Occupational Health News Roundup

February 7th marked two grim anniversaries of explosions that demonstrate the toll of unsafe workplaces. On February 7, 2008, an explosion and fire at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, killed 14 workers and injured 28 others. On February 7, 2010, an explosion at the Kleen Energy facility in Middletown, Connecticut, six workers were killed and at least 50 others injured.

The US Chemical Safety Board investigated both explosions. It determined that the Imperial Sugar explosion was fueled by a massive accumulation of combustible sugar dust, and that the Kleen Energy explosion was due to an intentional release of natural gas — a practice known as “gas blows,” in which large amounts of flammable gas are pushed into pipes to clean them.

In a Savannah Morning News commentary about the sixth anniversary of the Imperial Sugar explosion, CSB Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not yet issued regulations to prevent combustible-dust explosions — a step the CSB has recommended in order to save the lives of workers in industries producing paper, food, metal, pharmaceutical, and other products.

A Hartford Courant article reports that in the four years since the Kleen Energy explosion, Connecticut has banned gas blows, but the practice is still legal in the other 49 states. Several companies and organizations, including the National Fire Protection Association, have adopted CSB’s recommendations to prevent similar explosions. OSHA has not adopted CSB’s recommendation to ban the use of flammable gas to clean pipes; OSHA officials told the Courant they are satisfied that publicity and changes to industry guidelines are sufficient to address the problem.

In other news:

Los Angeles Times: Garrett Brown worked for California’s workplace health and safety agency, Cal/OSHA, for 20 years. In a new report, Brown warns that Cal-OSHA staffing has dropped relative to the state’s workforce, leaving workers with too little protection. The nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility plans to file a formal complaint about Cal/OSHA’s inadequacy with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Department of Labor: In a lawsuit against AT&T, the Department of Labor alleges that in 13 incidents, employees were disciplined and given unpaid suspensions for reporting on-the-job injuries. The company claims the workers violated company safety standards, but an OSHA investigation found the suspensions resulted from injury reporting.

In These Times: In a 712-626 vote, workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant decided not to join the United Auto Workers union — even though the company did not oppose the union. Theories about why the union lost include pressure from politicians who warned that unionization could spell a loss of financial incentives for VW and fewer jobs for local residents, and a sense among some workers that the UAW would not improve workers’ situations substantially enough to justify dues payments.

Center for Public Integrity: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is organizing three studies into causes of the epidemic of chronic kidney disease striking otherwise-healthy sugarcane workers in central America. The studies will be funded by the Central American sugar industry; CDC will control the study’s design and execution, and the findings will be published regardless of outcome.
Washington Post: Sample inspections of Bangladesh textile plants under the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (a 150-retailer consortium organized by European brands) have found widespread fire-safety problems and structural concerns. Engineering teams have embarked on an effort to inspect 1,800 factories that supply Accord members.