Read the interview.
Read the interview.
This week will mark the 90-day point of the Labor Department submitting for White House review one of its top priority regulations to protect coal miners’ health. It’s a rule to prevent black lung disease. The director of the office that conducts those reviews, Howard Shelanski, promised earlier this year during his confirmation hearing that timely review of agencies’ regulations would be a top priority. Mr. Shelanski said:
“I absolutely share the concern you just raised about timeliness. …I recognized that EO 12866 establishes the initial 90 day review process, and it would be one of my highest priorities, should I be confirmed as Administrator, to try to improve the timeliness, and the notice, and the certainty that lends to the regulatory environment.”
Shelanski’s predecessor—Presidant Obama’s friend Cass Sunstein–has a record-breaking and dismal track record for meeting the review deadlines.
The Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed a rule in October 2010 designed to prevent coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). Black lung (a.k.a. CWP) is a chronic, fibrotic and irreversible respiratory disease caused by inhaling respirable coal mine dust (comprised of coal and rock.) It’s a national disgrace that U.S. coal miners’ health is still threatened by it. CWP is 100 percent preventable if coal mine operators see to it that effective dust controls are installed and maintained.
MSHA proposed its new regulations in October 2010. A public comment period and public hearings lasted until May 31, 2011. Among the proposed provisions, the rule would reduce the permissible exposure limit for respirable coal dust from 2.0 mg/m3 to 1.0 mg/m3 (phased-in over 2 years) and change the way miners’ exposure to coal dust is measured from an average over five shifts to a single, full-shift sample, which is consistent with standard industrial hygiene practice. Importantly, the rule proposed to monitor coal dust levels in mines based on typical production levels, not when mine operators game the system when the MSHA inspector is present by conveniently slowing down production which creates less dust.
Besides the well-established epidemiological evidence that the current permissible exposure limit for coal dust is not protective, the reality of black lung disease was reinforced in findings from the April 2010 Upper Big Branch (UBB) disaster. Among the deceased UBB miners, 24 of the 29 had enough lung tissue to be examined by a pathologist, and 71% of these men had evidence of CWP. The 17 UBB miners with fibrotic disease (which is not associated in any way with cigarette smoking) ranged in age from 25 to 61 years. Nine of the men—the older ones—had more than 30 years of mining experience (i.e., exposure to respirable dust), but there were also five victims with fibrosis who had less than 10 years of mining experience. In October 2010, the Labor Department issued its proposed rule to address respirable coal dust.
After reviewing and considering feedback from affected parties, the Labor Department submitted MSHA’s final rules to prevent black lung disease to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) on August 21, 2013. This week will mark the end of the 90-day review period, established in Executive Order 12866.
Will Mr. Shelanski make good on his promise to meet deadlines? Or later this week will we see the on-line notation “Review Extended,” which will tell us it is business as usual at OIRA for new protective worker safety regulations.
While homelessness among U.S. veterans is on the decline, significant housing challenges remain, according to a new report from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
Released this week just a day after Veterans Day, the report finds that in 2011, more than a quarter of the nation’s 20 million veteran households experienced a housing cost burden (defined as spending more than 30 percent of income on housing costs and utilities) and more than 1.5 million veterans were severely cost burdened (spending more than half of their incomes on housing costs and utilities). Within those numbers, certain groups of veterans were more at risk to experience housing instability. More than 50 percent of black veteran households with incomes between 50 and 80 percent of the area median were considered housing cost burdened, compared to only 36 percent of white veterans and 48 percent of Hispanic veterans. The numbers are based on data from the 2011 American Community Survey.
“These findings confirm that veterans with low incomes suffer from the shortage of affordable, decent housing just as low-income non-veterans do,” stated the report. “Despite their sacrifice and status as people who have served in the armed forces, they are at risk of housing instability and homelessness.”
Women were also at higher risk, as veteran households headed by single women were more likely to experience a housing cost burden than single male veteran households and married households. Veterans living with a service-related disability that Veterans Affairs (VA) ranks at 70 percent or higher make up more than 25 percent of severely housing cost burdened households. In addition, veterans who recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan were more likely to be housing cost burdened than other veterans. Veteran households with children were more likely to face housing cost burdens and, unfortunately, more than 60 percent of VA-funded transitional housing programs don’t accept children or limit their numbers.
The housing statistics vary by geography as well. For example, while 71 percent of extremely low-income veteran households were severely cost burdened overall, that number went down to 37 percent in South Dakota and as high as 82 percent in Nevada, Oregon and Washington, D.C.
The report does note that homelessness among veterans is in decline, with 2012 numbers down by more than 7 percent from 2011 and more than 17 percent since 2009.
While housing instability among those who’ve put their lives on the line for the country seems especially troublesome, the report notes that affordable housing is a problem across populations. Report authors Althea Arnold, Megan Bolton and Sheila Crowley write:
Finding decent, affordable housing is a challenge for too many households in America. For every 100 (extremely low-income) renter households, there are just 30 affordable and available units (NLIHC, 2013). While veteran households overall have higher employment rates and median incomes than non-veterans (VA, 2013b), many still face housing problems. Increasing rents, stagnating wages, and the extreme shortage of affordable housing are affecting veteran households nationwide.
Housing is just one of many critical social determinants that shape veteran health. For example, according to the Urban Institute, about 1.3 million veterans went without health insurance as of 2010, and more than 900,000 adults and children within veteran families were uninsured. Also, about 900,000 veterans participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), though recent congressional proposals to slash the program’s budget could put the food security of 170,000 low-income veterans at risk.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a proposed rule that would make public much of the injury and illness data employers are already required to collect. Large employers (those with 250 or more employees) would be required to electronically submit their injury and illness records to OSHA each quarter. In certain industries with high injury and illness rates, establishments with 20 or more employees would have to submit summary data to OSHA on an annual basis. “OSHA plans to eventually post the data online, as encouraged by President Obama’s Open Government Initiative,” explains the agency’s news release.
Sean Hananel of the Associated Press notes that “Congress has resisted calls to increase the agency’s authority to impose greater fines. Public disclosure of accident reports could be another way for OSHA to increase pressure on companies to comply with safety rules.” Hananel quotes The Pump Handle’s Celeste Monforton, who points out that mine operators long had to do this kind of reporting, and “the world did not come to an end” because of it.
OSHA also recently released two new online resources to help reduce workers’ exposures to hazardous chemicals. The Transitioning to Safer Chemicals Toolkit offers step-by-step information, methods, tools, and guidance for eliminating harmful workplace chemicals and making informed substitutions of safer products or processes. The Annotated Permissible Exposure Limits (PELS) shows OSHA PELs next to exposure limits required or recommended by other entitites — the California Divsion of Occupational Safety and Health, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.
“There is no question that many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective,” OSHA head David Michaels explained in the news release about these online resources. “I advise employers, who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe, to utilize the occupational exposure limits on these annotated tables, since simply complying with OSHA’s antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe.”
The tools are great for employers who are already motivated to assure safe workplaces, but what about “low road” employers? Matt Shudtz at CPRBlog thinks the online resources can be useful in those cases, too: “With some enterprising work by enforcement officials and strong support from the Solicitor of Labor the tools could be the basis for a new wave of enforcement under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause.” For OSHA to cite an employer under the General Duty Clause, the hazard in question needs to be one that’s recognized and has a feasible means of abatement. The presence of these online resources can help make the case.
In other news:
Center for Public Integrity: After Chris Hamby’s amazing “Breathless and Burdened” Center for Public Integrity series about doctors and lawyers’ actions preventing miners from getting black lung benefits came out, Johns Hopkins Medicine suspended its black lung program pending a review. A Center-ABC News investigation found that Hopkins radiologists, especially Dr. Paul Wheeler, have consistently reported not seeing severe black lung disease in miners seeking benefits — even as other doctors have made that diagnosis for the same miners. Such negative findings can tip the balance and result in suffering miners being denied benefits.
The Salinas Californian: EPA has sent proposed revisions to its worker protection standard to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. The EPA regulation addresses how growers protect workers from pesticide exposures, and advocates have been urging the agency to strengthen the standard for several years.
Salon: A new Economic Policy Institute report highlights the many states that have weakened worker protections over the span of just two years. These include 15 states passing restrictions on union collective bargaining or paycheck deductions and four states reducing their child-labor limitations.
Huffington Post: With more than 60% of low-wage workers reporting having some pay illegally held by their employers, wage theft robs workers of an estimated $185 million every year. With inadequate federal enforcement resources, though, the average employer has around a 0.001% chance of being investigated in any one year.
In These Times: A candy factory explosion in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico killed four workers and injured dozens more. (Update, 11/18: The death toll has risen to eight workers.) The Dulces Blueberry maquiladora is associated with the US brand Sunrise Confection, which is a division of Mount Franklin Foods. A week after the explosion, the company hadn’t responded to employees families or In These Times.
At the 141st meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) held last week in Boston, the organization’s Occupational Health & Safety section honored the achievements of some extraordinarily dedicated individuals and organizations whose efforts have been advancing workplace safety. While these awards are typically most meaningful to others in the field, events taking place elsewhere around the country – among them the largest Walmart workers’ strike to date and voter approval of the country’s highest yet minimum wage – highlight the importance of this year’s award winners’ work and why their efforts matter to people who may never have heard of the APHA.
Tish Davis, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Occupational Health Surveillance program, winner of the 2013 Alice Hamilton Award. Davis has worked extensively with young workers and construction workers. She has developed programs to document the underreporting of occupational injuries and illnesses and collaborated with workers and community members to develop effective prevention programs.
Sharon Beard, industrial hygienist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Worker Education Training Program, winner of the 2013 Lorin Kerr Award. Beard helped establish the NIEHS Minority Worker Training Program and has developed safety and health training programs for low-income workers, particularly those in highly hazardous occupations.
Warehouse Workers United (WWU), which has organized warehouse workers in southern California, winner of the 2013 Tony Mazzocchi award. Started in 2009, WWU has helped win better working conditions for region’s tens of thousands of warehouse workers, the majority of whom are Latino and hired through temp agencies.
Honored with a special award was the Occupational Health Internship Program that for ten years has been helping students learn about the field of occupational health and safety by working with labor unions and community-based organizations. Since 2004, almost 200 students have worked at 11 different sites across the country in a range of industries, often with new immigrants in high-hazard jobs. OHIP is credited with inspiring a new generation of occupational health and safety professionals.
The awards were bestowed on November 5 – Election Day 2013 – a day on which New Jersey voters approved a measure to increase the state’s minimum wage from the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to $8.25. At the same time, voters in Sea-Tac, Washington voted to raise minimum wages for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport hospitality and transportation workers form $9.19 to $15 an hour – which will be the country’s highest minimum wage.
(President Obama is reported to be in support of congressional Democrats’ efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, but such a proposal is considered to have little chance of approval by House Republicans. At $10.10 an hour, an employee working 40 hours a week for 52 full weeks would earn an annual salary of $21,008. In which US community is that really a living wage?)
These awards also come at a time when the country’s income gap is greater than ever and continues to expand – the Dow Jones Industrial average hit two all-time highs last week – and the fastest growing jobs sectors are those with the lowest wages and least security. They also come not long after the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that fatal work injuries involving workers under age 16 nearly doubled between 2011 and 2012, making last year’s on-the-job deaths of young workers the highest since 2005. In the same release, BLS reported that fatal work injuries in private construction increased by 5 percent in 2012 and that of these 775 occupational fatalities, 708 were workers identified as contractors. In mining and oil and gas extraction, two other high risk occupations, occupational fatalities also rose in 2012. Those in oil and gas extraction rose by 23 percent to an all-time recorded high. At the same time, BLS reported that occupational fatalities were higher among African-American and Asian-American workers than other ethnic groups – all numbers that attest to the ongoing need for the efforts led by Beard and Davis.
The work of Warehouse Workers United was on display two days after the awards ceremony, as Walmart workers from southern California staged a strike in Los Angeles. The November 7 demonstration was organized by a coalition of groups, among them Warehouse Workers United and OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart), to protest the low wages (under $25,000 a year) hundreds of thousands of Walmart workers earn.
On Friday, November 8, I spoke to Richard Reynoso, who works at a Walmart in southern California. The day before in Los Angeles, he had participated in what is being called the largest strike of Walmart workers to date and, as he put it, “volunteered to be arrested” for civil disobedience. Reynoso works as an overnight stocker and says he made less than $15,000 last year. “There’s people who don’t get paid enough and are selling plasma to provide food for their families,” Reynoso told me. Some co-workers rely on food banks, he said. Asked how he and his family manage on this income, Reynoso said, “I can’t really say but it’s been very stressful.”
“There are also a lot of safety hazards on the job,” he said. Balers used to compress cardboard boxes are in dangerous disrepair, ladders need fixing, and ice builds up on the floor outside the walk-in freezer-cooler, he told me. Reynoso says he has brought these and other problems to managers’ attention but they haven’t been fixed promptly, so the hazards persist. When I spoke to Reynoso he hadn’t yet been back to work after the strike so did not know how his supervisors might respond. Since then he has written to say that there has not been any immediate retaliation but that sometimes such action doesn’t occur immediately.
Similar strikes have followed this past week in Seattle and Chicago. Walmart has not responded to a request for comment on the California strike.
At a time when safe jobs that pay a living wage are so badly needed, the work of Sharon Beard, Tish Davis, Warehouse Workers United and the Occupational Health Internship Program and all those they inspire, become ever more important.
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, TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
My jaw continues to drop when I think about the scathing reports this month from the Center for Public Integrity about the law firm Jackson Kelly and their scheming with clients to screw coal miners out of black lung benefits. In “Coal industry’s go-to law firm withheld evidence of black lung, at expense of sick miners,” Chris Hamby explains the deceitful and devious manner in which Jackson Kelly attorneys intentionally withheld medical reports that validate diagnoses of serious respiratory disease in coal miners.
The irony—the disgusting irony—is how coal operators insist that their employees are their most precious resource. Alpha Natural Resources, for example, says:
“Our people are our power…What’s the secret to our success? We put our people first.”
Arch Coal proclaims
“we recognize our employees as highly valued resources.”
Most coal operators also claim “integrity” as a key company value.
Let’s face it. Coal miners are only valued when they are running coal. They’re on their own—and Jackson Kelly sees to it—-when they develop black lung. It’s a disease that is 100 percent preventable but only if coal operators invest and maintain appropriate dust controls.
Hamby’s investigative reporting reveals this about Jackson Kelly:
“For almost two centuries, the firm has served the coal industry. It is the go-to place for many of the industry’s giants when they want to beat back a miner’s claim for benefits.”
The law firm’s website notes that it:
“enjoys a national reputation in safety and health, Federal Black Lung…and we try to practice law in ways that honor our founders. Clients should be served effectively [and] our profession honorably. The Firm takes even more pride in the trust of our clients across three centuries.”
If you can stomach any more, they brag:
“The Firm continues to provide the highest quality legal resources and representation to coal clients nationwide. The Firm’s unique history and ties to the coal industry enable its lawyers to appreciate the client perspective as the Firm becomes an integrated member of the client’s team. …Jackson Kelly attorneys understand the coal industry from the inside.”
Their website goes on to boast of their attorneys’ appointments to the Boards of the Kentucky Coal Association, West Virginia Coal Association, Colorado Mining Association, among others, as well as legal counsel to some of these groups.
While Jackson Kelly’s attorneys and clients sit in well-furnished conference rooms with their spit-shined shoes, their “most precious resource” cuts the coal and breathes its deadly dust. The coal miners create the wealth for their employers and their lungs suffer the consequences. When they retire—sometimes during their prime—and make a claim for black lung benefits they are foiled at every turn.
Hamby shares the story of West Virginia coal miner Gary Fox and his wife.
“Fox was used to the dusty caverns of the mines in the southern part of the state, where he’d spent more than 25 years working underground in the heart of Appalachian coal country. They had never been in a courtroom before. …By 1999, his symptoms convinced him to apply for federal benefits. A doctor certified by the U.S. Department of Labor examined him and diagnosed the most severe form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. The government ordered his employer, a subsidiary of behemoth Massey Energy Co., to begin paying him monthly benefits, but, as is almost always the case, the company appealed.”
Prior to filing his claim for black lung benefits, Fox had undergone surgery to remove a mass from his lung. The pathologists ruled out cancer, and didn’t have any reason to look for the black lung disease. As Hamby explains:
“Unknown to Fox, however, Jackson Kelly had obtained the slides of his lung tissue and sent them to two pathologists in its usual stable — doctors whose opinions typically supported the firm’s case. This time Jackson Kelly didn’t get the answer it wanted. Both pathologists wrote reports indicating the mass likely was complicated black lung.”
Jackson Kelly kept those results to themselves.
“Fox, the judge and the firm’s own consulting doctors had no idea they [the original pathology reports] existed. In the months that followed, a team of Jackson Kelly lawyers built a case around the hospital pathologist’s report and its vague diagnosis of “inflammatory pseudotumor.” They encouraged the court and their own consulting doctors to view the report as the sole, definitive account of what Fox’s lung tissue revealed.”
The judge ruled in favor of the coal company. Fox had few options, Hamby notes:
“He had a family to support, and he needed health insurance because Mary had a chronic illness. He went back to the mine, his health deteriorating. For years, no one but the firm knew of the powerful evidence that he had the severe disease and should get out of the mine’s dusty atmosphere immediately.”
“What happened to Gary Fox was not the result of a rogue attorney or singular circumstances. It was part of a cutthroat approach to fighting miners’ claims that Jackson Kelly has employed to great effect for decades. Some of the firm’s tactics go beyond aggressive advocacy, crossing into unethical behavior, according to current and former judges, lawyers and state disciplinary officials. As a result, sick and dying miners have been denied the modest benefits and affordable medical care that would allow them to survive and support their families.”
What I learned from Chris Hamby’s reporting about Jackson Kelly’s and the coal industry’s behavior disgusts me. It also disgust all of my family and colleagues who’ve read Hamby’s enlightening piece. Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers put it this way:
“The lawyers at Jackson Kelly who hid clear evidence that miners had black lung, and the doctors at Johns Hopkins who denied the evidence of black lung on thousands of x-rays, deserve to have the harshest penalties that are possible in their professions levied against them. But whatever those penalties are, they cannot come close to making up for the terrible pain and suffering they have caused for thousands of victims of this insidious disease who met their end choking on their last breath.”
My colleague, and miners’ advocate Tony Oppegard adds this:
“It’s long been true that coal companies use miners and then discard them when their bodies break down and they’re no longer useful in the money-making business. Coal company executives don’t see human beings with complex human emotions; they see people as machines with expiration dates. When they outlive their usefulness, they are discarded like garbage. And treated like garbage.”
“The actions of the lawyers at Jackson Kelly are shameful and dishonor all of us in the legal profession. I’ve long thought that most coal company lawyers are a dime a dozen, but the ethically-challenged attorneys profiled by the Center for Public Integrity don’t even deserve that small token of respect.”
“As for Dr. Wheeler and Johns Hopkins University, they literally make me sick. Any corrupt doctor who lives a lavish lifestyle at the expense of miners suffering from black lung isn’t worthy of compassion. The entire black lung compensation program is rife with deceit and fraud. It’s a national disgrace.”The coal companies in this country who currently retain Jackson Kelly for legal and lobbying services should ditch them. They should break all ties, acknowledge the scheming, and make amends to the nation’s coal miners. That’s the least they can do to demonstrate some truth to their assertions that miners are their greatest asset.