Occupational Health News Roundup

At Reveal, Jennifer Gollan reports on how the Navy and other federal agencies give lucrative contracts to shipbuilders with troublesome worker safety records. In fact, Gollan reports that since 2008, the Navy and Coast Guard’s seven major shipbuilders have received more than $100 billion in public funds despite serious — and sometimes fatal — safety gaps. She noted that in his first days in office, President Trump announced plans for a massive Navy fleet expansion, which could mean even more workers will be at risk.

Gollan writes:

With extra business comes more risks for workers. But there is no increase in oversight. In fact, there’s nothing precluding the Navy from handing out contracts to shipbuilders with safety violations. The Navy and OSHA have no formal system for sharing information on accidents. It’s unclear whether Navy officials are even aware of the safety lapses. However, they could easily look up the information on the public database OSHA keeps on its website.

Confronted by Reveal about their apparent lack of interest in worker safety, Navy and Coast Guard officials said it wasn’t their job.

“We are not the overlords of private shipyards when it comes to workplace safety,” said Dale Eng, a spokesman for the Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees ship construction.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Navy has few alternatives when it comes to who builds its ships. It can work only with U.S.-based companies in large part because of national security concerns and because shipbuilding provides a large number of relatively high-paying jobs in regions where shipyards are the major employers.

That creates an unhealthy codependency: Just a handful of companies are equipped to build the massive boats the government needs, and the shipbuilding industry relies on the military for the majority of its revenue.

But while the military and the shipyards each get something out of it, workers remain at a deadly disadvantage. Under a 90-year-old federal law, shipyard workers generally can’t sue their employers, which leaves the shipyards accountable only to OSHA.

Read the full investigation at Reveal. Also, read the response to Reveal’s investigation from former OSHA chief David Michaels here.

In other news:

Baltimore Sun: Michael Dresser reports that OSHA made a preliminary finding that current chief executive at Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport, Ricky D. Smith Sr., illegally retaliated against an employee while serving as an executive at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The Cleveland employee was demoted after complaining to a federal aviation inspector about a lack of de-icing chemicals and inadequate staffing to keep runways clear of snow. In examining the case, OSHA said the worker’s whistleblowing was a contributing factor in the airport’s decision to assign him to “derogatory work” and accuse him of being intoxicated. Dresser writes: “The job safety agency's finding follows a determination by the FAA in 2015, shortly after Smith was hired by the administration of Republican (Maryland) Gov. Larry Hogan to run BWI, that Hopkins had failed to keep its runways safe.”

PBS Newshour: Barbara Feder Ostrov reports that more than 6,000 California workers in munitions, manufacturing and other industries have potentially harmful blood lead levels, according to the California Department of Public Health. More than half of the workers with higher lead exposures worked for companies that make batteries, aircrafts and aircraft parts, ships, plumbing and pipefitting fixtures, and metal valves. Those with the highest blood lead levels worked at shooting ranges or in the gun industry. Ostrov writes: “The report, containing the results of tests conducted between 2012 and 2014, comes as the state’s workplace health and safety agency, Cal/OSHA, is considering a major update of its safety standards for workplace lead exposure for the first time in decades. The current standards are based on 35-year-old medical findings, which at the time did not recognize the dangers of even low-level exposure to lead. More recent science shows chronic, low-level lead exposure can cause lasting harm.”

NBC News: Avalon Zoppo reports that dozens of immigrant workers lost their jobs after participating in the nationwide “Day Without Immigrants” protests. For example, 18 workers from Bradley Coatings Inc. in Nolensville, Tennessee, were fired after joining the demonstrations, as were 21 workers from Encore Boat Builders in Lexington, South Carolina, and 30 workers from JVS Masonry in Denver. The story lists many other employers as well. Zoppo writes: That same day in Florida, several staff members at Grace Community School in Bonita Springs told NBC2 they planned participate in Thursday's protest. Two employees claimed they were fired as a result, though the head of the school insists no one was terminated. Asked by a reporter why the cause was important, Brenda Botello, who quit on Friday because she was afraid of being fired, said: ‘Because we are Mexicans... We need to find another job.’”

BuzzFeed News: Venessa Wong talks with economist Jeffrey Sachs about Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. In the interview, Sachs comments on a range of issues, from job automation to a guaranteed minimum income to the pitfalls of the gig economy. On rebuilding American manufacturing, Sachs said: “What Trump has done is basically sold a lie to these American workers. It’s a convenient lie because it takes the attention away from our domestic situation, which is we have income inequality run wild. All of this is the continued inability of the United States to talk about taxes, income redistribution, basic minimum income, and other kinds of policy that are rather natural in other countries. The solutions being proposed aren’t real solutions.”

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


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