Occupational Health News Roundup

The New York Times reports this week that Charles M. Smith, the Army official responsible for overseeing the Pentagon’s multi-billion-dollar contract with KBR during the first two years after the Iraq invasion, says he was removed from his job for refusing to pay the company more than $1 billion in charges for which it lacked credible records.

Army auditors had determined that KBR lacked credible data or records for more than $1 billion in spending, so Mr. Smith refused to sign off on the payments to the company. “They had a gigantic amount of costs they couldn’t justify,” he said in an interview. “Ultimately, the money that was going to KBR was money being taken away from the troops, and I wasn’t going to do that.”

But he was suddenly replaced, he said, and his successors — after taking the unusual step of hiring an outside contractor to consider KBR’s claims — approved most of the payments he had tried to block.

Army officials denied that Mr. Smith had been removed because of the dispute, but confirmed that they had reversed his decision, arguing that blocking the payments to KBR would have eroded basic services to troops. They said that KBR had warned that if it was not paid, it would reduce payments to subcontractors, which in turn would cut back on services.

KBR (formerly Kellog, Brown and Root) was, until last year, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the oil company previously led by Vice President Dick Cheney. There are questions not only about whether it has been charging the government fairly for its services, but about whether it is providing safe conditions for troops and other workers – see past stories about shoddy electrical work and chemical exposures.

In other news:

Los Angeles Times: Workers who cut the sugarcane that’s fueling Brazil’s ethanol boom face unsafe conditions; a Public Ministry lawyer says at least 18 cane workers have died from dehydration, heart attacks, and other exhaustion-related conditions.

Meridien Record-Journal (Connecticut): Connecticut governor Jodi Rell signed into law legislation that requires the state’s hospitals to report nursing staffing plans to the Department of Public Health, and that registered nurses make up half the hospital committee reporting to the state.(via RWJF)

Washington Post: Indian workers who came to the U.S. to repair oil rigs damaged by Hurricane Katrina say the company that brought them here used false promises of permanent U.S. residency – and workers only found out that their stays were temporary after liquidating their savings and paying huge sums to recruiters.

Charleston Gazette: On the two-year anniversary of the MINER act, MSHA head Richard Stickler defended the agency against criticism that it is moving too slowly and meekly, and touted the hiring of 322 new mine inspectors – although when other inspectors’ departures are considered, the new hires add up to a net gain of just 163 inspectors.

Occupational Health & Safety: A study presented at the SLEEP 2008 conference notes that restorative naps help night-shift nurses stay more alert and identifies “experiences, barriers, and preferences related to napping or not napping during breaks on night shift.” (via RWJF)

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