Occupational Health News Roundup

In May 2010, an explosion at the Black Mag gunpowder-substitute plant in Colebrook, New Hampshire killed employees Jesse Kennett and Don Kendall. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated and issued 54 citations with penalties totaling $1.2 million. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Health and Safety, said at the time, “Even after a prior incident in which a worker was seriously injured, and multiple warnings from its business partners and a former employee, this employer still decided against implementing safety measures.” Safety measures the company failed to implement included remote starting procedures, isolating operating stations, and erecting barriers or shielding. The agency issued four “egregious” citations for the employer’s failure to train each of the four workers involved in manufacturing the company’s gunpowder substitute.

The Coös County Attorney’s Office prosecuted company president Craign Sanborn, and a jury found him guilty of manslaughter. Sanborn has been sentenced to serve a total of 10-20 years in prison and pay $10,000 in fines. In a statement, Michaels said:

The disregard for safety cost two workers their lives, and this jury agreed that Craig Sanborn’s actions were criminal.

Sanborn recklessly ignored basic safety measures that would have protected their lives. His criminal conviction and sentence won’t bring these men back to life, but it will keep him from putting workers’ lives in peril. And it should drive home to employers this message: Worker safety can never be sacrificed for the benefit of production, and workers’ lives are not — and must never be — considered part of the cost of doing business. We categorically reject the false choice between profits and safety.

Employers who disregard workplace safety may figure they have little to fear from OSHA, whose enforcement staff and penalty amounts haven’t kept pace with workplace growth or inflation. But the possibility of a prison term if their safety problems kill workers may motivate lawbreaking employers to start following the rules.

In other news:

The Nation: The Obama administration withdrew a proposed regulation that would have barred young farmworkers from certain hazardous tasks. Reporter Mariya Strauss culled through data sources and found that at least 13 farworkers under age 16 have been killed on the job since the proposal was withdrawn, and at least four of them died doing tasks they would not have been allowed to perform if the rules had been finalized.

Washington Post’s Wonkblog: Five years after worker Jdimytai Damour was crushed to death in a Black Friday frenzy at a Long Island Walmart, many retailers have taken steps to prevent problem crowding at big sales events, from strategically placed barricades to crowd-control staffing. (Also see the Huffington Post’s report about how Walmart has not yet paid the $7,000 fine for inadequate crowd control related to Damour’s death.)

Boston Globe: Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that would require those employing nannies, housekeepers, caregivers, and other in-home workers to sign contracts agreeing on precise duties and pay. It would also allow domestic workers to file complaints about harassment or abuse with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. At a hearing about the bill, several domestic workers testified about poor treatment by employers.

Al Jazeera America: Prison inmates from the Airway Heights Correction Center near Spokane are fighting forest fires in some Western states, a hazardous job for which they’re paid less than a dollar an hour.

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: CDC’s Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance (ABLES) program identified 11,536 adults with very high blood lead levels during 2002-2011, and the majority of these adults had occupational lead exposures. (Also see Kim Krisberg’s post about how federal funding for ABLES program has fallen victim to sequestration.)

International Labour Organization: Lebanon has released a National Action Plan to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labour by 2016.