The year in worker health & safety: action (and not) on the federal scene

As Liz Borkowski noted on Tuesday, we started a new tradition this year to mark Labor Day in the U.S.  We published The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2011 – Summer 2012.  The 42-page report highlights some of the key research and activities in the U.S. on worker health and safety topics.

We know that many advocates, reporters and researchers look forward  every April to the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report with its compilation of data on work-related injuries reported, number of federal and state inspections, violations cited, and penalties assessed.  We set out to complement that report with one that we hope becomes a fall favorite.

Liz profiled the first section of our report that highlights new research in the peer-reviewed and grey literature.  The second part of the report focuses on activities at the federal level, from efforts to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to provide better protections for homecare workers and employed children, to partisan legislation which would make it more difficult for regulatory agencies like OSHA to fulfill their statutory mission.  Here are a few of the topics we describe in our report:

  • Children in Agriculture still Vulnerable:  Despite a promise in September 2011 by Labor Secretary Solis to protect the most vulnerable workers in America, the Obama administration abruptly withdrew a proposed regulation to safeguard agricultural workers age 15 and younger from some of the most dangerous tasks.
  • A Poultry Rule That’s Dangerous for Workers:  In response to President Obama’s call to regulatory agencies to repeal burdensome regulations, the U.S.D.A. proposed a regulation to “modernize” how chicken and turkey carcasses are inspected.  If adopted, the rule would replace federal meat inspectors with company employees, and allow assembly line speeds to double.  As we’ve written previously (here, here, here,) poultry processing workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.  The proposal is opposed overwhelmingly by consumer groups, public health experts and labor rights organizations.
  • Anti-regulatory Fervor in Congress:  Too many Members of Congress operate under the mistaken notion that regulation is bad for business.  (Our report features a study published in Science concluding just the opposite.)  Three bills have passed the U.S. House of Representatives that would make it harder for OSHA, MSHA and other regulatory agencies to fulfill their statutory mission to protect public health.

Section II of the report also summarize some of the key activities at OSHA, MSHA and the Chemical Safety Board.  We note that OSHA’s progress came mainly in the form of memos, letters, and news releases about enforcement actions.  MSHA’s attention, in this post-Upper Big Branch Disaster period, was focused primarily on improving the effectiveness of its inspections.  Both agencies issued one new regulation each—OSHA’s update to HazCom to harmonize it with global standards, and MSHA’s update to underground coal mine examination requirements.   The serious hazards of respirable coal dust and silica, hazards reported on extensively during the year, have yet to be addressed by either agency with comprehensive regulations.

We also remind readers of the exceptional reporting by Chris Hamby at the Center for Public Integrity on the combustible dust explosions and fires at the Hoeganaes plant in Gallatin, TN.  At this plant alone, five workers were killed in 2011 in three incidents.  Hamby assembled data on more than 450 incidents since 1980 responsible for the deaths of 130 workers and injuries to 800 more.   Despite reports like these and recommendations from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, federal OSHA moved combustible dust to its regulatory back burner.

The National Academies addressed at least two occupational health and safety issues this past year.  The National Academy of Science issued its report examining the stockpile of highly hazardous methyl isocyanate at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, WV and offered recommendations for risk-reduction decision-making by chemical manufacturers and users.  An Institute of Medicine health sciences policy committee explored how employment and occupation information could be incorporated into patients’ electronic health records to improve both clinical medicine and population health.  Both reports illustrate how practices and procedures affecting workers (or the lack thereof) are integrally related to larger community health, environmental, information technology, and health policy issues.

Our report is not exhaustive.  To keep it to a manageable length, we made some tough decisions about which activities and projects to include or omit.  Please leave a comment below about what else you would have included in this section on the federal government’s year in occupational health and safety (Fall 2011 through Summer 2012).