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We’re delighted to welcome journalist Elizabeth Grossman as a new writer for The Pump Handle. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health,  and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American,  Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post.  Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of  the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold  Nautilus Award for investigative journalism. – The Editors

By Elizabeth Grossman

As the unprecedented offshore oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfolds and extraordinary measures are being taken to protect vulnerable coastal and marine environments from the toxic fuel, the question arises: Is the health and safety of responders being protected as well?  Over the past week, I’ve been investigating this question for The Pump Handle, but answers to my questions have not been forthcoming. On May 3, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) head David Michaels visited the Gulf and profile of responder health and safety issues began to rise, but many questions remain unanswered. This is an evolving situation, with conditions changing daily. Information about the incident, while to a certain extent copious, is also being tightly controlled. This is what The Pump Handle has learned to date.

As of May 12th there were approximately 27,500 people involved in what’s officially called the Deepwater Horizon response – some 13,000 civilian and military personnel and an additional 14, 500 volunteers. The effort to date involves more than 500 boats; deployment of nearly 300 miles of protective and absorbent containment boom; and recovery of nearly 5 million gallons of oily water. About half a million gallons of chemical dispersants have been used, most sprayed aerially onto surface water, but nearly 30,000 gallons have also been tested underwater. There are also ongoing controlled burns of oil on the water’s surface. Additional efforts are underway to physically cap the underwater gusher, to plug the well holes, and drill a relief well.  Tar balls are washing ashore, oiled wildlife are being attended to, and affected areas of the Gulf are closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting.

A pressing question is how to ensure the health and safety of response workers – a question being asked with the specters of the Exxon Valdez, World Trade Center, and Hurricane Katrina looming large. Concern is real that in the rush to protect beaches, sensitive wetlands, and wildlife – and to contain the massive oil flow – health and safety of those on the front lines is receiving scant attention.
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The nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch has just released a report describing the risks faced by child farmworkers in the US. Their findings include the following:

Children risk pesticide poisoning, serious injury, and heat illness. They suffer fatalities at more than four times the rate of children working in other jobs. Some work without even the most basic protective gear, including shoes or gloves. Many told Human Rights Watch that their employers did not provide drinking water, hand-washing facilities, or toilets. Girls and women in these jobs are exceptionally vulnerable to sexual abuse.

The country’s estimated 300,000-400,000 child farmworkers aren’t covered by the same restrictions on work hours and hazardous work that apply to children in other industries. Human Rights Watch notes that even existing laws covering child farworkers are poorly enforced. David Crary reports in the Associated Press that Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is adding more field investigators to improve enforcement, and legislation introduced by US Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard would eliminate the discrepancies between the law regarding child farmworkers and children employed in other industries.

In other news:

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John M. Peters, MD, DSc, MPH, the Hastings Professor of Preventive Medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine passed away at age 75 on May 6 from pancreatic cancer.  The School’s dean, Carmen A. Puliafito, said

“one of the legends of environmental and occupational health.  His work took him from the freeways of Los Angeles to the tire factories of Akron to the granite mines of Vermont.  The focus of his research was to investigate and quantify environmental risks and then contribute to strategies to mitigate that risk in the workplace and in everyday life.”

My dear friend and former deputy asst. secretary at MSHA, Andrea Hricko, MPH, first met John Peters in the early 1970s.  She was working for Ralph Nader, and John Peters was a professor at Harvard.   He was serving on a panel for OSHA making an inquiry about vinyl chloride and BF Goodrich – and she testified before him.  She told me

“He was already on his way to becoming a legend in occupational health, with his studies of granite shed workers and workers exposed to toluene diisocyanate (TDI).  

After leaving MSHA in 1997, Andrea  was recruited by John Peters to USC.  She said:

“John Peters was a brilliant, witty, and gentle man whose main professional goal in life was ‘doing the best science possible,’ something he did with the greatest integrity.  John has left an amazing legacy, hiring and mentoring  a dozen new faculty members at USC who now work on air pollution and other environmental health issues, and who all already miss him terribly.”

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I can’t keep up with Ken Ward Jr.’s coverage of the trouble brewing,  battle, strong difference of opinion between Secretary Hilda Solis/MSHA Asst. Secretary Joe Main and the United Mine Workers (UMWA), family members of deceased coal miners and journalists about the Department of Labor’s decision to have closed-door interviews of witnesses as part of the Massey Upper Big Branch disaster investigation.

Lest you think the press and blogs are the only way to take the pulse of the public, think again.  Mr. Dennis O’Dell, the current UMWA H&S director, is sharing his disgust about MSHA’s decision on the social media site Facebook.  His commentary begins:

May 2 (3:07 pm):  “The UMWA has been asked by miners at Upper Big Branch to be their Representatives during the investigation.  There are those out there who want to ice us out of the interviews. What happened to transparency?  If there is nothing to hide then why keep us out. What about a Public Hearing?”

May 6 (8:27 am): “Ok so here is the deal..the UMWA,Upper Big Branch family members, the media, the WV Coal Board, and even Massey has asked for open public hearings on the UBB investigation. What does MSHA do…”

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by Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from CoalTattoo

There’s been no formal announcement yet today from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about how it plans to proceed in its investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster — no word on public hearings or opening up the interviews to the victims’ families or taking any other steps to make this process more transparent.

But the information I’ve received so far from various sources is that this is the plan:

– MSHA will continue its general practice of conducting investigation interviews behind closed doors.

– The United Mine Workers union — designed as miners’ representative under the Mine Act by several Upper Big Branch workers — will not be allowed in the room for interviews unless the specific miner being questioned has designated the union as his representative.

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Beginning in December 2006, I’ve written five blog post commenting on the content of the Department of Labor’s (DOL) regulatory agenda for worker health and safety rulemakings.  Most of my posts [see links below] have criticized the Labor Secretary and senior OSHA and MSHA staff for failing to offer a bold vision for progressive worker protections.  Now that the Obama & Solis team have been on board for more than a year, I’m not willing to cut them any slack for being newbies.  Regrettably, as with the Bush/Chao agendas, my posts today will question rather than compliment the OSHA team (and any bigger fish up the food chain) who are responsible for this plan.

I’ll start with the good news from OSHA’s reg agenda.   In the month of July, OSHA projects it will issue two final rules, one on cranes and derricks in construction and another to revise the OSHA 300 log with a column to record musculoskeletal disorders.  The first is a rule that has been in the works for 7 years and long overdue (here, here, here, here, here, here, here.)  The second will simply reinstate a change in injury recordkeeping requirements that should have taken affect in early 2001, but was axed by OSHA officials under direction from the Bush/Chao Administration.

Now, the reg agenda items that have me perplexed.  We’ve heard the Secretary Solis and Asst. Secretary Michaels talk about green jobs, and we know that construction workers are a large part of that workforce.  But, construction workers continue to get short-shrift at OSHA when it comes to mandatory H&S protections.

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Last week Labor Secretary Solis released in the Federal Register on April 26, 2010, her Spring 2010 regulatory agenda for the Department, including her rulemaking priorities for MSHA and OSHA.  As required by the Regulatory Flexibility Act it was published on time in April, in contrast to her Fall 2009 agenda which was six weeks late. 

This document is described by the Secretary as a:

“…listing of all the regulations it expects to have under active consideration for promulgation, proposal, or review during the coming 1-year period.  The focus of all departmental regulatory activity will be on the development of effective rules that advance the Department’s goals and that are understandable and usable to the employers and employees in all affected workplaces.”

As my mentor Dr. Eula Bingham used to say to her staff (during her tenure as OSHA chief the Carter Administration): the only rulemaking activies that truly count for worker health and safety are publishing proposed and final rules.   Efforts that distract, divert, or delay the regulation writers’ duties should be avoided.  Currently, OSHA has about 100 full-time (FTEs)  individuals assigned to its H&S standards office, and MSHA has about 17 FTEs.

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A month after the March 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, a small team of public health experts prepared a report identifying the potential health hazards and making strong recommendations for protective action for the cleanup workers.   The team included Eula Bingham, PhD (former OSHA chief), Matt Gillen (now at NIOSH), Mark Catlin (now at SIEU), Don Elisburg, and Jane Seegal.  The team had been assembled at the invitation of the Alaska Commissioner of Labor after concerns were expressed

“about whether the cleanup workers’ health and safety have been adequately protected.  Among other things, workers have been observed with oil-soaked clothing and with oil on their faces and hands.”

The report describes the physical, chemical and work organization hazards encountered by the 4,000 cleanup workers, from toxins in the oil and dispersing agents, long work hours in remote areas, to slippery surfaces and dangerous animals.  Many of the same hazards will be faced by emergency response and cleanup workers in the Gulf Coast tackling the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The team’s 1989 report continued:

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In just the last several weeks, we’ve seen a series of horrific workplace explosions that have claimed a total of 52 workers’ lives: five at the Kleen Energy Systems plant explosion in Middletown, Connecticut; seven at the Tesoro Refinery explosion in Anacortes, Washington; 29 at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia; 11 on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by Transocean Ltd and under contract to BP, in the Gulf of Mexico. The general public has probably become slightly more aware of the fact that going to work – especially in the energy industry – can be dangerous, but how long will that awareness last?

As President Obama suggested in his Workers Memorial Day proclamation, these large-scale tragedies garner attention, but far more workplace deaths happen one or two at a time and get little attention from the press or the public. He could also have pointed out that the horror and outrage often fade before policies and practices can be improved to make workplaces safer.

Workers Memorial Day (April 28th each year) offers an annual reminder that we must strengthen our systems for protecting worker health and safety – because workplaces are still killing, injuring, and causing disease in workers. The most powerful reminder of the urgency of this task is the grief of those who have lost loved ones to workplace disasters. Like last year, several of these family members gathered in front of the Department of Labor on the morning of Workers Memorial Day to bring a message to our public officials: Don’t let more workers lose their lives the same way our loved ones did.

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President Obama has just proclaimed April 28, 2010 as Workers Memorial Day. His official proclamation states:

This year marks the 40th anniversary of both the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which promise American workers the right to a safe workplace and require employers to provide safe conditions. Yet, today, we remain too far from fulfilling that promise. On Workers Memorial Day, we remember all those who have died, been injured, or become sick on the job, and we renew our commitment to ensure the safety of American workers.

The families of the 29 coal miners who lost their lives on April 5 in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia are in our thoughts and prayers. We also mourn the loss of 7 workers who died in a refinery explosion in Washington State just days earlier, the 4 workers who died at a power plant in Connecticut earlier this year, and the 11 workers lost in the oil platform explosion off the coast of Louisiana just last week.

Although these large-scale tragedies are appalling, most workplace deaths result from tragedies that claim one life at a time through preventable incidents or disabling disease. Every day, 14 workers are killed in on-the-job incidents, while thousands die each year of work-related disease, and millions are injured or contract an illness. Most die far from the spotlight, unrecognized and unnoticed by all but their families, friends, and co-workers — but they are not forgotten.

The legal right to a safe workplace was won only after countless lives had been lost over decades in workplaces across America, and after a long and bitter fight waged by workers, unions, and public health advocates. Much remains to be done, and my Administration is dedicated to renewing our Nation’s commitment to achieve safe working conditions for all American workers.

Providing safer work environments will take the concerted action of government, businesses, employer associations, unions, community organizations, the scientific and public health communities, and individuals. Today, as we mourn those lost mere weeks ago in the Upper Big Branch Mine and other recent disasters, so do we honor all the men and women who have died on the job. In their memory, we rededicate ourselves to preventing such tragedies, and to securing a safer workplace for every American.

I’m told that President Obama is the first president to issue a proclamation for Workers Memorial Day. This is a strong signal that his administration recognizes the importance of worker health and safety.

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