You’d think the man responsible for the death of 29 coal miners would show remorse and not subject us to his opinions. Nope. That’s not what we should ever expect from Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy.
Four years ago this coming Saturday, April 5, will mark the 4th anniversary of the coal dust explosion that killed 29 workers at the Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine. Blankenship thinks it is appropriate to mark the anniversary with his propaganda. Blankenship hired Adroit Films of Chesapeake, VA to produce a documentary called “Upper Big Branch – Never Again.” It offers his tired, old, not-based-in-fact opinion on what he says really happened at UBB. I’m not providing a link to the film, and haven’t watched it.
My colleague, Patrick McGinley, the Charles H. Haden II Professor of Law at West Virginia University watched the film on behalf of several of us. Here’s some of what he reported:
“It is a re-hash of everything Blankenship has said already about UBB. The video of a ‘simulation’ of a crack and gas blasting from a purported gas reservoir is absurd. Having Stan Suboleski (former Director of Massey Energy) trumpeting Safety is #1, Production is #2 is preposterous. I expect the families of the UBB miners to be outraged by this grotesque effort to whitewash Blankenship’s profits over safety policies.”
McGinley and I were part of the WV Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel examining the UBB disaster. Referring back to that experience, McGinley also remarked to me:
“If Blankenship, Massey and Upper Big Branch managers knew the causes of the explosion – why did they refuse to testify and invoke their 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. It’s no doubt easier to cherry-pick facts for a video propaganda piece than answer questions under oath and have the ‘facts’ you assert subject to cross-examination.”
McGinley also noted that Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) appears briefly in the film. Given Blankenship’s lack of credibility, it seemed odd that the Senator would have agreed to appear. Well, according to Manchin’s spokesperson, he didn’t.
In “Joe Manchin Claims He Was ‘Lied To’ About Involvement In Don Blankenship Film,” the Huff Post’s Paige Lavender provides a statement from a Manchin spokesperson. It reads in part:
“Adroit Films, the propaganda firm behind this shameful documentary, never disclosed to me the intent of this film. They lied to my face and told me this documentary was focused on mine safety. …Had I known the film was in any way associated with Don Blankenship, I would have never agreed to the interview. …I am not only livid that I was lied to, but I am even more enraged that Don Blankenship would manipulate a tragedy to promote himself and his own agenda. I am going to pursue every legal recourse available against Adroit’s despicable tactics.”
And the Senator’s closing words:
“The most tragic part of all of this is that the families of these miners are forced to suffer yet again at the hands of Don Blankenship.”
Don’t give Don Blankenship the chance to tout the number of “hits” he receives for the film on YouTube. Boycott the film.
That simple phrase “No dust, no silica,” was the way that Donald Hulk characterized his firm’s attitude about controlling respirable crystalline silica.
Hulk is the corporate safety director for Manafort Brothers based in Plainville, CT. His presentation was one of the highlights during last week’s nearly 40 hours of testimony. The other memorable moment came from six workers who traveled from Houston, Milwaukee, Newark, and Philadelphia to speak personally about working in silica dust. Their participation interjected a dose of reality. More below about their testimony.
Manafort’s Don Hulk explained his firm’s vast expertise in all sorts of construction projects, from demolition and building construction, to infrastructure projects involving airports, roads, and tunnels. The firm’s employees perform lots of dusty tasks including concrete drilling, rock drilling, earthmoving, and using driveable masonry saws. Manafort’s attitude about dust is simple: No exposure to dust, means no exposure to silica. That is, if you institute practices to avoid creating dust and/or use equipment to protect your employees from inhaling dust, you’re going to eliminate their risk of developing a silica-related disease.
Hulk dismissed the assertions of “industry representatives” and “contractor associations” who have been raising major objections to the rule. One of those objections concerns using water to suppress the dust generated at some construction sites. Specifically, that water runoff will violate EPA regulations. Hulk’s retort included:
“Runoff is a manageable issue. Manafort’s operations achieve a balance between using sufficient water to suppress dust for the protection of workers without creating a runoff problem. Competent contractors understand the need to avoid pooling of water to prevent runoff. Much of the water is absorbed into demolition debris or it evaporates. Water evaporates more rapidly in warm weather so that the danger of creating runoff is far lower during the months in which construction activity is at its height.”
It was refreshing to hear an employer disagree with the moaning and groaning of their industry’s trade association. He added this about another objection to the rule:
“Some contractors are concerned about being put at a competitive disadvantage by contractors who fail to implement appropriate controls. An OSHA standard that requires all employers to protect their workers from silica exposure will level the playing field so that responsible contractors are not at a competitive disadvantage.”
I’m sure Don Hulk’s testimony gave some encouragement to the workers who were scheduled next for the stage. Their work experiences are quite different. I’m sure Hulk’s testimony reinforced in their minds that employers can control silica dust if they commit to doing so.
The workers’ testimony before the administrative law judge, who oversees the public hearing, was historic. It was the first time in OSHA’s 40 year history the witnesses made their presentations in Spanish. Their native countries are El Savador, Honduras, and Mexico.
Jonas Mendoza explained (translated from Spanish):
“In the construction industry contractors do not provide the workers with the basics to do the job. In many instances if you ask for protective equipment they give you a mask from $0.99 Store to shut you up.”
Santos Alemendarez described working for a firm that manufacturers kitchen fixtures, such as cabinets and granite countertops. He explained (translated from Spanish):
“The process of cutting the granite was dry and this produced an excessive amount of dust generated by cutting and processing the granite. The dust filled the entire environment in the place. I was never told by this company about the health risks caused by inhalation of silica dust. It was not until the end of January 2014 that I learned about the risk of breathing this silica dust.”
“I think that a regulation to protect workers from silica should exist because the symptoms appear after a long time. Who will be responsible in the future for any injury or harm that I will suffer?”
Juan Ruiz, a safety trainer who worked in foundries for 14 years, provided one of the many troubling statements: Conditions in the Wisconsin foundries are worse than they were a decade ago.
Jose Granados explain the situation for those workers who know about the dangers of silica dust. They are left on their own to try to protect themselves. Granados said:
“I use a wet handkerchief over my mouth and nose.”
This week’s line-up includes the Int’l Union of Bricklayers, Masonry Contractors Association, Brick Industry Association (again), the National Association of Home Builders, Johns Manville, Tile Council of America and the Laborers Health and Safety Fund. The three weeks of public hearings on OSHA’s proposed silica regulation will conclude on Friday, April 4.
Yesterday was the end of the first open enrollment period for people buying private health insurance plans on the federal and state-run health insurance exchanges. President Obama announced today that more than seven million people enrolled in private plans, helped by a surge of signups in the few days before the deadline. Many of these enrollees (those with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level) were able to get subsidies to decrease their premium costs.
Severe technical problems plagued Healthcare.gov — the federally run site where residents of states not creating their own exchanges could enroll — during its first few months. (People who tried to enroll through the site but encountered technical difficulties will get an extension on the enrollment deadline.) Some state-run exchanges performed better, while others have struggled. Community health centers, local agencies, nonprofits, and others have been working hard to help people through the enrollment process.
People signing up for insurance through the health insurance exchanges weren’t just getting private coverage. In the states that have accepted the Medicaid expansion, legal residents with incomes of up to 133% of the federal poverty level have also been signing up for Medicaid through the exchanges and their state agencies. Kentucky, which established its own exchange and accepted the Medicaid expansion, signed up 360,000 residents, and roughly 80% qualified for Medicaid, reports Chris Kenning in The Courier-Journal. (The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen wrote a terrific article about what gaining Medicaid coverage means for residents of Breathitt County, Kentucky.)
Total enrollment numbers are an important indicator, but another key statistic is the percentage of previously uninsured people who gained coverage thanks to the ACA. In the Los Angeles Times, Noam N. Levey highlights some key figures: around one-third of those buying coverage through exchanges were previously uninsured; the majority of the 9 million people buying plans directly from insurers didn’t have insurance before doing so; and 4.5 million previously uninsured people signed up for Medicaid coverage.
We still need to wait for specific numbers, but it’s fair to say that this is an important increase in US health-insurance coverage. It would be even larger if the 24 states that have not yet accepted the Medicaid expansion would sign on to the program. We’ll still have to watch enrollment and premium prices to see whether new enrollees maintain their coverage, premiums are stable, and enrollment keeps growing — and whether the newly insured are able to see healthcare providers when they need to.
While the numbers are important, it’s also worth remembering what insurance can mean to the people who now have it: Finally being able to see a doctor about the nagging cough, knee pain, or suspicious mole. Not fearing the moment when the medical receptionist asks about insurance. Not losing sleep worrying that a single accident or cancer diagnosis could mean bankruptcy. For millions of people, the ACA means they can spend less time worrying and more time looking after their health.
In a February 11th news bulletin, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) expressed concern “about the alarming increase in preventable injuries and fatalities at communication tower worksites,” and announced it was “increasing its focus on tower safety.” At that point, five weeks into 2014, cell tower work had caused four occupational fatalities for the year – the deaths of three cell tower workers and of one fire fighter. Now, just over a month later, three more cell tower workers have died on the job. On March 19th, a 21-year old from Maryland was killed while working on a tower not far from Baltimore-Washington International Airport that was being decommissioned next to a newly built tower, and on March 25th, two workers were killed while working on a 250-foot high tower near Blaine, Kansas.
In this most recent fatal incident, 25-year old Seth Garner of Saint Peters, Missouri and 38-year old Martin Powers of Saint Charles, Missouri, were in the process of removing a 256-foot tower that was no longer in service, when the tower collapsed. Pottawatomie County Sheriff Greg Riat confirmed the workers’ names and that the tower was located at a Union Pacific Railroad site. Michael Moon, Acting Area Director for OSHA’s Wichita Area Office said in an interview that the men were working for Wireless Horizon, Inc., a Missouri-based company. Moon, explained that an OSHA investigator was on site and that OSHA was in conference with Wireless Horizon, Inc. At this point, Moon said, no other companies are involved in the investigation but that could change as things progress. Wireless Horizon, Inc. has not responded to requests for information or comment on the incident.
This is not the first time Wireless Horizon has had a fatal incident at one of its work sites. In 2005, an employee was killed in a fall from a tower while working to dismantle an unused microwave tower. According to the OSHA accident investigation summary, the work crew was maneuvering what’s called a gin pole, when part of that pole began to slide down the tower face and caused one of the workers to fall 120 feet to his death. Wireless Horizon was cited for one serious violation and initially fined $1500. The final penalty paid was $750. (Low penalty amounts, even in cases when workers die, are not uncommon due to the small size of many of the companies that employ these workers.)
The company that employed the two workers killed on February 1, 2014 also had a previous fatal accident, in 2009. In that incident the company, S&S Communication Specialists, Inc. was cited for two serious violations and fined $3,000. According to the Wireless Estimator, OSHA fines for cell tower worker fatalities range from a low of $300 to a high of $125,000.
According to a report from the Wireless Estimator, which aggregates and reports news and information about the communications tower industry, the March 25, 2014 incident also involved a gin pole, a lifting device with a series of blocks, shackles, pulleys and cables that are used to raise and lower towers. Gin poles have been involved in a number of other companies’ fatal cell tower incidents as well – incidents dating back more than 15 years. Some of these fatalities have been the subject of investigations by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program.
Long-standing, unresolved issues
Fatal and catastrophic falls during communication tower construction and maintenance – resulting from gin pole incidents among others – also prompted NIOSH to issue an alert in 2001. Like the 2014 OSHA notice, NIOSH’s alert cited the increasing use of wireless communication devices as responsible for increased tower construction. It also cited fall hazards as a primary danger. According to estimates of the numbers of workers employed in tower and construction maintenance at the time, NIOSH calculated that the industry’s rate of fatalities was “nearly 10 to 100 times the average rate of 5 deaths per 100,000 workers across all industries.”
NIOSH also noted the difficulty of assessing the exact number of workers employed in communications tower construction and maintenance, as these workers were categorized in a variety of occupations. At the time NIOSH noted that a review of available data identified “118 deaths associated with work on telecommunication towers from 1992 through 1998. These deaths included 93 falls, 18 telecommunication tower collapses, and 4 electrocutions. However, the number of deaths identified here should be considered a minimum because identification methods are not exact.”
In its 2001 alert, NIOSH also noted the formation in 1997 of a task force involving OSHA, NIOSH and other federal and state agencies and military departments, working with industry to address tower safety. Gin pole safety was listed as among the priorities to be addressed.
Last year, 13 workers died while engaged in cell tower work, more than the previous two years combined. According to OSHA, most of these incidents involved falls and a lack of fall protection. Many have occurred when workers wearing harnesses were not properly anchored or tied off. Others were caused by falling objects, equipment failure and structural collapse of towers. Some of the collapses occurred because workers were not properly instructed in how to maintain the structural integrity of the towers while performing the required tasks.
“OSHA is aware that there has been acceleration in communication tower work during the past year due to cellular infrastructure upgrades, and the Agency is concerned about the possibility of future incidents, especially when the hazardous work is done by employees of subcontractors. It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue: no worker should risk death for a paycheck.
OSHA has found that a high proportion of these incidents occurred because of a lack of fall protection: either employers are not providing appropriate fall protection to employees, or they are not ensuring that their employees use fall protection properly. As a result, communication tower climbers are falling to their deaths.”
In December 2013, NATE released training guidelines for working on towers with gin poles. In February 2014, NATE launched a “100% Tie-off 24/7 Awareness Campaign” with an accompanying press release noting that “many of the tower-site accidents that compromise safety involve situations where the tower technician was not properly tied-off to the structure.” (NATE was not able to comment on the latest industry fatalities by press time.)
In an address to NATE on February 25, 2014, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels said, “We at OSHA are very concerned about this sharp rise. The fatality rate in your industry is extremely high – and tower workers have a risk of fatal injury perhaps 25 to 30 times higher than the risk for the average American worker. This is clearly unacceptable.”
As I noted when writing about this issue for The Pump Handle earlier this year, in 2013 OSHA’s records indicate at least 31 accidents – including 13 fatalities – and 267 violations in its 285 recorded inspections in the communications tower industry. In less than three months of 2014, there have been 6 fatalities and 26 violations in the 51 inspections in this industry OSHA records for this year so far, with investigations in the six fatal incidents not yet concluded.
Working at heights involves hazards that require special precautions and the demand and pace for cell tower work has been increasing. But looking back at the history, the lack of fall protection and equipment failures are clearly not new issues for this industry. The question would be why, with all the attention the issue has received from OSHA and NIOSH, more isn’t being done to make sure these catastrophes don’t continue – and what it would take for things to change.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
This year’s County Health Rankings once again illustrate why geography and good health go hand-in-hand. They’re also a poignant reminder that there may be no better way to improve health for all than by focusing on the social determinants of health.
Released earlier this week, the 2014 County Health Rankings compare each state’s counties on 29 factors that impact health, from tobacco use to high school graduation rates to access to healthy food choices. In examining the differences between counties, the report found that the least healthy counties were home to twice the premature death rate, twice as many children living in poverty and twice as many teen births. The country’s healthiest counties have better access to healthy foods, parks, exercise facilities, primary care physicians and mental health providers. They’re also home to lower rates of food insecurity and higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance (see our previous coverage of the link between good health and high school graduation). The least healthy counties have higher unemployment, more childhood poverty, more violent crime, weaker social support systems and more unhealthy housing.
What’s particularly interesting about the county rankings is viewing the state maps by health outcome and risk factors. Time and time again, counties that are literally right next to each other are wildly far apart in their health outcomes. For example, take Erath County, Texas — ranked 18 of 232 in health outcomes — and Eastland County, Texas, ranked 203 out of 232. Even though they share a border, Erath residents reported an average of 3.9 physically unhealthy days in the previous month; in Eastland, it was 6.9. Surprisingly, though, Eastland County ranked higher than Erath in health factors. For example, in Eastland, 91 percent of ninth-graders graduated high school in four years; in Erath, only 59 percent did. However, in Erath the primary care provider to population ratio was 1,739 to 1; in Eastland, it was 3,727 to 1. It’s an interesting illustration of how a complexity of components comes together to produce better health for some than for others.
This year’s county health rankings, which are a joint collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, introduced six new categories as well: housing, transportation, food environment, mental health, injury-related death and exercise opportunities. For example, in housing, the report found that in the top-performing counties, less than 10 percent of households had severe housing problems, such as lead-based paint or improper insulation. Rates of intentional and unintentional injury, such as motor vehicle crashes, suicide or poisoning, are 1.7 times higher in the nation’s least healthy counties compared to the healthiest counties. Access to exercise opportunities, like a park or recreational facility, is 1.4 times higher in the healthiest counties when compared to the least healthy counties.
Some encouraging trends rose to the surface as well. Teen birth rates have decreased by nearly 25 percent since 2007, adult smoking rates have dropped, the number of adults who’ve completed some college has gone up, and violent crime is down. Unfortunately, the rankings noted that childhood poverty is up from 18 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2012, and sexually transmitted disease rates have risen as well.
“The County Health Rankings show us how health is influenced by our everyday surroundings — where we live, learn, work and play,” said Bridget Catlin, director of the County Health Rankings. “The County Health Rankings often provide the spark for businesses, community planners, policy-makers, public health, parents and others to work together for better health.”
To read how your county fared, visit County Health Rankings & Roadmaps.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Our regular readers are well aware of the hazards faced by workers in the US poultry industry (as well as related industries processing other meats), and of the USDA’s misguided poultry-inspection proposal that would allow for increased line speeds in US poultry plants. Workers, public-health experts, and other advocates have been urging US agencies to address the conditions that leave meat-processing workers with appallingly high rates of musculoskeletal disorders and other health problems, and have found the response disappointing. So, three organizations — the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, Nebraska Appleseed, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — appealed to an international body. On Tuesday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (part of the Organization of American States) held a hearing on the “Human Rights Situation of Workers in the Meatpacking and Poultry Industry in the United States.”
Tom Fritzsche of the Southern Poverty Law Center opened the petitioners’ testimony, stating, “The meat and poultry processing industries violate the fundamental human rights of their workers, who come from all over the hemisphere, by systematically exploiting the lack of work speed safety regulations in the United States. The U.S. in turn negligently permits these industries to inflict disabling harm on thousands of their employees.” He described some of the crippling injuries these workers experience, as well as indignities like being denied reasonable bathroom use, which forces workers to urinate and defecate in their clothes.
Fritzsche noted that the petitioners and other human-rights groups have asked USDA to abandon its proposed poultry regulation, and that a coalition of organizations submitted a rulemaking peition asking OSHA to establish a clear, enforceable work speed standard. Fritzsche closed with recommendations, including, “The Commission should call upon the United States government to implement work speed safety standards that reduce line speeds and permit meatpacking and poultry processing workers to perform their duties in a safe environment that does not expose them to permanently disabling, life-changing injuries. It should also call upon the U.S. government to stop the USDA’s proposed rule, which will further increase already dangerous line speeds in poultry processing.”
Omaid Zabih of Nebraska Appleseed also testified about the industry-wide conditions that endanger the lives and health of poultry workers, referencing reports their organization and others have published on meat and poultry workers’ experiences (e.g., The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers and Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers) as well as research findings. I gave a brief statement about the decades’ worth of findings in the peer-reviewed literature and government research about health problems among workers in these industries. But the stars of the hearings were three workers and the mother of a worker killed on the job, who shared firsthand stories of the awful toll of unsafe working conditions in meat and poultry-processing plants.
“What I wanted … was to be treated like a human being”
Teresa Martinez packed 40-50 hams per minute, for eight hours a day, for more than four years at a Nebraska meatpacking plant. When she first reported shoulder pain, her employer gave her pills and ice; then, they cut her hours. “What I wanted … was to be treated like a human being and not some replaceable machine,” Martinez told the commission, but supervisors kept hounding the workers to speed up production. Eventually, the pain was so bad that she couldn’t lift her baby, or even raise her arm. After three years at the plant, she needed surgery — but it didn’t stop the pain. Two years later, she has stopped working at the plant, but intense pain still wakes her at night. “The doctors say the pain his permanent,” she told the Commission. “I have dreams and a family. The speed of the line broke my dream.”
Gwen Clements worked at a Kentucky poultry processing plant, layer-packing 47 chicken legs per minute. Performing those same motions day after day eventually left her with hand pain, which worsened despite medications, creams, and wrist splints from the company nurse. A neurologoist diagnosed early-stage carpal tunnel syndrome, but the company disputed it. The nurse told Clements’ supervisor to slow down the line speed and then gradually increase it — but the supervisor didn’t follow the nurse’s instructions. “I never once saw the supervisors slow down the line for anyone,” Clements explained, not even for new hires who are supposed to start working at slower speeds. “We are under too much pressure to meet the daily orders. The company does not follow its own policies.” After more than a year on the job, Clements was fired. “I believe I was fired for complaining to the company about my work-related health problems,” she told the Commission. “Unfortunately, my story is not unique. Many of my co-workers also suffered from the dangerously fast work speeds. And many were fired when their injuries got worse.”
Juan Martinez spent more than eight years trimming ribs in Nebraska meatpacking plants. After making the same cutting motions thousands of times every shift, his fingers locked; after lifting heavy buckets of meat and fat, he injured three discs in his back. His doctor set work restrictions, and the company laid him off soon thereafter. “When you’re injured, the company no longer wants you,” Martinez explained. “My friends who reported their own accidents have lost their jobs. Others hid their injuries because they feared being fired.” Juan has undergone two surgeries on his hands and two on his back, as well as many hours of therapy, but the pain doesn’t stop. He has lost strength in his hands and legs, as well as his ability to grip. “Imagine being disabled at the age of 41,” he told the Commission. “I’ve come to learn that when you’re injured on the job at the packing plants, it becomes nearly impossible to find a job. We need policies that keep the speed of the work safe. I don’t want more people to become disabled just because they’re trying to do their job.”
Lee Pearl Duff spoke about the death of her son Ronnie Duff, Sr., who worked at a Mississippi chicken processing plant until September 9, 2012, when he was pulled into an unguarded screw auger with no accessible emergency-shutoff equipment. “His left side was completely gone, the leg from the hip and the right side was completely crushed,” she told the Commission. “If they could have shut the machine off, I might have a son without any legs, but since they couldn’t shut it off, I don’t have a son.” An OSHA investigation found 43 health and safety violations at the plant, 37 of them serious. “He was a good man, just trying to take care of his family and build a life. He was only 39 years old, and he leaves behind three children of his own. Now his life is gone because someone didn’t consider him to be even as important as a bird.”
After sharing her son’s awful story, Lee Pearl Duff voiced a sentiment that we hear over and over again from family members speaking about their loved ones who were killed on the job:
No family should suffer the anguish that is now in my heart over the preventable loss of my son. … Since my son’s tragic death, it has been my number one goal to do everything within my power to prevent this devastating and senseless loss from happening to another family. In the moment that my son was caught up in this machine, he knew in an instant that he was going to die and he endured a torturous death. The mental picture of my son’s last moments on this earth will haunt me until I go to my own grave.
The condition in these plants for years has caused injuries to thousands of workers. So I come to you with a heavy heart asking that you consider my request along with the others that are being made on behalf of thousands of workers and have been injured in the poultry industry.
Responses from federal agencies and the Commission
After the petitioners spoke to the Commission about the human-rights abuses occurring the US meat and poultry industries, representatives from US government agencies also had a chance to testify. Andrew Levinson, Deputy Director of the Directorate of Standards and Guidance at OSHA, echoed several of the petitioners’ points about the high injury and illness rates among meat and poultry workers, and noted that several factors — repetition, force, posture, and temperature — can affect the development of musculoskeletal disorders. He explained that OSHA has limited enforcement resources and that the agency’s rulemaking process takes many years to complete. Levinson mentioned several steps OSHA is taking to address worker health and safety in these industries, including a National Emphasis Program on amputations, partnerships with the consulates of several Latin American countries whose citizens work in meat and poultry processing, and outreach to vulnerable workers (in Spanish as well as English) that stresses the confidentiality of complaints filed with OSHA.
Rachel Edelstein, Assistant Administrator of the Office of Policy and Program Development at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS), spoke about the need to modernize poultry inspections to better address the bacteria responsible for foodborne illnesses. (It’s worth noting that many food inspectors and food-safety advocates warn that the proposed system will not only be harmful to workers, but will likely fail to improve food safety.) Edelstein testified that FSIS does not have authority or expertise on worker safety, but will continue to collaborate with OSHA. This was a disappointingly vague response, but it wasn’t surprising.
Commissioners’ questions following the testimony were focused mainly on better understanding the problem, including how meat and poultry processing conditions affect immigrants and how unions are, or could be, involved. Commissioner Emilio Álvarez Icaza commented that it appears US agencies are not doing enough to address the problem. Commissioner Rose-Marie Antoine, who chaired the hearing, told the audience that the Commission will continue to monitor the situation.
It remains to be seen whether USDA will issue a final version of its “modernization” rule, which will shift food-inspection responsibility from federal inspectors to poultry companies and allow processing plants to run their lines at speeds beyond the worker-damaging pace allowed today. With their appearance before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, poultry workers and advocates continue to show why we need to be just as concerned about working conditions as we are about food safety.