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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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By Rena Steinzor, cross-posted from ACSblog

On the list of federal agencies decimated by the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) deserves to be placed right near the top. Here is an agency that for decades has struggled with a tiny budget to get the job done, only to be taken over for eight years by a group of industry representatives dedicated to lowering the cost of doing business. What’s left for the Obama administration — and David Michaels, the head of OSHA — has been what I’d technically define as a “mess.”  

It’s in that context that a group of Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform released Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA. We wanted to examine what has gone so wrong at the agency, and explore what the Obama administration can do within existing law to get the agency on track. (Legislative changes to the OSH Act would be useful as well, but that’s for another day’s discussion).

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As Department of Labor officials noted in their opening remarks at the National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety last week, Latino workers have higher rates of occupational injuries and fatalities than US workers as a whole. They are particularly likely to work in low-wage, high-risk jobs, but may not receive or know about the training, equipment, and other safeguards to which they’re entitled.

Since no previous administration’s Department of Labor has made such a high-profile move to advance Latino workers’ health and safety, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and the Department of Labor staff deserve credit for taking this important first step. As the lead organizing agency, OSHA deserves commendations for bringing together 1,000 participants from government, labor unions, community organizations, and employer and industry groups to engage with each other on this issue.

What I most want to praise OSHA for, though, was getting actual Latino workers to the event and featuring several of them in the opening session. Jaime Zapata, Senior Managing Director of DOL’s Office of Public Affairs, did a great job moderating the panel, slipping seamlessly back and forth between Spanish and English (the workers all spoke in Spanish, and although there was a translator on stage, Zapata seemed comfortable speaking with the panelists in Spanish and then quickly summarizing his questions in English). The workers’ stories were the perfect illustration about how much work we still have to do to make all workplaces healthy and safe. Here’s a summary of what they told the crowd:

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by the Spirit of Frances Perkins

During last week’s Latino Action Summit on Worker Health and Safety in Houston, Labor Secretary Solis said:

“…I am urging Congress to pass the Protecting Americas Workers Act to give vulnerable workers more security when they speak out to defend their lives.”

That was the first time I’ve heard the Labor Secretary publicly mention PAWA and those were some welcome words.  The bill, HR 2067, is quite modest in its approach to enhancing the OSH Act.  It would:

  • adjust monetary penalties for violating H&S standards to the inflation rate
  • improve whistleblower protections and procedures for workers who exercise their H&S rights
  • ensure State and local employees are given H&S protections
  • require OSHA to investigate all fatalities and serious injury incidents
  • give family-member victims of workplace fatalities the right to meet with OSHA before citations are issued, make a victim’s impact statement to the OSH Review Commission

Yet, prior to last week, Mrs. Solis had been largely silent about it.  In fact, it was just a month ago that we first heard officially the Obama Administration’s position on the bill when Dr. David Michaels, the OSHA Assistant Secretary testified in support of the legislation.  (TPH post here)

Regrettably, it seems that the death of six refinery workers in Washington State from a blast on April 2 and the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 coal miners has focused the Secretary’s attention on worker health and safety.   Better late than never, I suppose.

Now that Secretary Solis told the audience in Houston that she strongly supports PAWA, I hope she contacts key Members of Congress—especially in the Senate—and convinces them that the nation’s working people need these and more workplace H&S protections.  The Senators who currently endorse the bill are:

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by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

I wasn’t able to catch President Obama’s remarks on mine safety live, but immediatley saw the summary by Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo.  Two main thrusts in the points flagged by Ken: MSHA needs a better way of identifying mines that need extra enforcement attention.  And new legislation is almost 100% certain in the next months.  Update: exceptionally strong words from the President’s actual statement:

….we do know that this tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch mine — a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue.

Many experienced, intelligent and thoughtful people will be giving their best attention to reforming mine safety.  The S-Miner Act, which was proposed but not enacted after Crandall Canyon in 2007, is one likely starting point.  Not an engineer, nor an attorney — but nevertheless, having worked more than 30 years around mine safety issues, I would like to offer a few personal reflections that someone might possibly find useful.

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On April 1, 2010, OSHA sponsored a green jobs information session. The purpose of the session was to describe OSHA’s green job efforts and discuss workplace hazards associated with green jobs. A blog post written here provided a less-than-enthusiastic review of the event.

There were a few shining moments, however. One highlight was the presentation given by Don Ellenberger, Environmental Hazard Training Director from The Center for Construction Research and Training (formerly known as The Center to Protect Workers’ Rights (CPWR)), concerning the safety and health outlook for workers. He reminded us that the U.S. Green Building Council’s internationally-recognized green building certification system (aka Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)) verifies that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance in energy savings, water efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, and improved indoor environmental quality.

Despite this altruistic system to improve building occupant health and productivity, Mr. Ellenberger made a strong, clear statement regarding green buildings.

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I noticed on RegInfo.gov that OSHA submitted the draft of its final rule on crane safety to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) on Friday, April 9 for review.  This is an OSHA rule that has been in the works since 2003 (see here, here, here, here, here, here.)  Historically, OIRA staff expect to have 90 days to review major rules like this one. 

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’ Fall 2009 regulatory agenda indicated her plan to have this final cranes and derricks safety rule published by July 2010.   In a June 2009 post, “What’s next for OSHA’s crane rule,” I describe what I thought were the key decision points for OSHA to address, including: what is an appropriate phase-in period for operator certification?  what should be the minimum standards for certification? how to distinguish between training and certification? and should OSHA adopt the ‘federalism’ language recommended by NYC?  I challenged the Administration to get the rule finished by the end of 2009.  That didn’t happen, but thankfully, it’s moving now.

There are many families around the country who have lost loved ones from crane-related hazards and employers’ disregard for workers’ safety.  Steven Lillicrap, 21, of Maryland Heights, MO, was killed that way. 

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In August of 1990, I drove from my hometown in the Detroit suburbs to interview for a job at OSHA headquarters (HQ) in Washington, DC.   I had never worked for a federal agency, let alone an important one like OSHA.  I was eager to show my prospective boss that I was interested in worker health and safety.  (Even though my Republican father considered OSHA a four-letter word.)  

To prepare for my interview with Ms. Ruth Knight and Mr. Frank Frodyma, I searched all the federal depository libraries in southeastern Michigan for any collections of GAO reports on OSHA.  In those pre-Internet days, these reports were hard to find.  I was only able to locate one (in the Wayne State University Labor Studies program collection); it was a report assessing the accuracy of employer injury and illness records. (HRD-89-23, December 30, 1988.)  

At some opportune time during my interview with Ms. Ruth Knight, I mentioned that I had read the GAO report about employer records of injuries.  She seemed impressed and proceeded to tell me that it was her exact office that was responsible for coordinating with GAO on their studies.  Ms. Knight also mentioned that GAO had been engaged recently in a special effort that involved a survey of OSHA’s inspectors.  (She called them CSHO’s (compliance safety and health officers.)  It was the first time I heard that term; it didn’t appear in the 1988 GAO report I’d read.)  She told me that if I was hired (not a sure thing because there was a huge budget battle going on that year,) I would probably have an opportunity to sit in, with more seasoned staff in the office, on an opening or closing meeting with GAO.  (Wow! I thought to myself.)   The weeks passed, the months passed, and finally I heard from OSHA’s human resources office that I was selected for the job.  Start date: mid-January 1991.  Bye-bye Mayor Coleman Young.  Hello Mayor Marion Barry.

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