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Posts from Jordan Barab

Weekly Toll: Three Weeks of Death on the Job

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

Excuse the length of this depressing exercise, but I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and unlike me, workplace death takes no vacation. The usual falls, machinery deaths, vehicle accidents. Also several sanitation workers lost their lives over the past several week, as well as retail workers shot on the job. From Alabama to Wisconsin. From Idaho to Mississippi.  From Massachusetts to California and on to Guam.  The toll of workplace death goes on.

College Station police: Man, 24, dies in workplace accident

College Station, TX — A 24-year-old man died Saturday morning in a workplace accident, authorities said. According to College Station police, authorities were dispatched to the 1300 block of Earl Rudder Freeway around 8:15 a.m. on the report of an accident. First responders arrived and administered life-saving measures, and the injured person, identified as Guillermo Lopez, was taken to the hospital. He later died of his injuries.

Brighton man killed in accident involving large tilling machine identified

BOULDER, Colo. — Authorities have released the name of a Colorado man who was killed in an accident involving a large tilling machine. The Boulder Daily Camera reports 65-year-old Ray Garner, of Brighton, was in a field when his clothing became entangled in an auger Monday afternoon. He died at the scene. The Erie Police Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Weld County coroner’s office are investigating.

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Deaths on Small Farms and Modern-Day Slavery

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

Your job or you unborn child. Your job or your bladder. Your job or your life. These are the choices that far too many workers still have to make every day, in the 21st century, in the United States of America.

Just got back from vacation and lots of troubling stuff has been happening while I’ve been gone. I’ll write more about some of these things as time permits, but here’s a short summary.

Deaths in Small Farms: Eli Wolfe of Fair Warning has written a devastating piece, co-published in The Atlantic, about worker deaths on small farms and how Congress prohibits OSHA from investigating incidents on farms that comprise about 93 percent of U.S. farms with outside employees, employing more than 1.2 million workers. “By keeping the exemption, Congress is saying it ‘doesn’t really care whether workers get killed on small farms or not,’ said Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA during the Obama administration. ‘There’s no other way to interpret it.’”  Wolfe estimates that from 2011 through 2016—333 employees were killed in accidents on farms with 10 or fewer employees.

Modern Day Slavery: Just in time for the holidays a New York Times investigation explores the cost to workers of next day delivery from Amazon and other retail outlets. Workers handle thousands of items every day, quotas are increased and it’s output over everything — including worker health or safety — but they’re the only jobs around. A supervisor to a sick pregnant employer after a 12 hour work day: “What is this fucking pregnancy? You don’t need no more fucking kids. Get a fucking abortion!” She went home and had a miscarriage the next day. Five of her co-workers also miscarried. Doctors notes about not lifting heavy objectw were ignored. Try to read this with a dry eye.

Meanwhile, Somali workers at Amazon in Minnesota show the benefits of collective action.

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Hiding Injuries at Tesla: Where The Worker Still Doesn’t Matter

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

Under-recording of workplace injuries and illnesses is bad, and far too common. But at the automaker Tesla, in Fremont, California,  under-recording is more than a paper exercise in deception — at Tesla it means withholding needed medical treatment of injured workers so that their injuries aren’t reported on OSHA logs.

We wrote previously about reports that workers are getting hurt at Tesla and that many of those injuries are not being recorded.  Earlier this year, Reveal reporters Will Evans and Alyssa Jeong Perry documented how Tesla put style and speed over safety, undercounted injuries and ignored the concerns of its own safety professionals. CalOSHA has inspected the company a number of times and found recordkeeping violations.  Now Evans shows the many ways that Tesla is keeping injuries off the OSHA logs.

Despite a clear pattern of inaccurate reporting, federal OSHA is unable to cite patterns of under-reporting after Congress repealed OSHA’s “Volks” regulation at the beginning of the Administration. Throughout OSHA’s history, the agency had been able to cite employers who violated OSHA’s requirement to keep accurate records for five years. OSHA had issued a regulation addressing a court ruling against that practice, but Congress used the Congressional Review Act to repeal it. OSHA can’t cite recordkeeping violations longer than 6 months before a citation is issued, making it impossible to cite patterns of violations like those committed at Tesla.

California has modified these restrictions slightly by allowing the agency to cite employers for recordkeeping violations six months from when Cal/OSHA first learns of the violation, instead of six months from when the violation occurred. But the bill was signed too late for the agency to take action against Tesla.

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Just Doing Their Job — And Now They’re Dying For It

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

This is one of those horrific stories that you think must have come out of the 19th century or early 20th century.

Just before Christmas in 2008, a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant in Roane County, Tennessee, gave way, carrying away houses and smothering 300 acres of land under a billion gallons of coal ash slurry, a by-product of coal combustion to produce electricity. It was the nation’s worst coal ash spill.

Construction workers from East Tennessee and across the nation responded, but without any protection or training, despite the fact that coal ash contains “a concentrated stew of toxins, including arsenic, radioactive material, mercury and lead.”

Today, “more than 30 workers who cleaned up the December 2008 spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant in Roane County are dead, and more than 250 are sick or dying.”

This tragedy wasn’t an oversight on Jacobs’ part, nor a failure of workers to follow the rules, according to Knoxville News Sentinal’s Jamie Satterfield and an investigation by USA TODAY Network-Tennessee.

Testimony showed Jacobs began watering down both safety testing procedures and worker safety rules as soon as the EPA allowed the TVA to put the firm – which has a long history of worker safety lawsuits and even criminal charges – in charge of the Kingston site.

The workers were – falsely – assured coal ash exposure was safe and were misled about its dangers, testimony showed. As many grew sick while working more than 60 hours weekly unprotected, Jacobs’ safety managers, including Tom Bock and Chris Eich, continued to insist coal ash exposure was not the cause.

Testimony showed Bock ordered dust masks kept on site for the workers destroyed and refused to provide them any protective gear. Jacobs refused an EPA directive to provide the workers showers and changing rooms and instead provided them a cat litter box filled with ash-contaminated water to clean up.

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Shot, Stabbed and Assaulted: Violence Against Nurses

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

Aside from the jarring videos of nurses being attacked and the tragic interviews as they recount the attacks and try to recover — physically and emotionally — the video is also packed with information:

  • Over 2400 nurses are victims of workplace violence every year and the number increased 30% since 2012 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Hospitals consider attacks and threats against health care workers to be “part of the job.”
  • Part the reason for the increase is that hospitals are faced with more and more psychiatric patients and patients who have substance abuse problems.
  • Instead of responding to the increase, OSHA has its efforts to address violence in health care. There were only 81 workplace violence-related OSHA inspections last year out of over 32,000 total inspections, down from 131 the year before.
  • Prior to January 2017, OSHA had an emphasis program that included programmed (or random unannounced) inspections for workplace violence in nursing homes and health care institutions. The elimination of the program explains much of the reduction in workplace violence citations.
  • Because there is no OSHA standard covering workplace violence, OSHA is forced to use the burdensome General Duty Clause. Because of the difficulty of using the General Duty Clause, the agency often only issues warning letters instead of citations. Terpstra found that one-quarter of inspections from 2012-2017 resulted in warning letters, and fewer than half with citations.  Nothing requires inspectors to follow up on hazard letters.
  • Ten states have some kind of law or OSHA standard covering workplace violence, although it is unclear how effective they are in preventing incidents.
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Why Vote?

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

In case anyone hasn’t heard, there’s an election today. One of the messages that I try to communicate to workers reading this newsletter is that the way you vote in November will largely determine your chance of coming home from work healthy and alive at the end of the day.

In case there is anyone out there still wondering whether it’s worth voting this time around, I thought I’d chime in with some reasons to vote for those interested in workplace safety. Sure, there are plenty of other reasons to vote: Trump’s lies, Trump’s racism, Trump’s divisiveness and intolerance, his crushes on Putin, Kim Jong Un, Duterte and Bolsinaro, Trump’s Supreme Court choices, Republicans’ hostility to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and coverage for pre-existing conditions (and their lies about being for coverage after they were against it,) and their general hostility for anything that would benefit women, labor or unions.

But if your main interest is safety and health in the workplace, there are plenty of reasons to vote next week (or before). And by “voting,” I mean for Democrats — in case you hadn’t figured that out yet.

So what will change in January if Democrats take back the House of Representatives (or even the Senate?)

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Worker Safety Round-up

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

Workers Can Participate in CSB Investigations:A major goal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act is to encourage workers to participate in the process, including allowing workers to walk around with OSHA inspectors. When the Chemical Safety Board was authorized, the law required that workers be given the same opportunity to participate in facility investigations as provided by OSHA. In 2012, the CSB finalized a workers particiaption policy, but it was then classified as a confidential document. So how were workers to know they were allowed to participate in CSB investigations?

Good question.

Last week, the CSB voted 2-1 to revise that policy and issued it publicly. Board members Kristen Kulinowski and Richard Engler voted to issue the policy while Manny Ehrlich abstained.  Calling workers “critical sources of information relevant to the investigation,” the new policy gives workers (or their representatives) the right to participate in the following activities: Investigation opening meetings, status update meetings, and closing meetings, site walk-throughs and on-scene investigation activities, equipment, material, and sample evidentiary testing; employee witness interviews; document requests; and review of draft written reports and recommendations.

Can Safety and Productivity Co-exist? There’s a common myth going around these days that high profits and business success are incompatible with health and safety regulations and enforcement. Former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels disagrees. At the National Safety Council conference, Michaels recalls how employers would tell him that after a tragic fatality or other incident, they improved their health and safety program and not only saw injuries and illnesses decrease, but also saw gains in other areas of the business, such as quality and productivity.

His observation were mostly anecdotal and now Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University, is looking to develop “methodologically sound, data-driven research that seeks to determine whether a true causal relationship exists between these areas.”  It’s too late if you have to wait for people to get killed or seriously injured before you improve you safety program, according to Michaels. So they executives have to understand that organizational success, quality or productivity improvements, and other key business metrics go along with safe workplaces.

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Mar-Jack: OSHA Inspectors “Are Not There For Us”

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

I wrote earlier this month about a court decision in the Mar-Jac case restricting OSHA’s ability to expand inspections at poultry plants — even when the company’s log shows high rates of injuries and illnesses — despite the industry’s record of unsafe conditions.

When conducting an inspection about a specific incident, you may recall, OSHA is only allowed to look at factors surrounding the incident and anything within the sight of the inspector. For that reason, when an OSHA inspector requested to inspect a worker’s locker where his tools were stored, Mar-Jac told the inspector that he could only walk through the plant if he agreed to wear a cardboard box over his head to blind him to any safety hazards.

OSHA’s job is to “find violations. They are not there for us, to be safety consultants.”

The Atlanta Journal Constitution published an article earlier this week about the court decision and its effect on OSHA.

Asked why Mar-Jac didn’t want the OSHA inspector walking through its plant, [Larry Stine, an attorney for Mar-Jac] told the AJC that Mar-Jac has its own safety personnel to conduct reviews and look for issues in an ever-changing work environment. OSHA inspectors are “enforcement officers,” he said. “Their jobs and what they try to do is find violations. They are not there for us, to be safety consultants.”

Look at that last sentence a bit closer: “They are not there for us….” They’re just “enforcement officers.”

So who is OSHA there for?

The goal of an OSHA inspector is not just to “enforce” the law. The law is not the end. The law it the means to the ultimate end — which is to protect workers.

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“Complacency Killed My Brother!”

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about how “freak accidents” are neither “freak,” nor “accidental.”   As I explained then:

First, the phrase implies that this type of incident hardly ever happens and there is, therefore, not much you can do about it. In fact, the phrase “freak accident” is a double-whammy. Not only dies the word “freak” imply “rare,” but the word “accident,” defined as “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury,” implies that the event was unexpected.

One of the examples of an fatality that was labeled a “freak accident” was the tragic death of Marty Dale Whitmire in Greenville, South Carolina, in April 2017.  Whitmire was working on a paving operation when his truck clipped a live power line, which fell on him — a tragic, far-too-common — and completely preventable — cause of worker death.

Yesterday, Marty Whitmire’s nephew, Melvin Whitmire,  posted a comment on that post which I am reprinting below to give it more attention. I defy you to read it without boiling over, and crying at the same time:

Thank you so much for your article about the “freak” “”accident”” in Greenville SC involving the electrocution that occurred on a paving job site.

April 11, 2017 is a day my family and I will NEVER forget. Marty was my like a brother to me. He was actually my Uncle (my fathers baby brother) but because he was only 8 years older than me we were very close when I was a child and as I became an adult we grew to be best friends. He used to tell everyone that he and I were brothers.

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Fall 2018 Regulatory Agenda: No Surprises

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

Lots happening these days: the grizzly murder of a Saudi journalist, baseball championships (Go Dodgers!!), mid-term elections, Presidential temper tantrums about "Horseface" and "Pocahontas." The usual.

But by far the most important thing happening today is the Fall 2018 Regulatory Agenda.  Release of the Regulatory Agenda is a much anticipated (for regulatory geeks) semi-annual event that gives the President the opportunity to boast about his  efforts to allegedly "Cut Burdensome Red Tape and Unleash the American Economy

Or, as we here at Confined Space like to call it, his efforts to cut worker, environmental and consumer protections and release the scourge of unbridled, predatory Capitalism upon the American people.

This latest version was released in the wee hours of the morning -- about the same time as the Dodgers 13th inning walkoff victory over the Brewers. Happily, at OSHA and MSHA, at least, there's not a whole lot of new protection-cutting going on. In fact, nothing significantly new has appeared on the regulatory agenda for the worker safety and health agencies.  Just the same old story -- in Democratic of Republican administrations -- pretty much everything is delayed, because the one thing that experienced regulators (or de-regulators) can agree on is that "Regulatory Agencies Plan. God laughs."

SBREFA! Say it Loud and There's Music Playing....

Let's start with some good news for a change.  OSHA has more or less met its deadline by convening a SBREFA (small business review) panel to launch the process of issuing a standard protecting telecommunication tower workers who have a tendency to fall hundreds of feet to their deaths with disturbing frequency.  This effort was launched under the Obama administration. That this would be the first SBREFA panel of this administration is not surprising as the communication tower industry has been lobbying OSHA for regulatory action. (Yes, some industries actually like regulations -- as long as they feel they can control the outcome sufficiently.)

Next up on the SBREFA front is Emergency Response, an effort started under the Obama administration, that seeks to update, consolidate and enhance OSHA's requirements for protecting emergency response workers.  This SBREFA panel is supposed to launch this month. Following Emergency Response is SBREFA for Workplace Violence, currently scheduled for March (delayed two months from its original January 2019 date.)

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Union Matters

What's Wrong with GM?

Corporations’ stranglehold on our economy was put on further display last week, when General Motors announced it was laying off up to 14,000 workers across North America.

On a special episode of “State of the Unions,” co-host Tim Schlittner talked with AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council Executive Director Brad Markell, a lifelong UAW member, about what the layoffs say about the state of the economy as a whole:

Tim Schlittner: “Reading the CEO’s statement, Mary Barra, where she says this is about making GM agile, resilient and profitable, then thinking about all the stock buybacks, thinking about some of the incentives they got in the tax law that just passed. Mary Barra made about $22 million last year—that’s 295 times more than the GM median employee—my feeling is like this is crap. That’s just a crap excuse for hoarding more at the top, at the expense of the workers that make GM go. Am I wrong to say that?”

Brad Markell: “I think there are a couple issues there from my point of view. Mary Barra makes a lot of money and executive pay is out of control in this country. Part of what’s the problem with executive pay is how is it incentivized? It’s not that Mary Barra making $22 million is going to kill the company. It’s what does she do to get there, right? What does she do to make those cuts and—and those things that Wall Street wants to see because so much of it’s stock options—so instead of playing to the real economy, you’re playing to Wall Street. That’s a problem.”

Tim Schlittner: “And the stock went up that day. So Wall Street saw this decision to close these plants and basically took that as a positive sign, which shows to me an economy that is completely out of whack.”

Take a listen to the full episode here.


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Who Really Pays for Tax Cuts?

Who Really Pays for Tax Cuts?
Civil & Human Rights Fight Back America PAC Rapid Response SOAR USPA Activist Corps Women of Steel Health, Safety and Environment Workers Uniting Emergency Response Team