The Pump Handle

Occupational Health News Roundup

At NPR, John Burnett reports on the conditions facing farmworkers in south Texas 50 years after a landmark strike in which farmworkers walked 400 miles to the capital city of Austin to demand fair working conditions. He writes:

A lot has changed since 1966, when watermelon workers in the South Texas borderlands walked out of the melon fields in a historic strike to protest poor wages and appalling working conditions.

They marched 400 miles to the state capital of Austin; California labor activist and union leader Cesar Chavez joined them.

The farmworkers succeeded in publicizing their cause — but ultimately, the strike failed when replacement workers were brought in.

Still, working conditions have improved in the decades since the failed strike.

What hasn’t changed is the work: It’s as brutal as ever.

“I’ve seen that watermelon has no friends,” says Justino DeLeon, a 58-year-old retired farmworker. He fell off a melon truck and hurt his arm three years ago. He lives in a battered green mobile home in the town of Pharr. “They’re sweet to eat, but hell to harvest.”

“You have to be in great condition to toss melons all day,” DeLeon continues. “You work hard in the heat and it’s easy to get dehydrated.”

It’s not just that field work is grueling. Workers are vulnerable to getting cheated by growers and crew bosses.

To read the full article, visit NPR. To learn more about the 1966 farmworker strike, visit the Texas State Historical Association.

In other news:

Chicago Tribune: Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz reports that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights into law, ensuring that domestic workers are entitled to the same minimum wage and human rights protections as other workers. The bill goes into effect at the start of 2017. Specifically, the legislation means domestic workers will be covered by state minimum wage laws, sexual harassment protections, pay discrimination laws, and the One Day Rest in Seven Act, which requires workers get at least 24 hours of rest in each calendar week and meal periods of 20 minutes for every seven-and-a-half hours of work. Illinois is the seventh state to enact such a bill of rights. Elejalde-Ruiz quoted Wendy Pollack, founder and director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, who said: “This is really historic because the exclusion of domestic workers from federal and state employment laws has an unfortunate history in slavery and anti-immigrant sentiment.”

Associated Press: Youkyung Lee reports on an AP investigation that found Samsung Electronics, South Korea’s largest company, was allowed to withhold critical information from sick workers about the chemicals they were exposed to at the company’s factories. The article reports that a worker safety group has documented more than 200 cases of serious illnesses among former workers, including leukemia, lupus, lymphoma and multiple sclerosis. To date, 76 workers have died, with most in their 20s and 30s. In profiling victims and their families, Lee writes: “Hwang Sang-Gi, father of Hwang Yu-mi, a former Samsung factory worker who died of leukemia at the age of 22. Hwang launched a movement seeking independent inspections of Samsung factories. (He) said:’(Samsung) once offered me 1 billion won ($864,000), asking me to stay silent. The idea was to deny her illness was an occupational disease and to leave me without any power to fight back.’” Not surprisingly, Samsung had denied withholding such information.

KLTV (ABC): Jeff Awtry reports that OSHA has fined a Tyson chicken processing plant in Texas more than $260,000 after investigating an incident in which a worker lost a finger. Investigators found two repeated violations and 15 serious violations, including failing to use proper guards on moving machinery, having higher-than-allowable carbon dioxide levels, failing to provide workers with protective equipment, and not training workers about the dangers of peracetic acid. Awtry writes: “The investigation revealed the employee’s finger became stuck in an unguarded conveyor belt as he worked in the debone area and tried to remove chicken parts jammed in the belt, according to the (Labor Department) press release.”

The Washington Post: Danielle Paquette reports that the U.S. Department of Labor will grant $1.1 million to six states and municipalities that want to launch their own paid family leave programs — the recipients are: Denver; Franklin, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Hawaii; Indiana; and Pennsylvania. The recipients will use the money, which is part of the Paid Leave Analysis Grant Program, to examine the costs of such programs. The article noted that while 58 percent of large U.S. firms offer some paid maternity leave, only 12 percent of all private-sector workers receive paid family leave to care for a baby or sick family member. Only the states of California, Rhode Island and New Jersey guarantee paid family leave for all workers. Paquette writes: “The United States guarantees just 12 weeks of job-protected time off to new parents — none of which is paid. The issue is also fiercely divisive: The Democratic Party platform says all workers should be paid for those 12 weeks leave, while the Republican Party platform makes no mention of a paid leave policy.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.