In the week before his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama took modest but important steps toward expanding US workers’ access to paid sick and family leave. Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, broke the news with a blog post on LinkedIn, where she explained the importance of paid leave:
Anyone who has ever faced the challenge of raising or supporting a family, while holding down a job, has faced tough choices along the way, and likely felt stretched between the financial and personal needs of their family.
How many working parents know that sinking feeling from sending their child off to school with a fever? How many Americans have to show up to work when battling an illness even when they know they won’t be at their best, it will lengthen their recovery time, and they may likely spread their sickness to others? And how many moms and dads have been denied the ability to bond with their newborn, or to care for an aging parent, all because they could not afford to miss work? These are real, significant moments in life that nearly everyone faces at some point. The last thing we should do is add guilt, fear, and financial hardship on working parents as they try to do what’s right – while keeping their job.
On Thursday, President Obama did three things:
- Urged Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act – and encouraged cities and states to pass their own laws requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. The Healthy Families Act would require employers with 15 or more workers to allow employees to earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to seven days per year. The Act was first introduced in Congress by Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Edward Kennedy in 2004; Representative DeLauro and Senator Tom Harkin introduced it in the 113th Congress, but it has not yet been introduced in the 114th Congress.
- Announced a President’s Budget item of $2.2 billion to fund state efforts to create paid medical and family leave programs. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all established social-insurance programs that use payroll-tax funding to cover a portion of missed pay for workers who need to take time off to care for a new child or another family member with serious health needs. President Obama’s budget will propose funding to help other states follow their examples. (The Department of Labor has already awarded some grants toward this purpose.) I’m surprised that President Obama did not take this opportunity to suggest that Congress pass the FAMILY Act, which would create such a social-insurance system at the federal level. The Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb suggested last year that Obama’s silence on this proposal might be due to his reluctance to support anything that qualifies as a middle-class tax increase. If that’s the case, the final two years of a president’s second term seems like an appropriate time for him to start supporting the best policy ideas, even if it leaves him open to criticism about breaking a promise on taxes.
- Supported paid parental leave for federal employees. In a Presidential Memorandum, President Obama directed federal agencies to ensure that employees can be advanced up to six weeks of sick leave for the birth or adoption of a child or for other sick leave eligible uses. This isn’t giving federal employees any more leave than they had before, but essentially allowing them to borrow against future accrued leave, which they will “re-pay” over time. Managers have had the discretion to do this in the past, but I imagine that cultures and practices in some agencies have made some workers fearful of requesting so much advanced leave, and some manager reluctant to grant the requests. The Memorandum directs the Office of Personnel Management to issue guidance on implementation within 90 days, and federal agencies to make any necessary changes to their policies 60 days after that. Only Congress can provide a new benefit of paid parental leave that employees can access in addition to the paid sick days they already earn. President Obama announced that he is proposing legislation, similar to the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney in the 106th – 113th Congresses, that would allow federal employees six weeks of paid administrative leave for the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child.
It’s important for the President to voice his support for state and federal legislation that would advance paid sick, medical, and family leave for the US workforce. The Presidential Memorandum doesn’t give federal employees any new benefits, but I expect that it will result in employees requesting and receiving more paid leave to care for the newest additions to their families. This latest announcement builds on President Obama’s past expressions of support for paid leave, including statements in his 2014 State of the Union address and at the June 2014 White House Summit on Working Families.
Paid sick leave enjoys widespread support, so it’s hardly surprising that a flood of positive reactions greeted President Obama’s latest announcement. The Center for Law and Social Policy commended the White House and noted that paid leave doesn’t only help families, but helps create a more effective workforce – something many employers already recognize:
“The Administration’s support for earned sick days and paid family and medical leave demonstrates a keen awareness of working families’ needs. Millions of Americans are currently losing wages and jobs in order to care for their families and their health,” said Liz Ben-Ishai, senior policy analyst at CLASP. “It is encouraging to see broad support for the president’s actions from all corners of our society, including both workers and employers. In fact, more than 340 employers have signed on in support of local and state earned sick days legislation and a growing number of business leaders are speaking in support of a federal proposal for paid family and medical leave.”
Yesterday, both Small Business Majority and the American Sustainable Business Council released statements in support of the president’s announcement. Business support for paid leave has been building for some time. Speaking about the benefits of earned sick days, Jennifer Piallat, owner of a bistro called Zazie, said: “Paid sick days have helped my workforce be healthy and productive and have helped my bottom line.” Her restaurant is located in San Francisco, which became the first city to pass an earned sick days law in 2007.
The American Public Health Association commended the administration’s proposal and highlighted the importance of paid leave for public health:
“Ensuring access to paid sick and family leave is vital to strengthening the well-being of our workers and their families, especially low-income workers who can least afford to get sick,” said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD. “Not only will it give workers more flexibility in caring for their families, but allowing sick workers to stay home will also help prevent the spread of disease and allow working families time to access preventive care.”
The United States falls behind many other developed countries when it comes to providing paid family and medical leave, and is the only developed country that does not require employers to provide paid sick leave. According to a 2013 U.S. Department of Labor survey, only 12 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through an employer-provided temporary disability program.
APHA supports the Healthy Families Act and adopted a position calling on Congress to pass legislation that would expand paid medical and family leave for U.S. workers. In August 2014, APHA signed on to a letter urging members of Congress to co-sponsor the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act of 2013, or FAMILY Act, which would create a national family and medical leave insurance program.
Of course, one of the most concrete demonstrations of support for paid sick, medical, and family leave is the fact that so many state and local legislatures have been passing their own laws to assure that workers don’t have to choose between their families’ health and their paychecks. Rhode Island’s temporary caregiver insurance system first took effect last year, after legislation passed in 2013. California and Massachusetts recently passed laws requiring employers (with some exceptions) to let workers earn and use paid sick days; both will take effect in July 2015. The growing list of cities with laws requiring paid sick days includes San Francisco, CA; Washington, DC; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; New York City; Jersey City, NJ; Newark, NJ; Eugene, OR; San Diego, CA; and Passiac, NJ. I hope that one day we’ll be able to say that all US employees, regardless of where they live, can take time off work to care for their own health or that of a family member without worrying about missing pay or losing their jobs.
If you’re in the market for a paint remover and head to your local hardware store, most of the products you’re likely to find will contain methylene chloride. These products’ containers promise “professional results” – that they remove paint “in 10 minutes” – and that they are “specially formulated for antiques and fine furniture.” One called “Dad’s Easy Spray,” suggests it can be used to remove paint from fabrics and rugs. Also available are adhesive removers and “prepaint” products that contain methylene chloride. Some of these come in aerosol dispensers.
These products all carry hazard warnings that say “Danger!” and “Poison” along with cautionary statements about the chemical’s nervous system effects and the possibility that exposure can cause blindness, birth defects, cancer and respiratory harm. But there’s little – if anything – to suggest such products are so hazardous that they were responsible for at least 14 deaths in the United States between 2000 and 2011. Among those who died using these products was a man in Houston who was removing the finish from the walls of his bathroom; a worker removing paint from a church’s baptismal font; a worker hired to refinish an apartment bathtub; a worker cleaning a paint-mixing tank and the co-worker who tried to rescue him. Yet another such fatality occurred on December 16, 2014 when a worker in New York died while refinishing a bathtub.
Also called dichloromethane (DCM), methylene chloride is a potentially deadly neuro- and respiratory toxicant that may also cause cancer. Its acute effects can include skin, eye and respiratory irritation, headache, dizziness, nausea, depression of the central nervous system, lack of coordination, unconsciousness and death. Chronic effects include kidney, liver and central nervous system damage. The U.S. National Toxicology Program classifies methylene chloride as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen while the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies it as possibly carcinogenic to humans. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers methylene chloride a potential occupational carcinogen. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 230,000 U.S. workers are directly exposed to DCM from paint-strippers.
The Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell also notes that “high, short-term exposures” to methylene chloride “can be lethal.” In addition, says TURI, methylene chloride’s “extreme volatility makes it especially dangerous since it is very easy to create unsafe airborne concentrations through evaporation.” Once in the body methylene chloride can be converted to carbon dioxide, which is toxic to the brain and nervous system. It can damage blood cells and has been linked to brain, liver and biliary system cancers. Animal studies have linked the substance to lung cancer and to breast and salivary gland tumors.
While such products continue to be sold in the U.S., the health risks associated with them prompted the European Union to prohibit sale of such methylene chloride-based products beginning in 2012. In 2013, citing “just two of many similar cases,” in which a worker died while refinishing a bathtub using a methylene chloride-based product, OSHA – along with the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) – issued a “Hazard Alert” for these products.
In an analysis of three deaths caused by methylene chloride exposure through paint-strippers, researchers with the California Department of Health (CDPH) concluded that “although the cases” they examined “involved occupational exposures, both products were consumer-available formulations, one of which was purchased at a local hardware store. DCM-containing paint strippers are sold in U.S. retail stores, placing consumers at risk for similar injury.” The researchers also note that these cases “illustrate that warnings alone do not ensure safety, and even personal protective equipment (such as respirators) may fail to protect.” The continued occurrence of fatal exposure to such paint-strippers, they write, “argues for a more aggressive regulatory approach to protect both workers and consumers.”
In August 2014 the EPA released its final risk assessment for DCM under the Toxic Substances Control Act. It found “health risks to both workers and consumers who use these products and to bystanders in workplaces and residences where DCM is used.” EPA is now considering what it calls “a range of possible voluntary and regulatory actions to address” these concerns.
In 2014, as part of its Safer Consumer Products Regulations, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) “identified” paint and varnish removers that contain methylene chloride as proposed “priority products.” If approved for listing as a “priority product,” manufacturers of these products would have to perform analyses to find safer alternatives and measures to reduce adverse health and environmental impacts. DTSC can – as part of its “regulatory response” to the outcome of the law’s “priority product” process – require that a hazardous product be taken off the market. California is expected to begin the rulemaking phase for the first proposed “priority products” by the end of March of 2015.
So are there safer alternatives to methylene chloride-based paint removers and if so, why are these exceptionally dangerous products still on U.S. store shelves?
In comments submitted to California DTSC in 2014, Savogran, a Massachusetts-based company that makes paint and varnish removers wrote, “No known substitute chemical removes paint as effectively as methylene chloride. The alternatives on the market are not functionally acceptable.” In its comments to the DTSC, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Association (HSIA) said similarly that no alternatives exist for DCM in these products. HSIA, which also suggested that federal and California occupational safety standards should be sufficiently protective, made similar comments to the EPA in 2013.
Meanwhile, the European trade association Eurochlor noted in an earlier white paper: “Chlorinated solvents have been used extensively for many years. During this time, the fatalities or serious injuries which have occurred have been due to massive over-exposure through a total disregard for good operating practices, or through deliberate misuse. When solvents are stored, used and disposed of correctly, there is no risk to human health.”
When it comes to other types of paint-removers, there are a number – like several found on my neighborhood hardware store shelves – that contain a chemical called N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP). According to Savogran’s coments to DTSC, these “performed reasonably well” but may not be truly safe because NMP is considered “a chemical of concern.” TURI deputy director Liz Harriman explains that “N-methly-2-pyrrolidone (NMP) is a reproductive toxin.” While products with NMP are for sale in the U.S., they are now being phased out in Europe due to toxicity concerns.
Meanwhile, the EPA is in the process of evaluating NMP and has released a draft risk assessment of the chemical. The assessment is not final but based on findings thus far, EPA says the agency recommends minimizing exposure to NMP-containing paint strippers.
So what’s out there besides paint-removers based on methylene chloride and NMP? To help potential users sort through the confusing array of product CDPH has developed a guide to such products that it shared during a presentation at the 2014 American Public Health Association meeting. It rates these products on a scale that goes from Red – “Not Recommended,” through Orange – “Use with extreme caution,” Yellow – “Use with caution,” to Green – “Preferred.” Among the products on this list include those based on benzyl alcohol, soy-based paint strippers, and others based on hydroxide, formic acid and various esters (dimethyl gluterate and dimethyl adipate).
CDPH found that most paint-removers now on the market fall into the red, “not recommended” category. They also found that most workers are now using “red” category products. Workers interviewed also reported experiencing symptoms that include chemical burns, skin, eye and respiratory irritation, headaches and dizziness while using these products.
CDPH researchers also investigated how well retailers and product users understood the relative safety of these products and precautions required for safe use. They found – not surprisingly – that retailers were hazy on the details, assumed that contractors and other professionals knew how to use all such products safely, and that personal protective equipment would provide adequate protection. CDPH also found that contractors said they wanted to have the ongoing option of using DCM-based products and were surprised that available alternatives were not 100 percent safe. Workers surveyed by CDPH reported that a paint-remover made without methylene chloride worked far less well than one containing DCM.
At the same time, the CDPH survey found conractors and retailers reporting a decrease in sales and use of DCM-based products. Despite this apparent trend, the CDPH researchers concluded: “Consumption [and] demand will not shift unless policy and regulations change and R&D [research and development] rushes in to meet new demand.”
So where does this leave US workers and do-it-yourselfers?
While Europe has banned methylene chloride-containing paint-removers and is phasing out a hazardous replacement, U.S. store shelves remained filled with the most toxic of these products. While waiting for the outcome of regulatory deliberations, the EPA “recommends that consumers check” product labels and take precautions to reduce exposures. At the same time, California public health experts have concluded that warnings – and current regulations – offer inadequate protection. And so, this situation raises what are now familiar questions about the U.S. chemical regulatory system’s ability to restrict even the most obviously hazardous substances.
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 Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
Local New Jersey officials integrate worker safety into restaurant inspections; collect new insights on occupational risks
Food safety is at the top of the list for local restaurant inspectors in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. Recently, however, inspectors tested out the feasibility of adding a new safety checkpoint to the menu — the safety of restaurant employees. The effort was a success and one that organizers hope will ultimately lead to safer working conditions for food service workers statewide.
“Workers need a voice,” said Peter Tabbot, health officer for the Rockaway Township Division of Health. “This is a small way that we can help provide a bit of that voice.”
The new occupational health and safety effort is a collaboration between the Division of Health and the Office of Public Health Practice at Rutgers School of Public Health. According to Mitchel Rosen, director of the Office of Public Health Practice, he and his colleagues had been discussing the idea of integrating workplace safety into the restaurant inspection process for some time and approached the health department about piloting such an intervention. The result is a 16-point checklist (adapted from a similar effort in San Francisco) that takes less than 10 minutes to implement on site as well as new data and insights into the potential — and preventable — hazards that workers face.
Tabbot said that because health department inspectors are the only ones routinely monitoring health and safety at local restaurants, they’re uniquely positioned to improve worker safety.
In a presentation about the effort during the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) 142nd Annual Meeting last November in New Orleans, Rosen and Tabbot noted that there are few studies on the occupational health and safety risks facing restaurant workers, who are often foreign-born, typically earn low wages and are rarely unionized. At the same time, restaurant workers often work long hours in hazardous environments and many don’t receive proper safety training, lack health insurance and don’t have access to paid leave for illness and injury. According to a 2012 report from the Center for Poverty Research and Center for Health Care Policy and Research at the University of California-Davis, in 2010, food service and preparation workers experienced workplace-related injuries and illnesses that cost more than $2 billion in medical care and lost productivity. Restaurant workers can experience a range of work-related injuries, such as cuts, burns, strains, sprains and other musculoskeletal injuries.
“One reason we did this is because we don’t have a lot of information (on restaurant workers) other than national statistics, but we know there’s a significant occupational group at risk here,” Tabbot told me. “We know there are risks, but we also know it’s a group that wouldn’t necessarily reach out to the health department.”
Rockaway inspectors (officially known as environmental health specialists) piloted the new workplace safety checklist from September 2013 to February 2014 during the regular inspections of full-service restaurants. During that pilot period, 47 of the jurisdiction’s 232 full-service restaurants received an inspection that included the new workplace safety checklist. The checklist, which was developed to facilitate an observational assessment that doesn’t require inspectors to interview workers or management, included questions such as:
- Do workers have dry potholders, gloves, mitts or rags to prevent burns?
- Are range tops overcrowded with cookware?
- Are there non-slip mats/floors? Is there proper storage for knives?
- Is there adequate ventilation?
- Do slicing machines, grinders or food processors have machine guards?
- Are minimum wage and worker’s compensation posters visible where employees can read them?
Rosen said that collecting baseline workplace safety information was a primary goal of the pilot project as well as determining whether inspectors could easily integrate the checklist into their work. In fact, Tabbot and Rosen said inspectors were involved in the project from the beginning to ensure that the new checklist wouldn’t compromise their relationships with restaurant owners or impede their primary duties. Tabbot noted that engaging inspectors from the start was key to gaining their active support.
“Because we included them from the very first discussion, we had their buy-in from the get-go,” Tabbot said. “They really invested themselves in it and really did embrace it.”
During the APHA meeting, Tabbot and Rosen presented the results of the pilot project. Here are some of the findings:
- 58 percent of restaurants inspected did not display posters with minimum wage information where workers could read them
- 62 percent did not visibly display worker’s compensation posters
- 62 percent did use non-slip mats
- 61 percent employed proper storage for knives
- 83 percent did not have anything blocking the exits
- 65 percent had fully stocked first aid kits available to workers
- 71 percent used dry potholders to prevent burns.
Overall, Rosen said about two-thirds of restaurants included in the pilot project scored “fairly well” on the safety checklist.
“But we can do better than that and we should be doing better than that,” he told me.
Because the pilot phase zeroed in on collecting information, inspectors did not discuss checklist results with owners or managers unless they observed an imminent danger, such as a blocked exit, Tabbot said. Plus, there are few restaurant-related occupational health and safety standards on the books that local public health officials can actually enforce, he noted. (Rosen added that there were no legal issues involved with piloting the checklist, which was well within the authority of local public health officials.)
While Rosen and Tabbot said new regulations aren’t always the answer — for example, because local inspectors have such good relationships with restaurant owners, simply making safety recommendations could result in safer work environments — they said expanded use of the checklist as well as richer data could impact policy. For instance, Rosen noted that if more health departments adopt the checklist and gather related workplace safety data, local health officials could make a much stronger case for developing more robust statewide protections for restaurant workers.
The Rockaway Township Division of Health plans to continue using the safety checklist later this year.
“A lot of times, workers don’t know they deserve any rights — they’re happy to have a job or find it difficult to speak up and say ‘we need better protections,’” Rosen told me. “But (a project like this) takes the burden off the worker and puts more of the burden on the owner to ensure a safe and healthy workplace.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Richard Johnson, 31 suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Monday, January 12, 2015 while working at Southwest Fabrication’s facility in Phoenix, AZ
- It was the worker’s last shift at the company (he was moving on to a new job.)[His aunt alerted me that this report is incorrect.]
- “His clothes got entangled in a metal fabrication machine.”
- A former employee indicated he was involved in a serious incident at the plant in September 2014. ‘No one ever talked to me about safety or how to use the equipment. … ‘My shirt got caught around the spinning bar. I was pulled into the machine. Eventually, my shirt ripped off and I got free.’”
- The incident occurred around 8:30 am.
- The company, which has 50 employees, was cited in 2005 by Arizona OSHA for two safety violations.
Each year, about 100 workers in Arizona are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 90 work-related fatal injuries in Arizona during 2013 (preliminary data, most recent available.) Nationwide, at least 4,405 workers suffered fatal traumatic injuries in 2013.
The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:
- Arizona OSHA has 30 inspectors to cover more than 130,000 workplaces.
- The average penalty for a serious violation in Arizona is $891.
Arizona OSHA has until the end of mid-July 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Richard Johnson’s life. It’s likely they’ll determine that Johnson’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”
One of the country’s biggest poultry processing companies provides an in-house nursing station to treat work-related injuries, but the clinic may be in violation of state licensing standards. In a letter to Wayne Farms’ plant in Jack, Alabama, OSHA indicates that practices and policies of the company’s medical management program are “out-of-date and contrary to good medical practice.” The nurses’ station is staffed by licensed practical nurses (LPNs) who are supervised by a compliance manager who is trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT). When I checked, the Alabama Board of Nursing’s code requires LPNs to work under the direction of a registered nurse or physician.
But that’s not the only problem with Wayne Farms’ management of its injured poultry workers. OSHA’s letter notes:
“One worker was seen in the nursing station 94 times before referral to a physician.”
“The LPNs follow medical management directives that were developed approximately ten years ago by Dr. Alan Young, a local physician, and Wayne Farms’ employees who were also EMTs.” Dr. Young told OSHA “he does not have a written agreement with or supervisory role over Wayne Farms’ nursing staff.”
“We recommend that you review [the requirements of Alabama’s Nurse Practice Act and the Alabama Administrative Code] to ensure that Wayne Farms is not placing its LPN staff in a situation where they are likely to be in violation of State licensing laws.”
Kudos to OSHA for publicizing these findings. It confirms what I’ve heard and read poultry workers describe: being sent over and over again to the company nurses who give them extra doses of Advil and hot compresses and then send them back to the production line. The worker’s injury only gets worse, the situation that caused the injury is not corrected, and the company can claim a low-injury rate because the multiple trips to the nurses’ station are only considered first-aid—not a lost-time injury. (One Wayne Farms plant boasts of 3 million work hours without a lost-time injury.) I only hope these LPNs at Wayne Farms’ plant don’t become the company’s scapegoats. Somebody up the chain-of-command knew exactly what was going on.
Wayne Farms is the sixth largest poultry producer in the US. It operates 11 poultry processing facilities, produces annually more than 2.5 billion pounds of poultry products, and had more than $1.9 billion in annual sales last year. Their plants are located in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. They sell their products under the names: Wayne Farms, Dutch Quality House, and Platinum Harvest.
OSHA’s letter to Wayne Farms comes after an inspection last year prompted by a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of poultry workers. That inspection found serious and repeat violations for a variety of safety hazards, including those that led to musculoskeletal injuries among the company’s poultry processing workers. Those violations were issued under OSHA’s “general duty clause.”
The poultry industry trade association has been quick to come to Wayne Farms’ defense. (It doesn’t hurt matters that the Director of the US Poultry & Egg Association, Elton Maddox, is also the Chairman, President & CEO of Wayne Farms.) Last month the trade association issued a news release challenging the grounds for OSHA’s citations. They assert that OSHA failed to provide “specific evidence of hazards” in the agency’s use of its “general duty clause.” When I read the citations against Wayne Farms —even just this one small part—-the evidence is plenty specific:
“Employees are required to manually lift, carry and lower approximately 75 pound totes while moving them from fill stations to the scale and then removing them from the scale and stacking them from floor level up to 5 totes high (approximately 48 inches).”
I’d like to see how long Mr. Elton Maddox could lift, carry and lower 75 pound totes before he realized the task is hazardous? Better yet, how many times would poultry industry executives want their spouse or children working in a poultry processing plant to be sent to a nurses’ station for a hot compress before the company’s LPN referred them for more appropriate care? What would poultry industry executives say if their physicians hadn’t updated their standards of practices for 10 years?
The poultry industry’s trade association says its “future success are in danger of being hampered by unclear rules and arbitrary actions like those demonstrated by OSHA.” I’d gladly pay more for the chicken I eat if I knew that poultry workers were being protected from crippling injuries to their hands, arms and backs. Would you?
Enlarge Kelp forests grow along roughly 25 percent of the world’s coastlines and provide valuable habitat and nutrients for many types of aquatic life. Now, research by the “Floating Forests” project is shedding light on how these underwater kelp forests are affected by climate change. The project is using NASA satellite data to observe changes in kelp forests over a period of more than four decades. The catch: No accurate way to automate the process exists, so the researchers rely on an international team of nearly 3,500 citizen scientists to mark the bright green kelp forests, which contrast with the deep blues of the ocean in the images.
With agriculture ranked one of the most dangerous industries in the country, many Americans might be surprised to know that it’s still perfectly legal for farms to officially employ children. For years, advocates have been working to address this gaping loophole in the nation’s child labor laws, often citing children’s increased vulnerability to workplace-related injury, illness and exploitation. A new study confirms those concerns, underscoring the need to better protect the children and youth working in American fields.
Published in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), the study analyzed interview responses conducted among 87 hired farmworkers ages 10 to 17 years old in North Carolina in 2013. Study participants were asked to agree or disagree with questions such as whether they used safety goggles, hearing protection and respirators as well as whether they received proper safety training or experienced harassment on the job.
The study noted that current policy allows youth as young as 14 to be employed as farmworkers without parental permission, and those ages 10 to 13 can be hired with parental permission. Most youth farmworkers in the U.S. are Latino and are either immigrants or the U.S.-born children of immigrant farmworkers. Nearly 90 percent of the study participants reported being of Latino ethnicity and most were born in the U.S.
Noting that few studies have examined the workplace health and safety conditions that young hired farmworkers face, study authors Thomas Arcury, Gregory Kearney, Guadalupe Rodriguez, Justin Arcury and Sara Quandt write:
Hired youth farmworkers share the same vulnerabilities as adult farmworkers, including low wages, few or no benefits, few regulatory protections, hazardous work, discrimination, and limited access to health care. Youth farmworkers are especially vulnerable to occupational injuries because of their smaller size, lesser strength, and greater surface-to-volume ratio compared with adults; their developing neurological and reproductive systems; and their lack of maturity and experience.
The AJPH study shines a light on those vulnerabilities and the findings are disconcerting, to say the least. Researchers found that 54 percent of interviewees reported any type of musculoskeletal injury when doing farm work in the previous few months, nearly 70 percent reported any trauma and more than 72 percent reported dermatological injury. Only 8 percent wore safety goggles when doing farm tasks; only one young worker who reported working around noisy machinery used hearing protection; and only one among the 34 interviewees who worked around toxic substances or dust reported using a respirator. Overall, only 8 percent of study participants reported ever receiving training regarding pesticides, 21.8 percent received training in the safe use of tools and 8 percent reported machinery training.
While the majority of interviewees felt they had control over their safety and that safety was important to management, 23 percent believed they would likely experience an injury in the coming year and nearly 38 percent believed supervisors were only concerned with getting the job done quickly and cheaply. However, nearly 40 percent said they were regularly notified about dangerous practices or conditions and had received safety instructions at the time of hire. About one-third of study participants said proper safety equipment was always made available.
In terms of workplace harassment, 10.3 percent said they’d been stared at inappropriately or had a sexual remark made about them, while 4.6 percent had been brushed against, touched and grabbed in an unwanted way. And even though most said they were not afraid to speak up about safety issues, nearly 35 percent said they were afraid of being fired even though they had done nothing wrong.
Overall, study authors wrote that “hired youth farmworkers in North Carolina described a negative work safety culture.” The authors noted that this particular study was not able to tease out statistically significant links between a workplace safety culture and injuries among the young farmworkers. The authors concluded:
These results argue for the need for increased scrutiny of agriculture as a suitable industry for workers as young as 10 years. Additional research is needed to extend these results. However, based solely on these results, additional regulations to protect hired youth farmworkers, if not to remove them from the agricultural work environment, are warranted.
According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, the exact number of child farmworkers in the U.S. is unknown; however, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that between 180,000 and 300,000 U.S. farmworkers are younger than 18. About 100,000 children are estimated to experience agriculture-related injuries every year, and young farmworkers experience a higher frequency of serious and disabling injuries than young people in other job sectors. OSHA reports that in 2011, the overall fatality rate for agriculture was seven times higher than for all workers in the private sector.
To learn more about efforts to protect child farmworkers, read our previous coverage here and here. To take action in support of child farmworkers, visit Human Rights Watch. And to request a full copy of the AJPH study, click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
BuzzFeed reporter David Noriega investigated work-related fatalities among Latino construction workers, finding that the risk of dying on the job is on the rise for such workers, who are losing their lives in greater numbers and at disproportionate rates than others in the industry. He writes:
After the housing bust bottomed out in 2010, the fatality rate among Latino construction workers rose by nearly 20%. For non-Latinos, the fatality rate has dropped by more than 5%.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), between 2010 and 2013, the number of deaths among Latinos in the construction industry rose from 181 to 231. The number of deaths also rose in the industry overall, from 774 to 796. But Latinos account for this rise entirely: During the same period, deaths for non-Latino construction workers fell from 593 to 565.
Noriega looks into the reasons for such vulnerabilities, such as immigration status as well as the impact of an understaffed OSHA. In particular, he examined the November death of Delfino Jesus Velazquez, an employee of Formica Construction. Velazquez was fatally buried under debris during the demolition of a Staten Island car dealership. Unfortunately, the workplace death wasn’t the first such incident for the company: In 2007, one of the company’s owners was convicted of criminally negligent homicide after a trench collapsed, burying a worker. Despite such negligence, a judge renewed the company’s license. Noriega writes:
Workplace safety experts and advocates in New York argue Formica Construction’s story is emblematic of how loose construction practices systematically claim the lives of immigrant workers. Regulations, they say, are grievously under-enforced in large segments of the industry, which allows contractors to repeatedly cut corners in ways that increase the risk of fatal accidents.
To read the full story, visit BuzzFeed.
In other news:
San Francisco Gate: Reporter Dave McCumber writes about Paul Zygielbaum, a retired engineer who’s been fighting asbestos-related disease and the asbestos industry for more than a decade. The story chronicles the legislative battle to ban asbestos, including specific proposals in Congress as well as work to revamp the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. In particular, the article noted an attempt in 2007 to pass federal legislation that banned asbestos. However, the attempt, which ultimately failed, only illustrated the persuasive reach of the asbestos industry. McCumber writes: “Somehow — nobody is saying exactly how — the bill was watered down in markup. In particular, a one-word change — from asbestos-containing ‘product’ to asbestos-containing ‘material’ — gutted the proposed ban. …The use of the word ‘product’ would have effectively banned everything that contains asbestos. The use of the word ‘material,’ on the other hand, meant that anything containing up to 1 percent asbestos, by weight, would remain legal.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Following last year’s passage of a minimum wage increase in Minnesota, restaurant owners are looking for an exemption, writes reporter Patrick Condon. The state’s minimum wage went up to $8 an hour last August and will eventually rise to $9.50 by 2016. However, the Minnesota Restaurant Association is proposing a capped minimum wage for tipped employees at $8 an hour, which would stay in place as long as such workers make $12 an hour with tips included. According to Condon, the restaurant association’s vice president called it the “Minnesota Nice approach.” However, a spokesman for the state’s AFL-CIO chapter said: “Given all we hear about stagnant wages, and that wages need to go up — we shouldn’t be focused on capping them or cutting them, which is what a tip penalty would do.”
California Healthline: Reporter Bob Norberg writes that California lawmakers will once again consider the issue of paid sick leave for home health care workers. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a paid sick leave bill only after home health care workers were removed from it. However, the new bill would extend the benefits to the state’s 400,000 home health care workers, giving them three days of paid sick leave annually if they work 30 or more days in a year.
Journal-Advocate: Researchers at Colorado State University are now looking for ways to protect the respiratory health of dairy farm workers. With a $900,000 federal research grant, researchers will be exploring the reasons why dairy workers seem to be susceptible to asthma, chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function and what types of interventions can be effective in decreasing the risk of work-related illness. According to the article, a number of dairy farms have already signed on to participate in the research.
The New York Times: The newspaper’s editorial board wrote in support of the firing of Kelvin Cochran, who oversaw more than 1,000 firefighters and staff as chief of Atlanta’s fire department. Cochran authored a book in 2013 that he distributed to his staff and that included extremely anti-gay views — according to the editorial, the book “called homosexuality a ‘perversion,’ compared it to bestiality and pedophilia, and said homosexual acts are ‘vile, vulgar and inappropriate.’” After an investigation, Cochran was dismissed for, among other things, exposing the city to discrimination lawsuits. Some, however, are claiming that Cochran’s free speech rights and right to religious freedom were violated. The Times editorial board disagreed: “Nobody can tell Mr. Cochran what he can or cannot believe. If he wants to work as a public official, however, he may not foist his religious views on other city employees who have the right to a boss who does not speak of them as second-class citizens.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.