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.

Categories: Health

“No, nothing is changing” – Cell tower worker deaths continue

Pump Handle - July 31, 2014

The incident report details are horrific and heartbreaking. If this was a radio broadcast, my editors and I would likely preface what I am about to relate with a warning: “The following report contains material that may be disturbing.” On July 2nd at 2:22 p.m., an emergency call came in to the Cynthiana, Kentucky-Harrison County 911 operators to report that “a man has been decapitated his head and arm are on the ground.” The follow-up report, made available by the Harrison County sheriff’s office, explains that Joel Metz, age 28, working for Fortune Wireless on a Verizon Wireless cell tower – Wireless Cellular Telephone Antenna Site #1282822 –  was raising a winch that broke, releasing a line and load to free fall. It struck Metz, killing him instantly. A co-worker, Brandon Vaughn, was also on the tower at the time, approximately 235 feet from the ground. The wire that broke landed on a live Bluegrass Energy line so that the incoming 911 call also said, “they need someone to shut it off immediately so no one is electrocuted.”

According to the incident report, Metz and Vaughn had been on the tower on Waits Road in Harrison County to raise and then secure a boom assembly that had been fitted with four directional cellular telephone antennas. During the sheriff’s office examination of the scene immediately following the incident, the crew foreman who was on the job site at the time said that while Metz and Vaughn were up on the tower, he “heard a loud noise that he identified as the winch line breaking or becoming disengaged.” A third worker “was operating the winch that was lifting the boom assembly in place.” The incident report goes on to say that during the examination of the winch line, the investigators – detectives from the Harrison County sheriff’s office – “were shown the shackle block that had been used as the securement/lifting point in the rigging.” The report notes that the shackle block “was observed as having no “C” clevice that had been there and that was used to secure the rigging to the tower. The shackle block had no observable damage to the clevice pin hole on the shackle block so it was not determined how the clevice became disconnected.” As related by the sheriff’s office by phone shortly after the incident and in the incident report, a search for the “C” clevice – a type of pin – was never found. The Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating the incident.

Established in 2005, Fortune Wireless is based in Indianapolis, IN. Neither Fortune Wireless nor Cornerstone Wireless Construction Services, both owned by Fortune Industries since 2008, have any previous OSHA inspections listed on OSHA’s publicly available database. Fortune Wireless’s website lists among its clients Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Sprint, Nortel Networks, Cricket, General Dynamics, Bechtel, Nokia Siemens Networks, Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Centennial Communications and Alltel Wireless.

In a statement, Verizon Wireless said, “Our thoughts are with the family, loved ones and colleagues of the worker who died in the July 2 incident near Cynthiana, Kentucky. We are working closely with our vendor and applicable agencies such as the Sheriff’s department in the investigation of the situation.” Fortune Wireless has not yet responded to a request for comment on the incident.

OSHA calls fatalities “preventable”

On February 25, OSHA issued a news release expressing its concern about the high number of fatal incidents among cell tower workers. “More communication tower workers were killed in 2013 than in the previous two years combined, and four more tower-related deaths have already occurred in 2014. Every one of those deaths was preventable,” wrote OSHA. “We are very concerned about this sharp rise. The fatality rate in this industry is extremely high – and tower workers have a risk of fatal injury perhaps 25 to 30 times higher than the risk for the average American worker. This is clearly unacceptable,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health,
 David Michaels in a statement. “At OSHA,” said Michaels, “we are reaching out to educate industry and workers and providing free small businesses consultations. We’ve also increased our enforcement in this industry.”

As part of this effort OSHA, on February 10th, OSHA sent a letter to 99 communications tower employers asking them to join OSHA in, as Michaels said in remarks to the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) at its annual conference in February “preventing these needless deaths.” According to the list of recipients made available by OSHA, neither Fortune Wireless nor its parent company Fortune Industries received that letter. Nor did Goodman Networks or Microwave Transmission Systems, the AT&T subcontractors engaged to service the Texas communication tower where  worker Cody Freeman fell and died on June 17th.

Joel Metz was the eighth US cell tower worker to die on the job in 2014. As I reported for The Pump Handle on March 31st , by that point in the year, 6 cell tower workers had died on the job in 12 weeks. Since then, in an incident that became the year’s seventh cell tower worker fatality, 28 year old tower technician Cody Freeman fell from a “self-supporting” tower in downtown San Angelo, Texas. According to news reports of the June 17th incident, Freeman was employed by Microwave Transmission Systems, Inc. of Richardson Texas, which had been subcontracted by Goodman Networks, an AT&T contractor, whose service was on the tower. Reports of the incident say that when the San Angelo Fire Department arrived on the scene, Freeman “was deceased.” He was doing repair work on the tower and reportedly “experienced issues with his safety equipment and fell.” A cell tower industry news site, Comtrain, reports that the tower was being retrofitted for cellular use, having originally been built to accommodate heavy equipment that was part of the old AT&T long distance network. OSHA is investigating this incident.

Time pressures and equipment failures

Speaking by phone earlier this month, Wally Reardon, Workers at Heights Safety & Health Initiative project coordinator, expressed concern that cell tower “crews often don’t take the time to thoroughly check equipment because of arduous schedules that have them driving long distances to job sites, often late at night.” This, he said, means that workers are often “tired when climbing.” Adding to these pressures, said Reardon, is the fact that “a lot of companies are not paying for driving time.”

Reardon also considers the “layers of contractors” involved in the cell tower business part of the ongoing safety problems in the industry. The situation muddies who takes ultimate responsibility for equipment integrity, work schedules, and tower worker training and other aspects of this work’s safety.

Earlier this year, NATE and the Wireless Industry Safety Task Force launched a “100% Tie-Off Awareness 24/7 Campaign” designed to “to ensure a safer work environment and prevent future accidents.” AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Goodman Networks are among the companies participating. And on July 17th, OSHA issued a directive designed to improve safety of work on communication towers that involves what’s called a “personnel hoist.” Failures of equipment that did not involve “tie-off” issues or these lifts, however, appear to have been involved in at least half this year’s eight cell tower worker fatalities

Also worth noting are other health and safety issues involved in this inherently dangerous work. Last week, on July 25th a cell tower worker in Florida suffering heat exhaustion had to be rescued by the local county fire department. At the time, 1:30 p.m., 28 year old Justin Denman, from Texas, was working 260 feet up on a 350-foot high Talquin Electric microwave tower in Crawfordville, Fla. The search and rescue crew arrived about an hour later and were able to lower Denman safely to the ground. The temperature at the time was reported to be 87ºF.

Asked about visible improvements since OSHA issued its memo to regional administrators about increased enforcement in the cell tower industry, Reardon said, “No….Nothing is changing.”

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360Environmental Health PerspectivesEnsia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 


Categories: Health

U.S. Public Is as Split on Environmental Spending as Congress, Study Finds

Yale Environment 360 - July 31, 2014
American citizens are increasingly divided over the issue of environmental protection and seem to be taking their cue primarily from Congress, according to new research from Michigan State University. The gap between conservatives who oppose environmental protection and liberals who support it has risen drastically in the past 20 years, the study found. A national poll from 2012 (the most recent data in the study) with a question on environmental spending indicated that 68 percent of Democrats believe the country has spent too little on the environment, versus only 40 percent of Republicans. The polling data, which reach back to 1974, indicate the gap started growing particularly wide in 1992, a year after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that point, the researchers say, the conservative movement replaced the “Red Scare” with the “Green Scare” and became increasingly hostile toward environmental protection, a trend amplified in recent years by the Tea Party.
Categories: Environment, Health

Making Farm Animal Rights A Fundamental Green Issue

Yale Environment 360 - July 31, 2014
As president of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle has pushed the animal welfare group into areas that directly impact the environment. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about how what we eat, how we raise our food, and how we treat farm animals are basic conservation issues. BY MARC GUNTHER
Categories: Environment, Health

Some thoughts about mine safety penalties

Pump Handle - July 30, 2014

Jessica Robinson at Northwest Public Radio reminds us today that penalties assessed are meaningless until they are paid. She updates us on the fatal injury death of silver miner Larry Marek, 53, who was killed in April 2011 at Hecla Mining’s Lucky Friday mine. Marek was killed by a massive rock fall. It took rescuers 10 days to recover his body. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigated the incident and socked the company with citations for “unwarrantable failures to comply” with ground support standards. The agency proposed penalties of nearly $360,000, but because the firm has contested the citations, the fines remain unpaid. Robinson reports that an administrative law judge is scheduled to hear the Hecla case in November.

Larry Marek’s senseless death reminded me of Markel Koon, 58. He was operating a bulldozer at Consolidation Coal Co’s Robinson Run No. 95 mine on November 30, 2012 when he was buried alive in a coal waste impoundment. It took rescuers two weeks to recover Koon’s body. MSHA investigated the incident and issued in March 2014 three “significant and substantial” violations. Four months later, however, the penalties accompanying the citations have not yet been assessed. I asked MSHA for any insight on the cause for the delay. Their response: “It’s going through the process.”  It seems to me that four months after citations are issued, and 20 months after Markel Koon’s death, is more than enough time to calculate the penalties for three citations.

Today, MSHA announced a plan to revise its process for determining a monetary penalty. It’s unclear to me whether the changes would eliminate the kind of lag time seen in the Markel Koon’s case.  The agency said the move is designed to “promote consistency, objectivity, and efficiency.”

When MSHA proposes a penalty to a mine operator for a health or safety violation, the agency is required by its statute to consider six factors to determine the penalty amount: business size, previous history, negligence, gravity, good faith, and the employer’s ability to stay in business. The change MSHA is suggesting would put less emphasis in the penalty calculation on mine size, and give more consideration to evidence of employer negligence, the severity of the harm that could be caused by the violation, and the employer’s history of violations.

One way the agency proposes to do that is to reduce the options available to a mine inspector to characterize violations.  Currently, mine inspectors have five choices for describing an employer’s negligence:  No negligence, low negligence, moderate negligence, high negligence, and reckless disregard. MSHA proposes to streamline those to three options: not negligent, negligent and reckless disregard.  Similarly, the five current categories for likelihood of harm, (i.e., no likelihood, unlikely, reasonably likely, highly likely, and occurred) would be replaced with three: unlikely, reasonably likely, and occurred.

MSHA says the key benefit of these proposed changes are to:

“improve the efficiency of the Agency’s enforcement efforts and minimize disputes.  …Simplifying the criteria would increase objectivity and clarity in the citation and order process…[and] should result in fewer areas of disagreement and earlier resolution of enforcement issues, which should result in fewer contests of violations and proposed assessments.”

There’s no mention, however, that the changes will result in more timely assessment of penalties.  For the fatality cases like Markel Koon’s, that would be another much-needed benefit.

Categories: Health

New Maps of Peru Forests Could Help Set Conservation Priorities

Yale Environment 360 - July 30, 2014
New, highly detailed maps of Peru's vegetation show that three-quarters of the country's forests — a biomass

Click to Enlarge

Carbon stocks across Peru stock that sequesters more carbon than the combined annual CO2 emissions of the U.S. and China — lie outside of protected areas and are vulnerable to deforestation, according to an analysis by researchers in the U.S. and Peru. The maps, which should prove helpful to scientists, conservationists, and policymakers working to protect the forests, offer the most detailed view to date of the different types of vegetative cover and above-ground carbon stocks across Peru, with resolution at the one-hectare scale. The analysis found that the lowlands of southern Peru, which contain extensive bamboo cover, harbor significantly less carbon than other rainforest areas, and forests in active floodplains appear to store half as much carbon as other forests.
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - July 30, 2014

Fast food workers may have just received a huge boost, thanks to a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board.

Steven Greenhouse reports in The New York Times that the board’s general counsel has ruled that McDonald’s is jointly responsible for labor violations at its franchises — “a decision that if upheld would disrupt longtime practices in the fast-food industry and ease the way for unionizing nationwide,” Greenhouse writes. The article reports that of the 181 unfair labor practice complaints filed against McDonald’s and its franchises in the last 20 months, the board’s counsel decided that 43 had merit on grounds of illegally firing or threatening workers for supporting unionization and that McDonald’s would be listed as a joint employer. Greenhouse said the ruling could be a significant boost to the growing movement of fast food workers organizing for a living wage. He writes:

The fast-food workers movement has argued that McDonald’s should be considered a joint employer because it owns many of the franchisees’ restaurant buildings and requires franchises to follow strict rules on food, cleanliness and hiring. McDonald’s has even warned some franchisees that they were paying their workers too much.

The cases were brought on behalf of workers who assert, among other things, that they were wrongfully fired, threatened or suspended because of their campaign for a $15 a wage and to unionize McDonald’s.

“McDonald’s can try to hide behind its franchisees, but today’s determination by the N.L.R.B. shows there’s no two ways about it: The Golden Arches is an employer, plain and simple,” said Micah Wissinger, a lawyer in New York who filed some of the cases against McDonald’s. “The reality is that McDonald’s requires franchisees to adhere to such regimented rules and regulations that there’s no doubt who’s really in charge.”

So how does this ruling, which is being contested by McDonald’s and roundly criticized by restaurant, business and franchise groups, help union efforts? Lydia DePillis at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog explains:

In theory, it’s easier to form a bargaining unit and hold a union election if it’s clear that one large company could be party to it, rather than just a bunch of little employers. Right now though, the Fast Food Forward campaign is being cagey about how they’ll proceed. On a press call, campaign director Kendall Fells explained they might not want to hold an election at all.

“We’re not convinced that we want to have elections at these stores, we’re not convinced we want to have a card check,” he said. “This campaign is about highlighting the workers that work in these stores and the conditions they work under. What we’re talking about is having these corporations come to the table and have a conversation about what workers want, which is $15 an hour, and a union.”

McDonald’s claims that it isn’t liable for how franchisees treat workers, but Alan Pyke over at Think Progress notes that:

Workers have repeatedly challenged that interpretation of the franchisee relationships, most recently in a slew of class-action wage theft lawsuits this spring. Those cases centered on a computer system installed by McDonald’s at franchisee stores that compares labor costs to money coming in in real-time, encouraging managers to fiddle with workers hours and timesheets as necessary to keep that expenses ratio as low as possible at all times.

For more details on the ruling, read Greenhouse’s article here.

In other news:

ABC News: Scott Wilson interviews politicians who participated in the Live the Wage Challenge, which calls on Americans to live for a week on minimum wage, which only comes out to about $77 per week for a full-time worker after housing costs and taxes. The article chronicles the experiences of Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. (Ryan and Schakowsky sponsored the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10.) Strickland wrote a first-person perspective on the experience over at Politico, writing that it’s “un-American that you can work and work and work and not get out of poverty.

Washington Post: In the post’s She The People blog, writers Brigid Schulte and Nia-Malika Henderson discuss the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new guidelines clarifying workplace accommodations for pregnant women and reminding employers that refusing to provide pregnant workers with reasonable working conditions is illegal. The article notes that pregnancy discrimination complaints are on the rise, increasing 46 percent between fiscal years 1997 and 2011.

FairWarning: The online publication, which focuses on issues of health, safety and corporate conduct, published an in-depth profile of longtime occupational activist Garrett Brown, who this year launched Inside Cal/OSHA. Brown spent 20 years working for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health before retiring and launching the watchdog site. In the FairWarning article, writer Jane Kay profiles Garrett’s life, work and dedication to workers’ rights.

Center for Public Integrity: As part of his Breathless and Burdened series, writer Chris Hamby reports that about 1,100 miners who had claimed black lung benefits may have been wrongly denied due to Johns Hopkins physician Paul Wheeler, who Hamby writes “systematically found that miners did not have black lung when, in fact, many of them did.”

NIOSH Science Blog: Writer Brenda Jacklitsch blogs about the importance of protecting workers from heat stress. She outlines what makes up a good heat illness prevention plan, the science of heat adaptation and why heat acclimatization matters.

EHS Today: OSHA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration just signed a memorandum of understanding allowing the two agencies to work together on whistleblower cases within the commercial carrier industry. The federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act protects industry workers from retaliation for speaking up about safety and health violations. Writer Josh Cable writes about how the partnership will work and why it’s important.

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

Danish Wind Power To Be Half The Price of Coal and Natural Gas by 2016

Yale Environment 360 - July 29, 2014
Wind power has overtaken all other energy sources as the cheapest form of electricity in Denmark, with a cost

Frederikshavn, Denmark roughly half that of coal and natural gas projected by 2016, according to an analysis by the Danish Energy Association (DEA). Home to major turbine manufacturers Vestas and Siemens, the country has been investing steadily in wind power since the 1970s and seems to be reaping the benefits of those investments now, analysts say. Electricity from two new onshore wind power facilities set to begin operating in 2016 will cost around 5 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, according to DEA calculations. The Danish government aims to meet 50 percent of the country's total electricity needs with wind power by 2020, and another 20 percent with other renewable sources. By 2050, the government aims to produce all electricity from renewable sources.
Categories: Environment, Health

Trees Save Lives and $7 Billion in Health Costs Annually, Forest Service Finds

Yale Environment 360 - July 28, 2014
Trees are saving more than 850 human lives each year and preventing 670,000 cases of acute respiratory symptoms in the U.S., according to the first broad-scale

Click to Enlarge

Pollution removal by trees estimate of trees' air pollution removal by U.S. Forest Service researchers. Looking at four common air pollutants — nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 microns — researchers valued the human health benefits of the reduced air pollution at nearly $7 billion annually in a study published in the journal Environmental Pollution. The benefits of trees vary with tree cover across the nation, the researchers note. Tree cover in the United States is estimated at 34.2 percent overall, but varies from 2.6 percent in North Dakota to 88.9 percent in New Hampshire. While the pollution-removal capabilities of trees led to an average air quality improvement of less than 1 percent, the impacts are substantial, the study found.
Categories: Environment, Health

When schedules don’t work for hourly workers

Pump Handle - July 28, 2014

With much of the country still suffering the effects of the last recession, many hourly workers are trying to scrape by with part-time jobs that don’t give them as many hours as they’d like. Worse, their schedules are often unpredictable, with little advance notice – and workers may scramble to coordinate childcare and transportation, only to arrive at their jobs and learn their shifts have been canceled.

Businesses may lower their costs by rearranging schedules at the last minute or sending workers home in response to fluctuating numbers of customers, but they do so at the expense of workers’ ability to earn livable incomes, care for their families, and pursue education and other goals. (Such short-term cost-cutting measures may compromise companies’ long-term profitability, but that’s a subject for another post.)

San Francisco and Vermont laws that took effect earlier this year begin to address scheduling’s impacts on workers’ lives. In San Francisco, the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance give workers with personal caregiving obligations the right to request changes to their working conditions (both flexibility and predictability) and requires employers to consider these requests. In Vermont, all employees have the right to request a flexible working arrangement, and employers must discuss the requests in good faith.

Last week, Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Schedules that Work Act to give hourly workers more flexibility and predictability. The Act would allow all workers at businesses with 15 or more employees the right to request flexible, predictable, or stable schedules, and employers must engage in a timely, interactive process with employees to address their requests. When workers fall into four specific categories – those with caregiving obligations, second jobs, serious health conditions, or enrollment in educational or job-training programs – employers can refuse their requests only if they have a bona fide business reason to do so.

The Schedules that Work Act also contains provisions applying to the retail, food preparation and service, and building cleaning industries. These employers must provide employees with their schedules at least two week in advance. When they change shift schedules without giving workers at least 24 hours of notice, and for reasons other than unexpected unavailability of scheduled employees (e.g., when an employee scheduled to work calls in sick), they must pay each affected worker for an extra hour of work. If employers send workers home before their scheduled shifts end, they must pay the employees for at least four hours of work (or for the entire shift if it was scheduled for fewer than four hours). For more details, see the bill text or this fact sheet from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

Representative Rosa DeLauro noted that women are disproportionately affected by erratic work schedules:

“Low-wage workers in America are too often being jerked around,” said Rep. DeLauro, co-chair of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. “These women—and they are usually women—cannot plan ahead, or make arrangements to see that theirs kids and family are being taken care of. This bill would protect low-wage workers from abuse and help ensure they can look after their families. Congress needs to ensure that people putting in a hard day’s work get a fair day’s pay and the ability to care for their loved ones.”

Unpredictable work schedules are problematic not only for workers with caregiving responsibilities, but for those with second (or third) jobs and those who are working toward college degrees. In a new fact sheet from CLASP, Liz Ben-Ishai describes some of the scheduling challenges working students face:

  • Many working students receive very little advance notice of their job schedules: An analysis by Susan Lambert and colleagues at the University of Chicago of the 2012 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth shows that nearly one-third of employed post-secondary students between ages 26 and 32 received one week or less advanced notice of their schedules.
  • Students have little input into their schedules: More than one-third of working post-secondary students between ages 26 and 32 said they have no input into their schedules, which are determined solely by their employers.
  • Working students experience a high degree of fluctuation in their work hours: Among employed post-secondary students between ages 26 and 32, 71 percent experienced instability in their weekly work hours. That is, the number of hours they were scheduled to work varied in the past month. Those who experienced instability saw their hours fluctuate by 63 percent on average.

We hear a lot of talk about family values in the US. It is indeed inspiring to see parents working hard – whether in extra shifts or in night school – so their children enjoy better opportunities than they had. Work should be an avenue for fulfilling such goals, not an obstacle.

Categories: Health

Why Restoring Wetlands Is More Critical Than Ever

Yale Environment 360 - July 28, 2014
Along the Delaware River estuary, efforts are underway to restore wetlands lost due to centuries of human activity. With sea levels rising, coastal communities there and and elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe are realizing the value of wetlands as important buffers against flooding and tidal surges. BY BRUCE STUTZ
Categories: Environment, Health

Studies: Students initially complained about healthier school food, but now it’s like totally not a big deal

Pump Handle - July 25, 2014

Nearly two years ago, American schoolchildren began sitting down to healthier school lunches, thanks to new federal nutrition guidelines. Media reports of the nutrition upgrade weren’t terribly encouraging, with stories of unhappy kids, unhappy parents and politicians who think addressing childhood obesity is an example of the “nanny state.” However, recent research has found what most parents probably already know: Kids are pretty adaptable — they just need some time.

First, a little background. With the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act came the first major update to school nutrition in 15 years. The revised nutrition standards encourage schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, to serve only fat-free and low-fat milk, get rid of trans fats, and limit calories and sodium. Schools that adopt the nutrition standards are eligible for increased federal reimbursement for school lunch and breakfast. As of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that more than 90 percent of schools are meeting the new nutrition standards. And fortunately, researchers have found that while kids initially complained about the changes, they got used to the healthier meals pretty quickly.

In a study published in the August issue of Childhood Obesity and in an accompanying research brief published by Bridging the Gap, researchers found that most elementary, middle school and high school students liked the new meals. Both research efforts, which are the first national studies to examine student reaction to the updated nutrition standards, are based on surveys with school staff on their perceptions of student reactions to the new meals. Both efforts found that while students initially complained about the changes at the beginning of the school year, far fewer were complaining by spring.

In the Childhood Obesity study, authors Lindsey Turner and Frank Chaloupka surveyed school administrators and food service staff at about 550 public elementary schools in the second half of the 2012–2013 school year. More than half of respondents said students complained about the meals at first, however 70 percent reported that students seemed to like the new lunches. The study also found that only 4.3 percent of respondents thought “a lot fewer” students were buying lunch, whereas 6.2 percent though “a lot more” were buying lunch. The authors wrote:

Many aspects of school lunch quality have been improving over time, with many improvements underway even before the 2012–2013 school year. Although some media reports have described student complaints about the meals, in actuality, very few respondents perceived strong resistance to the changes. Although 13.7% of respondents ‘‘strongly agreed’’ that at first students complained about the meals, 63.2% also agreed or strongly agreed that most students are no longer concerned about the meals.

However, researchers did uncover some disparities. The study found that respondents from rural schools were more likely to report that more students were complaining, fewer students were buying school lunch and students were eating less of their lunches. The authors noted that “this is particularly important, given the higher rates of childhood obesity in rural areas as well as an overall reduced life expectancy among rural populations and a widening rural-urban life expectancy gap.”

Also, respondents serving socioeconomically disadvantaged students believed that more students were buying lunch and eating more of the meal — a finding that the study described as “encouraging news.” Interestingly, the study also found that perceived complaints were higher at schools that didn’t serve “regular” pizza (many schools have switched to a healthier version that includes whole wheat crust or lower-fat cheese). Overall, the study concludes that despite the media’s magnification of student complaints, student eating behavior has changed very little.

In the accompanying research brief, the field was expanded to include middle schools and high schools. In those schools, survey respondents said student complaints about the new meals dropped dramatically from fall to spring. By spring of the 2012–2013 school year, a majority of middle and high school students seemed to like the healthier meals. Some schools did report increases in plate waste (food that’s left uneaten), though less plate waste was reported at middle schools with a higher percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Like the elementary school study, administrators at rural schools reported more student complaints than administrators at urban and suburban schools. Overall, the research brief found “generally positive” reactions to healthier school lunches.

In 2012, the National School Lunch Program provided healthy meals to 31 million children every school day. The program is often tapped as an ideal way to encourage and promote healthy eating habits and make inroads against childhood obesity, which has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past three decades.

Click here for a copy of the Childhood Obesity study and here for the accompanying research brief. To learn more about the new school meal nutrition standards and how to support them, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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

Southwestern U.S. Aquifers Are Extremely Low, NASA Data Show

Yale Environment 360 - July 25, 2014
Groundwater reserves in the U.S. Southwest are severely low and prospects for their long-term viability are bleak as persistent drought continues to parch the

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U.S. groundwater stores land and prevent recharging, according to an assessment from NASA. As shown in this map, many underground aquifers in the Southwest are extremely dry compared to average conditions over the past 60 years. Deep red areas on the map, such as in southern California and Nevada, depict aquifers that are so dry there's less than a 2 percent chance they could have experienced such levels of drought-related depletion since 1948. Although the Pacific Northwest is experiencing drought-related wildfires, its aquifers appear to be well-stocked, according to the map. The discrepancy is likely due to the long lag between dry conditions at the surface and depletion of groundwater reserves, researchers say.
Categories: Environment, Health

Environmental reporter’s tale of EPA censorship

Pump Handle - July 24, 2014

The Obama Administration insists it is more transparent than its predecessors. The President’s people repeat the claim and are quick to dismiss assertions to the contrary.  Reporters—whose business is shining a light on government—see things differently. Their complaints about the Obama Administration’s secrecy is not new, but they were elevated earlier this month in a letter sent to the White House.  A group of 38 journalism and open government organizations accused the Obama Administration of

“politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.”

They asserted that the Administration’s restrictions of information were a

“form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”

As far as I can tell, the Administration’s response to the letter: a shrug.

The journalists’ letter was fresh on my mind when I read this morning at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) “EPA: No comment on fracking air pollution.”  InsideClimate News’ Lisa Song describes the hoops and roadblocks she’s encountered trying to get information from the EPA.

CPI and InsideClimate News have been reporting since February on fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale and its impact on air quality for nearby residents. Among other things, Song and collaborators Jim Morris and David Hasemyer, have been trying to figure out why EPA hasn’t stepped in to force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to do its job.  For five months they’ve been seeking on-the-record interviews with EPA officials, but no interviews have been granted.  Song explains

Our first attempt at an on-the-record interview was with Ron Curry, the administrator of EPA Region 6, which includes Texas. We discussed our request with David Gray, the region’s director of external and government affairs, by phone. Gray suggested we start with an initial interview on background, which meant we couldn’t quote or identify any EPA officials on the call. He then handed off our request to Cathy Milbourn, a press officer at EPA headquarters.

Milbourn set up an interview, but the only EPA participants were herself and a senior public affairs advisor in the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards in North Carolina. …Neither had the expertise to give us what we really needed: answers to our complex questions about enforcement and regulations.

In early April we asked for an on-the-record interview with the EPA official we believed could best address these questions: Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. At first, the EPA seemed to be considering our request. Spokeswoman Julia Valentine emailed back, saying she would respond “shortly.”

Song explains that four weeks passed.

After further prompting, we learned that our request had been sent to Milbourn, the spokeswoman we talked with in March.  … To accommodate McCabe’s busy schedule, we listed July 15 as our deadline — six weeks from our first email to Milbourn, and three months after our initial interview request.

The emails continued until Milbourn wrote on July 12, “An interview on this issue isn’t possible.”

My reaction to Lisa Song’s tale is the same one I’ve had when hearing similar experiences from other reporters.  My interest drifts from the substance of reporter’s request, to the “why” about the agency’s secrecy. Is there something scandalous the agency wants to hide? Maybe, but probably not. More likely something mundane, like having to admit that you don’t have a good answer to a questions, or not having the resources to do what’s being suggested, or not wanting to get into a political fight. Just plain old honesty that may make the agency look bad.


Categories: Health

Protecting Community Forests Can Be Major Tool in Climate Fight, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - July 24, 2014
Expanding and strengthening the community forest rights of indigenous groups and rural residents can make a major contribution to sequestering carbon and

The Brazilian Amazon reducing CO2 emissions from deforestation, according to a new report. The World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Rights and Resources Initiative said that indigenous people and rural inhabitants in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have government-recognized rights to forests containing nearly 38 billion tons of carbon, equal to 29 times the annual emissions of all the world’s passenger vehicles. By enforcing community rights to those forests, the study said, governments can play a major role in tackling climate change. In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, deforestation rates are 11 times lower in community forests than in forests outside those areas. In areas where community forest rights are ignored, deforestation rates often soar. The report made five major recommendations, from better enforcement of community forest zones to compensating communities for the benefits their forests provide.
Read more.
Categories: Environment, Health

French Grocer Sees Major Success in Marketing "Inglorious" Fruits and Vegetables

Yale Environment 360 - July 23, 2014
A major French grocery chain, Intermarche, has launched a novel campaign to curb food waste and

Watch Video

"Grotesque Apple" poster market visually flawed produce. The "Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables" campaign aims to revamp the image of imperfect and non-conforming produce, much of which is thrown away by growers because it doesn't meet grocery retailers' standards. Intermarche began welcoming the "Grotesque Apple," "Ridiculous Potato," "Hideous Orange," and other infamous items to its shelves, created posters to explain that the produce is as nutritious and flavorful as the more attractive versions, and reduced prices by 30 percent. The campaign was an "immediate success," Intermarche says: Stores nationwide sold 1.2 million tons of "inglorious" fruits and vegetables in the first two days, and overall store traffic increased by 24 percent.
Categories: Environment, Health

Not an “accident”: Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia, 29 suffers fatal work-related injury at construction site in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Pump Handle - July 23, 2014

Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia, 29, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Monday, July 21 while working at a construction site in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The incident occurred on a $15 million project managed by Miller Construction Company. It’s the future site of a BMW/MINI dealership and service complex. reports the following about the incident:

  • a ceiling roof beam “came crashing down”
  • three workers were lowering the beam in place with a crane. “Something went wrong and it struck all three workers.”

The Sun-Sentinel reports:

  • a carpenter who was an eye-witness to the events said a crane was lowering a joist when a support gave way and knocked the men off a ladder and scaffolding
  • the incident occurred shortly before 8 a.m.
  • this is the sixth work-related fatal injury death in Broward County, Florida since June 1

The news accounts don’t indicate whether Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia, 29, was employed by Miller Construction Company or one of their subcontractors.

Describing the project, the firm’s website says:

  • the $15 million three-story facility will include 59 service bays and 3 alignment bays
  • the firm “is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the tilt-wall construction project from its earliest stages.”

OSHA will conduct a post-fatality inspection of the construction site. If the agency’s inspectors identify violations of health safety regulations, the company will be cited.

OSHA’s on-line inspection data suggest that Miller Construction Company was subject to one OSHA inspection in the last 10 years. At a project in Boca Raton, Florida, the firm received citations in April 2007 for two serious and one other-than-serious violations.  The serious violations involved inadequate fall protection and hazards in their concrete-masonry construction activities which posed a risk to workers of being impaled on protruding steel. Miller Construction and OSHA settled the case and the company paid a $3,432 penalty.

Each year, more than 200 workers in Florida are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 218 work-related fatalities in Florida 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:

  • Federal OSHA has 60 inspectors in Florida to cover more than 490,000 workplaces.
  • The average penalty for a serious violation in Florida is $1,821.

Federal OSHA has until mid-January to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia’s life.  It’s likely they’ll determine that the safety program of Miller Construction Company and/or their subcontractors was inadequate, and that Isagirrez-Mejia’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”

Categories: Health
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