Occupational Health News Roundup

A fire last month at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh killed 112 workers and injured many more.  Now it’s being reported that the fire department had refused to renew the factory’s certification, and that only five of factory’s eight floors were built illegally. The New York Times reports:

The Capital Development Authority could have fined Tazreen Fashions Ltd. or even pushed for the demolition of illegally built portions of the building, an agency official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. But it chose to do nothing, rather than confront one of Bangladesh’s most powerful industries, he said.

“I must say we have our weaknesses. We could not do that,” he said. “Not only Tazreen. There are hundreds more buildings. That’s the truth.”

Bangladesh’s $20 billion-a-year garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s total export earnings, goes virtually unchallenged by the government, said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a labor rights group.

“These factories should be shut down, but who will do that?” she said. “Any good government inspector who wants to act tough against such rogue factories would be removed from office. Who will take that risk?”

Hundreds of workers have perished in Bangladesh factory fires over the past five years. Workers labor in these unsafe factories for low wages, churning out clothes ordered by major US and European retailers, although the orders often come through subcontractors rather than directly from the big-name companies. At the Tazreen factory, workers were sewing clothes with labels sold by Walmart and Sears.

In his in-depth New York Times article about the fire, Jim Yarley reports that Tazreen Fashions received orders despite violations having been found during inspections conducted on Walmart’s behalf by the Business Social Compliance initiative. Walmart and Sears say they have now fired the suppliers that subcontracted with Tazreen.

In other news:

Charleston (WV) Gazette’s Coal Tattoo blog: Last Friday, 27-year-old coal miner Steven O’Dell was crushed to death between two pieces of mining equipment at an Alpha Natural Resources mine, and an as-yet-unidentified West Virginia mineworker was engulfed in coal-waste slurry when an embankment collapsed at a CONSOL Energy mine. Ken Ward Jr. compares public officials’ public statements about the deaths with policy (in)actions.

Salon: New York fast-food workers walked off the job as part of a union organizing effort spearheaded by New York Communities for Change. The strike follows Black Friday actions at Wal-Marts in cities across the country.

Washington Post: The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act [which President Obama signed into law last week] will extend whistleblower protections to federal employees, except for those working in national security and intelligence. (For more about the bill’s strengths and weakness, see OMB Watch.)

Boston Globe: Boston University School of Medicine researchers studied brains of 85 deceased donors and found extensive evidence of the protein tangles linked to Alzheimer’s in the brains of athletes, including two who died as high schoolers, and veterans who served in combat zones.

Philly Now: A Philadelphia city councilmember is planning to introduce paid-sick-leave legislation in January 2013. According to required lobbying disclosures, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and Comcast Corporation has spent thousands of dollars lobbying in opposition to the bill (via Media Mobilizing Project).

Washington Post’s Federal Eye blog: A National Research Council report found that OSHA’s 1978 lead exposure standard is inadequate to protect Department of Defense workers at firing ranges, and recommends the Pentagon strengthen its guidelines and practices to protect workers at sites where lots of lead-containing ammunition is used.