Occupational Health News Roundup

At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reporter Raquel Rutledge follows up her in-depth investigation into diacetyl exposure among coffee plant workers with news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking into the hazardous exposures that some 600,000 people face as they work to roast, grind, package and serve coffee. Rutledge reports that in the wake of newspaper’s 2015 investigation, CDC is now conducting tests at facilities across the nation — in fact, the first test results from a coffee roasting facility in Wisconsin found very high levels of chemicals that have the potential to destroy a worker’s lungs. Rutledge writes:

Investigators with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a research arm of the CDC, spent several days at Madison-based Just Coffee in July. Investigators tested personal air space and took air samples to measure the concentration of the chemicals diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione. They also evaluated the company's ventilation and other operating systems.

Diacetyl has been tied to the deadly lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans, more commonly known as "popcorn lung" for its association with the many illnesses suffered by microwave popcorn workers in the early 2000s. The chemical's molecular cousin, 2,3-pentanedione, has shown equal toxicity in animal studies.

Both chemicals have been made synthetically to give a buttery flavor to all kinds of foods and beverages and have been deemed safe to ingest in trace amounts. Inhaling the compounds, however — whether natural or synthetic — can prove deadly.

The tests at Just Coffee were the agency's first study of a coffee facility that does not used added flavors. The results underscore the risk faced by all coffee workers, not just those in facilities where artificial flavors are used.

The two chemicals form when coffee beans are roasted and then are released into the air in greater concentrations when the beans are ground. Levels also build up as the beans "off gas" in the storage bins.

NIOSH Director John Howard told the Journal Sentinel the issue is a priority for the agency.

"There's a large number of workers and the harm is really severe," he said.

To read the full article, visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In other news:

Huffington Post: Dave Jamieson reports that Uber has settled a couple of major class-action lawsuits brought by workers in California and Massachusetts who claimed the ride-hailing company was misclassifying them as independent contractors, rather than as traditional employees, to save money. Under the agreement, Uber will still consider those workers independent contractors, but it did agree to help create an Uber “drivers association” in the two states. But how much power or leverage the association will give drivers remains unclear. Jamieson write: “Ironically, if the association is granted meaningful powers, it could face legal challenges. Under U.S. labor law, it is illegal for a company to dominate or control a worker organization. …Even if Uber has good intentions with the drivers association, the mere fact that the company will help fund it could invite a charge on (legal) grounds, labor experts say.”

NBC News: Griselda Nevarez reports on the AFL-CIO’s annual “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” report, which finds that Latino workers continue to face greater risks of dying on the job than fellow workers. However, overall, the work-related fatality rate among Latino workers did decline in recent years. In all, 804 Latino workers died on the job in 2014, 513 of who were immigrants and the majority of who were men. Nevarez quoted Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s director of health and safety: "The good news we saw this year was that the fatality numbers and the fatality rate for Latino workers went down in 2014 from 2013. The bad news was they're still at the highest risk of all workers. They still have the highest fatality rates of any group of workers and all workers as a whole."

BuzzFeed News: Chris Geidner reports that the Supreme Court has ruled 6-2 that the First Amendment bars an employer from demoting an employee if the employer believes the worker is engaged in protected political activity — even if the employer’s belief is incorrect. The case involved a former police detective who was demoted after he was seen picking up a campaign sign for the mayor’s opponent — the detective was not actually involved in the campaign, but was just simply picking up a yard sign as a helpful gesture. In this case, the question before the court, Geidner reports, was whether First Amendment protections applied to situations in which the employer “incorrectly believed” the employee was engaged in political activity. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented.

Los Angeles Times: David Neumark pens an op-ed on whether women face age-based discrimination in the job market — it’s an issue that he writes is “critical to Social Security or any other reforms to public pensions that rely on keeping older workers on the job.” To find an answer, Neumark and colleagues created fictitious resumes for young, middle-aged and older job applicants and applied for jobs that typically employ low-skilled workers of all ages. Then ended up sending out more than 40,000 fake applications to more than 13,000 positions. They found that older workers received far fewer callbacks than younger workers. However, women ended up facing more age discrimination than men. Neumark writes: “Why might older women suffer relatively more from age discrimination? In general, research indicates that physical attractiveness boosts hiring. Moreover, related research suggests that there is an ‘attractiveness penalty’ for age, which is more severe for women than for men.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

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