison’s life. It’s likely they’ll determine that Harrison’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”
A study published in a new supplement to the American Journal of Public Health investigates the extent to which public health activities in metropolitan areas suffered during the recent recession. In “Economic Shocks and Public Health Protections in US Metropolitan Areas,” Glen P. Mays and Rachel A. Hogg of the University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health used National Longitudinal Survey of Public Health Systems data on 280 US metropolitan areas from 1998, 2006, and 2012 to examine changes in the implementation of 20 core public health activities. These range from investigating adverse health events and performing public health laboratory testing services to conducting community health needs assessments and developing community health improvement plans.
Between 2006 and 2012, a composite measure of all activities declined by slightly less than five percent — but the drop was far more substantial in some metro areas and for some kinds of activities. When the authors divided the metropolitan areas into quintiles by the extent to which recommended public-health activities decreased or increased, they found that the lowest quintile showed a 25% decline in activity availability. For metro areas overall, the researchers found statistically significant increases in availability of behavioral risk factor surveillance and analysis of preventive services-utilization, while nine activities remained relatively stable and nine saw significant decreases. Mays and Hogg report:
Several public health activities remained nearly universally available during the period of study, including the investigation of adverse health events (available in 99.6% of communities), public health laboratory testing (99.2% availability), and the implementation of legally mandated public health services (89.2% availability) such as vital records collections and notifiable disease reporting.
… The largest reductions in availability between 2006 and 2012 occurred for activities that involved developing plans to improve community health (19.6% reduction), allocating resources on the basis of these plans (25.5% reduction), and implementing quality improvement processes for public health programs (15.3% reduction).
It’s not surprising that the researchers found that service delivery fell the most in areas that experienced the greatest reduction in public-health agency spending and household income and the greatest increases in unemployment.
Mays and Hogg report that the recession-related cuts would probably have been even more drastic if the federal government hadn’t put additional money into public health through the economic stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund. They also note that redirection of substantial PPHF money coupled with budget sequestration kept the federal contribution lower than it could have been, though.
The ACA may also be moderating reductions in public-health-service availability indirectly through its effects on various healthcare entities. Mays and Hogg explain, “the contributions to public health activities made by health care delivery system stakeholders such as hospitals, health insurers, and community health centers proved to be much more recession resitsant than were the contributions made by governmental agencies during this time period.” In particular, they cite the ACA’s requirement for not-for-profit hospitals that get tax exemptions to conduct community health needs assessments and develop community health improvement plans.
The authors warn that cutting back on activities like policy development and planning, as many public-health agencies did during the recession, raises concerns about local capacity to effectively respond to preventable diseases. These efforts require long-term commitments that don’t show an immediate payoff, so public officials often find it easier to cut them in difficult budget years. Years of inadequate funding, though, add up to missed opportunities to improve population health.
Mays and Hogg suggest “new, long-term financing instruments such as social impact bonds” to help public-health service providers weather economic shocks. They acknowledge that the federal government may need to play a larger role, too. I’d like to see federal funding for public health increase automatically during economic downturns, rather than relying on Congress to agree to pass an economic stimulus package or other such legislation. Then we wouldn’t see important public health functions decline — and decline most sharply in the hardest-hit communities — when unemployment rises.
A small minnow known as the Oregon chub recently became the 29th species to recover after being listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the first fish to ever join those ranks. The Endangered Species Act, signed into law in 1973, is widely considered one of the most important pieces of U.S. environmental legislation ever enacted. This e360 photo gallery highlights the 21 species endemic to the United States that have made recoveries strong enough to be removed from the endangered list.
Read more | View gallery of recovered species
For all you city-dwellers out there, next time you walk by a vacant lot that’s been refurbished with green gardens and budding trees, take note of your heart rate. You might find the pleasantly green view caused a welcome moment of relaxation and lowered stress.
At least that’s what researchers found in a new study published this week in the American Journal of Public Health. In monitoring the ambulatory heart of rate of study participants in Philadelphia before and after they walked by vacant urban lots that had received a “greening remediation treatment,” researchers found that seeing a greened lot decreased people’s heart rate significantly more than seeing a regular vacant lot.
To conduct the study, researchers used a heart rate monitor with GPS to measure participants’ stress response as they went on a planned walk through their respective neighborhoods. Vacant lots in one neighborhood had received a greening treatment, which included planting grass and trees, removing garbage and installing a low fence, while another neighborhood’s vacant lots received no greening treatment. Participants walked through their neighborhoods before the greening intervention and three months after the intervention. Study authors Eugenia South, Michelle Kondo, Rose Cheney and Charles Branas write:
The body’s stress response is a reasonable biological pathway for understanding the impact of neighborhood blight on health. Although this response is protective in acute situations, permanent downstream inflammatory changes and dysregulation of cardiovascular, neurological, and endocrine systems accumulate over a lifetime for persons repeatedly exposed to stressors in their neighborhood surroundings. Basic structural improvements to blighted neighborhood environments, such as “greening” vacant lots, offers a promising and sustainable, yet underused, solution to such stressors.
Among the study participants, average heart rate went from 103.3 beats per minute before the greening intervention to 107.2 beats per minute after the greening intervention, for a total increase of 3.9 beats per minute. When participants weren’t in view of any lots, average heart rate went from 101.2 to 107.2, for a total increase of 6 beats per minute. When in view of nongreened vacant lots, average heart rates went from 99.6 in the preintervention period to 109.1 three months later, for an increase of 9.5 beats per minute. So, what do all those beats mean? According to the researchers’ calculations, the average reduction in heart rate associated with being near the greened lots was more than five beats per minute lower than when near vacant lots that hadn’t been greened.
In comparison, there was minimal change in heart rates among study participants who walked by nongreened vacant lots during both the preintervention and postintervention time periods. All the study participants actually lived in the neighborhoods where the walking study was conducted, so changes in heart rates wouldn’t be attributable to being in unfamiliar surroundings. The study is the first neighborhood walking trial in which physiological effects were measured in real time among people reacting to sites in their own neighborhoods.
The authors noted that their study adds to the growing body of research that finds structural changes in urban environments can have positive impacts on human health. As many public health practitioners say when it comes to health: place matters.
“Vacant lot greening requires no individual action to be effective and is a relatively simple and inexpensive intervention with the potential to affect the health of many residents,” the study stated. “If neighborhood blight contributes to the development of stress in a neighborhood, improvements to these physical conditions may lead to widespread downstream health benefits.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Fatal work injury that killed Jose Isagirrez-Mejia was preventable, OSHA cites Structural Prestressed Industries
Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia 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, Structural Prestressed Industries.
The 29-year-old was working in July 2014 at one of the company’s construction sites in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The initial press reports indicated that workers were lowering a steel beam into place when it “came crashing down.” I wrote about the incident shortly after it was reported by local press.
Inspectors with federal OSHA conducted an inspection at the construction site following the fatal incident. The agency recently issued citations to the firm for two serious violations and proposed a $14,000 penalty. Structural Prestressed Industries was cited for violating safety standards related to cranes, specifically the prohibited practice of using a crane to drag or pull loads sideways (1926.1417(q)), and improper signaling procedures to communicate between the crane operator and the ground crew (1926.1419(f)). The company settled the citations with OSHA and agreed to pay a $10,500 penalty.
Structural Prestressed Industries, Inc. was the subject of OSHA inspections in 2012. The company was cited for a serious violation related to inadequate training for signaling personnel working around cranes (1926.1430(b)). OSHA proposed a $4,900 penalty, but settled with the firm. It paid a $2,450 penalty. Whatever training the company conducted following that citation was obviously not adequate or effective to save the life of Isagirrez-Mejia.
When some local press initially reported Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia’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, Isagirrez-Mejia’s work-related death could have been prevented, it was no accident.
Employees of the fast-food giant McDonald’s recently filed 28 complaints with federal OSHA about health and safety problems at their workplaces. The complaints involved McDonald’s locations in 19 cities, including Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Kansas City. The complaints were announced on Monday in a press event organized by the Fight for $15 and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
I wondered, how often does OSHA get safety complaints for or on behalf of fast food workers? Looking at data for 2014, here’s some of what I found:
- Federal OSHA and the States that run their own OSHA-approved State Plans conducted 416 inspections in 2014 in “limited-service restaurants.” (For comparison, these agencies conduct annually about 90,000 inspections.)
- 177 involved well-known fast-food chains (e.g., Wendy’s, Sonic, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Chipotle, Burger King, Subway)
- 16 occurred in McDonald’s stores
- The 239 other inspections occurred in restaurants with names including Martin’s BBQ, El Mexicano, and Johnny’s On Main.
Of the 416 inspections, 148 of them (35%) were conducted in Puerto Rico. It’s a territory that operates its own OSHA-approved State Plan.
- The majority (126) of the inspections conducted in Puerto Rico were “planned” inspections, not the results of complaints or referrals.
Besides Puerto Rico, a handful of state-OSHA programs conducted the majority of the remaining inspections of limited-service restaurants.
- California OSHA conducted 57 inspections in the industry, of which 43 (75%) were in response to serious injury incidents or complaints.
- Washington State OSHA conducted 42 inspections, of which 22 (52%) were the result of complaints. Fifteen (36%) were scheduled/planned inspections.
- Oregon OSHA conducted 21 inspections, of which 11 (52%) were the result of complaints or referrals, and six (29%) were scheduled/planned inspections.
- Nevada, North Carolina, and Michigan conducted 15, 14 and 12 inspections, respectively, in limited-service restaurants.
Among all of the federal and state OSHA agencies, the above seven states and territory conducted 75% of all inspections in limited-service restaurants.
In the States where federal OSHA has authority to conduct inspections, there were 56 conducted in 2014 in this industry sector. The numbers in each state are quite small. There were six inspections, for example, in Georgia, five each in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and three in Texas. Of this sample of 19 inspections, not a single one resulted in a citation for a health or safety hazard.
Looking at all 416 inspections conducted in limited service restaurants in 2014, just about half (210) resulted in citations. Of those violations, 71 percent were classified as “other-than-serious.”
When violations were observed by inspectors, they frequently involved:
- Failing to provide workers with information and training on the hazardous chemicals they use for their jobs (e.g., cleaning products)
- Inadequately labeled or situated electrical outlets, breakers and feeders
- Failing to inspect regularly fire extinguishers
- Failing to assess hazards to determine if personal protective equipment is needed (e.g., gloves or goggles)
- Failing to keep passageways and exits clear
Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ survey of employers’ injury records, restaurants are considered a low-hazard industry. As a result, Congress prohibits OSHA from requiring restaurants (and dozens of other industries) from keeping records of employees’ work-related injuries or illnesses. These companies are, however, required to follow OSHA regulations which are designed to prevent impairments and harm.
The McDonald’s restaurant employees’ complaints allege:
“understaffing and pressure to work too fast – hazardous conditions often created by the company’s computer system that dictates staffing levels and the pace of work – are the main drivers responsible for the injuries.”
These safety problems are not unique to fast-food workers, and OSHA does not have regulations to address them.
I’ll be eager to learn the results of OSHA’s response to the 28 complaints. Regardless of OSHA’s findings, I know we’ll be hearing much more from the Fight for $15.