Steve McGraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), told members of the Texas legislature that responsibility for informing residents about the chemical hazards in their communities—-such as at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas—-falls to local officials. The Dallas Morning-News‘ Brandon Formby reports from the first public hearing to examine the circumstances that led to the catastrophic April 17 explosion. The inquiry was held by the Texas Legislature’s House Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety.
“It’s a local up,” DPS Director Steve McCraw said during a legislative hearing in Austin. “It’s not a state down.”
The State DPS officials also noted that local fire marshals are charged with inspecting fertilizer plants, but as the Houston Chronicle’s report from the same hearing explains,
West, Texas depended on a volunteer fire department, [it] did not have a fire marshal.
According to Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, one State official said there are 41 facilities in Texas that blend large amounts of ammonium nitrate. He added:
“It became clear during the two-hour hearing that no state agency—eight testified at the hearing—- is charged with specifically regulating safety at chemical plants. Rather, state agencies focus on air emissions, fertilizer quality and preventing theft.”
The chairman of the Committee, State Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) noted that “lawmakers have been inundated with questions from constituents in the blast’s aftermath.” He also predicted that the magnitude of the disaster deserves national attention to ensure communities are protected from chemical hazards. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, announced that she intends to hold a hearing to look into the West Fertilizer disaster. The Senator’s announcement said:
“We must ensure that facilities like the one in West are complying with chemical safety laws. We will look at how the laws on the books are being enforced and whether there is a need to strengthen them.”
As the official investigations proceed, I hope we learn more about whether all the responsibility fell just “to the locals.”
Yesterday, FDA announced that it has approved Teva Women’s Health, Inc.’s application to market its Plan B One-Step emergency contraceptive for women ages 15 and up. The press release notes that this application was pending before a federal judge ordered the agency to make Plan B available without any age restrictions; the 15-and-up change is “independent of that litigation and this decision is not intended to address the judge’s ruling.”
(A quick refresher: In December 2011, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg’s decision that Plan B should be available over the counter without age restrictions; instead, Secretary Sebelius lowered the age at which a woman can obtain Plan B from a pharmacist without a prescription from 18 to 17. Last month, a federal judge overturned the age restriction.)
Anything that improves women’s access to effective forms of contraception is a step in the right direction. And yesterday’s FDA announcement isn’t an improvement just because it extends emergency contraceptive access to 15- and 16-year-olds (although that’s certainly worthwhile); it also reduces the barriers women of any age face when trying to obtain Plan B quickly. Given that the drug’s effectiveness depends on being taken promptly after unprotected intercourse, speed matters. Up until now, Plan B has only been available from a pharmacist, who must then verify the purchaser’s age with an ID. Pharmacy hours tend to be limited, and when my colleague Susan Wood tried to purchase Plan B following the 2011 decision, she had to visit three stores to find an open pharmacy counter, then stand in two different lines in order to show her ID and make the purchase. Now, FDA announces that the product will be available in retailers’ family planning sections and during hours when these stores’ pharmacies are closed, and cashiers can check IDs:
The product will now be labeled “not for sale to those under 15 years of age *proof of age required* not for sale where age cannot be verified.” Plan B One-Step will be packaged with a product code prompting a cashier to request and verify the customer’s age. A customer who cannot provide age verification will not be able to purchase the product. In addition, Teva has arranged to have a security tag placed on all product cartons to prevent theft.
In addition, Teva will make the product available in retail outlets with an onsite pharmacy, where it generally, will be available in the family planning or female health aisles. The product will be available for sale during the retailer’s normal operating hours whether the pharmacy is open or not.
For women ages 15 and up who have government-issued IDs, access to emergency contraception is getting easier. Now, we just need to wait and see how HHS responds to last month’s court decision: will it appeal, or will it eliminate all age restrictions on emergency contraception?
Update, 5/2: At about the same time I was writing this post, HHS was announcing it will appeal the federal court decision.
Read the interview
Breast Cancer and the Environment (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences podcast, 3/15/2013)
I take mine black, but millions of U.S. coffee drinkers love their java beans flavored to taste like hazelnut, buttered toffee, french toast and amaretto. One supplier in Florida boasts of 47 different flavors. Fans of flavored coffee beans pay a premium for them, but some workers in the bean processing plants are paying a steeper price: their health.
This week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describes cases of obliterative bronchiolitis diagnosed in two individuals who worked at a Texas coffee-processing company. Bronchiolitis obliterans is a rare and serious obstructive lung disease with no cure, except for a lung transplant. One of the individuals, a 34 year old woman (non-smoker), worked at several jobs in the plant, including the “flavoring room.” The report explains:
“There, whole roasted coffee beans were mixed with liquid flavorings in an open process, ground, and packaged. Her primary tasks included operating the grinding and packing machines for these flavored coffee beans.”
The other individual, a 39 year old man (non-smoker) also worked in the flavoring room.
“His job involved open bench-top weighing of liquid flavorings, which he poured into barrels of roasted coffee beans. A machine rotated these open barrels while he stood nearby to monitor the process.”
This is not the first time we’ve heard of workers exposed to flavoring agents and then developing this irreversible lung disease. Not quite 10 years ago, another MMWR described cases of bronchiolitis obliterans in workers who’d been employed at microwave popcorn manufacturing plant in Missouri. They too were exposed to the flavoring chemicals, including a ketone called diacetyl.
The workers’ illnesses didn’t attract much attention until Denver resident Wayne Watson developed the same disease. He never worked at a microwave popcorn factory, but developed it by inhaling several times a day the hot butter-smelling vapors from his favorite snack. Popcorn manufacturers quickly removed the butter-flavoring agent diacetyl from their microwave products, but some of the substitutes may pose similar risk of respiratory damage (see studies: here, here) A 2013 study found workers at the microwave popcorn plants had a higher rates of respiratory disease mortality than the general population.
Now come this report of the same disabling respiratory disease in other workers exposed to flavoring agents. The coffee-bean production workers first developed a cough and shortness of breath on exertion. Treatment with steroids did not resolve their symptoms and eventually, both were referred to a pulmonologist. Additional testing and lung biopsies resulted in the diagnosis of obliterative bronchiolitis related to their work. The authors of the MMWR piece write:
“Especially of note is the short employment tenure of affected workers and their apparent rapid decline in lung function. Although these patients were symptomatic within <18 months of work, their illness initially was unrecognized, leading to a diagnostic delay of 8–14 months. This is consistent with the natural history of obliterative bronchiolitis, which differs significantly from much chronic obstructive lung disease, where decline is slow and risk factors more apparent.”
The authors correctly report that there is no specific federal workplace safety regulation designed to protect workers exposed to diacetyl or other flavoring agents. There wasn’t one 10 years ago when the microwave popcorn workers were afflicted, and there’s still not one on the books.
After the popcorn workers’ lung cases came to light, worker organizations in July 2006 petitioned Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for an emergency standard from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers from the flavoring hazard. The petition was denied. Shortly after taking office in March 2009, Obama’s Labor Secretary Hilda Solis suggested that OSHA would move expeditiously to protect workers from this hazard. She announced:
“I am alarmed that workers exposed to food flavorings containing diacetyl may continue to be at risk of developing a potentially fatal lung disease. Exposure to this harmful chemical already has been linked to the deaths of three workers. These deaths are preventable, and it is imperative that the Labor Department move quickly to address exposure to food flavorings containing diacetyl…”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) prepared a draft risk assessment and technical document to assist OSHA in developing a proposed rule. Although the NIOSH document was peer reviewed about a year ago, OSHA’s not on a fast track to address the hazard of diacetyl or other food flavoring agents with a new regulation. The agency’s most recent agenda of regulatory priorities lists this hazard under the category “long-term action.”
But even without a federal regulation, shouldn’t the users of these flavoring agents be aware of the inhalation risk for their workers? Didn’t coffee bean processors read or hear the coverage about popcorn workers’ lung and its relationship to butter flavor?? Don’t the firms that sell these flavoring agents, such as Flavor & Fragrance Specialties Inc., Carmi Flavor and Fragrance Co. Inc. and Mission Flavors & Fragrances Inc., post warnings on their products about the health risks of inhalation exposure? What have the flavor manufacturers done to ensure that users of their products are not harmed by them?
And then there’s the Food and Drug Administration. Diacetyl and other flavoring agents are technically regulated by FDA as food additives. FDA takes a hands-off view about these flavoring agents because they carry a long-standing designation “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). But that GRAS label pertains only to the flavoring additive when eaten. For workers exposed to these compounds in food manufacturing—from microwave popcorn and coffee beans, to snack food, candy and dog food—-it’s more clear than ever that flavor additives of this sort are anything but safe.
“Fight for 15” takes to the streets in Chicago: Fast-food and retail workers demonstrate for raise beyond their lower-than $10 average wage
by Elizabeth Grossman
On April 24th, hundreds of workers at fast-food restaurants in Chicago staged a one-day walk-out to demonstrate for a raise to $15 an hour and the right to form a union. Striking workers included employees of Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Subway, Popeyes Chicken, Macy’s, Nordstrom Rack, Sears, Lands’ End, Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods. Some stores were unable to open or forced to close when all workers who were not management either walked out or did not report to work. Photos from Chicago show lines of striking workers stretching for several blocks.
Among them was Charde, who is 21, the mother of a 3 year-old and a 5 month-old, and works as a cashier at Sears. She’s been working there for about a year, she told me, and earns $9 an hour. Providing for a family of three with 40 hours a week at that wage would be challenging, but Sears hasn’t given Charde more than 20 hours of work a week, and her schedule changes from week to week. She said she’d recently been offered five more hours a week but that Sears has told her it has no full-time positions available. Because it isn’t full time, her job includes no benefits, and Charde says she can’t afford the healthcare insurance that’s offered through Sears. She’s also just gotten a new apartment where the rent is $650 a month. “It’s going to be a struggle, but my children make me strong,” she says.
The April 24 strike was organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago campaign called “The Fight for 15.” It is part of an ongoing effort begun last year that is supported by numerous Chicago area labor, community and other organizations, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The Chicago strike comes a few weeks after a similar one held in New York in early April, when a reported 400 fast-food restaurant workers held what’s being described as the largest such walk-out ever. A demonstration is also planned for Oakland, California on May 1.
“The $15 is the tip of the iceberg” said Reverend Liz Muñoz of St. James Episcopal Church, whose clergy are supporting the “Fight for 15” workers who rallied at the Cathedral on the 24th. “They’re asking for the right to organize” because they have no job security or benefits, she explained. “The workers are ready to take the risk and take a stand and ask for corporations to look at the human face of what’s happening in the community.”
A disparity between wages and living costs
According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, about a third of Chicago’s workforce earns $12 or less an hour. Of those who work in retail, about half earn $12 per hour or less. Approximately one-third earns less than $10 per hour, and about 20% earn less than $9 per hour. This means about a third of the people who work in Chicago earn $24,960 before taxes. According to the MIT “Living Wage Calculator,” the estimated living wage for a household with one adult and two children is $53,055 — before taxes.
Minimum wage in Chicago pays $8.25 per hour. Working full-time at that wage would earn $1320 a month or $17,160.00 annually before taxes, based on an 8-hour day and a 260-day work year. But the average weekly hours worked by non-supervisory food-service employees – like those who marched in Chicago on April 24th – is currently 24. Average weekly hours for non-managerial retail employees – again like those who marched in Chicago – is 31. Average wages for these positions in both industries is less than $10 per hour.
With the hours Sears gives her, Charde earns $180 a week, or $720 a month. This adds up to before tax income of $8640. Even with the extra five hours a week, she’ll still be nearly $9,000 below the 2013 poverty level for a family of three.
“These workers would like to be able to work full-time, but employers won’t give them the hours,” said the Rev. Muñoz. The unpredictable part-time schedules many low-wage workers juggle make it difficult to piece together the several jobs needed to make ends meet, not to mention the challenges of organizing childcare and other household responsibilities.
Charde said that about 15 Sears employees participated in the strike. “Everyone is going through the same problems,” she said. “We’re all making the same amount of money and all struggling and trying to pay our bills.”
The $15 hourly wage the striking workers are asking for would mean monthly earnings of $2400, or $31,200 for a year before taxes. According to the MIT “Living Wage Calculator,” that is about $6,000 less in after-tax income than what’s needed to support one adult and one child in Chicago, where monthly costs for modest homes run between a minimum of $600 and $800 and where a monthly Chicago Transit Authority pass is $100. Monthly food costs for a Chicago family of three – one adult and two children – MIT puts at $536. So if you are one of the 30-plus percent of Chicago workers earning $12 or less per hour that means after covering basic housing, transportation and food costs, a single parent with two children, like Charde, would be figuring out how to pay for utilities, phone, childcare, clothing and healthcare costs on less than $200 pre-tax dollars each week.
At current wage rates, many low-wage workers have to rely on public assistance to fill the gaps, says the Rev. Muñoz. She calls a living wage an investment in the community. The links between poverty and violence are well known, she says, and Chicago is one of the most violent cities in the country in terms of gun violence. “People want a secure and safer future for their children.” In addition to the most obvious adverse impacts of community violence, recent environmental health studies have shown that exposure to the stress of living in such environments can increase risk for childhood asthma and exacerbate its symptoms and also those of exposure to contaminants like lead and car exhaust.
Asked for a comment on the strike, Sears, Subway, and Whole Foods have not responded by press time (The Pump Handle will follow up when they do respond), but McDonald’s said in a statement, “”We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants.” McDonald’s also said most Chicago McDonald’s restaurants, like others around the country, are independently owned and operated. “Both our company and franchised-owned restaurants work hard every day to treat McDonald’s employees with dignity and respect. Employees are paid competitive wages and have access to a range of benefits to meet their individual needs,” the company said, noting that it offers “a variety of training and professional development opportunities” for employees “who want to go from crew to management.”
Asked for her employer’s response to the strike, Charde replied, “They haven’t said anything yet.”
When I spoke to the Rev. Muñoz on the afternoon of April 25, she told me that “today from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m” elected officials, community leaders and others were “walking workers back to their jobs.” That, she said, “sends a message to corporations that these workers have support and a message to other workers that their plight is being heard and there is support in the community. This story needs to be told until workers get fair wages.”
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, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.
by Kim Krisberg
Another day, another study that shows investing in public health interventions can make a serious dent in health care spending.
A new study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that banning smoking in all U.S. subsidized housing could yield cost savings of about $521 million every year. That total includes $341 million in secondhand smoke-related health care expenditures, $108 million in renovation expenses and $72 million in smoking-attributable fire losses. In fact, just prohibiting smoking in public housing alone would result in a savings of about $154 million annually, of which $101 million would be in health care cost savings.
To reach the estimates, researchers Brian King, Richard Peck and Stephen Babb analyzed previously estimated national and state cost data. They noted that about 7.1 million Americans lived in subsidized housing in 2009–2010, including 2.1 million people who lived in housing either owned or operated by a public housing authority. In 2009, nearly 33 percent of adults living in subsidized housing smoked cigarettes — a rate more than 10 percentage points higher than the general U.S. adult population. The study noted that secondhand smoke may pose a particularly harmful risk within subsidized housing settings, as many residents are elderly, disabled or are children. Study authors wrote:
With the increasing number of U.S. states prohibiting tobacco smoking in indoor public places, private settings are becoming relatively larger contributors to total (secondhand smoke) burden. This may be particularly true for residents of multiunit housing, where (secondhand smoke) can infiltrate smoke-free living units from units that permit smoking and shared areas.
In a news release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the study results, researcher King noted that “opening windows and installing ventilation systems will not fully eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke. Implementing smoke-free policies in all areas is the most effective way to fully protect all residents, visitors and employees from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.”
And implementing such smoke-free policies wouldn’t necessarily come up against much resistance — according to the study, a majority of subsidized housing tenants favor such rules. As of 2012, more than 250 public housing authorities had instituted smoke-free policies, however the study noted that the prevalence of such policies still remains low nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) encourages public housing authorities to voluntarily go smoke-free and provides resources to residents and housing managers to help them do so. In January 2013, more than a dozen health organizations, including the American Public Health Association, American Lung Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, sent a letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan stating that “we strongly believe that the only way to protect all residents of federally assisted multi-family housing is to adopt a nationwide smoke-free policy covering all multi-family housing under HUD’s control.”
The letter cited a Boston study released in 2009 that examined nicotine levels in 40 low-income housing units in multi-unit buildings. The study found detectable nicotine levels in 94 percent of the units, including 89 percent of units in which no one in the household smoked. The letter also noted that children living in multi-unit housing experience significantly more exposure to secondhand smoke than children who live in detached housing. The authors went on to write:
U.S. law supports many restrictions on the conduct of individuals that affect their neighbors, including prohibitions on nuisances such as excessive noise levels. Smoke-free air policies in multi-family buildings do not prohibit residents from smoking altogether; they only prohibit residents from smoking in locations that can cause harm to their neighbors. …Building-wide smoke-free air policies, therefore, do not infringe on any protected liberties or freedoms afforded to a person who smokes. Rather, such policies protect the right of all the children and nonsmokers who reside in shared indoor environments.
In addition, authors of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine study addressed concerns that smoke-free policies could “exacerbate socioeconomic disparities” by displacing low-income people who don’t want to abide by smoking bans. They reminded readers that such policies don’t prohibit smokers from living in subsidized housing and can actually help encourage smokers to quit.
According to CDC, 443,000 U.S. deaths happen every year due to cigarette smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.
To read the full study on the cost-savings of smoke-free housing policies, click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Will Tom Vilsack’s USDA keep its promise to poultry plant workers about their grueling, disabling work?
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack seems determined to implement a new poultry slaughter inspection system, despite strong calls from the food safety and public health communities for him to withdraw it. At an April 17 congressional hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittees on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA and Related Agencies, Vilsack indicated that the new regulation would be completed soon, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Opponents say the proposal will do little to improve food safety, at the same time reducing USDA’s ranks of poultry inspectors and shifting their food-safety inspection duties to the poultry producers. Without those pesky government inspectors examining the poultry carcasses, the companies will be allowed to increase production line speeds up to 175 birds per minute. Congressional Quarterly reports that Vilsack acknowledged that concerns have been raised about worker safety issues related to the program and said “we intend to address those concerns.”
Similarly, the Gadsden (AL) Times, reports that USDA’s under secretary for food safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen says they have consulted with the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure the rule “doesn’t have unintended consequences.” Hagen said she would “never put forward a rule that I thought would increase risk or reduce protections for anybody,” the paper reported.
Short of scrapping the provision to increase the line speeds—the giant carrot in the regulation promised to poultry producers—-I’m curious to learn how USDA officials will address the adverse consequences for poultry workers if the new inspection system is put in place. Is it wise for me to take Secretary Vilsack at his word that they’ll address the worker safety concerns?
As we’ve written before (here) as have others (here, here, here) the production process in many of these plants is already grueling for workers on line. USDA’s proposal will simply make matters worse. The disturbing reality came to light in new report “Unsafe at these speeds: Alabama’s poultry industry and its disposable workers,” released by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed. It’s based on interviews with 302 workers currently or previously employed in Alabama’s poultry industry, including the familiar companies named Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Wayne Farms, Koch Foods, AlaTrade Foods, Cagle’s and Equity Group. There are about 25 major poultry processing plants in Alabama, and the survey participants worked in 20 different plants. Here’s some of what you’ll read in the report:
“The processing line that whisks birds through the plant moves at a punishing speed. Over three-quarters of workers said that the speed makes their work more dangerous. It is a pre-dominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.”
“Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. …Poultry workers often endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems – tell-tale signs of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and other ailments that flourish in these plants.”
“It’s a world where employees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor. In this report, they describe being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”
“Workers would process 30,000 to 60,000 birds per shift as they raced to keep pace with the mechanized line. If a chicken became lodged in the machinery, the line would stop so it could be dislodged. Hurt workers couldn’t count on the same mercy. The processing line never slowed or stopped for them.”
Although this report’s focus is Alabama workers, I have no reason to believe that their situation is much different than poultry plant workers in other States. Their experiences, in fact, are strikingly similar to what we read in the Charlotte (NC) Observer’s 2008 series The Cruelest Cuts about workers in North Carolina’s poultry industry.
I hope that Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a personal copy to Secretary Vilsack and his under secretary for food safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. The voices of poultry workers comes through loud and clear to explain how the speed of the production line can gravely affect their health.
It doesn’t take more than a moment of thought to realize how the USDA’s proposal to change the poultry inspection system will make matters worse. Much worse.
A few of the recent pieces I’ve liked:
Mike Elk in the Washington Post: The Texas fertilizer plant explosion cannot be forgotten
Laurie Garrett in Foreign Policy: The Big One? Is China covering up another flu pandemic — or getting it right this time? (About the H7N9 flu, which has been confirmed in 108 patients in China)
Kari Lyderson at Reporting on Health: ‘That Feeling Doesn’t Go Away’: Mental Health and Undocumented Children
David Schultz in Kaiser Health News: Nurses Fighting State by State for Minimum Staffing Laws
Emily Badger at Atlantic Cities: New Chicago Plan: Pedestrians Come First
For this Workers’ Memorial Week, the National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) has released “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities,” a report that tells the stories of six workers killed on the job and promotes solutions to prevent other workers from sharing similar fates. The report notes that in 2011, 4,609 workers were killed, and construction was the deadliest industry sector, with 721 worker fatalities. The report tells the story of one construction worker killed on the job:
One day in April 2009, Orestes Martinez (29) and two co-workers were working at a construction site for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, helping to install a two-ton, lead-lined door in the radiation department of the hospital. They were moving the door by hand since no lift device was available. During the installation, the door fell on Martinez, crushing him to death.
The report includes thoughts from Adriana Martinez, Orestes Martinez’s wife. She also told her story for the six-minute video “Our loved ones died at unsafe workplaces,” which features the stories of four families who lost a loved one to a fatal work-related injury.
National COSH’s report includes several important recommendations for federal OSHA, the US Congress, and states to strengthen worker protections. In addition to those recommendations, there are steps that people in charge of building design and construction can take to protect workers at every stage of a building’s life cycle.
At last week’s Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, Christine Branche and Matt Gillen of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Office of Construction Safety and Health delivered a fascinating presentation on using a “Life Cycle Safety” approach to ensure that green buildings are safe buildings. We’ve seen a lot of interest in green buildings in recent years, as companies seek to reduce their energy use and earn environmental seals of approval like the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification. So far, however, such green certifications haven’t lived up to their potential to protect the workers who build, maintain, and eventually demolish or refurbish the buildings.
Matt Gillen’s photo of a worker fixing an HVAC system (below) captures several ways that a poorly designed building can be hazardous for workers. This worker didn’t have easy access to the machine – he had to climb a ladder to get to it, and then didn’t have enough space between the equipment and the edge of the building. Without an easily accessible power supply, he had to run an extension cord up to the roof, which presents a potential electrical hazard as well as something additional to trip over. The thing that makes me cringe the most, though, is that he’s sitting on a low parapet and looks like he could very easily fall over the edge.
NIOSH takes the perspective that “a sustainable product, process or technology should not only protect the environment and the consumer but also the worker. Green jobs must be safe jobs.” To ensure that green buildings offer safe jobs, it’s important to consider worker health and safety at the design stage. Architects and engineers should collaborate with occupational health professionals to consider how a building will be constructed, maintained, and repaired or demolished. They should consider all the hazards workers might face at each stage and modify their designs to eliminate or reduce those hazards.
Features common in green buildings can present occupational hazards if those involved in design and construction planning don’t consider workers sufficiently. Installing and maintaining solar panels, for instance, can be hazardous; workers can fall off roofs or through skylights and can be electrocuted. At the design stage, architects can reduce these hazards by ensuring workers installing, repairing, and cleaning solar panels have enough room to maneuver around the solar panels; specifying guardrails or parapets high enough to prevent workers from toppling off the roof; and including anchor, or tie-off, points for workers using safety harnesses. Ensuring easy access to the roof – e.g., by a stairway rather than a ladder – is important, too, especially because solar panels need regular cleaning to operate efficiently.
Ideally, these “upstream” modifications will reduce risks, and additional “downstream” practices can address the remaining risk. The California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program responded to a rash of deaths among construction workers installing solar panels by producing a video and fact sheets about risks and preventive measures. These include using fall protection systems and ensuring that lifts are available to hoist solar panels to the roof, so that workers aren’t trying to manually carry panels up ladders. Construction planning is important for ensuring that lift equipment is available, and it can also allow for some assembly to be done on the ground rather than on the roof. At the NIOSH presentation, I also learned that workers can use solar blankets to keep light from getting to solar panels while they’re being worked on – in essence, shutting off the electricity by blocking sunlight.
OSHA’s Fall Prevention Campaign, developed in partnership with NIOSH, lays out a three-step “Plan, Provide, Train” process for preventing falls throughout the construction industry. Their resources include educational resources for employers and workers, many of them geared to workers with limited English proficiency.
NIOSH has made progress in working with the US Green Building Council and others to integrate worker health and safety into green building design; check out their Prevention Through Design site for more. With better planning, fewer families will join Orestes Martinez’s family in grieving for a loved one killed on the job.