Not an “accident”: Gary Keenen, 26, and Kelsey Bellah, 27 suffer fatal work-related injuries near Colgate, OK

Pump Handle - December 19, 2014

Gary Keenen, 26, and Kelsey Bellah, 27 suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Friday, December 19 while working on a drilling rig two miles west of Colgate, OK. News reports provide some initial information on the workers’ deaths:

  • The explosion and fire occurred at a rig owned by Pablo Energy.
  • A representative of the State Fire Marshall’s office indicated that three other workers were injured. “Two were transported to trauma centers in critical condition, while another sustained burns to his hands.”

Current reporting does not indicate whether the deceased and injured victims worked for Pablo Energy or for another firm. OSHA’s on-line inspection data does not reveal any inspections under the name Pablo Energy.

Each year, dozens of workers in Oklahoma are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 86 work-related fatal injuries in Oklahoma 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:

  • Federal OSHA has 19 inspectors in Oklahoma to cover more than 89,000 workplaces.
  • The average penalty for a serious OSHA violation in Oklahoma is $1,872.

Federal OSHA has until mid-June 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole the lives of Gary Keenen and Kelsey Bellah. It’s likely they’ll determine their deaths were preventable. It was no “accident.”

Categories: Health

'Nuisance Flooding' Will Affect Most of U.S. Coastline by 2050, Report Finds

Yale Environment 360 - December 19, 2014
By 2050, most U.S. coastal areas are likely to be threatened by 30 or more days of flooding each year due sea level

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Nuisance flooding projections for U.S. cities rise, according to a new report the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The researchers looked at the frequency of so-called "nuisance flooding," which occurs when the water level reaches one to two feet above local high tide, and found that several cities along the East Coast are already seeing more than 30 days of nuisance flooding each year. Additional major cities — including Baltimore, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco — will reach or exceed that benchmark by 2030, the report says. Although nuisance flooding is not typically catastrophic or dangerous, it is often costly. The report drives home the point, researchers say, that such floods will become commonplace far earlier than 2100, which is generally cited as the date when sea level rise is likely to become damaging.
Categories: Environment, Health

Clearing Rainforests Distorts Global Rainfall and Agriculture, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - December 18, 2014
Clearing forests not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, it also triggers worldwide shifts in rainfall and temperatures

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Global effects of forest loss that are just as potent as those caused by current carbon pollution and that pose great risk to future agricultural productivity, researchers report. Deforestation in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa may alter growing conditions in agricultural areas as far away as the U.S. Midwest, Europe, and China, the study in Nature Climate Change finds. The researchers calculate that complete tropical deforestation could trigger atmospheric changes leading to an increase of 0.7 degrees Celsius in global temperatures, in addition to warming caused by greenhouse gases released from the deforestation itself. That would double the observed global warming since 1850, the researchers note. They say their findings indicate that many of the predicted changes associated with widespread deforestation are already occurring — from Thailand, which is receiving less rainfall at the beginning of the dry season, to parts of the Amazon, where once-predictable rainfall has shifted notably.
Categories: Environment, Health

Asia’s Fragile Caves Face New Risks from Development

Yale Environment 360 - December 18, 2014
The limestone caves of Southeast Asia and southwest China are home to scores of species of plants and animals, many of them rare. But a rise in tourism, mining, and other human activities is increasingly placing these biodiverse environments at risk. BY MIKE IVES
Categories: Environment, Health

Asia’s Fragile Caves Face Growing Development Risks

Yale Environment 360 - December 18, 2014
The limestone caves of Southeast Asia and southwest China are home to scores of species of plants and animals, many of them rare. But a rise in tourism, mining, and other human activities is increasingly placing these biodiverse environments at risk. BY MIKE IVES
Categories: Environment, Health

Senator Boxer calls US chemical facility safety “outrageous” and “unacceptable”

Pump Handle - December 17, 2014

As last week’s Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing made abundantly clear, communities throughout the United States are at ongoing risk from potentially disastrous incidents involving hazardous chemicals. A new Congressional Research Service report released concurrently by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), details how thousands of facilities across the country that store and use hazardous chemicals are located in communities, putting millions of Americans at risk. Yet this list of facilities, Senator Markey’s office points out, may not be complete. The report analyzes US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data on locations where at least one of 140 different extremely hazardous materials are stored. But this EPA list does not include the highly explosive substance ammonium nitrate – the chemical involved in the April 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured approximately 200.

What has happened – or more precisely, not happened – since that incident was the focus of the December 11th Senate hearing. The hearing, convened jointly with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was held to review progress made in implementing President Obama’s Executive Order 13650 issued in August 2013 in the wake of the West, Texas disaster.

“In the 602 days since the West, Texas tragedy there have been 355 chemical accidents resulting in 79 deaths and 1500 hospitalizations,” said Committee Chair Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) opening the hearing. “Essentially,” said Boxer, since the West, Texas accident, there’s been a U.S. incident involving hazardous chemicals every other day. “This,” she said, “is absolutely outrageous.”

Executive Order 13650 directed federal agencies to improve the safety and security of facilities that use and store hazardous chemicals to reduce risks to workers, communities and first responders, beginning by establishing a working group led by the EPA, Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security. In June of this year, that working group released a report with recommendations for improving policies, practices and coordination between industry, state, local and federal authorities, community and other public interest groups. What it did not do is call for any new requirements for facilities where hazardous chemicals are used.

“I’m concerned that despite clear risks posed by the nation’s chemical facilities, very little progress has been made,” said Boxer. Only four of the 15 actions the Executive Order directs federal agencies to undertake have been completed, she noted. “Six,” she said, “are not due to be completed until 2015 or later and five have no time-line.”

“No agency,” she continued ,“has proposed changes to its chemical safety program and not a single facility faces new federal requirements to adopt safety precautions to reduce chemical hazards.”

“This is unacceptable,” said Boxer.

OSHA Secretary Michaels says “regulatory system is broken” and calls for higher penalties

In their testimony, the hearing’s two witnesses, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) David Michaels and EPA Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response, Mathy Stanislaus, outlined their agencies’ work related to Executive Order 13650. Asked by a clearly impatient Boxer, for a date by which the agencies would commit to completing the Executive Order directives, Michaels replied, “Our regulatory system is broken.”

What is the single most important thing OSHA could do to better protect workers from the next chemical incident, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) asked Michaels. The answer: Address OSHA’s weak penalty structure, said Michaels. The cap on OSHA’s fine for a serious violation, Michaels explained, is $7000; for a willful violation, $70,000. “To a small company that’s a significant deterrent,” said Michaels. “But to large employers, especially petrochemical plants, that’s not even the cost of doing business.” OSHA’s criminal penalties, are “virtually meaningless.” said Michaels. “We would be very grateful,” said Michaels, “if Congress would allow us to issue penalties at a much greater level.” OSHA’s penalties have not been amended by Congress since 1990 and only once since OSHA was established.

Ammonium nitrate

While the EPA, OSHA and various industry groups have issued new guidance on the use of ammonium nitrate since Executive Order 13650 was issued, the EPA has not updated its list of chemicals that require a company using or storing the compound to develop what’s called a risk management plan. At the December 11th hearing, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) suggested that such a requirement would be detrimentally costly to industry. If EPA were to require risk management plans for ammonium nitrate that “would do nothing to protect workers from companies not in compliance,” said Barasso. Further, said Barrasso, such over-regulation of what he called an “essential” chemical could result in “lost jobs for already struggling communities.”

“Barasso is right that it’s essential. But he’s dead wrong on the expense of storing and handling it safely,” says Mike Wright, United Steelworkers Director of Health, Safety and Environment. There are inexpensive measures that can greatly reduce risks of storing and using ammonium nitrate, some that include basic fire safety practices, says Wright.

When it comes to enforcing hazardous material safety practices, Greenpeace Legislative Director Rick Hind points out that the Clean Air Act already gives the EPA the authority to ask companies to improve handling and storage of hazardous substances including those – like ammonium nitrate – for which risk management plans are not required. The EPA, says, Hind, could already require companies to use inherently safer technologies.

The EPA has received nearly 101,000 comments on its proposal – made under Executive Order 13650 – to add ammonium nitrate to its list of risk management plan chemicals. A number of industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council and the Fertilizer Institute have expressed objections to the EPA proposal. Among these is that the EPA’s rule – if enacted – could become effective sooner than what OSHA might propose. The industry groups say they prefer to let the OSHA process play out,suggesting that additional EPA requirements will be duplicative and won’t necessarily improve safety.

Thinking upstream

Meanwhile, a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) offers a distinctly different view from that of industries objecting to EPA’s proposal and Senator Barrasso’s suggestion that a risk management plan requirement would adversely affect businesses. The report, released on Monday December 15th found proactive management of hazardous chemicals – switching to safer alternatives and eliminating toxics from supply chains – to be less costly and more profitable than reacting to adverse outcomes. The report shows how companies that do not actively address these hazards can face large fines, loss of market share and damaged reputations.

The report focuses on chemicals in products rather than in manufacturing processes but the potential costs of not being proactive would apply to the latter as well. Among those listed: higher compliance, legal and crisis management costs, lost customer trust, government fines, damaged brand reputation and vulnerability to advocacy campaigns.

Companies obviously do not want to be told how to manufacture products or conduct business. But the UNEP report illustrates that proactively choosing safer technologies can improve company bottom-lines – not to mention improve worker and community safety. Without such a shift in the US, one in three American children will continue to attend schools that lie within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous chemical facility and 10 million, a school located within two such zones.

“If I had a kid living in a hazard zone, I’d be pulling my hair out,” said Senator Boxer.

[This hearing was Senator Boxer’s last as Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee before Senate leadership shifts to the Republicans when the 114th Congress convenes in January.]

 

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360Environmental Health PerspectivesMother JonesEnsiaTimeCivil Eats, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Categories: Health

OSHA ignores poultry workers’ petition, sixteen months and counting

Pump Handle - December 17, 2014

In September 2013, fifteen civil rights and labor organizations sent a 72-page petition to OSHA. The groups were urging the agency to develop a regulation to protect poultry and meatpacking workers from repetitive motion injuries. More than 16 months later, OSHA has yet to send the petitioners a single piece of paper in response to their rulemaking request. You’d think a thoughtful letter, written by pro-worker groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center, Interfaith Worker Justice and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, would be deserving of even a brief written response from an Obama OSHA. But no.

Today, those groups are pressing the matter. They sent a follow-up letter to OSHA chief David Michaels, PhD, MPH, asking for a written response to their petition.

 “The Administrative Procedure Act requires an agency to ‘conclude a matter presented to it,’ including a petition for issuance of a rule, ‘within a reasonable time.’ Furthermore, an agency must provide ‘prompt notice…of the denial’ of a rulemaking petition submitted to such agency. A denial must also ‘be accompanied by a brief statement of the grounds for denial. Therefore, we respectfully request that OSHA provide us with a written response to our rulemaking petition, along with the agency’s grounds for its decision.” (emphasis in original)

The group noted:

“During the most recent meeting on July 22, 2014, you indicated that OSHA would formally decline the request to promulgate a work speed standard for meat and poultry workers. However, to date we have not received a formal, written response to our petition…”

The way federal agencies such as OSHA handle (or mishandle) rulemaking petitions has been the subject of discussions at the Administrative Conference of the US (ACUS). Stephen Lee of Bloomberg BNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Reporter described in the publication’s December 11, 2014 edition a recent ACUS recommendation that

“seeks to hold agencies more accountable for handling rulemaking petitions that come in from the public…[including] that agencies draft written procedures for handling petitions.”

Lee quotes New York University law professor Jason Schwartz

‘‘Petitions provide an essential mechanism to let the public participate, not just by passively commenting on government action, but actively helping set the agenda and helping combat agency inertia. …. You can understand the frustration of petitioners who wait through years of silence, only to hear their petition has been denied because the agency says it is focused on other priorities. The point was to change the priorities.’’

 Natashia Ford worked at Wayne Farms poultry processing plant in Decatur, Alabama.

“The line never stopped. The line kept going,” she explained. The only time I think they’d stop the line is because a chicken got caught in the line, but for a human, not unless somebody got cut or something. That’s the only way the line shut down—because they’d have to rinse the blood off the line.”

Ms. Ford would like OSHA’s help in changing the priorities of poultry processing companies—to care as much about the safety of their workers as they do about the chicken products they produce. That change can happen with an OSHA regulation.

To-date, the agency has avoided giving Ms. Ford and  other poultry and meatpacking workers an answer to their petition. OSHA must be really uncomfortable explaining to them why the agency won’t regulate the hazards that cause them to suffer musculoskeletal injuries. But OSHA’s discomfort pales in comparison to the pain these workers endure cutting, twisting, slicing, bending, hanging, reaching and grabbing the poultry and meat products that end up on our lunch and dinner plates. These workers deserve an answer in writing to their request.

Categories: Health

Obama Protects Alaska's Bristol Bay From Oil and Gas Development

Yale Environment 360 - December 17, 2014
President Obama yesterday announced protections for Bristol Bay, Alaska, one

A grizzly bear catches a salmon in Bristol Bay. of the most productive fishing grounds in the nation, from future oil and gas development. The president's action is expected to benefit commercial fishermen and Native Alaskans and boost conservation efforts in the region, which is roughly the size of Florida. Noting that Bristol Bay is the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery and the source of 40 percent of U.S. wild-caught seafood — a catch worth $2 billion annually — Obama vowed to ensure long-term safeguards for the bay. The region has been under protection intermittently since 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spill prompted a federal moratorium on offshore drilling. "It is a natural wonder, and it’s something that’s just too precious to be putting out to the highest bidder," Obama said in a video message. The federal government is still considering whether to allow development of what would be North America's largest open-pit mine in the bay's watershed.
Categories: Environment, Health

Study: Reduced emissions from electric cars could prevent thousands of deaths

Pump Handle - December 17, 2014

When compared with gasoline-powered cars, vehicles fueled with electricity from renewable sources could cut air pollution-related deaths by 70 percent, according to a new study, which noted that air pollution is the country’s greatest environmental health threat.

Published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study’s researchers examined the impact of various vehicle energy sources on the concentrations of two types of air pollutants known to affect human health: particulate matter and ground-level ozone. Previous research has found that air pollution causes 200,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year and vehicle emissions are the most significant contributor. For fine particulate matter alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites studies finding a 15 percent decrease in the risk of heart attack deaths with every decrease of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter. Ground-level ozone can trigger a number of adverse health events, such as chest pain and breathing difficulty, and is particularly dangerous for people already living with respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

In the recent journal study, researchers studied a variety of alternative fuels in comparison to gasoline, including liquid biofuels, diesel and compressed natural gas used to fuel internal combustion engines as well as electricity from a range of traditional and renewable sources. Using state-of-the-art simulations and modeling to estimate the changes in pollutants, researchers then used population data as well as major epidemiological studies to estimate the effect on human mortality. And in addition to analyzing the pollution that came from the vehicles, the study also considered the emissions emitted during the production of the fuels or electricity on which the vehicles run. They found that switching to vehicles that run on electricity derived using natural gas results in large health benefits, while vehicles that run on corn ethanol or are powered by coal-based or “grid average” electricity are worse for health. In fact, the study found that switching from gasoline to corn ethanol or grid average electricity would increase air pollution-related deaths by 80 percent or more.

Study authors Christopher Tessum, Jason Hill and Julian Marshall write:

Our assessment of the life cycle air quality impacts on human health of 10 alternatives to conventional gasoline vehicles finds that electric vehicles powered by electricity from natural gas or wind, water, or solar power are best for improving air quality, whereas vehicles powered by corn ethanol and (electric vehicles) powered by coal are the worst. This work advances the current debate over the environmental impacts of conventional versus alternative transportation options by combining detailed spatially and temporally explicit emissions inventories with state-of-the-science air quality impact analysis using advanced chemical transport modeling. Our results reinforce previous findings that air quality-related health damages from transportation are generally comparable to or larger than climate change-related damages.

The study found that human health impacts range from 230 deaths per year for the scenario considering wind, water and solar-powered electric vehicles (including the emissions from producing the energy source) to 3,200 annual deaths for the coal-powered electric vehicle scenario. When compared to gasoline, transportation scenarios that significantly decreased air quality-related health effects included gasoline hybrid vehicles, which resulted in a 30 percent decrease, and electric vehicles powered by natural gas or wind, water and solar, which resulted in a 50 percent and 70 percent decrease, respectively. Those scenarios that resulted in increased health damages when compared to gasoline included corn ethanol, an 80 percent increase, and electric cars powered by grid average or coal electricity, at 200 percent and 350 percent, respectively.

The authors write that while much of the research on life cycle environmental impacts zeros in on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, it’s critical to consider the impact of alternative fuels on air quality and thus human health as well. For example, the study noted a six-fold difference between the most-polluting and least-polluting methods for generating electricity for electric vehicles when air quality impacts are considered along with climate impacts, compared to when climate impacts are considered on their own. The authors also write that the study supports the inclusion of human health effects when analyzing the impacts of transportation choices, as the economic burden of adverse health effects can be as great, or greater than, the effects on climate change. Of course, the authors wrote that their study “should not be taken as a final statement” and that further research is needed.

“Instead, these results can be seen as an indication of how light-duty transportation fuels could shift to reduce or increase pollution, and as an encouragement into the research of less polluting, more sustainable transportation options for the future,” they concluded.

To read a full copy of the study, visit the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - December 16, 2014

America’s petrochemical industry has spent millions trying to discredit the science on benzene, a known human carcinogen linked to leukemia and other cancers, according to an investigative piece from reporter Kristen Lombardi at the Center for Public Integrity. Lombardi begins her story with the life of John Thompson, who spent much of his life working for the petrochemical industry in Texas. She writes:

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, he often encountered benzene, stored on job sites in 55-gallon drums, which he used as a cleaning solvent. He dipped hammers and cutters into buckets full of the sweet-smelling liquid; to expunge tar, he soaked gloves and boots in it.

Thompson never figured the chemical could do him harm. Not when it stung his hands or turned his skin chalky white. Not even when it made him faint. But after being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2006, relatives say, he came to believe his exposure to benzene had amounted to a death sentence. Oil and chemical companies knew about the hazard, Thompson felt, but said nothing to him and countless other workers.

According to the article, Thompson’s family eventually filed suit against benzene suppliers, and many similar lawsuits from sickened workers have followed. In the process, tens of thousands of previously secret documents have been uncovered that detail the industry’s systemic effort to undermine the science on benzene exposure. Lombardi reports that U.S. oil and chemical companies, under the auspices of the American Petroleum Institute, spent at least $36 million on research efforts to protect their business interests. Some of the uncovered documents detail an “unparalleled effort” by five major companies to fund benzene research in Shanghai, China, where benzene persists in the workplace. Lombardi’s article explores the Shanghai study in-depth and how petrochemical companies used the scientific process to “manufacture doubt” about the dangers of benzene. She quoted The Pump Handle’s own Celeste Monforton:

“The more they feel threatened by the outcome of independent research, the more they will quote-unquote invest in their own,” said Monforton, a public health researcher and lecturer at George Washington University, who has written about corporate corruption of science. Monforton considers the petrochemical companies’ study of workers exposed to benzene in Shanghai to be the most expensive and elaborate effort by any industry to try to refute damning scientific evidence.

The reason, in her mind, is clear: “Litigation is continuing and potential for environmental exposures is still significant,” she said. “They need to protect their economic interests.”

To read the full article, visit the Center for Public Integrity.

In other news:

Los Angeles Times: Earlier this month, the newspaper kicked off a four-part, in-depth series on the lives of agricultural workers in Mexico. Reporter Richard Marosi traveled across nine Mexican states interviewing workers whose labor is fueling the country’s agricultural export boom. The series uncovers horrible working conditions, penniless workers and the proliferation of illegal child labor. Just a few of Marosi’s findings: Workers are forced to pay inflated prices for basic necessities at company stores leaving them deep in debt; many laborers are “essentially trapped” in dilapidated housing, often without clean water and functioning toilets; and U.S. companies that buy the produce do little to help enforce basic worker protections. Marosi writes: “The contrast between the treatment of produce and of people is stark.” A Los Angeles Times editorial calling on U.S. firms to step up their role in ensuring worker protections is here.

The Salt Lake Tribune: Reporter Mike Gorrell remembers the 27 miners who lost their lives three decades ago in the Wilberg coal mine fire — Utah’s worst disaster in nearly a century. In the article, Gorrell interviews local officials and residents who responded to the disaster. Retired Sherriff Lamar Guymon said: “Wilberg taught me a lot about life and people, about how good people are and how bad people are. Some people capitalize on other people’s misery. Others step right up and give everything they’ve got.” In the aftermath of the disaster, the Mine Safety and Health Administration determined that a defective air compressor was mistakenly turned on and left running for 69 hours before self-combusting. It took almost a year to retrieve the bodies of the miners who were killed.

Huffington Post: In a big win for labor, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that employers can’t stop employees from using company email to organize and discuss workplace conditions outside of work. Reporter Dave Jamieson writes that the Dec. 11 decision “gives workers a statutory right to use work email systems for those purposes after hours, so long as they already have access to work email. The ruling overturns a Bush-era ruling by a more conservative labor board that said workers have no such right.”

Politico: Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., didn’t hold back during a Dec. 11 hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Works and the Environment on the federal response to the April 2013 chemical explosion at the West Fertilizer Company’s plant in West, Texas, which killed 15 and injured more than 100. Boxer questioned officials with OSHA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including OSHA head David Michaels, demanding to know more about the slow response to a White House executive order issued in the wake of the disaster that called for improving safety at chemical facilities. Reporter Mike Elk writes that federal officials have only completed four of the 15 tasks by the due dates put forth in the order. According to Elk, Boxer called the response “unacceptable” and “absolutely outrageous” and repeatedly asked the officials to provide a timeline for completing the tasks. Boxer said: “If I had a kid who lived in a hazard zone, I would be pulling my hair out right now.” To view a webcast of the hearing, click here.

Occupational Health & Safety: The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety is now accepting comments on its National Total Worker Health Agenda — you can find a draft of the agenda here. To submit comments, which are due by Dec. 22, visit www.regulations.gov and search for document CDC-2014-0014.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Falling Gasoline Prices Have Little Effect on Car Travel, Analysis Shows

Yale Environment 360 - December 16, 2014
Although the average retail price of gasoline in the U.S. has fallen 28 percent from its peak in June 2014,

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Gas prices vs. miles driven the decline may not have much effect on automobile travel and gasoline consumption, according to an analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.). Typically, an increase in the price of a product leads to lower demand, and vice versa — a concept known as price elasticity. Air travel, for example, tends to be highly elastic: A 10-percent increase in the price of air fares leads to an even greater decrease in air travel. Automobile travel tends to be much less elastic, however. According to E.I.A. data, it takes a 25- to 50-percent decrease in the price of gasoline to increase automobile travel by just 1 percent. One reason for this is that the distance people drive to work and for daily errands is relatively fixed, analysts say. Increased vehicle fuel economy also balances out increases in miles traveled, leading to more stability in gasoline consumption.
Categories: Environment, Health

Insurance for children: Medicaid, CHIP, and the “family glitch”

Pump Handle - December 15, 2014

The latest issue of the journal Health Affairs focuses on children’s health, and one of the major topics is health insurance for children. A look at the Kaiser Family Foundation’s coverage statistics shows that in 2013, 49% of children ages 0 – 18 had employer-sponsored coverage, 39% were covered by Medicaid or another public program, 5% had other private coverage, and 8% were uninsured. There are three main ways US children get health insurance coverage:

Medicaid: The federal government pays a portion of healthcare costs for Medicaid beneficiaries, and in exchange requires that states extend coverage to certain populations, including children living below the poverty level. (In 2014, the FPL is $11,670 for a one-person household, $23,850 for a household of four.) KFF reports on the state income cutoffs for 2014, which include:

  • Ages 0 – 1: All states cover children ages 0 – 1 whose family incomes are at or below 144% of the FPL; seven states and the District of Columbia set the limit at various points above 300% FPL. Utah has the lowest limit, at 144% FPL; five other states have it below 150%; Iowa’s limit is the highest, at 380%.
  • Ages 1 – 5: All states cover children ages 1 – 5 whose family incomes are at or below 138% FPL; five states and DC set the limit at various points above 300% FPL. Oregon has a limit of 138% FPL, while 15 other states have limits below 150%; Hawaii’s limit is 359%.
  • Ages 6 – 18: All states cover children ages 6 – 18 whose family incomes are at or below 138% FPL (with 17 states using that as the limit); four states and DC set the limit at various points above 300% FPL, including Hawaii at 359%.

CHIP: The Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Congress established with 1997 legislation and reauthorized with a 2009 law, allows states to use federal funding to provide or purchase coverage for children whose family incomes are above the Medicaid eligibility limits but still too low to afford private insurance. Unlike federal Medicaid funding, which is available for as many eligible beneficiaries enroll in the program, federal CHIP funds come in fixed amounts, and states can cap the number of CHIP beneficiaries. CHIP coverage also does not need to include all of the benefits specified for Medicaid-covered children, and allows beneficiaries to be charged for premiums and cost-sharing (although these charges are still lower than those in most private plans). Income cutoffs for CHIP coverage range from 175% FPL in North Dakota to 405% FPL in New York.

Private coverage: Families can get coverage through an employer-sponsored plan, or they can buy coverage from an exchange (marketplace). Those who are eligible for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act can get financial assistance with premiums for exchange-purchased plans. The basic rule is that people with household incomes between 100% and 400% FPL are eligible for premium subsidies. However, there are important exceptions. If an employee is offered employer-sponsored coverage and that coverage qualifies as affordable, that employee’s family is not eligible for subsidies. The determination of an “affordable” plan — one whose premiums cost no more than 9.5% of the person’s income — is based on what is affordable for the employee as an individual, not what is affordable for the employee’s family. NPR’s John Ydstie recently offered an illustration of how this rule can leave lower-income families without affordable insurance options:

Suzanne Shugart and her family face a similar situation in McPherson, Kan. Her husband works for a cabinetmaker, earning around $32,000 a year. He can get health insurance through his employer for a little more than $50 a month, just for himself.

That’s also affordable coverage, according to Obamacare rules, so Shugart’s family isn’t eligible for subsidies in the online marketplace. But the employer’s family coverage is too expensive for them, says Shugart.

“If he were to increase it to a family plan, which would include me, it goes up to about $380 a month, which is nearly our mortgage payment,” Shugart says.

She and her husband can’t afford that, she says. Luckily, their children qualify for insurance through a state plan.

“That’s how we’ve lived for the last eight years,” Shugart says. “He has insurance through work and the kids have state insurance, and I just live on hope and a prayer that nothing bad will happen.”

If Shugart’s family could get subsidized coverage on the Obamacare exchange, the premium for a benchmark plan would be a little more than $200 a month, making coverage for her much more affordable.

CHIP doesn’t necessarily fill the gap in such situations, explain Sara Rosenbaum of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (where I also work) and Genevieve M. Kenney of Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center in the latest issue of Health Affairs:

As a result, workers whose own coverage meets the affordability threshold are barred from securing premium subsidies for their children, no matter how out of reach dependent coverage might be in relation to family income. This problem, termed the “family glitch,” deprives families of help, potentially leaving millions of children without access to affordable insurance in the absence of CHIP. But CHIP alone is no panacea for the family glitch. CHIP covers more than eight million children at some point each year. However, half of the states set income eligibility standards at less than 255 percent of poverty. In these states, children caught in the glitch but with household incomes higher than their state’s relatively low CHIP upper income threshold yet nonetheless below the premium tax credit threshold of 400 percent of poverty cannot receive tax subsidies. Because of the family glitch, children in these states are at increased risk of lacking a pathway to affordable coverage.

Over the past few decades, Congress has been able to reach bipartisan agreement about the need to improve health-insurance coverage for children. Might they act to fix the “family glitch”? John Ydstie talked to the Urban Institute’s Linda Blumberg, who was not optimistic:

Blumberg says it’s likely that in a more amenable political environment, the family glitch would be fixed, with Congress adding more focus on the affordability of family coverage.

“But I think that because of the political volatility around this law, there was never an opportunity to sit down and say, ‘OK, let’s make a policy change here that takes this into account,’ ” she says.

Blumberg says Democrats have been hesitant to open debate on the law at all, because of fear it would be eviscerated during the legislative process. With the Republican takeover in Congress, the chance of eliminating the family glitch seems unlikely to improve anytime soon.

An 8% uninsurance rate for children is lower than it used to be and better than the 19% rate for adults ages 19 – 64, but it’s still shameful.

Categories: Health

Beyond Lima: Major Investors Must Fund Global Green Initiatives

Yale Environment 360 - December 15, 2014
Much of the discussion at the just-concluded U.N. climate talks in Lima, Peru, was about the financing that

Climate talks in Lima stretched into Sunday. will be needed to decarbonize the world’s energy supply, improve efficiency, and redesign cities and transportation systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As journalist Isabel Hilton reports for e360 from Lima, moving the broader financial markets toward green investments is critically important in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The key, Hilton writes, is to get major institutions to invest in sustainable growth, particularly renewable energy, and to get major companies and the industrial sector to understand that they must revise their strategies to address the risks of climate change.
Read her analysis.
Categories: Environment, Health

Draft Climate AcDraft Climate Accord Reached In Lima Leaves Many Doubts in Its Wakecord Leaves Many Doubts in Its Wake

Yale Environment 360 - December 15, 2014
While lead negotiators at the Lima climate talks hailed a hard-fought climate agreement forged over the weekend, many critics say the accord does not go nearly far enough in forcing meaningful reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions. The accord marks the first time that all nations, rich and poor, have agreed to submit plans outlining how they will reduce carbon emissions. But the Lima Accord, intended to lay the groundwork for crucial climate talks next December in Paris, does not include legally binding requirements that countries cut their emissions by a specific amount. As the negotiations dragged on for an additional two days, an agreement was reached on Sunday only after China and other nations killed a provision that would have required all countries to submit readily comparable emissions data. Still, many climate officials praised the plan because it marked the first time that nearly 200 nations agreed to submit blueprints on how they plan to reduce greenhouse gases.
Categories: Environment, Health

San Francisco passes nation’s first Retail Workers Bill of Rights, addressing erratic scheduling and part-time work

Pump Handle - December 12, 2014

The week of midterm exams is stressful for any college student. For San Francisco State student Michelle Flores, it was another stress-filled example of the unfair conditions she and millions of other retail workers face on a regular basis.

Flores, a 20-year-old labor studies and public policy undergrad, is a cashier at a national grocery store chain and usually works a 24-hour week, though she’d like to work more. Just before midterms, she found out her supervisor expected her to work 30 hours the same week as her exams — and he gave her just two days notice.

“I said I’d work them,” she said. “I’m poor and I need the hours.”

But the late notice left Flores scrambling to rearrange her schedule to leave her enough time to study. She got it done, but had to skip a few nights of sleep. Some mornings she’d wake up at 5 to squeeze in a few more hours of study before her 9 a.m. shift began. Flores is going to school on scholarships, but pays for all of her living expenses — rent, food, utilities — on her own. The income is critical to her being able to finish her education.

“I need to pay my rent, I need to eat and jobs don’t fall out of trees,” Flores told me. “It was really hard for me to get hired as a 20-year-old kid with no experience.”

Getting such short notice of work hours isn’t out of the ordinary, either. While her union contract at the grocery store guarantees her at least 24 hours a week, Flores’ schedule still fluctuates from one week to the next and she rarely gets more than a couple days notice. It’s a scheduling practice that leaves Flores little leeway to budget both her time and income.

Fortunately, that’s all about to change. On Dec. 5, a Retail Workers Bill of Rights officially became law following two unanimous votes of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The law, which will go into effect Jan. 5 and is expected to impact 40,000 hourly employees, is a first of its kinds and could help set precedent for struggling workers throughout the country. It applies to businesses with 20 or more locations worldwide and 20 or more employees in San Francisco. The Retail Workers Bill of Rights consists of two pieces of legislation — one that addresses hours and retention protection and another that addresses fair scheduling.

The law’s five major provisions will require corporate retailers to offer more hours to part-time employees before hiring additional part-time workers; curb erratic scheduling practices by requiring employers to post schedules at least two weeks in advance; require employers provide two to four hours of pay at a worker’s regular rate if the worker is required to be on-call, but the employer cancels the shift with less than a day’s notice; requires equal treatment of part-time workers with respect to starting pay and access to unpaid time off and promotion opportunities; and lets workers keep their jobs for at least a 90-day pay period after a company is bought or sold. The bill of rights also protects contracted employees who work at the covered businesses, such as janitors and security guards. (At the federal level, the proposed Schedules That Work Act, H.R. 5159, would also address the erratic scheduling practices facing hourly workers.)

“All families need strong wages, stable hours and sane schedules to build a good life,” said Gordon Mar, executive director of Jobs With Justice San Francisco. “But too many of our neighbors who serve our food, stock our shelves and sweep our floors have jobs that grant too few hours on too short notice and require them to be at the beck and call of their employers.”

Jobs With Justice San Francisco was a leader in a large coalition of community activists, labor groups and unions that organized in support of the bill. According to Michelle Lim, a strategic campaign organizer with Jobs With Justice San Francisco, passage of the landmark bill is about a year in the making. She noted that the number of involuntary part-time workers (those who want to work more hours) in California has tripled since 2006 and now stands at 1.1 million. Nationwide, the number of involuntary part-time workers is 7 million, up from 4.5 million in 2008.

The movement to improve retail work conditions isn’t just about more hours, Lim said, it’s also about eliminating unpredictable scheduling practices that often leave workers scrambling to meet needs outside of work. These days, retailers are increasingly using technology that uses real-time revenue data to develop and manipulate scheduling to maximize profits, leaving workers at the whim of a program that doesn’t account for their personal needs and lives. In fact, a recent study from researchers at the University of Chicago found that 48 percent of part-time workers received their schedules a week or less in advance.

“It wreaks havoc on mothers, fathers, students and workers in general,” Lim told me. “Predictable scheduling means being able to take care of yourself and your family, being able to plan in advance, having regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments, getting enough sleep — and at the end of the day, all of that affects your health. When we choose more predictable scheduling, we’re choosing a healthier life.”

San Francisco may have been the perfect place to first pass a Retail Workers Bill of Rights. The city is already home to an active movement organizing in support of low-wage workers, and Lim noted that the coalition benefited from the momentum of other recent successes, such as the minimum wage increase that voters approved in November.

“We know that San Francisco is a worker-conscious city,” she said. “But this bill wouldn’t have been possible without the workers. They’re the ones who have to deal with what’s going on. Workers are absolutely crucial in developing these policies so we know exactly what the issues are.”

Of course, not everyone happily embraced the Retail Workers Bill of Rights. The business community organized considerable opposition and is “pushing back even now,” Lim told me. With the business community actively lobbying against the new law, Lim said Jobs With Justice and its coalition partners are developing a two-year plan to monitor enforcement. The San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement will also be charged with enforcement and of investigating worker complaints. Lim noted that Jobs With Justice and its partners also hope enforcement and monitoring activities will build an “on-ramp” for ongoing organizing and help create long-term change within the retail industry.

“It’s a huge victory,” Lim said about the bill’s passage. “Everyone is so excited because they know how much it will impact their lives. Workers are excited, their children are excited, their families are excited. It affects the whole community.”

Flores is excited, too. She predicts the Retail Workers Bill of Rights will completely change the dynamic at her workplace and she’ll be able to consistently plan ahead so that her studies won’t suffer.

“We should not all be living at the grace of corporate greed,” she said.

To learn more about San Francisco’s Retail Workers Bill of Rights, visit http://retailworkerrights.com. For more in-depth coverage of retail scheduling practices, check out this New York Times article.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Majority of Americans Support Climate Change Actions and Negotiations, Poll Says

Yale Environment 360 - December 12, 2014
Most Americans want the United States to be a world leader in combating global warming and to be participating in international climate negotiations, according to a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Sixty-one percent of Americans think the U.S. should lead other nations on climate change, even if it means taking action when other countries do not. A majority of both Democrats and Republicans support some specific policies intended to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., the poll found, such as funding research for clean energy and regulating CO2 emissions. Less than 20 percent of people polled think such protections would harm the economy long-term, while 60 percent say they would improve economic growth and provide jobs.
Categories: Environment, Health

Study: Americans trading more work for less sleep, putting their health and safety at risk

Pump Handle - December 11, 2014

Feeling tired? You’re not alone. A new study finds that many U.S. workers aren’t getting enough sleep, which is essential to optimal health, and that people who work multiple jobs are at heightened risk of getting less than the recommended hours of nightly rest.

To conduct the study, which was published in the December issue of the Sleep journal, researchers examined the responses of nearly 125,000 Americans ages 15 years old and older and who participated in the American Time Use Survey between 2003 and 2011. They found that work was the dominant reason for reporting less sleep across nearly all sociodemographic groups. Those who reported sleeping six hours or less (described in the study as “short sleepers”) also worked 1.55 hours more on weekdays and 1.86 hours more on weekends and holidays when compared to normal sleepers. (The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get about seven to nine hours of sleep per night for optimal health, productivity and daytime alertness.) Short sleepers also reported starting work earlier in the morning and working later into the evening. Adults who work multiple jobs were found to be 61 percent more likely to report sleeping six hours or less on weekdays.

In the study’s introduction, authors Mathias Basner, Andrea Spaeth and David Dinges highlight the importance of adequate sleep to health, noting that “sleep is a biological imperative,” with habitual short sleep associated with a variety of poor health outcomes, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and all-cause mortality. In fact, sleep is so important to health that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased its collection of information on sleep-related behaviors in recent years, stating that “insufficient sleep is an important public health concern.” The study also noted that adequate sleep is a core contributor to safety, pointing to the 83,000 traffic crashes that occur in the U.S. every year and that involve drowsy drivers. They write:

Despite the apparent benefits of sufficient sleep for cognitive performance, safety, and health, current representative surveys indicate that 35% to 40% of the adult US population report sleeping less than the usually recommended 7-8 hours on weekday nights, and about 15% report sleeping less than 6 hours. The high prevalence of habitual short sleep and its association with morbidity and mortality warrant the identification of populations at risk for habitual short sleep as well as the identification of behaviors that predispose to short sleep and that could be targeted in intervention programs.

Specifically, the study found that those 15- to 24- years-old are getting the most daily sleep when compared to older respondents. Those between the ages of 35 and 64 reported the least amount of daily sleep and were significantly more likely to be short sleepers. On average, black, Hispanic and Asian respondents slept longer than white respondents. However, black respondents were also more likely to be short sleepers than white respondents. On average, those with a college degree experienced significantly less sleep than those with a high school degree; however, those with higher educational attainment also experienced fewer changes in sleep patterns than high school graduates. Full-time high school students got significantly less sleep during weekdays when compared to private-sector workers, but got more sleep on the weekends and holidays. People working multiple jobs got significantly less sleep, were more likely to be short sleepers, and less likely to be long sleepers on weekends and holidays.

Overall, short sleepers worked more hours, starting working earlier and continued working later into the day. The study stated: “Working ranked as the primary waking activity that was performed instead of sleep across all sociodemographic strata, with the exception of respondents retired, unemployed, or otherwise not in the labor force.” So, what’s an appropriate intervention — how do we find a good balance between work and the health-protective benefits of sleep? The study authors offered a number of possible answers, such as making work start times more flexible, reducing the prevalence of multiple jobs and finding ways to reduce commuting times (for example, more reliable public transit could be one way to help workers get more sleep).

In accompanying editorial published in the same issue of Sleep, author Lauren Hale, an associate professor in the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, described the study as “another opportunity to raise concerns about sleep patterns as both an unmet public health and a social justice problem.” Citing the study’s findings that those with lower levels of social status are more likely to sleep too little or too much — both of which are associated with negative health issues — she wrote that the distribution of adequate sleep tends to favor the more advantaged.

“We must respect the reality that many time-use allocation decisions are not factors over which people have total control, due to both structural and psychological barriers,” Hale writes. “While it is tempting to attribute sleep duration and timing patterns to active choices that can be altered through well-meaning targeted interventions, we must think deeply about the underlying structural and psychological factors that determine sleep patterns.”

Visit the American Academy of Sleep Medicine newsroom to read more and request a full copy of the study.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health
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