Mobile Phone Networks Can Help Monitor Global Rainfall, Researchers Say

Yale Environment 360 - September 03, 2014
New research shows that mobile phone networks, which cover 90 percent of the world's population, can help track rainfall events — a task that has proven difficult for both advanced satellite systems and ground-level observation networks. By compiling data on signal disruptions from mobile phone networks in Burkina Faso in West Africa, a team of researchers was able to calculate with 95 percent accuracy both the location and volume of rain that fell, even during short-lived storms, according to a report in Geophysical Research Letters. Mobile phone companies maintain detailed records on signal disruptions, which can occur when water droplets block and deflect signals between antennae, to determine whether their networks are functioning properly. By tapping into those records, researchers could distill data on rainfall events at extremely fine spatial and temporal scales. As mobile phone networks expand across the globe, such data could be used to create highly accurate rainfall maps, researchers say, although gaining access to records could prove difficult.
Categories: Environment, Health

Two new reports paint grim picture of wage growth, income inequality

Pump Handle - September 02, 2014

Yesterday, the nation celebrated its workers. However, new research finds that most workers face fewer and fewer reasons to rejoice.

Last week, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a new report finding that hourly wages fell in the first half of 2014 when compared to the first half of 2013. And those wages fell for nearly all groups of workers, including those with bachelor’s degrees and higher. This isn’t a new trend, just one that’s quickly heading toward crisis proportions. The report, “Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth — And What We Can Do About It,” states that between 1979 and 2007, more than 90 percent of American households had incomes that grew more slowly than average income growth.

The report finds that from 1979 to 2013, productivity grew by nearly 65 percent, while hourly pay for more than 80 percent of the workforce grew just 8 percent. Similar to the last four decades, middle class households saw their wages decline over the past year — a trend that the report notes is a central contributor to growing income inequality. Surprisingly, the only group of workers that didn’t experience declining wages in the past year were the lowest wage earners — a finding that the report attributed to state efforts to raise the minimum wage.

“Despite a recovering economy and growing productivity, employers are not putting anything more in their employees’ paychecks. Over the past forty years, corporations, and their CEOs and lobbyists, have used public policy to stack the deck in their favor,” said Elise Gould, the report’s author, in a news release. “The only way to strengthen the middle class is to grow wages, and for that we need policies that deal workers a stronger hand.”

The EPI report also found that if income inequality had not grown between 1979 and 2007, middle-class incomes in 2007 would have been $18,000 higher. At the root of many of the report’s findings is a growing divide between increased productivity and wages — in other words, workers aren’t reaping the financial benefits of the economic gains they’re helping to produce. So who is reaping those benefits? Gould writes that a “significant portion of it went to higher corporate profits and increased income accruing to capital and business owners. But much of it went to those at the very top of the wage distribution.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Gould rebuffs the popular theory that wage inequality is fueled by a shortage of skilled or college-educated workers. Instead, she points to policy as the main driver of inequality, noting that even workers with college and advanced degrees are experiencing wage stagnation. She writes:

Importantly, this wage slowdown is not simply the sad outcome of inevitable and irreversible changes in the economy (e.g., technological change or the “flattening” of the global economy). Instead, policy changes that have shifted bargaining power from workers to corporations and CEOs have played a large role.

The list of policies that impact wages is long—much longer than generally realized. For example, macroeconomic stabilization policy (fiscal and monetary and exchange rate policies), regulatory policy (especially financial regulation), policies concerning corporate governance, and tax policy all have significant impacts on wages.

However, labor market policies and business practices have also had large, though often underappreciated, potential impacts on wages. While this set of policies and practices includes many discrete parts, the common thread of the past generation is that practices, institutions, and standards that have boosted bargaining power for low- and moderate-wage workers have been targeted for weakening—and have been replaced by policies that put more leverage in the hands of those with the most economic power.

Another report on wage growth released last month was from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which found that wage declines continued for each quintile in 2012 and 2013. In “An Unbalanced Recovery: Real Wage and Job Growth Trends,” NELP found that across all occupations, real median hourly wages declined by 3.4 percent between 2009 and 2013, with lower- and mid-wage earners experiencing greater declines than higher-wage earners. The report found that declines in real median hourly wages were especially pronounced among some of the lowest-paying occupations, such as restaurant cooks, home health aides, retail workers and house cleaners. And it’s those types of jobs that are growing the fastest: NELP reports that in the last year, lower-wage industries accounted for 41 percent of employment growth. In fact, there were nearly 1.2 million fewer jobs within the mid- and higher-wage industries today than before the recession.

Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t optimistic about the nation’s economic future. According to a new national survey from researchers at Rutgers University, seven in 10 people believe the impacts of the recession are permanent, which is up from only half of survey respondents just a few years ago. The survey also found that only one is six Americans thinks the next generation will inherit better job opportunities, and most Americans do not believe the economy has improved. A majority of respondents said American workers are “not secure in their jobs” and “highly stressed.” The report noted that many of the survey responses stemmed from participants’ real-life experiences.

All of these recent findings remind me of a fantastic article published earlier this summer in Politico — “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats.” If you haven’t read it, it’s definitely worth the time. The author is billionaire businessman Nick Hanauer, and it’s such a compelling perspective on income inequality that I think it’s quite appropriate to end this round-up of wage findings with a quote from Hanauer’s article:

At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percent shared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent.

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

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

Six Strategies Could End Global Water Stress by 2050, Researchers Say

Yale Environment 360 - September 02, 2014
Global water stress could be alleviated by the year 2050 if countries work to implement six key strategies

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Strategies for reducing water stress vary by area. ranging from building more reservoirs to controlling population growth, according to research from Canada and the Netherlands. Water stress is defined as occurring when more than 40 percent of the water from a region's rivers is unavailable because it is already being used — a situation that currently affects roughly one-third of the global population. Writing in Nature Geoscience, the scientists propose six steps they believe can help reduce water stress: planting crops that use water and nutrients more efficiently; using more efficient irrigation methods; improving the efficiency of water use in homes, industry, and municipalities; limiting the rate of population growth so global population stays below 8.5 billion by 2050; increasing reservoir water storage capacity; and intensifying water desalination operations by 50-fold.
Categories: Environment, Health

Badru’s Story: Early Warnings From Inside an Impenetrable African Forest

Yale Environment 360 - September 02, 2014
"Badru’s Story," which documents the work of researchers in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is the first-place winner of the Yale Environment 360 Video Contest. Filmmakers Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele trek along with scientist Badru Mugerwa and his team as they monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Categories: Environment, Health

A Labor Day look at state and local actions for worker health

Pump Handle - September 02, 2014

As Celeste Monforton and I were putting together 2014 edition of The Year in U.S. Occupational Health and Safety (which she introduced yesterday), we noticed that a lot of the good news about workers winning better conditions was coming from cities and states. Victories include:

Cities and states raise minimum wages: Thanks to laws passed over the past year, eight states and four other jurisdictions will have minimum wages at or above $10 per hour. (They’ll join cities that already have minimum wages at or above $10/hour, like San Francisco and San Jose.) Some of these jurisdictions take the important step of indexing the wages to inflation, which allows workers to get future raises without tedious legislative battles.

Cities expand access to paid sick leave: New Jersey’s biggest cities, Jersey City and Newark, joined the list of jurisdictions requiring some or all employers to allow workers to earn paid sick leave. New York City and Washington, DC amended their existing paid-leave laws to cover more workers.

California and Massachusetts adopt protections for domestic workers: Over the past year, both California and Massachusetts passed laws strengthening the rights of domestic workers. They join New York and Hawaii in legislating protections for nannies, housekeepers, and other in-home workers, in response to reports of household employees who have experienced wage theft, round-the-clock shifts, abuse, and harassment from employers.

Texas and Maryland take steps to protect healthcare workers: Over the past year, a Texas law that makes it a felony offense to assault emergency-department personnel took effect, while Maryland passed the Health Care Facilities Workplace Violence Prevention Act. Several states have already passed laws designed to protect healthcare workers from violence; the American Nurses Association summarizes different state laws that cover nurses here.

Minnesota bill package aims to level the playing field for working women: Minnesota’s legislature gave bipartisan approval to, and the Governor signed, the Women’s Economic Security Act, which combines nine separate bills “designed to break down barriers to economic progress facing women ─ and all Minnesotans.” The law includes an increase in the minimum wage, requirements for reasonable accommodations for pregnant women, provisions addressing the gender pay gap, and more.

Houston takes a stand against wage theft: A new City of Houston ordinance contains substantial penalties for any person or firm who is criminally convicted of wage theft and exhausts all appeals. Convicted wage thieves will be barred from renewing 46 types of city permits and licenses for five years. The ordinance also prohibits the city from hiring those who are criminally convicted or who are assessed civil penalties for wage theft. A group of 13 workers filed the first complaint under the ordinance in April 2014.

When occupational health and safety problems arise, advocates and journalists both play important roles in bringing them to light and pressing for resolution. Organizations across the country (and the world) drew attention to unsafe workplaces during Workers Memorial Week, and released reports highlighting how on-the-job hazards kill workers in California, Massachusetts, Houston, Syracuse, Wyoming, Tennessee, and nationwide.

Media outlets covered unsafe conditions in local workplaces, including oil and gas fields in Texas; tank-cleaning operations in Houston and elsewhere; a lack of basic safety precautions at a Massachusetts hummus plant; and overloaded asbestos inspectors in Iowa.

We couldn’t cover all of the key developments over the past year, so we’d love to hear from commenters what kinds of important developments you’ve seen for worker health and safety at the state and local levels over the past year.

Categories: Health

A Labor Day look back at the year in worker health and safety

Pump Handle - September 01, 2014

Our Labor Day tradition continues with the third edition of The Year in US Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2013 – Summer 2014. Liz Borkowski and I produce it to serve as a resource for activists, researchers, regulators and anyone else who wants a refresher on what happened in the previous 12 months on worker health and safety topics. We prepare it as a complement to the AFL-CIO’s excellent annual Death on the Job report which has been released each spring for the last 23 years.

We divide the report into three sections: Happenings at the federal level, activities in state and local agencies, and new research published by academics and organizations. We also profile what we consider some of the best reporting by journalists on worker health and safety issues. Here’s a snapshot of what stood out to us over the last year:

  • The Federal Government: The 16-day “government shutdown” in October 2013 demonstrated the dysfunction of the current US Congress. MSHA and OSHA took important regulatory steps to protect workers from dust-related diseases, but the Obama Administration remains reluctant about advancing many other new worker safety rules.
  • State and Local Activities: Progress on new worker-friendly laws continues at the state and local level. The most impressive reforms occurred in Massachusetts, with an increase in the minimum wage, a bill of rights for domestic workers, new health and safety protections for public sector workers, and an improvement in workers’ compensation with respect to burial benefits.
  • New Research: Dozens of informative articles were published in the peer-reviewed literature that advanced our knowledge of both workplace hazards and the effectiveness of interventions to prevent injuries and illnesses. Research involving particular groups of workers—Latinos, healthcare and farmworkers—were especially prominent.

Liz and I will write several posts this week that will highlight each section of the report. We invite you to browse through it and add a comment to our posts with your own ideas about notable worker health and safety events over the past 12 months. I’ll start off below with some of what we think were the key happenings at the federal level.

MSHA issued a new regulation to better protect coal mine workers from developing black lung disease. Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced the new rules in April 2014 at a gathering of coal miners in Morgantown, WV.  MSHA also completed a rulemaking which allows it to target the worst of the worst mine operators with a “pattern of violation” designation. Four mining operations were the first to receive the designation and the enhanced scrutiny that results from it.

OSHA moved into the heart of the public rulemaking process on its proposed rule to protect workers who are exposed to respirable crystalline silica. Stakeholders had 137 days to submit written comments to the agency, followed by 13 days of public hearings.  A highlight of the hearings was the testimony by workers, including those with silica-related disease and those who made their statements in Spanish—a first in OSHA rulemaking history. OSHA also took outreach and enforcement steps to address working conditions for temp workers and those who work at heights on communication towers.

A coalition of poultry workers, civil rights, public health and unions earned modest concessions from the USDA in its new regulation on poultry slaughter inspections. The agency scaled back its plan to increase line speeds from 140 birds per minute (bpm) to 175 (bpm), and will require poultry processors to “attest” they have a program to monitor and document work-related injuries.

The Chemical Safety Board issued investigation reports and case studies on explosions at the Chevron Richmond and Tesoro Anacortes refineries, AL Solutions, among others, but leadership failures overshadowed that work. CSB member Beth Rosenberg, ScD resigned in May 2014. Cong. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued a report and held a hearing on management failures and whistleblower reprisals at the agency.

NIOSH engaged stakeholders in discussions on a proposed policy on carcinogens. The agency also drew more attention to the public health consequences of fracking, with findings of worker deaths from exposure to fracking’s “flow back” fluids.

Journalists made significant contributions to raise public awareness about worker health and safety issues. Most notably, the Center for Public Integrity’s (CPI) Chris Hamby won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on law firm Jackson Kelly’s practice of withholding key medical evidence in their challenges against coal miners who are seeking compensation under the federal black lung benefits program.  CPI’s Jim Morris, a veteran of worker H&S journalism, reported on Georgia-Pacific’s research program to challenge the scientific evidence on the health effects of asbestos exposure, as well as the serious backlog of workers’ compensation cases for longshore and harbor workers.  Some of the other national news coverage we recap in the report include: the challenges faced by temp workers which were featured in reporting by ProPublica’s Michael Grabell; teen workers and sexual harassment which was investigated by The Oregonian’s Laura Gunderson; and the H&S risks faced by young farm workers which was reported by The Nation’s Mariya Strauss and Gabriel Thompson.

Our report highlights work by other journalists and much more on happenings over the last 12 months at the federal level. The report covers a lot, but it is not exhaustive. Liz and I made some tough decisions about what to include and what to omit. We hope you will download the report, and let us know what you think were some of the most important worker health and safety events or reporting since last fall.

P.S.:  The first and second editions of our reports are available here:
The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2012 – Summer 2013
The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2011 – Summer 2012

Categories: Health

California poised to enact historic flame retardant labeling law

Breast Cancer Fund - August 29, 2014
A statement by Breast Cancer Fund Director of Program and Policy Janet Nudelman You have a right to know whether or not toxic flame retardants are in a couch you’re thinking about buying. And fortunately, people in the state of...
Categories: Health

Disappointing summer for progress by OSHA on new worker safety regulations

Pump Handle - August 29, 2014

Just before Memorial Day—the kickoff of the summer season—the Obama Administration released its agenda for upcoming regulatory action. In the worker safety world of OSHA, “regulatory action” rarely means a new regulation. Rather, it refers to a step along the long, drawn-out process to (maybe) a new rule to protect workers from occupational injuries, illnesses or deaths.

The items identified by the Labor Department suggested that OSHA planned a productive summer of 2014. Here’s what OSHA outlined for its summer tasks.

In May 2014:

Accomplished? NO

In June 2014:

  • Publish a request for information from stakeholders to address the hazards faced by those who work on communication towers, in particular the risk of working at heights.

Accomplished? NO

In July 2014:

  • Publish a proposed rule to protect workers who are exposed to beryllium, which can cause lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease.  More than two years ago, in February 2012, the world’s largest producer and supplier of beryllium AND the United Steelworkers handed OSHA the regulatory text of a proposed rule on beryllium. It was a document that the two key stakeholders had thoughtfully negotiated. They expected their effort would expedite OSHA’s work on a rule.

Accomplished? NO

In August 2014:

  • Publish a final rule to address confined space hazards for construction workers. In 1993, OSHA issued a confined space standard but it did not cover construction workers. The agency proposed a regulation in 2007 that would apply to the construction industry and the public comment stage of the rulemaking concluded in October 2008.

Accomplished? NO

  • Convene a meeting of small business representatives to review a draft proposed regulation to address the hazard of workers being struck when construction vehicles and other equipment are operating in reverse (backing up.)  OSHA notes that in 2011, 75 workers were fatally injured in backing incidents.

Accomplished? NO

  • Publish a proposed regulation that would clarify employers’ obligation under an existing regulation to make and maintain accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses.

Accomplished? NO

  • Publish a request for information from stakeholders to better protect shipyard workers from fall hazards and make existing regulations consistent with industry consensus standards.

Accomplished? NO

It’s hard for me to believe that OSHA was unable to accomplish a single one of these seven tasks. I have to wonder whether something else is going on.  For all I know, the agency has completed its work on some of them and tied them up with a nice red bow, but higher ups in the Obama Administration have put the brakes on them. It wouldn’t be the first time the Administration has shown its aversion to new OSHA regulations. In 2010, OSHA proposed a change to the form on which just a fraction of employers are required to record work-related injuries and illnesses. The only modification was that employers would have been required to place a check mark—-a check mark—in a column on the form to distinguish musculoskeletal disorders from other injuries, such as burns or amputations.  After completing the public comment period and extra stakeholder meetings, OSHA submitted the final rule for review to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). It sat there for six months and then the Administration forced OSHA to ditch withdraw the rule. Then there was OSHA’s proposed rule on silica which was “under review” at OIRA for 2 1/2 years.

Whatever is going on—whether performance problems at OSHA or anti-regulatory obstruction higher up in the Obama Administration—OSHA set expectations of what it would accomplish over the summer months. Now Labor Day is upon us and it was a disappointing summer for progress by OSHA on new worker safety regulations.





Categories: Health

New Database Tracks Ecologic Health Impacts of Dams on World's Rivers

Yale Environment 360 - August 29, 2014
A newly launched online database illustrates the impacts of nearly 6,000 dams on the world's 50 major

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Dams in the Yangtze basin river basins, ranking their ecological health according to indicators of river fragmentation, water quality, and biodiversity. The "State of the World's Rivers" project was developed by the advocacy organization International Rivers and created using Google Earth. Users can compare the health of individual river basins, see the locations of existing and planned dams, and explore 10 of the most significant river basins in more depth. The 6,000 dams represented in the database are a small percentage of the more than 50,000 large dams that impact the world's rivers, the organization notes.
Categories: Environment, Health

San Jose Mercury News investigates the drugging of California foster children

Pump Handle - August 28, 2014

The San Jose Mercury News has begun publishing a multi-part series on the alarming use of psychotropic medications among youth in California’s foster-care system. Karen de Sá writes:

With alarming frequency, foster and health care providers are turning to a risky but convenient remedy to control the behavior of thousands of troubled kids: numbing them with psychiatric drugs that are untested on and often not approved for children.

An investigation by this newspaper found that nearly 1 out of every 4 adolescents in California’s foster care system is receiving these drugs — 3 times the rate for all adolescents nationwide. Over the last decade, almost 15 percent of the state’s foster children of all ages were prescribed the medications, known as psychotropics, part of a national treatment trend that is only beginning to receive broad scrutiny.

The first part of the series includes interviews with former foster children who’ve experienced long-term adverse effects after having been given psychotropic drugs while in foster care. It also presents some results of the Mercury News analysis of aggregate data on pharmacy benefit claims paid by the state’s Medicaid program for foster children (covering 2004-5 2013-14). The newspaper received the data months after de Sá filed a California Public Records Act request for 10 years of claims data; negotiations as to how much more data they might receive are ongoing.

Among the findings of the Mercury News analysis: Nearly 60% of California foster children were prescribed an antipsychotic, one of the psychotropic drugs of most concern.

Antipsychotics can have serious adverse effects such as rapid weight gain and diabetes. Often, foster children are given antipsychotics not because they have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but because caregivers want to control children’s behavior. de Sá explains:

For children, the FDA has approved antipsychotics only to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe autism — serious mental health conditions found in just 1 to 2 percent of the child population. But University of Maryland professor of pharmacy and psychiatry Julie Zito has found that the drugs often are prescribed off-label to control children’s behavior.

In a rare look at diagnoses of children covered by Medi-Cal, California’s public health system, Zito found that almost one-half of the antipsychotics used were off-label and about a third were for behavior problems such as ADHD, “conduct disorder” or “oppositional defiant disorder.” Her yet-to-be-published study found that in 2009 there was an 18-fold greater use of antipsychotics on foster children than on non-foster kids receiving Medi-Cal because of their families’ income levels. These findings were presented to the FDA in April.

All too often, foster children with behavioral issues risk losing their foster placements and ending up in a worse situation. It’s understandable why a physician considering such a scenario might prescribe an antipsychotic, with the goal of helping a child achieve a stable situation. But with too few providers who can offer foster children therapy to address their underlying mental-health needs, foster children often just keep taking the drugs — and if their situations get worse, the response is often to add another medication to the regimen. The Mercury News investigation found that “12.2 percent of California foster children who received a psych drug in 2013 were prescribed two, three, four or more psychotropic medications at a time — up from 10.1 percent in 2004.”

This is not the first investigation into the prescribing of antipsychotic drugs to foster children (or children in general). Most notably, a December 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office analyzed the patterns of psychotropic-drug prescribing to foster children in selected states (Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Texas). The GAO found prescriptions of psychotropic drugs for children under one year old, as well as hundreds of children prescribed five or more psychotropic drugs simultaneously. Since then several states, including California, have adopted policies that give extra scrutiny to the prescription of antipsychotics to children with Medicaid coverage, or to the subset of Medicaid beneficiaries who are also in the foster-care system.

Recent progress is worth noting, but de Sá and her colleagues demonstrate how far we still have to go to assure that foster children get appropriate care for their mental-health needs, rather than being doped with cocktails of drugs that leave them sedated but at high risk of health problems. I look forward to reading the rest of the Mercury-News series as it is published, and hope it will give us a glimpse of what a better system might look like and how we can achieve it.

Categories: Health

Rail Transport of U.S. Oil Up By 9 Percent, Creating Rail Car Shortage

Yale Environment 360 - August 28, 2014
The amount of U.S. oil shipped by rail rose 9 percent during the first seven months of the year compared to 2013, reaching 16,000 carloads per week in July,

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Rise in rail oil transport according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). U.S. crude oil production reached an estimated 8.5 million barrels per day in June for the first time in 18 years and is driving the increase in rail transport, the EIA said. Only 3 percent of petroleum shipped by rail in 2009 was crude oil; now crude accounts for more than half. Over the past three years, much of the oil has come from the Bakken Shale, primarily in North Dakota. Between 60 and 70 percent of the more than 1 million barrels per day of oil produced in North Dakota has been transported by rail so far in 2014, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. The demand for rail cars has created a backlog that's been particularly worrisome for farmers, who say their grain is rotting before shipping space is available to take it to market.
Categories: Environment, Health

Fate of the Passenger Pigeon Looms as a Somber Warning

Yale Environment 360 - August 28, 2014
This September 1 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last known passenger pigeon on earth. The extinction of this once-abundant North American bird still stands as a cautionary tale. BY JOEL GREENBERG
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - August 27, 2014

As Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes moves toward a 2016 presidential run, it seems he can’t talk enough about the so-called “Texas Miracle.” But upon closer inspection, it seems clear that a “miracle” based on small government, big business tax breaks and laissez-faire regulations is hardly a blessed event for Texas workers.

In an in-depth article on workplace deaths published in the Dallas Morning News, reporter James Gordon writes that Texas workers face the highest workplace death rates in the nation. In fact, Gordon notes that a Texas worker is 12 percent more likely to be killed on the job than a worker doing a similar job in another state. Gordon writes:

Forty percent of Texas’ excess death toll was among roofers, electricians and others in specialty construction trades. Such workers are sometimes treated as independent contractors, leaving them responsible for their own safety equipment and training. Many are undocumented immigrants.

Government and industry here have invested relatively little in safety equipment, training and inspections, researchers say. And Texas is one of the toughest places to organize unions, which can promote safety.

“There’s a Wild West culture here,” said University of Texas law professor Thomas McGarity, who has written several books about regulation. Texans often think, “We don’t want some nanny state telling workers how to work and, by implication, telling employers how to manage the workplace,” he said.

To compare workplace deaths in Texas to other states, the Dallas Morning News analyzed federal data between 2003 and 2012 to calculate how many deaths would be expected within each industry based on worker numbers and national fatality data. Here’s what they found:

  • Texas had 4,593 deaths; the expected toll was 4,014.
  • California had 1,204 fewer deaths than expected.
  • Texas had the highest rate of excess deaths among the 10 biggest states.
  • There were 17 states with higher rates of excess deaths. But all of them had fewer than one-fourth of Texas’ workplace deaths, which statistically skews the comparison.
  • While oil and gas drilling is among the most dangerous industries in the U.S., Texas’ fatality rate in that industry was 62 percent below average. There were 49 fewer deaths than expected.
  • The most excess deaths in Texas were among specialty construction trades. There were 719 such fatalities, or 242 beyond what would have been expected.

Gordon goes on to explore the contributors to the Texas workplace problem, such as no state occupational safety inspection agency and misclassifying workers as independent contractors, which means the usual wage and safety laws don’t apply. To read the full article, click here.

In other news:

The Stand: Earlier this month, the Washington State Supreme Court handed down a encouraging victory for workers, ruling that a parent company is indeed responsible for wage theft perpetrated by its subcontractors. In the article, writer Hilary Stern reports that the state supreme court unanimously ruled that Fred Meyer, a chain of superstores, could be liable to a group of janitors who weren’t paid overtime in accordance with state wage laws. Stern reports that “Justice Steve Gonzalez said that in these cases, courts can consider a variety of factors when determining joint employment such as whether the company at the top knew of wage-and-hour violations, whether it paid sufficient amounts to the subcontractor to allow for a lawful wage, and whether the subcontracting arrangement is a subterfuge or sham.’”

Mother Jones: A new report from the Economic Policy Institute finds that nearly 17 percent of restaurant workers live in poverty, with the median restaurant worker making 44 percent less than other workers. Reporter Tom Philpott writes: “The only real solution to the industry’s bottom-feeding labor practices are legislative.” (At the bottom of this article, check out Mother Jones’ fast food wage calculator, which tells you what it takes for a fast food worker to make a living wage around the country. In my neck of the woods — Austin, Texas — a fast food worker would have to work 128 hours a week.)

In These Times: In an unfortunate turn, rail workers discovered that their union leaders held secret meetings with one of the country’s biggest freight carriers and reached a deal to allow single-person train crews — a change that workers are calling a safety disaster. Reporter Alexandra Bradbury writes that the deal would be a first for a major railway and could lead the rest of the industry to follow. She reports: “The proposed pact would pull conductors off the trains, replacing several with a single ‘master conductor’ who’d drive around in a van, on-call for radio dispatch to any train that might need assistance. How many trains would one conductor cover? Four, eight? There’s no limit — like much else in the deal, it’s left to the carrier’s discretion.” For some more background on single-person train crews, read this article from Labor Notes.

The New York Times: Most of you probably saw this article, but if not, it’s a must-read. Reporter Jodi Kantor chronicles the life of Starbucks barista and single mother Jannette Navarro as she struggles to make ends meet working a low-wage job with unpredictable hours and little regard for her responsibilities outside of work. The story highlights popular retail software that employers use to meticulously create work schedules based on sales patterns, efficiency and profit trends, but doesn’t account for the basic needs of workers. Kantor writes: “Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. …Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families, say parents, child care providers and policy experts.” The Huffington Post reports that one day after the New York Times article, Starbucks said it would change its scheduling procedures.

The Washington Blade: Just last week, the U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance explaining that the White House will interpret an executive order on gender discrimination in the workplace as protecting the rights of transgender workers as well. In the Washington Blade article, reporter Chris Johnson quoted Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, as saying: “For the many transgender people who work for federal contractors, this brings a great sense of peace in knowing that their job security will be based on performance, and not gender identity.”

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

The right to know about fracking chemicals

Breast Cancer Fund - August 27, 2014
A Q&A with Breast Cancer Fund Director of Science Sharima Rasanayagam What do you see as the biggest problem with fracking? We're in an uncontrolled experiment. We know, from a Congressional investigation, that companies sometimes use carcinogens such as benzene,...
Categories: Health

Obama Seeks International Climate Accord Without Congressional Approval

Yale Environment 360 - August 27, 2014
The Obama administration is aiming to forge a legally binding, international agreement that would cut fossil

Barack Obama fuel emissions and direct funds to poor nations dealing with climate change, without ratification from Congress, The New York Times reports. The agreement would combine legally binding updates to an existing 1992 climate change treaty — allowing Obama to sidestep the constitutional requirement that treaties be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate — with voluntary pledges for specific emissions targets and aid to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. Nations would then be legally required to report progress toward their emissions targets at international meetings that would "name and shame" countries making slow or no progress, the Times reports. Lawmakers from both political parties say that no climate agreement requiring congressional approval could be reached in the near future. Republican leaders are expected to oppose the agreement being worked on by the administration and say it would be an abuse of executive authority.
Categories: Environment, Health

Global Meat Production, Especially Beef, Strains Land and Water, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - August 26, 2014
Global meat production has expanded more than four-fold over the last 50 years — and 25-fold since

Beef cattle graze in Colombia 1800 — due to growing purchasing power, urbanization, and changing diets, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute. Consumers in industrial countries still eat much larger quantities of meat (75.9 kilograms per person) than those in developing nations (33.7 kilograms), though that gap is beginning to close, the report says. Nearly 70 percent of the planet's agricultural land and freshwater is used for livestock, with additional land and water used to grow grains for livestock feed. Beef production alone uses about three-fifths of global farmland and yields less than 5 percent of the world's protein, according to the report. Sustainable agricultural practices such as feeding livestock with grasses instead of grains and using natural fertilizers could reduce these impacts, the report notes, but alternative dietary choices hold the most immediate promise for reducing the environmental footprint of meat production.
Categories: Environment, Health

Not an “accident”: Elbert C. Woods, 45, suffers fatal work-related injury at Cleveland, Ohio company

Pump Handle - August 25, 2014

Elbert C. Woods, 45, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Thursday, August 21 while working at Cleveland Track Material. Local reporters provide some initial information on the worker’s death:

The Northeast Ohio Media Group reports:

  • Woods’ clothing became stuck in a machine and he was pulled into it.
  • Woods’ co-workers were able to free him from the machine while they awaited response by the local fire department. notes that Cleveland Track Material:

  • Employs about 250 people.
  • The company manufactures railway track and components, such as switches that move trains from one track to another.
  • The firm was founded in 1984 and is now a division of Vossloh North America.

Vossloh North America is a subsidiary of the German-based Vossloh Group of 100 companies operating in 30 countries. The 2013 stock market value of the firm was about €870 million (or $1.15 Billion US).

OSHA’s investigation into Elbert Woods’ death will not be the first time the agency has inspected the site. A 2009 inspection resulted in citations against the firm for five serious violations and a $4,235 penalty. Several of the violations involved inadequate guarding of moving parts and equipment.

Each year, more than 150 workers in Ohio are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 161 work-related fatalities in Ohio 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 53 inspectors in Ohio to cover more than 250,400 workplaces.
  • The average penalty for a serious OSHA violation in Ohio is $2,156.

Federal OSHA has until late February 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Elbert C. Woods’ life. It’s likely they’ll determine that Woods’ death was preventable. It was no “accident.”

Notably, just a few weeks ago, OSHA commenced an inspection at Vossloh’s facility in Reading, PA related to the death of another employer. The Reading Eagle reports:

  • Michael John Rettew, 41, suffered a serious work-related injured on April 29. He succumb to his injuries on July 8, 2014 which triggered the OSHA inspection.

The agency previously inspected the Vossloh’s Reading, PA facility in 2010. The inspection resulted in citations for three serious violations related to electrical hazards and lockout/tagout requirements. The company paid a $1,225 penalty.

Categories: Health

Health Care Savings Can Far Outweigh Costs of Carbon-Cutting Policies

Yale Environment 360 - August 25, 2014
Implementing policies to curb carbon emissions dramatically cuts health care costs associated with poor air quality — in some cases, by more than 10 times the cost of policy implementation, according to new research published in Nature Climate Change. Policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions are as effective as laws targeting polluting compounds like ground-level ozone, also known as smog, and fine particulate matter, the MIT researchers say. An analysis of three climate policies — a clean-energy standard, a transportation policy, and a cap-and-trade program — found that savings from avoided health problems could recoup 26 percent of the cost of implementing a transportation policy, and up to to 10.5 times the cost of implementing a cap-and-trade program. A cap-and-trade program would cost roughly $14 billion to implement, whereas a transportation policy with rigid fuel-economy requirements could cost more than $1 trillion, according to the analysis.
Categories: Environment, Health

Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq, A Battle for Control of Water

Yale Environment 360 - August 25, 2014
Conflicts over water have long haunted the Middle East. Yet in the current fighting in Iraq, the major dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen not just as strategic targets but as powerful weapons of war. BY FRED PEARCE
Categories: Environment, Health
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