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

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

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As usual, your excellent annual report on occupational health and safety in the United States sheds light on progress and setbacks of concern to all those of us who have worked together for so long to improve worker safety.

I was encouraged and proud to see the report highlight, as noteworthy activities in occupational health, no fewer than five CSB investigation reports – approved by the Board in 2013-14: NDK, Chevron (one of three on the Bay Area refinery fire and explosion), Tesoro, Deepwater Horizon, and AL Solutions. You also mentioned the CSB’s crucial, ongoing investigation of the West, Texas, ammonium nitrate explosion. Our first report on Chevron was issued in April 2013 with unanimous approval from the Board. Parts two and three are awaiting Board action.

I must say I was disappointed not to see coverage in your report of our recent testing of the tank – and other preliminary findings – on the Freedom Industries tank leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians. Also missing in the annual OHS report: mention of our new investigation safety videos which continue to garner a record number of downloads from stakeholders using them for safety training. And perhaps your report on CSB activities could also have mentioned our extraordinarily high record of acceptance of CSB recommendations (now exceeding 70%), and the fact that we have put the all-important issue of combustible dust on our “Most Wanted” recommendations list, by unanimous vote of the Board. Combustible dust was also the subject of a major NY Times CSB op-ed piece published on August 23, 2014. This followed an op-ed in the Times just last January calling on industry to adopt inherently safer technologies, following a series of chemical facility and refinery accidents.

All of these reports have been issued during the past year and particularly in recent months – reports coming out on schedule, reports that are of unquestioned high quality and impact.

I found it therefore somewhat ironic that you would precede your report’s descriptive list of CSB investigations with an item reviewing by-now years-old unsubstantiated allegations about management issues within the CSB. We do have some internal communications and administrative issues, and we are working on them diligently; but meantime, the work of the CSB has continued at full force as your own report makes clear.

The Pump Handle, and the annual OHS report by Dr. Monforton and Ms. Borkowski, edited by Dr. Robbins, are crucial communications vehicles for reaching key players in occupational health and safety, environmental justice, and accident prevention. I have known many of you for decades as we struggled together in the cause. I believe you know that my commitment to the cause has been unwavering for more than 40 years. That commitment extended into my tenure here at the CSB ever since I was appointed by President Obama as chairperson four years ago. And the commitment will continue during my remaining year.

By Rafael Moure-Eraso (not verified) on 12 Sep 2014 #permalink

Happy to have your feedback on the report. Liz and I made some tough decisions about what to include and we hope readers recognize it is not exhaustive. The report is our professional assessment of the highlights (and low lights) from the past 12 months.