Occupational Health News Roundup

Three years after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, concerns persist about health effects while the cleanup poses ongoing health and safety challenges.

Living on Earth reports on a lawsuit filed by several US Navy sailors against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). The sailors were part of a relief operation, and their ship sailed into a plume of radioactive dust. Their attorney, Charles Bonner, told Living on Earth that many sailors are now suffering from “leukemias, ulcers, brain tumors, testicular cancers, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, thyroid problems.” The lawsuit seeks medical damages from Tepco on the grounds that it failed to warn the Navy about the radiation threat the company knew existed.

The New York Times reports that with many workers unwilling to undertake hazardous decommissioning work at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, labor brokers are recruiting destitute workers with limited skills and training. Those who manage the operations often fail to provide appropriate training and oversight, which puts the workers at risk and can also endanger the public. Hiroko Tabuchi writes:

Regulators, contractors and more than 20 current and former workers interviewed in recent months say the deteriorating labor conditions are a prime cause of a string of large leaks of contaminated water and other embarrassing errors that have already damaged the environment and, in some cases, put workers in danger. In the worst-case scenario, experts fear, struggling workers could trigger a bigger spill or another radiation release.

“There is a crisis of manpower at the plant,” said Yukiteru Naka, founder of Tohoku Enterprise, a contractor and former plant engineer for General Electric. “We are forced to do more with less, like firemen being told to use less water even though the fire’s still burning.”

That crisis was especially evident one dark morning last October, when a crew of contract workers was sent to remove hoses and valves as part of a long-overdue upgrade to the plant’s water purification system.

According to regulatory filings by Tepco, the team received only a 20-minute briefing from their supervisor and were given no diagrams of the system they were to fix and no review of safety procedures — a scenario a former supervisor at the plant called unthinkable. Worse yet, the laborers were not warned that a hose near the one they would be removing was filled with water laced with radioactive cesium.

Multiple layers of contractors are often present between the workers and Tepco, which critics say allows the company to evade responsibility.

In other news:

New York Times: McDonald’s workers in California, Michigan, and New York filed lawsuits agains the company and franchise owners over wage theft. Workers allege that their bosses failed to pay them for hours worked, required them to pay for uniforms even though doing so reduced their wages to below the federal minimum, and failed to pay required overtime wages.

Houston Chronicle: A Houston Chronicle investigation found that Texas oil and gas companies with multiple worker fatalities haven’t made it onto the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program list.

Slate: In a 97-0 vote, the Senate passed a bill changing the military’s sexual assault policies; the bill was authored by a bipartisan group of Senators – Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) – and ends the practice of allowing a “good soldier” defense for members of the military accused of sexual assault. The bill passed after a competing bill by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to move prosecutory authority outside the chain of command received 55 votes — a majority of the chamber, but not enough to overcome the filibuster. (This Washington Post piece describes the bill in greater detail.)

Washington Post’s Wonkblog: At the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, some workers are employed directly by the company while others work for an in-house contractor and earn about half as much as the Nissan employees. One of the contract workers who struggles to get by on his lower wage tells the Post, “you’re so exhausted from working seven days a week, you’re dependent on some drug to stay awake, or dependent on some drug to go asleep, or for pain.”

Center for Public Integrity: Sri Lanka has ordered a ban on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, after a new study suggested that the combination of glyphosate and heavy mentals in drinking water may cause the chronic kidney disease that’s been killing agricultural workers in Central America and Sri Lanka.

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