“Cows don’t know holidays,” says Alfredo Gomez, a 56-year-old dairy worker in southeastern New Mexico. “Here, there’s no Christmas.”
That’s an opening quote from Joseph Sorrentino’s article on the conditions dairy farm workers face in New Mexico, where he reports that milk production topped $1.5 billion last year and the industry employs thousands of workers. Published yesterday in In These Times, the article chronicles the dangerous conditions that farm workers face as well as the lives of dairy farm animals. Sorrentino reports:
“There’s no training — you just start working,” says Gustavo Varela, who, along with his brother José, were the only two workers willing to have their real names used. Gustavo worked at dairies for 10 years, feeding calves. Angelica Rosario, one of the very few female dairy workers, worked as a milker for a year and a half and agrees with Varela. “You just watch other people” to learn the job, she says.
The lack of training endangers not only cows, but also workers. Working with large animals poses a real risk of injury. In 2012, (Tess) Wilkes was part of a team at the (New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty) that interviewed about 60 workers from various dairies in the state. Almost 80 percent of the workers said they had never received any safety training.
Most of the cows are docile, but not all. “The younger ones are dangerous,” says Antonio Jiménez, who worked in a dairy outside of Roswell during high school. “They don’t know how to be milked and [they] kick. Sometimes the ones that have just given birth [are dangerous], too.” The NMCLP survey found that 53 percent of the workers interviewed had been injured on the job, often more than once, and sometimes seriously.
Sorrentino reports that New Mexico has long exempted dairies and farms from having to insure people working directly with animals, though a 2011 lawsuit found that exemption unconstitutional. Still, an appeal from the state’s Workers’ Compensation Administration has the decision in limbo. In addition, dairy farm owners aren’t required to give workers breaks. Sorrentino writes: “Although some workers say they get a lunch break — ranging from 30 minutes to just 5 — the majority say they get no breaks.” He goes on to write:
Workers in New Mexico’s dairy regions don’t have many options for work. In the southeast, it’s the dairies or the oil fields, which pay better but are more dangerous and farther from workers’ homes. In the south central region, it’s dairies or farm work, which pays even less. So workers stay quiet and trudge in day after day, knowing how little they’re valued. Every worker interviewed for this article was asked if they believed dairy owners valued cows or workers more. Without hesitation, each answered, “Cows.”
In other news:
Chicago Tribune: Today, Chicago’s City Council voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2019 — the current statewide rate is $8.25. Reporter Hal Dardick writes that the city’s minimum wage workers will get their first increase next July, when the minimum wage will go up to $10 an hour. From there, the minimum wage will go up by 50 cents in July 2016, another 50 cents in July 2017, $1 in July 2018 and finally by another $1 in July 2019. However, Dardick quoted Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, a member of the Raise Chicago coalition, as saying: “Thirteen dollars is a good place to start, but it does leave out huge swaths of the population — hotel workers, domestic workers, tip workers. It’s a good place to start, a good first step, but we have to keep on fighting, we have to push for more so we have a fair wage for everyone.”
The New York Times: Writer Benjamin Mueller reports on the death of Delfino Jesus Velazquez Mendizabal, who died after becoming trapped under a collapsed mezzanine at a car dealership on Staten Island. At the time of the incident, the building’s interiors were being demolished by Formica Construction Inc., which Mueller reports has a history of documented workplace hazards. He writes: “One of the construction company’s owners, Kenneth Formica, pleaded guilty in 2007 to criminally negligent homicide in a case stemming from the death of a worker who was buried when a trench collapsed. Mr. Formica was sentenced to 16 weekends in jail after admitting he knew that the trench, which he helped dig, was unsafe, according to court documents.”
NIOSH Science Blog: Keeping in mind all the workers who made our Thanksgiving celebrations possible, NIOSH Science Blog writer Vern Putz-Anderson, coordinator of NIOSH’s Wholesale and Retail Trade Sector, reminds readers that the grocery store workers who lift and stock shelves with those tons of turkeys, stuffing and vegetables are at risk for serious musculoskeletal injuries. Anderson reports that nearly 2.5 million cashiers and stocking clerks are at risk for such injuries that stem from overexertion — injuries that account for 41 percent of injury and lost work in grocery stores. To prevent such injuries, Anderson pointed readers to NIOSH’s “Ergonomic Solutions for Retailers: Prevention of Material Handling Injuries in the Grocery Sector.”
Philadelphia Magazine: Philadelphia’s Task Force on Paid Sick Leave has issued an official recommendation to Mayor Michael Nutter that the city pass legislation requiring employers to offer paid sick leave to employees. Reporter Joel Mathis writes that the “recommendation had been expected since Mayor Nutter reversed course over the summer — after vetoing two sick leave bills — and said he would support such a measure, pending a report from a task force on the topic.” Among its recommendations, the task force called for a policy that applies to businesses with 15 or more employees and that would allow workers to accrue one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked. The task force also recommended that businesses with fewer than 15 workers let those workers take unpaid sick leave without fear of losing their jobs.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Development Programme, and serving as dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, James "Gus" Speth has seen his own ideas about environmental issues change dramatically over the years. Yale Environment 360 asked Speth five questions about his new memoir, Angels by the River; his growing recognition of the global nature of environmental problems; and his dissatisfaction with the state of the environmental movement in the United States.
A few of the recent pieces I’ve liked:
Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic: Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid
Danielle Paquette in The Washington Post: An Obamacare program helped poor kids and saved money. It was also doomed to fail.
Richard Florida at CityLab: This Holiday Season, Let’s Turn Retail Jobs Into Middle-Class Ones
Gabrielle Glaser at ProPublica: Twelve Steps to Danger: How Alcoholics Anonymous Can Be a Playground for Violence-Prone Members
Emily Eakin in The New Yorker: The Excrement Experiment: Treating disease with fecal transplants
The goofy Thanksgiving tradition took place at the White House again this year: the pardoning of a turkey. Two gobblers, “Mac” and “Cheese,” were competing for the Presidential dispensation which was determined by votes on Twitter. Wednesday morning, I received a White House news alert inviting me to watch a live feed of the pardoning ceremony. I tuned in, faintly hoping that the President would use the lighthearted event—which gets plenty of news coverage each year—for a serious purpose. Would the President raise up and thank the workers who grow, tend, harvest and pack much of the food on our Thanksgiving tables and that we eat throughout the year. I listened closely. It didn’t happen.
Obama started the event by mentioning:
“Normally we do this outside, but the weather’s not cooperating.”
I thought of farm workers who toil in the heat, the cold, the mud and the mist. They can’t go inside when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Then President joked:
“Let’s face it, if you’re a turkey and you’re named after a side dish, your chances of escaping Thanksgiving dinner are pretty low.”
I wondered about the chances a farmworker family has in escaping the low-wage, body-breaking work for a better job and living.
“Mac” and “Cheese,” the President announced:
“Will get to live out the rest of their days at a Virginia estate with 10,000 acres of roaming space.”
The fresh air and open space for the gobblers brought images to my mind of farm workers.The most vivid are those by the talented photojournalist Earl Dotter. His “Farmworkers Feed Us All” exhibit captures the determination and spirit of migrant workers in Maine who tend to and harvest broccoli, blueberry, cranberry, apple, and other crops. The low-wage work takes it toll on their bodies.
Wouldn’t it be something if this silly turkey-pardon tradition was be replaced (or enhanced) with an annual Thanksgiving tribute to workers along the food chain? They are the workers who tend to the crops and livestock, harvest and package the food, slaughter and prep the meat, poultry and fish, drive the trucks to deliver it, and cook and serve it. Let’s face it, Thanksgiving is all about the food—the family favorites and the trying some new recipe—so who better to thank than the workers who make all that good eating possible?
P.S. Less than a week before the President pardoned “Mac” and “Cheese,” the film “Food Chains” was released in theatres nationwide. (It’s also available on iTunes.) The documentary recounts the campaign started more than a decade ago by tomato farm workers in Immokalee, Florida to earn better wages and working conditions. Their fight to earn an additional penny per pound had them ultimately negotiating with giants such as McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Sodexo and Aramark. (We’ve written before about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (here, here.))
Children who have the opportunity to attend full-day preschool programs, versus part-day programs, tend to score higher on school readiness measures such as language, math, socio-emotional development and physical health, according to a recent study. So, why is this finding important to public health? Because education has literally been described as an “elixir” for lifelong health and wellbeing.
When it comes to the upstream factors that can put people on a lifelong trajectory toward longer life expectancy, greater health and less chance of disability and disease, educational achievement is one of the key determinants. In fact, public health researchers have tapped education as one of the strongest predictors of health later in life. And a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) finds that access to high-quality early childhood programs that promote school readiness for young kids ages 3 to 4 years old can put them on the right path toward education achievement and, hopefully, better health. Researchers Arthur Reynolds, Brandt Richardson, Momoko Hayakawa, Erin Lease, Mallory Warner-Richter, Michelle Englund, Suh-Ruu Ou and Molly Sullivan write:
In addition to increasing the amount of learning time, full-day preschool can increase continuity in learning as children avoid multiple education placements during the day; reduce family stress by increasing time for parents to pursue employment and education; and promote long-term effects on well-being. Although evidence from prior studies is meager, implementation of full-day preschool within a high-quality, evidenced-based model may be particularly cost-effective, especially for children exposed to early adversity.
To conduct the study, researchers examined a group of predominantly low-income, ethnic minority children enrolled in full- and part-day preschool programs among 11 Chicago schools during the 2012–2013 school year. At the end of the preschool year, researchers evaluated a number of school readiness skills and related measures. They found that compared to children participating in part-day preschool, children enrolled in full-day preschool had higher scores on socio-emotional development measures, language, math and physical health. Scores between the two groups were not significantly different for cognitive development and literacy.
In addition, children in full-day preschool had higher rates of attendance and lower rates of chronic absences, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more days of school. No significant difference was detected between the two groups in regard to parental school involvement.
Overall, full-day preschoolers had a significantly higher rate of mastery on the “total readiness metric,” with nearly 81 percent of full-day preschoolers at or above the national average on four or more readiness measures. In comparison, only about 59 percent of part-day preschoolers achieved similarly high readiness scores. In other words, more time spent in preschool was associated with 17 percent to 38 percent increases in young children meeting national norms in language, math, socio-emotional development and literacy.
In an editorial accompanying the study, author Lawrence Schweinhart, president of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Michigan, wrote that while the study did find statistically significant benefits to full-day preschool, it might not be enough to persuade decision-makers that funding more opportunities for full-time preschool is justified. Still, he wrote, it’s a discussion worth having.
“This must be debated and discussed by parents, educators and policy-makers and the longer-term effects and economic returns studied,” Schweinhart writes. “But the findings are large enough to assure parents and the rest of the public that the positive benefits found for high-quality part-day preschool were found in high-quality full-day preschool to an even greater extent.”
The JAMA study noted that publicly funded preschool such as Head Start and state prekindergarten programs serve about 42 percent of U.S. 4-year-olds, though most only offer part-day programs. Also, only 15 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Months before the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in Texas, the state’s public health laboratory had begun preparing for the disease to reach U.S. shores. And while the virus itself is an uncommon threat in this country, the response of the nation’s public health laboratory system wasn’t uncommon at all — in fact, protecting people’s health from such grave threats is exactly what public health laboratorians are trained to do.
“Having that preparedness background, we’re always ready to get that call at 3 in the morning,” said Grace Kubin, director of the Laboratory Services Section at the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Our staff is already in that mindset, they know they have to be on top of their game all the time. …When you hear about Ebola and hear about the deaths, it makes people pause and rightly so — it’s a deadly disease. But because of their training, the lab staff are able to work through that and get the job done.”
Frenzied news coverage of Ebola in the U.S. may have given the impression that the nation’s public health system was scrambling to respond. The truth, though, is that confronting and containing a disease like Ebola through identification, investigation, science, education and prevention is exactly what the public health system is designed to do. And since the terrorist attacks of 2001, state and local public health departments have received billions in preparedness funding to strengthen the system’s capacity to respond to all types of hazards, including infectious diseases such as Ebola. One of the critical foundations of that system is the public health laboratory. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that the public health laboratorians who quickly and accurately identify dangerous diseases and keep in close contact with sentinel labs throughout their communities provide the foundation for the vital disease containment work that follows.
In Texas, the state public health lab that diagnosed the first U.S. Ebola case is part of the Laboratory Response Network (LRN), which became operational in 1999 and is charged with “maintaining an integrated network of state and local public health, federal, military, and international laboratories that can respond to bioterrorism, chemical terrorism and other public health emergencies,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, there are more than 150 members within the LRN, representing every U.S. state, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico and South Korea. Texas was among the first dozen of LRN labs to receive the Ebola detection test kit, which was developed at the Department of Defense and which received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August.
That same month, CDC contacted the Texas state public health lab about Ebola testing, Kubin told me. The lab was a perfect choice — its staff was already highly skilled in handling dangerous infectious and bioterrorism agents. After Kubin received approval from the state health commissioner to move forward with Ebola testing, preparations began. The lab received its first Ebola test kit in August. The test is known as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and it’s a “test that our team is very familiar with running,” Kubin said. To make sure lab staff could accurately use the test, CDC sent them a blind sample panel (or a qualification panel). Staff don’t know what the panel contains and have to effectively deploy the test kit — following its protocols precisely to a tee — to get the correct result. The lab heard from CDC in late August that it had passed the qualification panel on its first attempt.
Kubin and her lab colleagues also began working with epidemiologists within the health department’s Emerging and Acute Infectious Disease Branch to ensure that the proper criteria were in place to determine who would be screened for Ebola. (Kubin noted that the department’s epidemiologists are accustomed to working with local health care providers any time the state experiences a serious outbreak, such as measles or food-borne illness. They’re able to really hone in on the risk factors related to Ebola, which has symptoms similar to many other diseases, and isolate the cases that should be referred for testing, Kubin told me.) Once the epidemiologist gets approval from CDC to test a patient for Ebola, lab staff work with health care providers to make sure blood samples are drawn correctly and the sample is safely packaged and shipped.
On Monday, Sept. 29, at 3 a.m. in the morning, Kubin got notice of a possible Ebola case in Dallas. (That patient was Thomas Eric Duncan, who traveled to Texas from Liberia and who eventually succumbed to the virus.) Later that same day, CDC gave approval for the Texas lab to test Duncan for Ebola, and a specimen was shipped to the lab the next day. The lab received the specimen at 9:07 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 30. Results were in just hours later at 1:22 p.m. In addition to testing Duncan, the Texas lab also tested specimens from the two nurses who contracted Ebola while caring for Duncan.
While I was talking to Kubin about the lab’s role in containing Ebola, it was clear that while Ebola is certainly an unusual threat to face in Texas, the lab’s response is hardly out of the ordinary. Her message was clear: This is what we do — this is what we train for. Like all labs in the LRN, the Texas public health lab has “Biosafety Level 3” capacity, which means it has the training, infrastructure and resources to test for infectious agents that can cause serious and lethal diseases. As an LRN member, the Texas lab also works with hospital and commercial labs (also known as sentinel labs) to provide training on testing as well as how to safely package and ship specimens. (Not surprisingly, when I spoke with Kubin in early November, the lab’s upcoming packaging and shipping training was completely full.)
Kubin credited much of her lab’s emergency capacity, in part, to federal public health preparedness funds. Unfortunately, as of fiscal year 2013, funding for CDC preparedness and response activities was down by $1 billion since funding began in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“That funding has allowed us to be ready to handle Ebola,” Kubin said. “That was our foundation, that was our infrastructure. The funding we receive today pays for people who do the work and supports the facility we’re working in. These are highly specialized lab facilities and a huge amount goes into making the people and the environment safe. There will always be ongoing and recurring costs.”
To the west in Arizona, Victor Waddell, laboratory director of the Arizona Public Health Laboratory at the Arizona Department of Health Services, noted that “yes, labs are expensive…but in this instance, we can show the value that people are getting for their money.”
Waddell is referring to his lab’s capacity to test for Ebola. A member of the LRN, the Arizona lab received the Ebola test kit in early October and passed the validation panel on its first attempt. Like their public health lab colleagues in Texas, responding to the Ebola threat is part and parcel of what the Arizona lab does on a routine basis. Arizona public health lab staff regularly take part in drills and activities that exercise the lab’s response and surge capacity; staff also work with sentinel labs throughout the state to provide biosafety, packaging and shipping training. (When I spoke with Waddell in late October, he said the lab had been fielding many calls a day, mostly from sentinel labs with questions about developing a response plan and safely packaging and shipping specimens for testing.) As part of their Ebola response, Waddell said the lab began posting extra guidance for sentinel labs, emphasizing the need to ramp up biosafety supplies and personal protective equipment. The Arizona lab’s capacity and training mean that it’s able to test for Ebola and procure a result within six hours of receiving a specimen.
“Being in the lab, we think a lot differently about these things because we’ve been brought up to know how to handle these types of infectious diseases,” Waddell told me. “You can ask people in the lab if it scares them and they’d say, ‘no, we handle (these types of agents) all the time.’ …From a lab perspective, we’re here to help people, we’re here to make sure the (public health) system can respond effectively. It’s really key for the lab response to be a part of this and to be able to get samples tested quickly so public health officials can make appropriate decisions.”
In fact, the work of the nation’s public health labs in response to Ebola is not much different than how they would respond to other emerging threats, said Chris Mangal, director of public health preparedness and response at the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL).
“This is a core function of public health laboratories, so this is a typical part of their routine,” Mangal told me. “This is the type of work they do day in and day out.”
As of Nov. 17, 39 U.S. public health laboratories have the ability to test for Ebola using the Department of Defense-developed test kit, which is distributed through the LRN system. According to Mangal, the LRN is the perfect mechanism for such distribution — it holds its member labs to a high standard of quality and safety and has a standardized communications network that allows laboratorians to rapidly communicate and share results with CDC. For example, it was the same network used to test for H1N1 as well as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The LRN facilitates constant dialogue and information sharing, noted Peter Kyriacopoulos, senior director of public policy at APHL.
But all of this capacity doesn’t come for free, Kyriacopoulos said. Sustainable funding is needed to support public health lab technology, procure equipment, maintain that equipment and make sure staff knows how to safely and effectively use it. Ongoing proficiency as well as surge capacity is key, Kyriacopoulos said, adding that in light of the strain that results from funding cuts, “we’re fortunate that we have not had more than one crisis develop at a time.”
“So much of our response starts with the public health lab,” he said.
According to the latest report from the World Health Organization, there have been 15,351 reported Ebola cases in eight countries with nearly 5,500 reported deaths. Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone continue to experience the worst of the global outbreak.
To learn more about the role of public health laboratories in protecting the nation from emerging diseases and threats, visit the Association of Public Health Laboratories.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
(Updates made 11/26/15 appear in [ ])
The Houston Chronicle’s Lise Olsen and Mark Collette continue their reporting of the November 15 incident at DuPont’s La Porte, TX facility that killed four workers. Wade Baker, 60, Gilbert “Gibby” Tisnado, 48, Robert Tisnado, 39, and Crystle Rae Wise 53, were asphyxiated by a release of methyl mercaptan [related to a faulty valve . A faulty valve may have been part of the problem. Alexandra Berzon at the Wall Street Journal reported the trouble may have started with a blockage in the methyl mercaptan line, and that the operation was not properly vented.]
A former employee told the reporters that DuPont is a “stickler for safety”, but what does being a safety stickler really mean? I got a hint when I saw the first news reporting about the event. A photo of DuPont officials speaking to the media outside the facility showed an electronic sign that displayed the following message:
“Please take extra precaution when driving and walking.”
Really? Be safe when driving and walking? That’s the safety message at a plant that stores hundreds of tons of highly flammable and toxic chemicals?
Messages about “being safe” is what workplace safety has boiled down to in too workplaces. Are you wearing your safety goggles? Are you holding the handrail when walking up steps? Are you wearing your seatbelt while driving the forklift?
I can’t say I’ve seen a company safety sign that says “If forced overtime is making you fatigued, you can sue us when you get injured.” Or this one: “If you have to ask for a replacement part more than once, you should shut down the production line until you get it.”
DuPont makes millions selling its trademarked Safety Training Observation Program (STOP). It’s a behavior-based safety program that is all the rage in many industries (e.g., here, here.) The company claims the program will
“prevent injuries by increasing safety awareness and helping people talk with each other about safety.”
The workers I know fully aware of what is safe. Frankly, they aren’t too interested in putting their faith in “safety talk,” they want safety action. That translates into sufficient time, investment and personnel to do a job safely. Cutting corners on maintenance, skimping on personnel, and pushing production get to the root cause of catastrophic incidents, not whether a company is a stickler for counting days without a “lost-time accident.”
What we’re learning from the Houston Chronicle’s reporters is the smoke and mirrors of DuPont’s safety performance. They quote Congressman Gene Green (D-TX) who represents the La Porte, TX area:
“The unit where workers died had been shut down for five days before the accident and workers had reported persistent maintenance problems.”
The reporters paint the picture of a facility ill-equipped to handle an emergency—an especially scary revelation given this was a petrochemical plant. It’s a workplace at risk of a catastrophic event, but that it was also [storing produced for use] methyl isocyanate (MIC)—the compound responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster. [I learned that this facility does not technically “store” MIC. They produce it for use in one of their products. Something akin to “just in time production.”] The Houston Chronicle’s reporting on problems with emergency response at the scene raises questions about the effectiveness of the seven-module emergency response curriculum that DuPont sells. Read just some of what went down at the La Porte facility on November 15 (as reported by the Chronicle’s Olsen and Collette):
- “No DuPont official contacted a special emergency industrial response network called the Channel Industries Mutual Aide (CIMA), a nonprofit formed to deal with potentially deadly disasters. … [CIMA’s chairman] said ‘(DuPont) didn’t set up an incident command center and connect with CIMA’” [Others on the scene say this is exactly true.]
- “DuPont apparently did not have enough emergency oxygen and masks on hand that Saturday for the workers who died trying to fix a leak or help others escape…” [Others say the problem wasn’t the number of emergency breathing apparatus, but that the responders weren’t properly trained and prepped to use them.]
- DuPont said in a statement ‘medical personnel could not reach the employees because they were not trained in the use of protective equipment’”
- “The firefighters didn’t know the layout of the building – a maze filled with pipes, towers, tanks and platforms. …Their breathing apparatus couldn’t provide enough air to explore the entire facility”
The Chronicle reporters note that the November 15 incident is the worst loss of life at the sprawling petrochemical complex—30 miles southeast of Houston—since the 2005 BP refinery explosion that killed 15 workers. Like this incident, the BP disaster was subject of an investigation by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB). Sadly, I’m certain that the CSB’s findings about the BP incident will sound way too familiar to the families and co-workers of Wade Baker, Gilbert and Robert Tisnado, and Crystle Rae Wise. They included:
- Cost-cutting, failure to invest and production pressures;
- Reliance on the low personal injury rate…as a safety indicator;
- A “check the box” mentality was prevalent…where personnel completed paperwork and checked off on safety policy and procedure requirements even when those requirements had not been met;
- Lacked a reporting and learning culture. Personnel were not encouraged to report safety problems and some feared retaliation for doing so. The lessons from incidents and near-misses were generally not captured or acted upon;
- Safety campaigns, goals, and rewards focused on improving personal safety metrics and worker behaviors rather than on process safety and management safety systems;
- Outdated and ineffective procedures did not address recurring operational problems during start-up, leading operators to believe that procedures could be altered or did not have to be followed during the start-up process;
- The operator training program was inadequate. The central training department staff had been reduced…simulators were unavailable for operators to practice handling abnormal situations, including infrequent and high hazard operations such as startups and unit upsets; and
- …operators were likely fatigued from working long shifts for consecutive days.
I’ve no doubt there will be dozens of engineers examining valves, pressure gadget and other machinery and parts to identify the “root cause” of the incident that stole the lives of those four workers. But the “root cause” is never the gadget or gizmo. The root cause gets to the heart of the matter and asks “why” the situation occurred in the first place. The answer to that question will not be an “unsafe behavior” by the workers, but decisions made far up the chain of command.
Occupational health and safety leaders honored, new policies adopted at American Public Health Association annual meeting
Health and safety hazards encountered by custodians, palm tree workers, day laborers, nurses, and bakery workers are just some of the dozens of different occupations examined in research presented at this year’s annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA). The association’s Occupational Health and Safety Section marked its 100th anniversary and members designed the first phase of an electronic timeline to memorialize key events in the Section’s history. A special scientific session explored the OHS Section’s history, starting with its founding co-chairs George Kober, MD and Alice Hamilton, MD, through its leadership in developing more than 100 policy statements to address timely worker health and safety issues. The OHS Section’s active involvement in APHA’s policy development process continued this year with the adoption of new policies on the following four topics:
- Breast cancer and occupational exposure — In conjunction with increasing research into the connections between breast cancer and work-related exposures, urges the U.S. surgeon general to declare an association between certain chemicals and breast cancer as well as to emphasize the importance of identifying workplace exposures that contribute to breast cancer. Calls on relevant federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, to direct breast cancer research funds toward the study of occupational exposure and risk. Also urges federal agencies to investigate the prevalence of breast cancer among certain groups of workers and raise awareness about safer chemical alternatives and risk reduction.
- Diesel exhaust and human health — Updating similar APHA policy adopted in 1999, encourages relevant federal, state and local agencies to raise public awareness on the human health dangers of diesel exhaust exposure and engage local stakeholders in lowering diesel emissions as well as work-related exposures. Calls on officials to go beyond the typical means of communication and organize awareness-raising events in partnership with state and local APHA chapters, occupational safety and health groups, environmental organizations, labor unions and industry councils. Also urges advocacy in support of stronger diesel emissions regulations and the development of cleaner, renewable transportation technologies.
- Protecting temporary workers — Citing the rapid growth of the temporary work sector, calls on Congress to reform current laws to provide labor rights to temporary workers, including the right to union representation and the ability to negotiate for equal workplace rights. Calls for expanding research on the health impacts of temporary work arrangements and urges the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to research injury rates among workers hired by temporary staffing agencies. Also urges states to adopt a number of rules regarding the temporary workforce, including requiring agreements between staffing agencies and host employers that spell out worker health and safety responsibilities.
- Late Breaker: Strengthening Ebola response and protection — Noting gaps in readiness to protect the U.S. population during recent cases of Ebola Virus Disease and the need to prepare for future disease outbreaks, calls on federal, state and local officials to restore adequate funding for preparedness for all natural and man-made infectious disease threats. Urges policymakers to invest in worker preparedness, training and protective equipment. Calls on the White House and Congress to direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to fast-track standards and guidelines addressing the health care sector and other industries. Also calls on OSHA to enforce whistleblower protections and civil liberties for workers who raise concerns about work-related infectious disease risks.
The full policy statements and recommended action steps will be released in early 2015.
The OHS Section also honored four individuals for their leadership to improve working conditions in the US and abroad. Linda Delp, PhD, MPH received the Alice Hamilton Award for her life-long contribution to improving the lives of working people. Dr. Delp was recognized for her ability to forge alliances between community groups and labor organizations, and a passion for worker empowerment, social justice and student mentoring.
Dan Neal received the Lorin Kerr Award for his outstanding efforts to improve the lives of workers. Mr. Neal, a journalist by training and with the Equality State Policy Center, has been at the forefront of efforts in Wyoming to spotlight the toll of work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths. The power and influence of oil and gas interests—the boom industries in the state—create special challenges to worker safety policy improvements. In 2014, as part of Worker Memorial Week commemorations, Mr. Neal was the lead author of a state-wide report featuring stories on the impact on families when their loved ones are killed on the job.
Terry Davidek received the Tony Mazzocchi Award to recognize his grassroots activism in the fight for workers’ health and safety rights. Mr. Davidek is a member of United Steelworkers Local 1196 (Brackenridge, PA) and the health, safety and environment (HSE) coordinator for all ATI-Allegheny Ludlum Corp. facilities across the US. Mr. Davidek was instrumental in pressing the company to establish a full-time, hourly H&S coordinator which is now widespread throughout the company. Following the death of a USW member at an in-plant railroad, Davidek ensured the investigation focused on the hazards, not the far-too-prevalent blame the worker approach fatality investigations. Mike Wright, USW director of HSE, noted that Davidek’s work “continues the legacy of Tony Mazzocchi.”
Kalpona Akter received the OHS Section’s International Award for her outstanding achievement exposing the harsh and deadly working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry. At age 12, Ms. Akter began working in a garment factory. She was only 15 years old when she led her first strike to demand safe and respectful work, and was promptly fired and blackballed. Ms. Akter established in 2001 the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). Her criticism of the industry and her government has landed her in jail. But Akter’s truth telling is confirmed time and again when garment factory fires and disasters kill workers. BCWS was on the forefront of massive protests by garment workers following the April 2013 Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse that killed 1,134 workers.
The OHS Section’s annual meeting at APHA brings together the best of public health: solid research, community-based methods, policy and politics, research-to-action, social justice and solidarity.
Juan Carlos Reyes’ work-related death could have been prevented. That’s how I see the findings of federal OSHA in the agency’s citations against his employer, Angel AAA Electric, LLC. The 35-year-old was working at a construction site in Harlingen, TX for a new Marriott hotel. He suffered fatal traumatic injuries in May 2014 when he fell from scaffolding while moving supplies into a fourth floor window. I wrote about the incident shortly after it was reported by local press.
Federal inspectors out of OSHA’s Corpus Christi, TX office conducted an inspection of the worksite following Reyes’ death. The agency recently issued citations to Angel AAA Electric, LLC for one willful and five serious violations and proposed a $36,400 penalty. Those violations include failing to ensure that scaffolding was erected by a qualified person and to use a fall arrest system when using a scaffold.
When the local press initially reported Juan Carlos Reyes’ death, they called it an accident. An “accident” suggests the circumstances were unforeseen or could not have been avoided. OSHA’s findings tell a different story. Call it cutting corners, call it poor management, call it breaking the law. Whatever you want to call it, Juan Carlos Reyes’ work-related death could have been prevented, it was no accident.
Congress and science: White House threatens to veto bills that would change EPA science advisory boards and limit EPA use of science
Often unwatched by all but policy-wonks yet key to determining policies put forth by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Boards. These boards consult with the EPA on the science that influences regulations, particularly on individual chemicals – science that’s used to protect the public from chemical hazards. On Tuesday the House passed a bill, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2013 or H.R. 1422, that would change how the EPA selects Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) members. The White House, in a statement from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said that if presented with the bill, the President’s senior advisors will recommend a veto. “H.R. 1422 would negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB,” wrote OMB.
The bill was sponsored by Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), and passed the House on a vote of 229 to 191 – on what amounts to a party-line vote, with one Republican voting against the bill and only 4 Democrats voting in favor. All of the bill’s 21 co-sponsors are also Republican.
If passed, the new law would require that ten percent of SAB members be employed by a state, local or tribal government, regardless of any scientific expertise. It also would prohibit an SAB member from participating in “advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review and evaluation of their own work,” but does not clearly define what indirect involvement means. “Determining the practical meaning of “indirect” involvement will be difficult and consequently problematic to implement,” writes the OMB. The bottom line on the bill is that its provisions could mean excluding scientists from the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Boards in order to meet its membership requirements. In the White House’s view, H.R. 1422, would also add additional requirements that could make it harder for the science panels to carry out their work.
Rep. Stewart told The Hill that the measure would ensure the advisory boards would held accountable. Speaking to The Hill from the other side of the aisle was New Jersey Democrat, Representative Rush Holt who said, “While it sounds good to say you are increasing transparency, in reality this simply strengthens the role of special interests’ biased interests in the process.”
House passes “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014″ – White House threatens veto
The White House has also threatened to veto H.R. 4012, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 that OMB says would, “impose arbitrary, unnecessary, and expensive requirements that would seriously impede the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ability to use science to protect public health and the environment, as required under an array of environmental laws, while increasing uncertainty for businesses and States.”
The bill passed Wednesday afternoon, November 19th, 237 to 190, also largely on party lines with one Republican voting against the bill and 8 Democrats in favor. An amendment offered by Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) and Katherine Clark (D-MA) that would have, within the bill, allowed EPA to use all peer-reviewed scientific publications failed 230 to 194.
H.R. 4012 would, as summarized in a House report, “prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.”
Yet in OMB’s view, “H.R. 4012 could be used to prevent EPA from finalizing regulations until legal challenges about the legitimate withholding of certain scientific and technical information are resolved. The bill also could prevent EPA from making crucial decisions, including those concerning the cleanup of contaminated sites, if the data supporting those decisions cannot, for legitimate reasons, be made publicly available.”
OMB explains that if, for example, some important scientific data is subject to confidential business information provisions the bill could be used to prevent EPA from taking any action based on the protected data. “In short,” writes OMB, “the bill would undermine EPA’s ability to protect the health of Americans, would impose expensive new mandates on EPA, and could impose substantial litigation costs on the Federal government. It also could impede EPA’s reliance on the best available science.”
In a blog post published on The Hill’s public health page, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called H.R. 4012, “an insidious attack on the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect the health of Americans and the environment.” The bill’s “true intent,” writes Rep. Johnson, “is to delay EPA action because that is what industrial polluters want. H.R. 4012 is not only bad for public health, but it is also bad for the taxpayer. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the bill as reported would cost American taxpayers as much as $1 billion dollars over four years.”
H.R. 4012 was sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ). All 53 of its co-sponsors are Republicans.
A third bill, that – like H.R. 4012 and 1422 – may portend what we’ll be seeing more of in the 114th Congress when it comes to science is H.R. 4795. This is the Promoting New Manufacturing Act, sponsored by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who, speaking to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, called the measure “a bi-partisan jobs bill.” The bill, which has entirely Republican co-sponsors, passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee 30 to 19. The White House OMB said in a statement that the bill “would impose arbitrary and unnecessary requirements that could weaken the public health and environmental protections of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and would increase uncertainty for businesses and States.” The OMB is recommending a veto on this bill as well. According to the Times-Picayune, H.R. 4975 is slated for a vote on Thursday November 19th.
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, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.