Occupational Health News Roundup

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has announced that she is resigning her position in the Obama administration. Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity looks back at Solis's tenure at the Department of Labor:

Labor advocates credit her with restoring the department’s commitment to protecting workers, particularly vulnerable populations, and bringing stronger enforcement of worker safety laws. During her tenure, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration expanded initiatives to crack down on repeat violators of safety and health laws – sometimes drawing the ire of the business community.

Yet the department hasn’t finalized a host of rules to protect workers that many in the labor community view as long overdue.

Hamby describes some of the Department of Labor's unfinished business, including unfinished rules on coal dust, combustible dust, beryllium, and silica.

The Huffington Post's Dave Jamieson writes of Solis's challenges:

Solis' efforts on workplace safety, perhaps more than anything else, revealed the challenges of her job. Her department introduced a handful of pro-worker regulations that were strongly challenged by business groups and GOP members of Congress, creating enough pressure to delay the rules at the White House or even scuttle the reforms. That includes a controversial tightening of child labor laws in agriculture that Solis, the first Latina to head a federal agency, had championed on behalf of child and migrant workers.

The new rules would have further restricted the work activities that minors can perform on farms, reforms that child labor advocates described as commonsense. But in an embarrassing turn, the agency ultimately withdrew the proposals as the White House came under increasing political fire from the right in an election year.

There were indications even before her tenure started that Solis' job wouldn't be easy. During her confirmation hearings, she was grilled on her ties to a pro-labor advocacy group, and Republicans held up her confirmation repeatedly before she managed to be sworn in.

In House hearings during the last four years, Republicans often assailed the Solis Labor Department as an alleged job-killer and ally of unions, and GOP members of the House often tried to hinder Labor Department initiatives by attaching riders to funding bills for the agency.

In other news:

Associated Press and (New Jersey) Star-Ledger: OSHA testing has found contaminants like lead and asbestos at sites where workers are cleaning up Superstorm Sandy damage, but so far no levels have exceeded permissible exposure limits. In a Star-Ledger opinion column, John Pajak of the NJ Work Environment Council describes the many hazards recovery workers face and urges Governor Chris Christie to ensure "that opportunistic companies don’t put workers and communities in danger by cutting corners to make an extra buck."

New York Times: In the wake of the fire that killed 112 workers in Bangladesh's Tazreen Fashions factory, Walmart claims to require high standards for the factories making clothes destined for Walmart shelves. But worker advocates describe the company's audit and inspection system as far from adequate, and  Walmart led an effort to block a system that would have had retailers pay for safety improvements to Bangladesh factories.

Food Safety News: A new study of worker illnesses at a Virginia poultry plant finds that Campylobacter infections are more common among employees who've worked in the plant for less than a month and whose jobs involve hanging live chickens.

PBS Frontline: Last month, Michael Donahue, 50, became the third employee to be killed at McWane Inc's Kennedy Valve factory in Elmyra New York. The 2003 FRONTLINE film A Dangerous Business reported that "the McWane corporation's way of doing business has left a shocking trail of death, dismemberment and pollution."

Investigative Reporting Workshop/NBCNews.com: After the private equity company Apollo Global Management bought the Albany-area chemical factory Momentive Performance Materials, the local union started voicing safety concerns. In 2010, a flash fire at the plant severely burned two workers.

The Press-Enterprise (California): The California Division of Occupational Health and Safety has fined NFI Industries and Warestaff, which operate a large distribution center, more than $25,000 apiece for health and safety violations. The warehouse ships goods to Walmart and Sam's Club stores in southern California. Walmart recently announced plans for stricter monitoring of its distribution facilities.

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