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Last month, the US Dept of Labor (DOL) and MSHA were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.  Their proclamations said:

“…this law represents a watershed moment in the improvement of occupational health and safety in the United States. It was the precursor to the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which created MSHA, and it was the basis of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970.  The Coal Act forever transformed occupational safety and health in the United States.”

Now, I’m reading news story after news story with these same officials asserting the Mine Act is weak and doesn’t provide MSHA the tools it needs to shut down dangerous workplaces.  The spin machine is kicking into high gear. 

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reports that federal inspectors issued closure orders at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine more than 60 times in 2009 and 2010.  The mine was repeatedly cited for allowing potentially explosive coal dust to accumulate and for flagrant violations of its very own ventilation plan. (When a mine operator deviates even slightly from its approved plan for ensuring proper airflow in an underground mine, the consequences can be devastating.   Sadly, very sadly, that’s likely a contributing factor in Monday’s explosion that killed 25 coal miners and possibly the four workers who have not yet been found.)  Ward also reports on “talking points” developed by senior DOL officials to help them answer the growing list of questions about its agencies’ enforcement activities at the Massey Upper Big Branch mine (UBB) in the months and days before the catastrophe.  One talking point says:

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The painful and deadly toll that asbestos imposes on families across the globe is a public health problem of growing magnitude.  In the U.S., individuals who are diagnosed today with asbestos-related disease may trace their exposure to the lethal mineral fibers back several decades.  The number of new cases of asbestos-related disease in the U.S. has not yet plateaued, and may not for years.  Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that  125 million people are currently exposed to asbestos at work or in their communities.   What will come of these individuals in the years ahead when the diseases manifest themselves??    Last year the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) produced an amazing, but frightening documentary “Canada’s Ugly Secret” and when I show it to my students, I ask “what will these people look like in 20 years?”   Their answers are not pretty and not hopeful.

The time has long past for the U.S. to stand up for the public’s health and pass strong laws to protect future generations from asbestos-related disease.  As we mark the end of Asbestos-Disease Awareness Week (April 1-7) and begin National Public Health Week (Nov 5-11) I urged every reader of TPH to take 1 minute to read the policy resolution adopted by the American Public Health Association (APHA) in 2009 calling for the global elimination of asbestos and strong prevention measures.   The resolution urges:

  1. Congress to pass legislation banning the manufacture, sale, export, or import of asbestos-containing products (i.e., products to which asbestos is intentionally added or products in which asbestos is a contaminant).
  2. NIOSH and OSHA to issue an annual statement to alert workers in high-risk occupationsof the adverse health risks associated with exposure to asbestos and include information on potential early warning symptoms in at least English, Spanish, and French.
  3. US Administration to support efforts for a legally binding treaty to ban asbestos mining and manufacturing throughout the world.
  4. Congress to ban the exportation of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials for use or destruction in developing countries.
  5.  US Administration to use its diplomatic influence with Canada, Russia, and other countries to stop their dangerous practice of exporting asbestos.
  6. Global corporations and development banks to establish policies prohibiting asbestos-containing materials in new construction and disaster relief projects.
  7. Governments to provide income support and retraining, and funding for relocation if necessary, for workers who would lose their jobs as a result of protective legislation.

Astute public health practitioners knew as early as 1898 that exposure to the lethal miner fibers caused severe respiratory damage.  When Selikoff, Churg and Hammond published their study in 1964 of cancer deaths among U.S. and Canadian asbestos insulation workers, the evidence of its harm to people’s health was incontrovertible.   Yet, like the tobacco industry, individuals who profit from asbestos peddle their deadly product with no chance of being held responsible for the severe harm caused to others–especially when that harm may not appear for years and years.   

By adopting all the recommendations of APHA’s resolution, the U.S. and global community can create a world in which future generations will look at asbestos-related disease as an ugly thing of the past.

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is immediate past chair of the OHS Section of APHA.  She was pleased to join fellow APHA members Barry Castleman and Linda Reinstein in drafting the resolution on asbestos adopted by the organization at its 2009 annual meeting.  She is looking forward to attending the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s 6th annual international conference entitled “Knowledge is Stronger than Asbestos” on April 9-11 in Chicago, IL. 

Updated 4/5/10 at 12:24 pm (see postscript)

I’ve been following the news coverage of the catastrophe at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington (here, here, here, here).   Mr. Daniel Aldridge, 50, Mr. Darrin J Hoines, 43, Ms. Donna Van Dreumel, 36, Mr. Matt Bowen, and Ms. Kathryn Powell 29, died from their injuries, and Mr. Lew Janz, 41, and Mr. Matt Gumbel, 34, are in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

I couldn’t help but notice the references in several of the stories to OSHA’s National Emphasis Program on Petroleum Refinery Process Safety Management (CPL 03-00-10, reissued Aug 18 2009.*)  As long as I can remember, federal OSHA has labeled these special targeted enforcement activities “National Emphasis Programs,” when they aren’t national at all. 

First, federal OSHA only has authority to conduct inspections in 29 of the 50 States.  The others run their own state-based OH&S regulatory and enforcement apparatus.  For this particular NEP, as for nearly all of them, OSHA tells the state-plan agencies:

“Participation in this national emphasis program…is strongly encouraged, but is not required.”  (OSHA directive, August 2009, see p.4)

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Asbestos exposure and asbestos-related disease remains a huge public health problem.  The World Health Organization estimates that at least 7,000 individual across the globe die annually from asbestos-releated disease, and another 125 million people are currently exposed to asbestos at work or in their communities.  Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reaffirmed its assessment that exposure to ANY form of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite) is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma, and that mineral substances like talc and vermiculite that contain asbestos are carcinogenic as well.  Moreover, IARC notes that asbestos exposure causes cancer of the larynx and the ovary. 

Besides its well deserved cancer label, exposure to asbestos causes tens of thousands of individuals to suffer and die from asbestosis, a chronic fibrotic pulmonary disease that robs people of their breath.  Recognizing the toll of harm created by the use and global trade in this deadly fiber, in November 2009 the American Public Health Association—the largest public health organization in the world—adopted a policy resolution calling for a global ban on asbestos.  Despite all the scientific evidence about the danger of asbestos exposure, interest groups and governments continue to sow doubt about it affect on people’s health.

KNOWLEDGE, however, is stronger than asbestos. 

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“More than four years after the Sago Mine disaster, fewer than 1 of every 10 underground coal mines in the U.S. has added improved communications and tracking equipment that could help miners escape an explosion or fire.”

That’s the lead sentence in “Four years after Sago, few mines have new communications gear,” by the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, who was reporting on a presentation made by MSHA officials at an “MSHA Communications & Tracking Workshop” held on Wed, March 27 in Wheeling WV.    Ward’s story continues:

“Nationwide, 415 active underground mines are required to have added this equipment. But, according to MSHA’s most recent count, only 34 have such equipment installed and fully operational. That’s a little more than 8 percent, according to the MSHA data.”

Only 34 out of 415 mines nationwide??  I suspected that some mine operators were falling behind on these installations, but 34 out of 415??  That’s appalling.  

But it gets worse.

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The subcommittee on Workforce Protections of the House Education and Labor Committee heard testimony today on the “Protecting America’s Workers Act” (PAWA) (H.R. 2067) from OSHA assistant secretary David Michaels.  In the Obama/Solis’ Administration’s first official statement about the legislation, Dr. Michaels said they:

“strongly support the goals of PAWA” (p.2)

Decoded, that means they are OK with some of the provisions, but others are giving them heartburn or worse.   Notably, Mr. Jonathan Snare testifying on behalf of the US Chamber of Commerce (and former GW Bush/DOL office (acting OSHA chief and acting Solicitor of Labor)) said

“the goals behind PAWA are laudable.” (p.3)

Other than that, the written statement and responses to questions from Mr. Snare were predictable: “penalties will not solve the problem,” “enforcement alone will not solve the problem,” “OSHA needs a balanced approach,” blah, blah, blah.  The best part of the hearing was when Eric Frumin of Change to Win challenged some of Mr. Snare’s assertions.   The former acting OSHA chief and acting solicitor suggested that the legislation was overreaching, when the problem is simply “the conduct of a few outlier employers.”  Mr. Frumin interjected, asking whether Cintas, BP, McWane, Xcel Energy, and others are mere outliers.

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Updated (3/17/10)

Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) introduced the “Ensuring Worker Safety Act” designed to ensure that the federally-(partially)-funded State agencies that run their own OSH programs are at least as effective as federal standards enforcement.  The text of the bill is not yet available on Thomas, but in Cong. Titus’ statement she offers at least one of her objectives in seeking the legislative change:

“giving OSHA additional options when a state plan is found to be underperforming.  Unfortunately under current law, federal OSHA is left with only two options, both at the extreme end of the spectrum, when it finds state plans that are ineffective.  This legislation provides OSHA with an important middle ground so it is not left with the choice of doing nothing or the drastic step of terminating a state plan. ”

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On the heels of Ben Elgin’s Business Week story yesterday about employers failing to comply with rules for reporting worker injuries, it appears large public sector employers have trouble obeying the law as well.  The LA Times is reporting that the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) failed to report to Cal-OSHA a serious burn injury that required a paid graduate research assistant to spend a week in the UCLA Medical Center’s burn unit.   (Under Cal-OSHA regulations, an employer must report to the agency within 8 hours any worker death or any worker injury requiring more than 24 hours of hospitalization.  Federal OSHA, in contrast, only requires injury reporting if 3 or more workers are hospitalized.)

In “Serious lab incident was not reported,” the LATimes journalist Kim Christensen, ties this revelation to the fatal injuries sustained by UCLA graduate research assistant Shari Sangji, 23.  Ms. Sangji died 18 days after suffering serious burns and injuries from a December 2008 explosion in a UCLA chemistry lab. 

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by Richard Denison, PhD, cross-posted from EDF Blog

The Washington Post ran a front-page article Saturday, written by Spencer Hsu, which reported the auction sale by FEMA of most of the 120,000 notorious formaldehyde-tainted trailers it had purchased five years ago to house the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  The article cites FEMA as saying that “wholesale buyers from the auction must sign contracts attesting that trailers will not be used, sold or advertised as housing, and that trailers will carry a sticker saying, ‘Not to be used for housing’.”

Think that’s likely to be enough? 

Think again. 

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I think the ghost of Tony Mazzocchi is haunting me.  Every day for the last 10 days, I’ve been presented with narratives, videos, testimony and phone calls about the workers who are compelled or forced to become whistleblowers.  It started with a student asking me about Karen Silkwood which opened the door for me to explain the OCAW/Mazzocchi-Silkwood connection and the vital contribution of whistleblowers in exposing deadly health and safety problems in work and community environments.  Then I heard powerful testimony of whistleblower advocates at the OSHA Listens session, and later received an email from Tony Oppegard (an extraordinary attorney who defends coal miners for exercising their safety rights) in which he alerted me to a webcast.  Tony said: 

Thought you might like to watch this very compelling program (about 1 1/2 hours long) about why ‘whistleblowers’ are so important to our nation – and why Congress needs to enact stronger laws to protect those who risk their job to try to protect the public.

When Tony Oppegard recommends that I watch an 90-minute webcast, I know he’s darn serious.

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