Occupational Health News Roundup

A fire at a poultry plant in Dehui, China last week killed at least 120 people and injured many others. Some state media reports attribute the fire to an ammonia leak, and medical workers reported that many victims had swollen respiratory tracts consistent with ammonia poisoning. Workers who escaped and victims’ relatives cited narrow hallways and locked exits as factors in the alarmingly high death toll.

One report from the BBC describes the factory:

Family members were quoted as saying the factory doors were always kept locked during working hours.

The plant is owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co. It was only established in 2009 and is not an antiquated facility.

Located around 800km (500 miles) north-east of Beijing, it employs some 1,200 people and produces some 67,000 tonnes of chicken products every year.

Chickens are slaughtered at the plant and then cut up for retail – a process that takes place in cold conditions. Ammonia is used as part of the cooling system and in such plants flammable foam insulation is commonly used to keep temperatures low.
China map

Workplace safety standards are often poor in China, with fatal accidents regularly reported at large factories and mines, says the BBC’s John Sudworth in Shanghai.

Those lax standards are variously linked to corruption, the prioritisation of efficient production over worker safety in building design, and poor enforcement of safety rules.

As Dorry pointed out at the National COSH blog, the fire in Dehui has reminded many of us about past US workplace fires in which lost exits cost workers their lives, from the Triangle Factory Fire in New York to the Imperial Food Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1991. The Hamlet fire killed 25 workers; News & Observer reporter Martha Quillin followed up two decades later with survivors and heard of respiratory ailments and other lingering impairments no longer covered by workers’ compensation.

In other news:

Huffington Post: A new NIOSH study conducted at a South Carolina poultry plant found that 40% of workers had carpal tunnel syndrome, and that finding raises fresh concerns about a proposed USDA rule that would let poultry plants increase their line speed.

US News & World Report: The US House of Representatives has passed the Ruth Moore Act, which makes it easier for survivors of military sexual assault to get disability benefits for related post-traumatic stress disorder, and the House Armed Services Committee has approved a National Defense Authorization Act provision that prevents military commanders from reversing servicemembers’ rape convictions. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the epidemic of military sexual assaults, and a key issue of discussion was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill that would give military prosecutors (rather than commanders) discretion over which sexual assault cases should come to court.

OSHA (Work in Progress) blog: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, along with partners NIOSH and CPWR, is kicking off a second year of the Campaign to Prevent Fatal Falls. The agency has made available free fall-prevention educational resources in many languages.

Boston Globe: Longtime labor union activist Charley Richardson, who died at age 60 of prostate cancer, is remembered as a dedicated activist and an “engaging, caring, wonderful human being.”

Cape Breton Post: Mario Sepulveda, one of the 33 Chilean miners who was trapped underground for 69 days following a mine explosion, spoke at the Mining Society of Nova Scotia’s annual meeting about the importance of respecting miners and following safety rules. Only four of the 33 miners have been deemed fit to return to working as miners, and many of the men — as well as their families — still struggle with psychological repercussions, Sepulveda explains.

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