Occupational Health News Roundup

At In These Times, reporter Joseph Sorrentino writes about the heartbreaking plight of uranium miners and millers as well as the history of uranium mining oversight and regulation. He spent a week interviewing uranium workers and their families in New Mexico — workers who are among the thousands who began working in the mines after 1971 and who don’t qualify for federal compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). Sorrentino writes:

Cipriano Lucero worked in uranium mills from 1977 to 1982. He has pulmonary fibrosis, and one of his kidneys failed when he was 48, necessitating a transplant. He uses a continuous positive pressure airway machine at night and uses an oxygen tank during the day. Asked whether there was proper ventilation in the mills where he worked, Lucero simply replies, “Not really.” Linda Evers says the dust was so bad in mills that she sometimes couldn’t see. “They had exhaust fans,” she says, “but it wasn’t anything different than an oversized box fan. They just moved [the dust] around.

“We were allowed one dust mask a month, a paper dust mask,” she continues. “After one shift, they were clogged, so we just wore bandanas, or nothing.”

Lucero agrees: “We had masks but they were useless … paper masks only. Sometimes you wouldn’t even have a mask, breathing in all that dust.” Workers often coughed up black soot.

Given the dangers of working with uranium, it would seem that companies should have provided extensive training on radiation hazards — but they did so at their own discretion. “We had a class, lasted about an hour or two,” said Lucero. “Mostly about first aid, if you hurt yourself, how to wrap it.” They didn’t talk about radiation.

Sorrentino reports that since 2000, members of Congress have made four attempts to include post-1971 uranium miners in RECA — the latest attempt happened in 2015. However, none of the bills have received a hearing. On the issue of oversight, he writes:

Health and safety protections for uranium workers were, for many years, spotty at best and negligent at worst. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines (BOM), established in 1910 to reduce accidents, had little regulatory authority and was also tasked with “mineral resource development.” State laws were piecemeal: In 1958, for example, New Mexico instituted a policy to “clear all areas” of mines that exceeded safe levels of radon, but “there was limited enforcement,” according to a 2002 National Institutes of Health paper by Doug Brugge and Rob Goble.

Federal responsibility for mine safety was reshuffled twice in the 1970s. The Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA) took over for the BOM in 1973 due to concerns about conflicts of interest. In 1978, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) replaced MESA as part of the sweeping reforms of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. MSHA also assumed responsibility for uranium mills.

MSHA’s motto is “Protecting Miners’ Safety and Health Since 1978.” Former uranium workers interviewed — all of whom worked at mines and mills from the mid-1970s through 1982 or 1983 — don’t believe it did a very good job.

Read the full story at In These Times.

In other news:

Huffington Post: Reporters Mary Bottari and Jessica Mason write that companies are pushing back against President Obama’s 2014 executive order that requires federal contractors to submit their safety records as a prerequisite for receiving federal contracts. Two trade associations are leading the pushback: the Professional Services Council and the HR Policy Association, both of which argue that the order attempts to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. However, Bottari and Mason took a closer look at the companies whose executives sit on the two associations’ Board of Directors and they found a long history of workplace violations. For example, one of those companies is the chemical giant DuPont, which has been cited for numerous safety violations. Bottari and Mason write: “Instead of complaining about ‘executive overreach’ and ‘blacklisting’ of ‘well-intentioned companies,’ they should be encouraging their law-breaking board members' companies or subsidiaries to clean up their act.”

Bangor Daily News: Michael Shepherd reports that a referendum to raise Maine’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020 has qualified for the November ballot. Led by the Maine People’s Alliance, campaigners submitted 75,000 signatures in support of the wage increase. If it passes, the proposal would raise the state’s minimum wage of $7.50 to $9 in 2017 and then an additional $1 each year until 2020. The referendum would also raise the tipped minimum wage from $3.75 to $5 in 2017. Shepherd reports: “(The referendum) could set off a bid from pro-business groups to get the Maine Legislature to put a proposal for a smaller increase on the ballot as a competing measure.”

Atlantic Monthly: Charlotte Garden writes that the unexpected death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could be a game-changer for a public-sector union case now before the court. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, challenges union fair-share fees and would be a monumental blow against unions were such fees struck down. During the case’s hearing earlier this year,Scalia tore into core arguments made by the union and government attorneys,” Garden writes. Labor advocates were not optimistic at the time. However, if Scalia’s seat stays vacant and a 4-4 decision comes down, the win goes to whoever prevailed in the lower court — in this case, the union. Garden writes: “So what’s next for unions? It largely depends on what happens between now and November in the take-no-prisoners battle over Scalia’s replacement.”

Buzzfeed: Caroline O’Donovan reports on the development of a new app that will allow workers to easily report workplace problems and violations directly to the appropriate agency. The new app, which is still under development, will ask users questions about the workplace problem and send the answers to a worker center or other agency. O’Donovan writes: “If it takes off, the Workers Lab workplace violation app could go well beyond individual workers. For example, if enough complaints about a single workplace are made, the Department of Labor could launch an investigation into the employer. Or, if the issue is with compensation rather than safety, it’s possible that reporting could result in a class action lawsuit.”

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


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