Occupational Health News Roundup

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program has garnered praise from the White House to the United Nations for its innovative strategies to improve working conditions among farmworkers in Florida. The program, which began in 2010, works by getting big buyers to agree to only purchase tomatoes from farms that adhere to worker protection rules and ensure that workers are educated on their rights and responsibilities. Businesses that have signed on include Taco Bell, Chipotle and, recently, Wal-Mart, which according to a New York Times article chronicling progress on Florida farms, sells 20 percent of the nation’s fresh tomatoes. In reporting on the work behind the success as well as challenges ahead, the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse wrote:

So far, the agreements between retailers and growers are limited to Florida’s tomato fields, which in itself is no small feat considering that the state produces 90 percent of the country’s winter tomatoes.

But gaining the heft and reach of Walmart — which sells 20 percent of the nation’s fresh tomatoes year-round — may prove far more influential. To the applause of farmworkers’ advocates, the retailer has agreed to extend the program’s standards and monitoring to its tomato suppliers in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia and elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. Walmart officials say they also hope to apply the standards to apple orchards in Michigan and Washington and strawberry fields in many states.

…But progress is far from complete. Immokalee, 30 miles inland from several wealthy gulf resorts, is a town of taco joints and backyard chicken coops where many farmworkers still live in rotting shacks or dilapidated, rat-infested trailers. A series of prosecutions has highlighted modern-day slavery in the area — one 2008 case involved traffickers convicted of beating workers, stealing their wages and locking them in trucks.

“When I first visited Immokalee, I heard appalling stories of abuse and modern slavery,” said Susan L. Marquis, dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, a public policy institution in Santa Monica, Calif. “But now the tomato fields in Immokalee are probably the best working environment in American agriculture. In the past three years, they’ve gone from being the worst to the best.”

In other news:

The Charleston Gazette: In the wake of January’s Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia, federal officials are developing an “inhalation screening level” for MCHM, a coal cleaning chemical that spilled by the thousands of gallons into the river, contaminating drinking water for residents in nine counties. According to the article, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is developing a "'health protective inhalation screening level’ that may be used, along with information on monitored air concentrations of MCHM, during the site cleanup process ‘to advise the public when exposure to MCHM is not anticipated to be harmful.’” However, state officials say EPA’s work may not be done in time to use during the site cleanup or when dismantling the tanks that contained MCHM. (The Gazette also covered a new federal rule to cut occupational coal dust exposure, which Celeste Monforton wrote about here as well.)

San Antonio Express-News: A decades-old refinery in San Antonio, Texas, is back in the news after an official with the San Antonio River Authority said the refinery’s latest owners aren’t living up to safety promises, with two spills in the span of five weeks. The refinery has a history of fires, accidents and pollution — for example in 2010, “a tanker truck explosion and a series of other blasts at the plant left a driver badly burned and sent thick black smoke skyward. It took firefighters nearly six hours to contain the fire.”

Government Accountability Project Blog: The project’s legal director, Tom Devine, testified before Congress in honor of Workers Memorial Day on whether private-sector whistleblower protections are strong enough to support safe workplaces. In his testimony, Devine noted that a founding pillar of occupational health and safety are laws that protect those who speak up about violations. He said that while whistleblower protections contained in the Occupational Safety and Health Act are the nation’s oldest and most used whistleblower protections, they’re also the country’s weakest whistleblower protections. Click here to watch the Senate subcommittee hearing.

Shreveport Times: An article about worker safety in New York dairies starts out with the story of Francisco Ortiz, who was killed after being caught in a machine that had reportedly been failing for some time. The local sheriff’s office deemed it an “accident,” though surely occupational health and safety advocates would say otherwise. Ortiz’s death was among many that helped jumpstart a worker center-led campaign to improve safety on diary farms. Campaign organizers noted that even though OSHA is planning a series of unannounced inspections this summer, rules that limit OSHA authority to farms with 11 or more nonfamily employees means that many workplaces will continue to fly under the radar.

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

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