Occupational Health News Roundup

With the help of a University of Missouri School of Journalism fellowship and Investigative Reporters and Editors, The Oregonian’s Anthony Schick spent the summer investigating child labor in Oregon, where agriculture plays a major role in the economy. After visiting fields and interviewing farmworkers, he reports that child labor is “far more widespread than statistics show.” He describes Diana and Elvin Mendoza Sanchez, ages 12 and 9, whose typical summer days involve picking fruit from 6 or 7am until 5pm, and submitting their buckets under their father’s name. Schick writes:

Nearly everyone involved has an incentive to allow underage labor. Farmers need crops picked, farmworkers need money children bring home and advocates for workers risk alienating whole families if they broach the subject. The tenuous residency status of many Mexican-born workers also plays a role.

Parents and farm owners say much of the work done on farms can, under the right conditions, be safe, build character and benefit families.

But all children working in agriculture — farmers’ kids, teens on summer jobs and underage migrants — face significant risks. Children on farms suffer fatal injuries four times as often as in other industries. Extreme heat, repetitive strain and exposure to toxic substances such as pesticides can create chronic health problems.

“As a society, we’re basically blind to the huge health consequences incurred by children working as migrant farm laborers,” said Martin Donohoe, a physician at Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center who studies farmworker health. “And those effects are going to last their entire lives and impair their ability to live a happy and functional life.”

Schick also describes the Obama administration’s proposal to overhaul safety rules for children in agriculture, followed by its decision to abandon that proposal. The Oregonian submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for White House documents regarding that decision, and was told that that 637 of the 1,019 relevant document pages found were being withheld. The rest were released with redactions, and The Oregonian has posted the partial record on its website.

In other news:

CNN Money: The group China Labor Watch reports that on Friday, thousands of workers at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China went on strike for several hours to protest working conditions on the production lines of the Apple iPhone5. Last month, 2,000 workers at Foxconn’s Taiyuan factory were involved in a riot that left 40 people hospitalized. (Also see this Washington Post article on why such riots are likely to recur in China.)

The Globe and Mail (Toronto): At the Lakeside slaughterhouse in Alberta, owned by XL Foods, line speeds have increased to allow the facility to process 4,000 cows every day. This raises concerns about workers’ health as well as food safety.

The International News: Four Unicef contractors working on a polio vaccination campaign in South Waziristan, Pakistan were kidnapped and then released a day later.

Reuters: A French study published in the journal Epidemiology reports an association between women’s occupational exposure to solvents and an elevated risk of having babies with birth defects.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSHA is launching a pilot program for an alternative dispute resolution program for whistleblower complaints in two of its regions, with the goal of providing faster voluntary resolutions.