Climate Effects of Keystone XL Pipeline Significantly Underestimated, Study Finds

Yale Environment 360 - August 11, 2014
The U.S. State Department's final environmental review of the Keystone XL Pipeline may have underestimated carbon dioxide emissions associated with the pipeline by as much as four times, according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change. The addition of Keystone XL crude oil to the market will drive global oil prices down, the authors say, which in turn will increase demand for oil worldwide — by as much as 0.6 barrels for every barrel of Keystone XL oil added to the market. The extra oil consumption could add up to 110 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, an amount four times larger than the State Department's estimate of up to 27 million tons annually, according to the study. President Obama has said he will let the pipeline proceed only if it will not "significantly exacerbate" greenhouse gas emissions. The State Department's final review determined that the pipeline's effect on climate change would be negligible, but that analysis did not take into account the increase in crude oil demand that could be sparked by Keystone XL, the authors of the new study say.
Categories: Environment, Health

Africa’s Vultures Threatened By An Assault on All Fronts

Yale Environment 360 - August 11, 2014
Vultures are being killed on an unprecedented scale across Africa, with the latest slaughter perpetrated by elephant poachers who poison the scavenging birds so they won’t give away the location of their activities. BY MADELINE BODIN
Categories: Environment, Health

Worth reading: Ebola, artificial sweeteners, and outdated parking laws

Pump Handle - August 11, 2014

A few of the recent pieces I’ve liked:

Everything Tara C. Smith at Aetiology is writing about Ebola, especially her re-post of What’s it like to work an Ebola outbreak?

Chris Young at the Center for Public Integrity: Critic of artificial sweeteners pilloried by industry-backed scientists

Dena E. Rifkin in Health Affairs: A Fighting Chance: How Acute Care Training Is Failing Patients With Chronic Disease

A-P Hurd at CityLab: How Outdated Parking Laws Price Families Out of the City

Charles Orenstein at ProPublica: Suspicious Prescriptions for HIV Drugs Abound in Medicare

Categories: Health

China Added Large Amount of Solar Power in First Half of 2014

Yale Environment 360 - August 08, 2014
In the first half of 2014, China added 3.3 gigawatts of solar power — as much as is installed in the entire

Distributed solar in Kunming, China continent of Australia — China's National Energy Administration reports. The country now has 23 gigawatts of solar power installed, which is nearly twice that of the United States. China, the world's largest carbon emitter, has set a goal of 35 gigawatts of installed solar power by the end of next year. The nation's push toward solar energy will include distributed solar, such as rooftop and ground-mounted installations near homes and municipal buildings, Chinese officials say, and the government could announce distributed solar incentive programs later this month, Bloomberg News reports. Renewable energy, especially solar, has become a high priority for the Chinese government as major cities and industrial areas have experienced choking air pollution. Earlier this week, officials announced that Beijing would ban coal use by 2020.
Categories: Environment, Health

New data: Lack of acclimatization procedures most often associated with worker heat deaths

Pump Handle - August 08, 2014

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data on heat deaths among U.S. workers, underscoring the often-tragic consequences that result when employers fail to take relatively simple and low-cost preventive actions.

Published in today’s issue of CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), researchers reviewed two years worth of OSHA enforcement cases that were investigated under its general charge to uphold safe and healthy workplaces. (OSHA investigates workplace heat illness and death via the “general duty clause” of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, as the agency has yet to issue a specific heat standard.) During 2012–2013, the study found 20 cases of heat illness or death among 18 private employers and two federal agencies. In 13 of those cases, heat exposure caused a worker’s death. In the remaining seven OSHA cases, two or more workers experienced heat illness symptoms. Workers at particular risk of overheating, which can also damage a person’s brain and other vital organs, are those who work outdoors in industries such as agriculture, construction, landscaping and transportation.

In the MMWR study, most of the people worked outdoors, though seven of the cases happened indoors in work settings with a powerful heat source, such as laundry equipment or combustion engines. All of the affected workers performed heavy or moderate work. Nine of the documented deaths happened in the first three days of being on the job and four deaths occurred on the worker’s very first day. Those findings, in particular, underscore the importance of instituting workplace procedures that let workers slowly acclimate to heat. Unfortunately, the OSHA data shows that heat illness prevention programs were either incomplete or entirely absent from the workplaces in question. In addition, OSHA inspectors found no workplace provision for the acclimatization of new workers. (According to the study: “Acclimatization is the result of beneficial physiologic adaptations (e.g., increased sweating efficiency and stabilization of circulation) that occur after gradually increased exposure to heat or a hot environment.”)

Researchers also found that 13 of the employers did not have a routine way of identifying heat risk, seven employers failed to provide enough water and 13 failed to provide enough shaded rest areas. Only one of the employers implemented work-rest cycles. All of the OSHA-documented cases of heat illness and death happened on days with a heat index between 84 degrees and up to nearly 106 degrees. Overall, failure to give workers time to acclimate was “most clearly” associated with heat death. Study authors Sheila Arbury, Brenda Jacklitsch, Opeyemi Farquah, Michael Hodgson, Glenn Lamson, Heather Martin and Audrey Profitt write:

Employers need to provide time to acclimatize for workers absent from the job for more than a few days, new employees, and those working outdoors during an extreme heat event or heat wave. Employers must ensure that all workers acclimatize to hot environments by gradually increasing duration of work in the hot environment. In addition, health care providers should be aware of the loss of acclimatization in their patients who have been out of work for a week or more and counsel them that they will need time to regain acclimatization once they return to their job.

Every year, millions of people are exposed to the serious risks of extreme heat, however outdoor workers make up the largest percentage of people who suffer from heat-related illness. The MMWR study noted that in Maricopa County, Arizona, between 2002 and 2009, construction and agricultural workers accounted for 35 percent of all heat deaths among men. And in North Carolina between 2008 and 2010, heat illness was the number-one reason workers landed in the emergency room.

For more on preventing heat illness among workers, download this infosheet from CDC and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or visit OSHA’s Heat Illness Prevention Campaign. Read the full MMWR study 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.

Categories: Health

Mercury Pollution in Oceans Has Tripled Since Industrial Revolution, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - August 07, 2014
Globally, oceans contain roughly 60,000 to 80,000 tons of mercury pollution, according to a report published this week in Nature detailing the first direct calculation

Ahi tuna has very high mercury concentrations. of mercury pollution in the world's oceans. Ocean waters shallower than about 300 feet (100 meters) have tripled in mercury concentration since the Industrial Revolution, the study found, and mercury in the oceans as a whole has increased roughly 10 percent over pre-industrial times. North Atlantic waters showed the most obvious signs of mercury pollution, since surface waters there sink to form deeper water flows. In contrast, the tropical and Northeast Pacific were relatively unaffected. "We don't know what that means for fish and marine mammals, but likely that some fish contain at least three times more mercury than 150 years ago," and possibly more, the lead researcher said. "The next 50 years could very well add the same amount we've seen in the past 150."
Categories: Environment, Health

Not an “accident”: Stanley Thomas Wright, 47, suffers work-related asphyxiation at railyard in North Las Vegas

Pump Handle - August 07, 2014

Stanley Thomas Wright, 47, was asphyxiated on Saturday, July 2, while working inside a tank car at a railyard in North Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports

  • the local fire department was called to the scene at about 1:00 am
  • Wright’s co-workers said he lost consciousness while inside the railcar tanker

Fox5 reports

  • the railcar contained ethanol vapors and Wright was overcome by the gas
  • it took fire and rescue crews until mid-day Saturday to make the scene safe

This incident brings to mind Ingrid Lobet’s reporting from May in the Houston Chronicle: “Largely invisible tank cleaning industry awash in risk.” She found 373 locations nationwide where industrial cleaning of railcar and barge tanks is conducted, but suspected there were many more. An interactive map accompanying her story did not identify any located in Nevada.

News stories to-date do not identify the victim’s employer. Nevada OSHA is conducting a post-fatality inspection of the North Las Vegas worksite where Stanley Thomas Wright lost his life. If the agency’s inspectors identify violations of health or safety regulations, the company will be cited.

Each year, dozens of workers in Nevada are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 42 work-related fatal injuries in Nevada during 2012 (most recent available data.) Nationwide, at least 4,628 workers suffer fatal traumatic injuries in 2012.

The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:

  • The Nevada Department of Business and Industry’s Division of Industrial Relations has 44 workplace safety inspectors in the State. Nevada has more than 58,000 workplaces.
  • The average penalty in Nevada for a serious violation of a workplace safety standard is $2,133.

Nevada OSHA has until February 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Stanley Thomas Wright’s life.  It’s likely they’ll determine that fundamental safety precautions for entering a confined space were not followed, and that Stanley Thomas Wright’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”

Categories: Health

Study: Trees save 850 lives every year, prevent thousands of health complications (seriously!)

Pump Handle - August 06, 2014

Next time you pass a tree, you might want to give it a second thought. Maybe even a hug. One day, that tree might just help save your life.

Let me explain. In a new study published in the Environmental Pollution journal, researchers found that the positive impact that trees have on air quality translates to the prevention of more than 850 deaths each year as well as 670,000 incidences of acute respiratory symptoms. In 2010 alone, the study found that trees and forests in the contiguous United States removed 17.4 million metric tons of air pollution, which had an effect on human health valued at $6.8 billion. The results are even more impressive when considering that trees’ pollution removal only resulted in an average air quality improvement of less than 1 percent. Every year in the U.S., poor air quality is responsible for about 50,000 premature deaths and $150 billion in health care costs.

Fortunately, trees can help — they intercept particulate matter and absorb gaseous pollutants, effectively removing pollution from the air we breathe. Researchers calculated the health-saving effects through analyzing four county-level characteristics: daily tree cover and leaf area index; the hourly flux of pollutants to and from leaves; the impact of hourly pollution removal on pollutant concentration; and the health effects and financial impact of changing levels of nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (also known as PM2.5) and sulfur dioxide. They finally concluded that more tree cover means greater air pollution removal, and more removal coupled with a more densely populated area results in greater value to human health.

Study co-author David Nowak, a project leader with the U.S. Forest Service, told me that while previous studies have examined the local impact that trees have on air quality, this is the first to take that question to a national scale. Nowak said that while he expected some effect on human health based on previous studies, he was surprised by the impact that trees had on human mortality.

“To be honest, I really didn’t know to expect,” he said.

In addition to reducing mortality and acute respiratory symptoms, the study found that trees and their pollution removal powers prevented 430,000 incidences of asthma exacerbation and 200,000 school absences. The study also found that tree-related air pollution removal was substantially greater in rural areas (that’s where most of the forests are), but the monetary value of pollution removal was greater in urban areas (that’s where most of the people are). California, Texas and Georgia were home to the greatest pollution removal, while Florida, Pennsylvania and California reaped the greatest value from pollution removal. Nowak and co-authors Satoshi Hirabayashi, Allison Bodine and Eric Greenfield write:

As human populations are concentrated in urban areas, the health effects and values derived from pollution removal are concentrated in urban areas with 68.1 percent of the $6.8 billion value occurring with urban lands. Thus, in terms of impacts on human health, trees in urban areas are substantially more important than rural trees due to their proximity to people. The greatest monetary values are derived in areas with the greatest population density (e.g., Manhattan).

However, trees’ pollution capturing ability isn’t always a positive, Nowak tells me. If pollution is coming in from outside of a city, the more leaves the better. However, a street or highway with a thick canopy of leaves may simply trap pollutants and prevent them from dispersing — “and we don’t want to trap pollutants where we breathe,” Nowak said.

Nowak noted that trees are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to improved air quality and he hopes the study findings can help local officials make informed decisions about managing vegetation in and around where people live. Next, Nowak is examining the link between trees and reduced emissions from power plants via variations in energy use linked to residential buildings. (In other words, how do trees and their effects on outdoor temperatures affect how we use energy?)

“I really hope that policy people will pick it up in terms of understanding that vegetation does have an impact on human health,” Nowak said of the study. “This is just one of the many services provided by trees…they provide so much from just one system and at one cost.”

To read a full copy of the tree study, click here. And to learn more about managing a community’s vegetation and calculating the value of trees, check out this free set of software tools that Nowak and colleagues developed known as i-Tree.

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

Categories: Health

Western U.S. In Its Quietest Fire Season In A Decade, Officials Report

Yale Environment 360 - August 06, 2014
The western U.S. is in the midst of its quietest wildfire season in a decade, according to data from the National

Click to Enlarge

U.S. wildfire trends Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). With 1.7 million acres burned through August 4, the 2014 fire season has destroyed well below the average of 4.4 million acres for the previous nine years through the same date. Fire season still has a few months left, however, and the year's good fortune may not last: Above normal fire potential is expected to continue over most of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, according to the NIFC. Average temperatures have been 2 to 4 degrees above normal for most of the West; portions of the western Great Basin, northern California, and Pacific Northwest were 6 to 8 degrees warmer than normal; and exceptional drought conditions continue in California, western Nevada, and the Texas Panhandle, the center says.
Categories: Environment, Health

Green Innovations Are Bringing Energy-Saving Technology Home

Yale Environment 360 - August 06, 2014
Advances in technology and consumer demand for energy-saving devices have made green technology

Solar shingles increasingly accessible. Many innovations are geared toward homeowners looking to lower not only their energy bills, but also the carbon footprints of their homes and daily activities. From solar-harvesting shingles and windows to shoe insoles that can power a smartphone, this Yale Environment 360 gallery explores a few of these energy-saving technologies.
View the gallery.
Categories: Environment, Health

Forests Already Seeing Effects of Climate Change, European Researchers Say

Yale Environment 360 - August 05, 2014
Damage from wind, bark beetles, and wildfires has increased drastically in Europe's forests in recent years, and climate change is the driving factor, according to

Click to Enlarge

European forest damage research published in Nature Climate Change. These disturbances have become increasingly acute over the last 40 years, damaging 56 million cubic meters of timber per year from 2002 to 2010. And researchers estimate that an additional million cubic meters of timber — roughly 7,000 soccer fields of forest — will likely be destroyed each year over the next 20 years if climate change trends continue. Damage from forest fires in particular is expected to increase on the Iberian Peninsula, while bark beetle damage will likely increase most strongly in the Alps. Wind damage is predicted to rise most notably in Central and Western Europe, the study found. To compound the problem, as more forests are damaged, there will be fewer healthy trees available to remove the climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the researchers note.
Categories: Environment, Health

Worker safety measures make way into new USDA poultry inspection rule

Pump Handle - August 05, 2014

When USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week a new regulation governing the poultry slaughter inspection system, he didn’t just have food safety on his mind.  Throughout his press call, Vilsack said things like “we heard concerns about line speed,” and “we listened to concerns about line speed.” Vilsack explained that they abandoned their plan to allow certain poultry processing plants to increase line speeds from 140 birds per minute (bpm) to 175 bpm. As TPH’s Kim Krisberg wrote on Friday, that’s good news for some poultry workers who are already at risk of crippling repetitive motion injuries at current line speeds.

The National Chicken Council is not pleased with USDA’s decision to forego the line speed increase in this new inspection system.

“It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing that politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute.”

What the chicken industry’s statement doesn’t say is what they think about the worker safety measures that made their way into the USDA rule.

First, there’ll be a new required poster. The estimated 200 poultry processors who adopt the new poultry inspection system (NPIS) will be required to display a new OSHA poster with information on symptoms of occupational injuries and illnesses, and statements about a worker’s rights to report these health conditions to their employer without fear of retaliation.

Second, there’ll be an “attestation” by employers.  Poultry processors operating under the NPIS will be required to “attest” annually to USDA that they have a program to “monitor and document any work-related conditions” of their employees. The attestations will be provided annually to OSHA. The program that they’ll be attesting to have in place must include:

  • Policies to encourage early reporting of symptoms of work-related injuries and illnesses;
  • Assurance that the establishment has no policies or programs intended to discourage the reporting of injuries and illnesses;
  • A notification to employees of the nature and early symptoms of occupational illnesses and injuries, in a manner and language that workers can understand, including the above-mentioned poster; and
  • Routine monitoring of injury and illness logs, nurse and medical office logs, workers’ compensation data, and any other injury and illness information available.

What poultry workers want to know is how and by whom will these new requirements be enforced. Can OSHA enforce a USDA regulation? Will OSHA be able to throw the book at a firm that falsifies its attestation?

Third, there’s also a provision in the USDA regulation which reiterates that establishments are required to comply with all applicable laws, including OSHA’s general duty clause. Will this provision in a USDA regulation give OSHA some new legal leverage to protect poultry workers from on-the-job hazards?

Fourth, USDA says that OSHA recommends that poultry processors implement an injury and illness prevention program with the following components: management leadership, worker participation, hazard identification and assessment, hazard prevention and control, education and training, and program evaluation and improvement. USDA adds:

[It] “expects that a prudent establishment would have such a program in place.”

What poultry workers want to know is in what way does the OSHA recommendation, or USDA’s reference to “prudent establishments,” compel their employers to adopt such a program?

Fifth, the preamble also says that USDA will improve training for its inspectors so they are better able to recognize serious workplace hazards. USDA inspectors will be encouraged to make referrals to OSHA using the safety agency’s 1-800 number.

What poultry workers what to know is how this training and referral system is different than what is outlined in a memorandum of understanding between OSHA and USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which dates back to 1994. One of its key objectives was to:

“institute new procedures for meat and poultry inspection personnel to refer to OSHA serious workplace hazards affecting plant employees.”

Finally, USDA’s preamble says:

“OSHA will be paying close attention to poultry slaughter establishments.”

I’m sure it took some effort by the Labor Department to convince USDA to insert this worker safety language into its new poultry inspection regulation. The Labor Department officials who made it happen must intend for the measures to be more than just words in a Federal Register notice.  Poultry workers hope so, too.


Categories: Health

Q&A: NIEHS scientists explain findings of breast cancer study

Breast Cancer Fund - August 04, 2014
A recent study conducted by scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Science found that women who work with organic solvents had a greater risk for developing breast cancer. Researchers used data on women taking part in the Sister Study,...
Categories: Health

California Takes Steps to Curb Lawn Watering During Severe Drought

Yale Environment 360 - August 04, 2014
In the midst of a severe, long-term drought, California is taking unprecedented steps to discourage watering of

A drought-resistant yard residential lawns, with some areas offering residents substantial cash incentives for installing water-saving landscaping, AFP reports. The "Cash in Your Lawn" program in Los Angeles offers residents up to $6,000 ($3 per square foot) for replacing their lawns with drought-tolerant plants, rocks, and pebbles. Throughout the state, Governor Jerry Brown recently prohibited lawn watering more than two times per week and banned fines for brown lawns, which homeowner associations sometimes impose with the intent of improving a neighborhood's appearance. The drought, currently in its third year, threatens the water supply of California's 38 million residents. Agricultural regions have already seen severe water reductions, placing extra pressure on the state's groundwater reserves.
Categories: Environment, Health

As Small Hydropower Expands, So Does Caution on Its Impacts

Yale Environment 360 - August 04, 2014
Small hydropower projects have the potential to bring electricity to millions of people now living off the grid. But experts warn that planners must carefully consider the cumulative effects of constructing too many small dams in a single watershed. BY DAVE LEVITAN
Categories: Environment, Health

CDC: Ebola worsening in West Africa; little risk to general US population

Pump Handle - August 04, 2014

Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, has been reported in humans since 1976, but the current epidemic of the disease – affecting Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – is unprecedented. There is no vaccine or cure for Ebola, and in past outbreaks up to 90% of people confirmed to have the disease died (the case-fatality rate is closer to 60% this time). A WHO fact sheet gives a grim list of the symptoms:

EVD is a severe acute viral illness often characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.

In this epidemic, 1,323 confirmed and suspected cases have been reported, and 729 of those individuals have died – numbers far higher than in previous outbreaks. Last month Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, explained on PBS NewsHour why this epidemic is so worrisome:

This is the first time we have ever seen an urban as well as rural Ebola outbreak. It is the first time we have seen Ebola in the capital cities. It is the first time we have seen Ebola crossing borders, now in three countries. And it is the first time we are having an Ebola experience in an area rife with the tensions and the hostilities born out of two really brutal civil wars in Sierra Leone and in Liberia, with spillover into neighboring Guinea.

So these are three small, deeply impoverished West African countries where, in the best of times, they are hard-pressed to meet the public health needs of their people and now to have what is officially designated an out-of-control epidemic on their hands.

This is a horrific disease, but it is not transmitted as easily as some other viruses. Stephan Monroe, deputy director of CDC’s National Center for Emerging Zoonotic and Infectious Diseases, explained on a July 28th CDC telebriefing, “transmission is through direct contact of bodily fluids of an infected person or exposure objects like needles that have been contaminated with infected secretions.  Individuals who are not symptomatic are not contagious.” So, as long as healthcare facilities isolate any potential cases who are showing symptoms and practice correct infection control procedures, they can control the disease’s spread.

The challenge in the affected West African countries is that patients may not all arrive at healthcare facilities, and many of the healthcare facilities where patients do show up lack the resources, such as isolation rooms and protective gear, to respond appropriately. With the affected areas not having seen Ebola outbreaks before, they are less prepared to deal with them than previously affected countries are. As a result, many of the dead — 60, according to Vox’s Julia Belluz — are healthcare workers.

Last week, World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan announced the launch of a $100 million response plan to bring the outbreak under control. On a July 31st CDC telebriefing, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden announced, “Over the next 30 days we’ll be deploying another 50 Epidemic Intelligence Service officers, other epidemiologists, and health communications experts to the affected area.” (As of July 28th, 12 CDC staff members were there already.) Frieden summarized the task that awaits those responding to the epidemic:

In past outbreaks, we have been able to stop every outbreak.  But it takes meticulous work.  It’s like fighting a forest fire.  If you leave behind even one burning ember, one case undetected, it could reignite the epidemic.  Difficult as it is, it can be done.  I’m confident that as we make progress over the coming weeks and months, we will not only begin to tamp down these outbreaks, but leave behind stronger systems that will be able to find, stop before they spread and prevent more effectively Ebola and other health threats.

… We are not going to treat or vaccinate our way out of these outbreaks.  We are going to use the traditional means that work of case identification, isolation, contact tracing, health communication, good meticulous management.  That’s what has stopped every Ebola outbreak that’s ever happened before.  That’s what will stop this Ebola outbreak.

… This is a marathon, not a sprint.  This is going to take at least three to six months, even if everything goes well.  We have challenges with security and health care systems that make it not the best of conditions.

Frieden stressed that “Ebola poses very little risk to the general US population.” CDC has issued a Level 3 travel warning, urging people to cancel non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The agency has also issued a Health Alert Notice to US healthcare workers emphasizing steps to identify potential cases and prevent the spread of infections from any patients with Ebola who arrive in the US. The focus now, however, is on halting Ebola transmission in West Africa and preventing an already awful epidemic from becoming even more widespread.

Categories: Health

Final USDA poultry rule: Line speeds stay the same, but no word from OSHA; food safety advocates call it a step backwards

Pump Handle - August 01, 2014

For 17 years, Salvadora Roman deboned chickens on the processing line at Wayne Farms in Decatur, Alabama. In particular, she deboned the left side of the chicken — a task she was expected to perform on three chickens each minute during her eight-hour shift. Because of the repetitive movement and speed of the processing line, Roman developed a chronic and painful hand injury that affects her ability to do even the most basic household chores. About three years ago, she was fired from the plant for taking time off work to visit a doctor for the injury she sustained on the line.

“My hand started to become swollen and the more that I worked, the more swollen it got,” Roman told me through a translator with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “It was stressful to see the chickens pass…I would work faster, but my hand would swell.”

So when Roman heard that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was considering a proposal to increase the maximum allowed line speed from 140 birds per minute to 175 per minute, she decided to speak out. Last week, she traveled to Washington, D.C., with advocates from SPLC to tell her story during a meeting with representatives from USDA and the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. At the meeting, SPLC advocates urged officials to reject the line speed proposal and distributed a copy of their petition calling on OSHA to regulate production line work speeds within the poultry and meatpacking industries.

“It isn’t a just thing to do,” Roman said of the proposed increase. “The lines are fast as it is.”

Yesterday, USDA officially rejected the proposed increase, keeping max speeds at 140 chickens per minute. However, worker safety advocates aren’t ready to celebrate. Basically, they say, USDA decided not to make an already bad situation any worse, which does little to prevent future injuries or support workers who are already hurt.

“We’re certainly happy that the line speed is not going to increase, but I think we’re still concerned that worker safety is not being adequately addressed,” said Michelle Lapointe, SPLC staff attorney. “We had asked OSHA to institute rulemaking on worker safety related to line speed and they haven’t done so…the line speed even at rates that they are moving now are too fast and are causing injury to workers.”

The line speed increase was part of a larger proposed rule that USDA refers to as “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection,” which includes big changes to food safety oversight as well (more on that below). Yesterday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a news conference announcing the final rule, which goes into effect immediately. Vilsack said the agency responded to worker safety concerns by refusing to increase maximum line speeds and putting in place additional requirements, such as a new 1-800 number that food safety inspectors can use to report workplace hazards directly to OSHA.

Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch, said that while USDA may have rejected the line speed increase, the final rule essentially does nothing for workers.

“It’s meaningless,” Corbo told me. “There won’t be any enforceable regulations to deal with worker safety, and injuries will still occur. …Where are the accompanying regulations to make sure injuries don’t occur in the first place?”

Plus, Corbo said, the 20 plants that were participating in piloting the new rule are exempt and can continue to run their line speeds at more than 140 birds per minute. Corbo was equally doubtful that training food inspectors to spot workplace hazards would do much good. With the rule decreasing the number of federal food safety inspectors on the processing line, how will the remaining inspectors find the time to monitor worker safety, he asked.

In “Unsafe At These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers,” SPLC and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice found that nearly three-quarters of the more than 300 current and former poultry workers interviewed reported suffering a significant work-related injury and illness. Common injuries and illnesses include debilitating hand pain, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, respiratory problems and carpal tunnel syndrome. The majority of workers surveyed attributed their injuries to the speed of the processing line. OSHA reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for workers in poultry processing plants in 2010 — a rate that was more than 50 percent higher than the national injury rate for all workers. While USDA said the final modernization rule will improve worker safety, it’ll likely do little to change a workplace culture that places little value on worker well-being. According to the report:

Workers speaking freely outside of work describe what one called a climate of fear within 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. …

OSHA, which regulates the health and safety of workers in this country, has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers. Workers cannot bring a lawsuit to prevent hazardous working conditions or even to respond to an employer’s retaliation if they complain of safety hazards or other abusive working conditions. Many live in rural areas and have no other way to make a living, which means they must accept the abuse or face economic ruin.

Lapointe told me that while the poultry plants have doctors or nurses on site, she’s heard reports from many workers who say they’re just sent back out to the line with some pain relievers or an ice pack. Roman said she once spoke up about her hand injury and a supervisor’s assistant took her to the plant nurse, who put some lotion on her hand, gave her an ice pack and sent her back to the line. Roman and her co-workers were also subject to a strict attendance system, in which workers earn points for each missed work day — even a day missed due to medical reasons — and once they reach a certain number of points, they’re fired. That’s what happened to Roman, who’s paying for her own medical expenses in relation to the hand injury.

Lapointe said SPLC will continue to pressure the administration to enact better workplace protections for poultry workers. Last year, SPLC submitted a petition to OSHA urging the agency to adopt regulations to protect poultry workers, but there’s been no response.

“Americans eat a lot of chicken,” Lapointe told me. “As we become more conscious as a society about where our produce comes from and sustainability in terms of the environment, I would suggest that we also need to talk about the workers who bring it to our tables. It’s really time for us as a society to think about the workers who are being injured and whose health is suffering so that we can eat 50 pounds of chicken per person per year.”

Food safety: ‘We’re heading backwards’

The finalized poultry modernization rule also authorizes a new food safety inspection system — and it’s one that’s being roundly criticized by food safety advocates.

The new inspection system, which USDA emphasized is optional but which advocates predict most poultry plants will adopt, reduces the number of federal food safety inspectors on the processing line and hands over much of the visual inspection responsibility to the plant. The rule will also require all plants (this is not optional) to engage in more microbiological testing in addition to the testing that USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service conducts. Plants will get to choose which pathogen to test for — campylobacter or salmonella.

According to USDA, reducing the number of inspectors on the processing line will free them up for other safety duties, such as ensuring sanitation standards are met and verifying compliance with various food safety rules. During yesterday’s USDA media call, Secretary Vilsack said the new rule is an “opportunity to bring the inspection system for poultry into the 21st century.” He also said the rule could lead to 5,000 fewer food-borne illnesses every year. Corbo at Food & Water Watch vehemently disagrees.

Corbo said the new system leaves the one USDA inspector left on the slaughter line to inspect 2.33 birds every second. Under the traditional system, each inspector could only inspect 35 birds per minute, which would have required four inspectors on a line that was running at 140 birds per minute.

“Instead of having a full complement of inspectors on the slaughter lines, you’re going to have one inspector at the end of the line,” Corbo told me. “It’s essentially taking us back to when we had no inspectors at all. We’re heading backwards here. Instead of having more inspectors and giving USDA authority to actually prevent food-borne illness, it essentially turns everything over to the companies.”

Corbo noted that salmonella and campylobacter are not officially considered adulterants and so even if a carcass tests positive for the pathogens, USDA can’t legally prevent it from going to market. In June, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that would designate as adulterants certain types of campylobacter and salmonella that are antibiotic-resistant. Food & Water Watch had previously received documents via a Freedom of Information Act request on the thoroughness of inspectors employed by poultry plants, finding that regulations were not being enforced.

Corbo said Food & Water Watch is exploring all options to stop the rule, including possible litigation.

For more information on the new poultry rule, visit USDA, SPLC or Food & Water Watch.

(Special thanks to Eva Cardenas at Southern Poverty Law Center for serving as a translator during the interview with Salvadora Roman.)

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

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