Occupational Health News Roundup

This month’s issue of EHS Today includes a special section on Bangladesh factory safety, a topic that has continued to attract news coverage following the April collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which killed more than 1100 workers. Sandy Smith’s introductory article summarizes some of the international efforts aimed at improving working condition in Bangladesh, including support of the Bangladeshi National Action Plan for Fire and Building Safety and two different retailer initiatives.

Scott Nova critiques existing factory inspection programs for “their abject failure to provide basic protections for the lives and safety of worker.” He writes that the programs have failed “because they were geared much more toward protecting the image and reputation of the brands and retailers than the safety of workers.”

Garrett Brown also focuses on retailers’ role, noting, “Demanding that factories follow labor and environmental codes while pushing down prices and delivery times primarily has created incentives for factories to hide problems rather than solve them.” He contrasts the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Accord, a binding agreement involving mainly European brands, to a voluntary initiative launched by US brands. Brown describes the European accord as “a step in the right direction.” For the US, Brown writes:

U.S. brands and retailers must move from checklist audits of these factories, or even standardized safety assessments, to a new kind of contractual agreement that commits to “responsible sourcing.” Companies need to adjust contracts to guarantee that they pay the real costs of production – including the costs of providing safe and healthy work environments. They must adjust pricing and delivery-time requirements so that they can guarantee their garments are produced within legal wage and overtime limits. And they must adjust contracts to allow for flexibility in delivery if there is a serious problem in a supply chain or factory.

U.S. brands and retailers also need to advance fuller transparency that drives real changes in their supply chains. They actually must incentivize workers and managers to uncover problems and share that information. This quite literally is the opposite of the current environment.

Brands and retailers need to focus on preventing hazards and problems, not just recording them. Monitoring must become a form of collaborative problem-solving that seeks out root causes of problems, with full worker participation, and then commits to solving them.

See all the articles from this issue of EHS Today here.

In other news:

Washington Post’s Wonkblog: Although furloughed federal employees will get paid for the 16-day government shutdown, thousands of contractors who work in federal facilities won’t be seeing paychecks for that time. John Anderson, a cook at the American Indian Smithsonian Museum, had to work out a deal with his landlord after one missed check, and told the Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley, “I don’t know where the next dollars are coming from” as he waits two weeks for his next payday.

Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester): Plumber Timothy Lowery worked for contractor KBR in Iraq from 2007-2010, and died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) three years after returning home. Many veterans and contractors think exposure to massive burn pits at US bases in Iraq in Afghanistan are causing health problems. The military is evaluating burn-pit claims on a case-by-case basis; contractors and their families are not entitled to military benefits.

The Sun (California): Cal/OSHA issued 12 citations, including for blocked fire exits and no effective training on heat illness, against warehousing contractor Olivet International, whose customers include Walmart. The citations followed a complaint filed by warehouse workers with Cal/OSHA and and a 2.5-day strike by many workers who complained of retaliatory surveillance for speaking out about unsafe warehouse conditions.

Seattle PI: A contractor charged with first-degree theft (a felony) for stealing workers’ wages is alleged to have bragged about threating workers with deportation after they asked for correct payment. Dathan L. Williams had won more than $1 million in government contracts, and the investigation into his practices involved a Seattle police officer trained as a drywaller installer working for Williams’ company.

Center for Public Integrity: The Pan American Health Organization has called on member states to conduct research into the chronic kidney disease that’s killed thousands of agricultural laborers. Health ministers from across the Americas have now pledged $1.7 million to combat the illness.