Occupational Health News Roundup

Investigative reporter Mark Collette at the Houston Chronicle interviewed more than a dozen former employees with a combined 213 years of experience on the production lines of Blue Bell’s flagship ice cream plant in Brenham, Texas, finding stories of routine food safety lapses and failures to protect worker safety. The company made headlines over the summer after a national listeria outbreak was traced back to the well-known ice cream manufacturer.

Among the former workers interviewed was Sabien Colvin, who lost parts of three of his fingers after a machine he was cleaning unexpectedly turned on. Collette writes:

Colvin couldn’t sue Blue Bell because Texas companies covered by workers’ compensation are immune from civil liability for workplace injuries unless gross negligence causes a death.

He got a phone call to the hospital from a manager and $231 a week in workers’ comp for four months.

Then he returned to Blue Bell, figuring it was easier to keep working there until he finished at community college. They gave him a job away from the production area.

(Fellow former worker Benjamin) Ofori said Colvin had been trained not to put his hand in the feeder, but Colvin said he was told to turn off the machine, wash out the debris and then manually check for food particles. Both said the company unfairly blamed Colvin for the accident. Blue Bell had no comment about the incident.

OSHA found that the company had failed Colvin.

It said Blue Bell didn’t put guards on moving machine parts and had virtually no lockout-tagout program. On the books since 1989, federal law requires employers to supply locks and tags to cut off power to equipment during maintenance and cleaning.

Collette interviewed workers who said that a number of work-related injuries have occurred at the Blue Bell plant since 2005: “A woman lost half of her little finger when it was caught in a chain on a conveyor. The rest of the finger was surgically removed. A man lost the tip of his little finger reaching for dropped product near an unguarded chain below a Vitaline machine. A woman’s leg was severely gouged in another moving parts accident.”

To read the full article, visit the Houston Chronicle.

In other news:

The Denver Post: Federal health officials are getting ready to launch an unprecedented study into the dangers facing workers employed in the nation’s largest oil patches, according to reporter Monte Whaley. Scientists from the Denver office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will distribute questionnaires to 500 workers in the oil fields, which is considered home to some of the most dangerous work in the nation. Researchers will ask workers about occupational injuries, training, and whether their employers offer bonuses to workers for not reporting injuries and incidents. Whaley noted that Colorado’s latest oil field fatality was Matthew Smith, 36, who was trying to heat a frozen high-pressure water line when it ruptured and killed him. Whaley quoted Kyla Retzer, an epidemiologist with NIOSH’s oil and gas program: “We’ve analyzed fatality numbers, and we knew that fatality rates were high among oil field workers. But we haven’t talked to workers directly in a systematic way about some of their safety-related behaviors and what their concerns are.”

Huffington Post: Dave Jamieson reports that Democratic lawmakers have proposed the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, which would make workplace organizing akin to a civil right. If enacted, the law would triple the amount of back pay a worker is owed if an employer retaliates for trying to organize a union, give workers the right to purse damages in federal court, and increase the use of federal injunctions to get illegally fired workers quickly reinstated to their jobs. The bill, which was crafted with input from the AFL-CIO, would also create civil penalties against companies that act illegally and allow individual company officers and directors to be penalized as well. Jamieson writes: “To be clear, the Democratic proposal has approximately zero chance of going anywhere while the GOP controls both the House and Senate. Republicans have been set against putting any new regulations or mandates upon businesses, and they’re not about to make it easier for workers to sue their employers. …Though it will surely languish, the bill will still serve as a model prescription for what Democrats and unions say are the deficiencies of the current system.”

Reveal: Jennifer Gollan reports that lawmakers in North Dakota are crafting legislation that would create tougher workplace safety standards for oil companies and prevent such employers from sidestepping responsibility for worker fatalities. State Rep. Joshua Boschee and state Sen. George Sinner announced plans for the legislation in response to an earlier Reveal investigation that chronicled the dangers of oil field work and the tactics big oil companies take to shield themselves from responsibility, such as hiding behind a web of subcontractors. The legislation, which is expected to be introduced in January 2017, would authorize additional safety inspectors funded by premiums that employers pay into the state’s Workforce Safety and Insurance agency, among other measures. Gollan quoted Rebecca Reindel of the AFL-CIO: “Anything they can do to improve safety and oversight is positive and welcome. The lack of accountability and oversight of these companies has killed workers, damaged their lives and devastated their families. … On their own, companies have not provided systemic and effective safety and health protections, but instead have incentivized production over safety.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Alex Stuckey reports that Republicans in Missouri have failed to get enough votes to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would have allowed workers who choose not to join a union from paying fair share fees. Also as of Sept. 16, Stuckey reports that members of the House had voted to override Nixon’s veto of a bill that would bar cities from raising their minimum wages, as St. Louis and Kansas City have done. Stuckey writes of the union bill: “The measure, which prohibits companies from requiring union membership or dues as conditions of employment, was pushed through the legislative session in May as Republicans used aggressive tactics. Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed the bill in June, calling it a threat to unionized workers and wages.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.