Category Archives: Workplace Safety

The Benefits of Public Protections: Ten Rules That Save Lives and Protect the Environment

benefitsreport

Protecting the public from harmful products and services is an important role of the American government. But regulators struggle to achieve this goal as they encounter relentless push-back from industry lobbyists trying to weaken or kill rules. Most media coverage of public protections focuses on Industry complaints about the cost of new standards (without any acknowledgment of the benefits) or devastating stories of consumer deaths resulting from a lack of regulation. Without a positive narrative, we forget about the incredible quality of life that effective safeguards afford the American public.

To draw attention back to the health, environmental and worker safety benefits we reap from government safeguards, the Center for Effective Government has released a report on 10 rules that will save over 10,000 lives and prevent 300,000 cases of disease, illness or injury each year.

The rules are:
1. Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Sillica
2. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, Ejection Mitigation
3. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, Electronic Stability Control Systems for Heavy Vehicles
4. Nutrition Labeling of Single-Ingredient Products and Ground or Chopped Meat and Poultry Products
5. Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation
6. National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter
7. Mercury and Toxics Standards
8. Control of Air Pollution from Motor Vehicles: Tier 3 Motor Vehicle Emission and Fuel Standards
9. Identification and Listing of Special Wastes; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities
10. Effluent Limitations Guidelines and Standards for the Steam Electric Power Generating Point Source Category

Using the traditional, regulatory methodology of benefit-cost analysis, the report shows that these 10 rules have monetary social benefits that far exceed their estimated compliance costs. In addition, three of the rules are likely to create new jobs.

This just goes to show that the sky-is-falling, anti-regulatory rhetoric of industry and its allies in Congress is false. Standards and safeguards can spur innovation and even create entire new industries. Lost consumer confidence and shaky financial markets are the real job killers. We need standards and safeguards so that families who work hard and play by the rules can build a better future for themselves and their children.

Winning Safer Workplaces

(This post originally appeared on CPRBlog, the blog of the Center for Progressive Reform)
By Matt Shudz | June 26, 2014

Thousands of U.S. workers die on the job each year, the victims of unsafe workplaces. Countless more are injured, some permanently disabled, or exposed to toxic substances that could eventually harm or kill them. While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made progress to improve workplace safety since Congress passed the OSH Act in 1971, a new advocacy manual from the Center for Progressive Reform focuses on the progress on worker safety issues  likely to come at the state and local levels, far from the general dysfunction in Washington.

Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform, written by a team of lawyers and public health researchers, offers local advocacy groups a series of policy proposals, all ripe for enactment by state legislatures, city or county councils, or state or local agencies.

In releasing the manual, CPR President Rena Steinzor — my co-author on the manual — explained that while CPR’s worker safety efforts have been aimed principally at OSHA in the past, the decision to the focus on advancing a state and local agenda was born of “a hard truth.” “When it comes to advancing the cause of worker safety, Washington is simply not prepared to step up its game,” she said. “Congressional dysfunction makes legislation to update the 40-year-old Occupational Safety and Health Act unlikely any time soon. Underfunding, resistance by industry, and political polarization have tied OSHA up in knots. The tragic result is that workers die and are injured every day in incidents that could and should have been prevented. This manual is intended to help state and local groups – especially those new to the field of workplace health and safety – by providing them with a menu of policy proposals that they can tailor to their communities’ needs.”

The manual includes several case studies in which workers were killed on the job by preventable hazards:

  • Two workers who died of asphyxiation in North Carolina while installing water mains, after one passed out in a low-oxygen underground space and the other tried to save him. Their employer had failed to provide adequate training on how to avoid such unsafe conditions.
  • Two boys, ages 14 and 19, who were smothered in an Illinois corn silo. The boys were tamping down the grain by walking on it, after receiving just five minutes of instruction on safety procedures that made no mention of the required safety harnesses.
  • A Michigan logger who was killed by a felled tree while working for an employer that had refused to provide a helmet and that permitted teams of loggers to work too closely to one another. To add insult to injury, the logger’s family learned of his death not from the employer or from a safety official, but from a Facebook post. The employer was fined $1,525, less than the profit it earned from the tree that killed its employee.

“These cases and others like them show the urgency of seizing every opportunity to reform the law, penalize scofflaws, and give workers the power to demand safer conditions,” says Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA public health expert and a manual co-author.

Winning Safer Workplaces offers policy proposals in three broad areas:

  1. Empowering Workers includes proposals for health and safety committees on the job so that workers can take a measure of control of their safety; safety education and training requirements so that employers will be required to give workers the information they need to be safe; whistleblower protection laws so that courageous workers won’t have to risk their future to report violations; workers’ “right to refuse dangerous work” laws so that insisting on safety won’t cost a worker his or her job; and citizen lawsuits so that workers won’t have to rely on under-resourced government agencies alone to enforce safety standards.
  2. Making Sure Crime Doesn’t Pay covers proposals that would close legal loopholes that allow employers to avoid fixing health and safety hazards while investigations and litigation are under way; expand civil penalties for violations so that endangering workers’ lives is an expensive proposition; expand criminal liability so that bad actors will have personal disincentive to break the law and the punishment will match the crime; and shame scofflaw employers and industries by putting government data to work.
  3. Strengthening Institutions spans such proposals as ensuring that police and prosecutors make workplace safety a priority; robust fatality investigations so that workplace deaths aren’t swept under the rug; responsible contractor laws so that state and local governments can ensure that they only do business with companies that protect their workers; cross-agency partnerships so that agencies not principally responsible for workplace safety still report problems they encounter to those agencies that are; and annual state-level audits so that agencies are held accountable in a public way.

We’ll be rolling out the manual and its recommendations this summer in a series of legal and advocacy-based webinars. If you’d like a heads-up when those are scheduled, drop CPR an email at WorkerSafety@progressivereform.org.

If Big Business Wrote a Letter to Santa Claus this is What It Would Say

If Big Business wrote a bill to help itself get rid of regulations it didn’t like, what would that bill look like?

We don’t have to guess anymore. This week, a group of legislators introduced the Regulatory Improvement Act, a bill designed to “improve” our nation’s regulatory system, remove “government bureaucracy and red tape,” and help businesses avoid the “burden” of complying with safeguards and standards that protect our health, safety, environment and workers. Their solution? Have politicians appoint a panel to recommend regulations for Congress to ax in a rushed process.

The bill sets up a so-called “Regulatory Improvement Commission” tasked with an already predetermined outcome. That outcome is deregulation, plain and simple. Deregulation, you probably remember, led to the financial crisis of 2008. In a time when we’ve seen so many instances of industry bad actors — including at least 13 deaths due to faulty GM ignition switches that company officials knew had problems, years of toxic air pollution and water pollution from giant companies, and financial service companies like Sallie Mae taking advantage of our veterans — should we really be thinking about how to remove vital public protections for our health, safety, environment and financial security?

The commission’s mandate would be to modify, consolidate or repeal existing regulations to reduce compliance costs for business, completely ignoring the tremendous societal benefits that standards and safeguards give to the American people.

While it takes years for a federal agency to get a final rule out the door after numerous periods of public comment and review, this commission could erase this beneficial work within months. The review process is blatantly tilted toward benefitting corporate interests rather than the public interest. The procedure for how public comments on the commission’s reports are received, and even the way the commission is tasked with writing its reports on regulations are all slanted to examining the burden on businesses, never the benefits to the public. For instance, even the “costs” associated with doing taxes counts as a burden!

Supporters argue that the commission can review only those regulations finalized more than 10 years ago. Just think of how much progress we have made in the past four decades from the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and much, much more. Regulations created from these and other laws would now be at stake.

And if there is an outdated regulation that could be removed, would it be worth all of this effort? There may well be a regulation pertaining to floppy disks, fax machines or pagers—but no one uses them anymore, and those regulations aren’t costing us anything to have written down somewhere. Is it worth setting up a new commission to remove superfluous regulations like that? Besides, most agencies already look back at existing rules – in a process that is far more careful and less politicized than the one this bill proposes.

And after all this, the commission is completely unaccountable to the public. The bill expressly states that the commission is exempt from the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (which requires public accessibility to meetings, open meetings and written advanced notice of a meeting a minimum of 15 days prior). According to the Regulatory Improvement Act, if just one member of the commission objects to a meeting being public, that meeting can be held in private.

Our vision for regulatory improvement

Nowhere does the Regulatory Improvement Act provide a way to update standards, make them stronger or more effective. If we were to write our own Regulatory Improvement Act, we would call for a regulatory review process that focuses attention on the need for stronger controls on corporations and expanded protections for the public.

Just because something is repeated often does not make it true. There is not an overabundance of regulation in this country. In reality, too much of our regulatory system has today slowed to a crawl, thanks in part to Big Business pushing at every point in the process to slow or stop new standards. They lobby against new laws; they lobby against new rules that agencies write under the existing laws; and then they lobby against strong enforcement of the rules that do get through.

By updating safeguards to better protect the public and making sure corporate bad actors are held accountable, our vision of regulatory improvement will be creating a system of standards and safeguards that better protects health and safety and puts everyone on a more equal footing, creating a fair economy for all.

In Remembrance: Workers Memorial Day 2014

(Cross-posted from the Center for Effective Government Blog)

by Katie Weatherford, 4/28/2014

April 28 is Worker’s Memorial Day, an international day for remembering workers who have been injured or killed as a result of on-the-job incidents or long-term occupational illnesses. On this day, we also celebrate the substantial progress made in protecting workers over the forty-plus years since theOccupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) was enacted and remember how critical it is to continue the important work of ensuring our workers’ health and safety.

In advance of Workers Memorial Day, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) released its annual report, 2014 Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities.  Among many highlights, the report provides case studies of seven workers who died in 2013 and 2014.  Notably, each of these individuals was employed in very different occupational settings, from a warehouse worker to a cinematographer to an airport baggage handler, showing how “any job can become dangerous at a moment’s notice.”

These seven workers are representative of thousands of workers who die every year in the United States.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,383 workers were killed on the job in 2012, which means that every day, 12 workers did not return home to their loved ones. In addition to on-the-job deaths, 50,000-plus workers die every year from long-term occupational illnesses.


View the full infographic.

Considering the 14,000 workplace deaths that occurred in 1970, it is clear that the OSH Act has played a significant role in reducing workplace deaths and improving worker health and safety. In fact, more than 492,000 workers’ lives have been saved since the OSH Act became law. It is crucial that this progress continue so that when someone leaves for work, they can rest assured they will return home safely at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, Congress has not provided OSHA with the resources it needs to carry out the agency’s important work. OSHA’s budget has continued to decline every year since 2010. The agency also lacks the staffing it needs to inspect the approximately 9 million workplaces across the country. At present, OSHA operates with only 2,200 federal and state inspectors who oversee more than 130 million workers, or one inspector for every 59,000 workers. This means that each workplace might only be inspected once every 105 years. Clearly OSHA needs more, not fewer, resources for its inspection and enforcement activities. (For a visual representation of these numbers, check out our Workers Memorial Day infographic here).

This Workers Memorial Day, let’s remember our friends, family members, and colleagues who have been killed or injured at work. Starting April 29, let us join together to redouble our efforts to protect workers and ensure that worker fatalities, injuries, and illnesses continue to decline every year by demanding Congress give OSHA the resources it needs to continue its critical work.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Texas Fertilizer Disaster: Voluntary Compliance No Substitute for an Efficient Regulatory System

“[T]here is no substitute for an efficient regulatory system that ensures that all companies are operating to the same high standards. We cannot depend on voluntary compliance alone.”

That’s what Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairperson of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said this week. The CSB, an independent federal investigative agency, was releasing its preliminary findings on the West, Texas, fertilizer explosion of just over one year ago, which killed 14 individuals.

The CSB faulted the company involved and pointed to gaps in the regulatory system – a lesson that needs to be headed here and to prevent other disasters. Said Moure-Eraso:

“The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”

The report noted that:

  • The explosion at West Fertilizer resulted from an intense fire in a wooden warehouse building that led to the detonation of approximately 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside in wooden bins.
  • The building lacked a sprinkler system or other systems to automatically detect or suppress fire.
  • Texas has not adopted a statewide fire code, and state law actually prohibits most small rural counties from adopting a fire code.
  • Although some U.S. distributors have constructed fire-resistant concrete structures for storing ammonium nitrate, fertilizer industry officials have reported to the CSB that wooden buildings are still the norm for the distribution of ammonium nitrate fertilizer across the U.S.

The facility that exploded operated under few rules. It didn’t have a sprinkler system because no sprinkler system was required.

Lax rules have consequences. That’s a lesson policymakers need to take to heart – whether it’s about fertilizer facilities, food manufacturers or farmers, big polluters, automakers or any other area where the public’s safety and wellbeing is at stake. The CSB report underscores the need for a more pro-active, aggressive approach by regulators to protect the public.

One year later, West Texas fertilizer explosion disaster a reminder of need for updated safeguards

At a time when our nation’s system of safeguards and standards are constantly under attack, it’s up to us to stand up and protect them. Americans want to be protected from chemical companies using unsafe practices, from banks and lenders trying to use us to make a profit, from unsafe food and drugs, and more. That is why we are using this week to provide a positive message: that Americans want strong public safeguards and want to see our nation’s ability to protect its citizens strengthened.

Thursday, April 17, 2014 is the one year anniversary of the West, Texas fertilizer storage facility explosion, a disaster that devastated a community, claimed 15 lives, and injured over 160 others. The West Fertilizer Company supplied chemicals to farmers since it was founded in 1962, and was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1985.

In the aftermath of the explosion, the operator of the fertilizer plant was cited for 24 safety violations and charged $118,300 in penalties. Safety violations included exposing workers to explosion hazards and chemical burns, unsafe handling and storage of chemicals, failing to have an emergency response plan and not having an appropriate number of fire extinguishers.

The US Chemical Safety Board reported that regulation of the dangerous chemicals used in the industry fall under shoddy standards that are dated and far weaker than standards in other countries. However, Texas, which has the country’s highest number of workplace fatalities, is still wary of regulations.

During the government shutdown 90% of CSB employees were furloughed, causing a delay in the investigation of the West, Texas disaster.

Since the West explosion, several incidents involving toxic chemicals have occurred that have killed workers, injured community residents, contaminated drinking water, and forced the evacuation of entire towns.  You’d think that Congress would be doing more to strengthen our nation’s system of public protections and safeguards to prevent similar incidents from occurring. However, this has not been the case. In one year, Congress has introduced anti-regulatory bills that would weaken our nation’s system of protection, potentially leading to more disasters and hardship for the American people. And many crucial regulations that would protect lives —from food safety rules mandated by congress to long-overdue standards curbing water pollution from power plants – have been stalled for years.

The SCRUB Act: Another Anti-Regulatory Bill Targets Health, Safety, and Environmental Protections

(Cross-posted from the The Fine Print, the Center for Effective Government’s blog)

by Katie Weatherford, February 18, 2014

On Feb. 11, the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law held a hearing on yet another anti-regulatory bill that attempts to undermine our nation’s important health, safety, and environmental protections. The bill, entitled the “Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome (SCRUB) Act of 2014,” would establish a “retrospective regulatory review commission” that would grant unaccountable, non-expert political appointees the power to override our nation’s most crucial health, safety, and environmental safeguards. Continue reading The SCRUB Act: Another Anti-Regulatory Bill Targets Health, Safety, and Environmental Protections