Occupational Health News Roundup

The Pump Handle’s own Celeste Monforton was quoted in an investigative piece on the tank cleaning industry and the dangerously toxic environments that its workers face. In an investigative article in the Houston Chronicle, reporter Ingrid Lobet found that even though industry workers are coming into contact with extremely toxic and often combustible chemicals, the methods that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration uses to track tank and barge cleaning operations is woefully deficient.

Lobet begins her story with the life and death of David Godines, a Houston tank cleaner found dead inside a railcar, in which “hydrogen sulfide gas was so concentrated that the cells in his lungs stopped exchanging air. Yet experts said his brain would have been alive for a little while, and he would have asphyxiated, sentient.” The story chronicled the deaths and injuries of other workers as well, such as tank truck cleaner Chris Shirley of Freeport, Texas, who “was exposed to a mixture of ‘9 or more chemicals,’ including ‘oxirane, amine, oxide, formaldehyde and phthalate’ according to OSHA records. He was overcome by the vapors and slid into the belly of the tanker. He was not quite dead when retrieved, but he died at the hospital.” Despite the danger, Lobet reported that not even OSHA knows how many tank cleaning operations it’s inspected, as there’s no standard industry code for tracking and inspecting such businesses. Lobet writes:

"We have no way to find companies that do tank washing," said Robert McDonough, a compliance officer for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in response to a Chronicle request. Officials can't count how many tank and barge cleaners have lost their lives on the job, or how many suffer from nerve damage or cancer related to workplace chemical exposure.

"It's alarming it is so under the radar," said Celeste Monforton, who lectures at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and worked at OSHA. "You are talking about extremely toxic environments. Many of those chemicals have health effects that workers may not experience until 10 to 20 years down the line."

The Chronicle identified 373 tank and barge cleaning sites using trade publications, news reports, OSHA records and interviews. There could be many more. Owners of the sites range from individual family-owned facilities like Rainbow Transport Tank Cleaners in Carson, Calif., to Quala, the Florida-headquartered chain of 51 mostly truck wash facilities in 22 states. They stretch across the country, concentrated in Texas and Louisiana, heart of the nation's petrochemical industry. The epicenter: Harris County.

Only a third of the 373 sites have been inspected by OSHA in the past 10 years, the Chronicle determined by searching OSHA inspection reports through the end of 2013.

In other news:

Mother Jones: Republican state legislators in North Carolina have introduced a bill that would make it a criminal offense to disclose confidential information about fracking chemicals outside the parameters of an emergency. In fact, the bill would allow companies to force first responders to sign confidentiality agreements. Reporter Molly Redden reports that “environmentalists point out that the bill would also prevent local governments from passing any rules on fracking and limit water testing that precedes a new drilling operation.”

Huffington Post: A Wal-Mart warehouse contractor agrees to pay $21 million to workers in a wage theft case. According to writer Dave Jamieson, the settlement is “a victory for workers who argued that the world's largest retailer sets the working conditions in the warehouses, even if it's Walmart's contractors who actually employ the workers.”

The Denver Post: The growing movement for better wages within the fast food industry wasn’t cited in this national story. However, the recent move by shareholders to rein in executive pay at Chipotle certainly can’t hurt the argument that these companies can continue to make a very healthy profit and still pay their workers a living wage. This Denver Post story notes that the “top five executives at Chipotle make nearly as much as their counterparts at General Electric, a global conglomerate with 45 times the sales,” while a typical Chipotle worker makes $21,000 a year. In somewhat related news, Daily Kos reports that McDonald’s, a central target in the movement for better fast food wages, is barring reporters from its shareholder meeting.

Al Jazerra: In the wake of Turkey’s worst coal mining disaster, which killed nearly 300 workers at last count, writer Cengiz Aktar asks if worker safety is becoming little more than a luxury in the quickly developing nation. NBC covered the protests that have erupted in response to the mining disaster.

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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