Category Archives: Workplace Safety

Senator Tester Says USDA Should Put the Brakes on Controversial Poultry Inspection Rule

Senator Jon Tester of Montana has expressed his concerns to the administration. In a recent letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Senator Tester wrote:

“Without adequate scientific analysis to ensure the new process improves the safety of poultry slaughter and evisceration plants, it is premature to propose a rule that would standardize these practices across all plants. USDA should delay the proposed rules and reevaluate the pilot on food safety and market competition.”

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Food safety and worker safety advocates have been campaigning against a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to “modernize” poultry inspection – by taking federal food safety inspectors off the line and essentially replacing them with processing company employees. It’s worrying for food safety because the company inspectors would have to visually inspect about three chickens per second; processing plants that have tried the system under a pilot program have produced birds contaminated with feathers, bile and feces. And it’s worrying for worker safety because poultry processing is already an extremely dangerous job, and the proposed rule would allow companies to speed up the lines. (Much more information in our poultry rule information center.)

The Senator is right to speak out. The rule is currently in USDA’s hands, but expected to be sent to the White House for review soon. The Obama Administration should stop this ill-conceived proposal in its tracks.

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Consumer Protections at Stake in Trans-Atlantic “Trade” Deal

A “trade” deal only in name, the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) would require the United States and European Union (EU) to conform domestic food and product safety standards, financial regulations, climate policies, data privacy protections and other non-trade policies to TAFTA rules – rules that are being negotiated in secret.

Some products and services that do not meet U.S. health and safety standards could be allowed into our markets. State and local governments could be forced to weaken health and safety standards and give up long-standing tools for local job creation. And the U.S. could be required to conform to new standards negotiated for corporate convenience, instead of standards developed through state and national laws over decades. The goal is to finish the sweeping deal by the end of 2014.

The Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and Public Citizen have assembled a list of the 10 biggest threats that TAFTA poses to consumers, workers and the environment. See it here:

The Top Ten Threats of the Trans-Atlantic “Trade” Deal To Americans’ Daily Lives (11/07/13)

Congressional Mandates Obstructed, Public Pays the Price

On October 25, the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards co-sponsored Delayed, Diluted and Defunct: How Congressional Mandates are Thwarted by the Broken Regulatory Process, a briefing for Senate staff.

The speakers presented a series of examples of congressional mandates for public protections that were or are stalled or weakened in the rulemaking process — from food safety rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act to consumer financial protections mandated by the Dodd-Frank law and air pollution controls required by the Clean Air Act.

The speakers described the consequences of regulatory delay, such as when lives are lost while a worker safety regulation is delayed due to political interference or demands for additional analysis. They argued for transparency and de-ossifying the rulemaking process, and warned against a series of congressional bills that would make it harder for agencies to issue new protections mandated by congress.

Our thanks to the speakers: Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen; John Walke, Director of Clean Air Program, Natural Resources Defense Council; Peg Seminario, Health and Safety Director, AFL-CIO; Caroline Smith DeWaal, Food Safety Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest; Marcus Stanley, Policy Director, Americans for Financial Reform; Katherine McFate, President, Center for Effective Government.

To the sponsoring organizations: Center for Effective Government, Center for Progressive Reform, National Consumers League, Public Citizen, and the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards

And to the host, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Actions.

Among the materials provided at the briefing:

Bill in Congress:

  • Decoding the Bill: Lobbying Records Show That Electric Utility Industry Dominates Push for Deregulatory ‘REINS’ Legislation (Public Citizen)
  • The Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act: Politicizing Independent Agencies and Putting Americans in Harm’s Way (Coalition for Sensible Safeguards)
  • The Regulatory Accountability Act of 2013: Legislation Would Override and Threaten Decades of Public Protections (Coalition for Sensible Safeguards)
  • Return of the Regulatory Accountability Act: A Veiled Threat to Public Protections (Center for Effective Government)
  • Republican Bills Would Obstruct Enforcement of Environmental Laws (NRDC)
  • The REINS Act: Why Congress Should Hold its Horses (NRDC)

Regulatory Delay:

  • Clarity on Clean Water Protection Is Coming, but How Long Will it Take? (Center for Effective Government)
  • Testimony of Peg Seminario, Director Safety and Health, AFL-CIO Before the Subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights, and Agency Action Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on “Justice Delayed: The Human Cost of Regulatory Paralysis” (AFL-CIO)
  • Down the Regulatory Rabbit Hole: How Corporate Influence, Judicial Review and a Lack of Transparency Delay Crucial Rules and Harm the Public (Coalition for Sensible Safeguards)

Broken Regulatory Process:

  • Disclosure at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs: Written Comments and Telephone Records Suspiciously Absent (Center for Effective Government)
  • Key Recommendations for The Next Regulatory Czar’s Critical Mission: Will He Rebuild a Regulatory System that Works for the Public Interest? (Coalition for Sensible Safeguards)
  • The Perils of OIRA Regulatory Review: Reforms Needed to Address Rampant Delays and Secrecy (Public Citizen)
  • President’s Spring Agenda Signals Continued Delays on New Rules (Center for Effective Government)

SPLC urges federal agencies to protect poultry, meatpacking plant workers

Cross-posted from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The SPLC and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a formal petition today urging the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to better protect workers in poultry and meatpacking plants, where federal policies allow workers to operate in hazardous conditions that often leave them with disabling injuries, illnesses and pain.

The groups petitioned OSHA to issue new work speed standards to protect the workers responsible for making the United States the largest producer of poultry and beef in the world. OSHA has general health and safety rules for workplaces but does not regulate processing line speeds that often operate at a punishing pace.

The only federal agency regulating line speed is the USDA, which is solely focused on food safety and maximizing production for the industries. Though there is ample evidence that work speed is a primary contributor to injuries, the USDA has proposed increasing poultry processing line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175. The groups’ petition also calls on the USDA to reconsider its proposed rule change.

“Meatpacking and poultry processing line jobs are among the most notoriously dangerous jobs in the United States,” the group’s petition states. It notes that “OSHA’s current failure to regulate poultry and meat processing plant work speed puts plant workers at significant risk of permanently disabling cumulative trauma disorders,” such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which are caused by the extraordinary number of repetitive motions these workers perform.

The coalition includes the SPLC, Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Coalition of Poultry Workers, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Farmworker Advocacy Network, Heartland Workers Center, Interfaith Worker Justice, Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, North Carolina Justice Center, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center, Refugee Women’s Network, Student Action with Farmworkers and Western North Carolina Workers’ Center.

Meat and poultry workers often make 20,000 cuts a day to the meat and poultry on the line. Many fear losing their jobs if they report injuries or ask for safer working conditions. This silence enables companies to hide true injury rates that are far higher than what is publicly reported.

The groups urge OSHA to implement the following changes to protect workers:

  • Establish a standard that limits work speeds.
  • Create standards that address the specific injuries caused by keeping up with the line speeds.
  • Ensure that existing safety guidelines are enforceable.

The groups also ask USDA to engage in thorough interagency consultation about worker safety before implementing its proposed poultry rule changes that would increase work speeds in poultry processing.

These hazards have been documented by the SPLC in its 2013 report Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers. Nebraska Appleseed documented similar dangers in the meatpacking industry in its 2009 report The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers.

Substantial medical and epidemiological research has concluded that rate of repetition is a major factor in disabling injuries. The groups’ findings have been echoed in worker interviews conducted by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. In June, the groups also called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to address human rights violations in U.S. poultry and meatpacking plants.

Obama’s Executive Order to Improve Chemical Safety Is Good First Step, But Further Action Needed

The following post is from Dorry Samuels Levine at the National Council For Occupational Safety and Health

President Must Enact Regulations, Increase OSHA Funding, To Adequately Protect Workers and Public

President Barack Obama’s executive order today calling for increased collaboration between government agencies to improve chemical safety for workers and the public must be applauded. But the president’s work is not done there, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said today.

While the executive order will make progress in addressing the risk to public and worker safety posed by dangerous chemical facilities, the president almost certainly will need to promulgate new regulations to safeguard the country.

“President Obama should be commended for recognizing the urgent need to act to protect workers and the public, taking action through executive order instead of attempting to work through the legislative and bureaucratic logjam of today’s Washington culture,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH. “We applaud the president’s efforts to modernize agency policies in working with stakeholders to address risks, but that is only part of the solution.

“If industry stakeholders march in beating the anti-regulatory drum, the administration must not kowtow to their demands,” O’Connor said. “To adequately respond to the dangers posed by chemical facilities and other dangerous workplaces, further federal regulatory action is needed.”

That said, the president’s action today is an important response to the gap in public and worker safety protections due to an existing lack of coordination among government agencies. Specifically, Obama addressed the need to examine how the government can more effectively reduce risks associated with ammonium nitrate – the chemical presumed responsible for the devastating explosion in West, Texas, in April, which killed 15 people.

Obama’s administration has been criticized for its shortcomings in addressing risks posed by chemical facilities and exposures. Just last week, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board pointed to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) failure to implement recommendations that would do just that, calling the agency’s response to the recommendations “unacceptable.”

“OSHA should take immediate action to follow-up on recommendations made by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, some going back as far as 10 years ago, to expand and enhance its Process Safety Management Standard, which would increase protections for workers and the public,” O’Connor said.

The Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard should be a key tool for OSHA to enforce safe practices in chemical facilities. But in its current form, the standard is too vague to be useful and is nearly impossible for OSHA to enforce.

“OSHA should re-open the PSM standard and make it more prescriptive, giving clearer guidelines for chemical plants, refineries and other dangerous industrial facilities as to how to develop effective chemical safety plans,” O’Connor said.

However, OSHA is dramatically underfunded, enabling the agency to inspect workplaces only once every 100 years or so. Until the agency is more robustly funded, it will never be able to adequately protect worker safety, O’Connor said.

This makes it even more important for OSHA to issue an injury and illness prevention standard, which would require employers to find and fix workplace hazards. A comprehensive injury prevention standard – which OSHA chief David Michaels has proposed – would go a long way toward ensuring that worker safety and public safety would be a top priority for chemical plants and other dangerous facilities.

Learn more about an injury and illness prevention standard.

Click here for more information on the president’s executive order.

Click here for more information on the Chemical Safety Board’s response.

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The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health is a federation of local and statewide organizations; a private, non-profit coalition of labor unions, health and technical professionals, and others interested in promoting and advocating for worker health and safety.

To learn more about the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, visit: http://www.coshnetwork.org.

President’s Spring Agenda Signals Continued Delays on New Rules

This post comes from the Center For Effective Government

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) quietly published its highly anticipated Spring 2013 Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions (Unified Agenda) on July 3. The spring agenda, like the previous fall agenda, does not show a strong commitment to advancing public health, safety, or environmental protections. Rather, it shows only slight progress on rules that have been under development for years and does not suggest the administration will address the pervasive delays or lack of transparency that currently plague the rulemaking process.

What is the Unified Agenda?

The Unified Agenda is published semi-annually by OMB in accordance with Executive Order 12866. It includes an agenda prepared by each federal agency listing all regulations currently under development or review. The purpose is to: (a) improve coordination among various divisions of the federal government and (b) give the public notice of upcoming agency actions. For a more in-depth review of the Unified Agenda and each of its components, visit our Regulatory Resource Center here.

Rules that May Spring Forward

The spring agenda contains some positive measures. The agenda indicates that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions for new fossil fuel-fired power plants will move forward. Unfortunately, the rule will go back to the proposal stage, despite that fact that when the last agenda was released in December, the rule was in the “final” stages of development. The rule would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the air and contributes substantially to climate change. Fortunately, President Obama’s new climate change plan, announced in June, requires EPA to complete the proposal by September and also propose standards for existing power plants by June 2014. EPA sent the proposed rule for new power plants to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) on July 2 but has not yet submitted a draft rule for existing power plants for review.

EPA will also move forward on issuing standards for coal ash. The rule was previously listed as a long-term action but has moved to the pre-rule stage in the spring agenda. Although the rule has yet to make it to the proposal stage, it is promising that EPA will restart its work on the coal ash standard.

However, many important rules remain stalled at the agency or at OIRA. For example, EPA reports that it expects to move forward later this year on its proposed Chemicals of Concern list rule. The rule would establish a list for chemical substances identified by EPA as those that present or may present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment. EPA sent the rule to OIRA for review in 2010 where it remains today. Until OIRA completes its review, EPA will not be able to move forward as planned.

Another important proposal that has been delayed for years is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) rule to protect workers from exposure to silica dust that can lead to fatal respiratory disease. OSHA’s regulatory agenda has featured this rule since 2011, but the agency has been unable to move forward because it has been held up at OIRA for over two years. According to the spring agenda, the proposal should be complete this month – two months later than noted in the fall agenda. But it seems unlikely that OIRA will complete its review in time for OSHA to publish it in the Federal Register by the end of this month.

Even if the administration is able to make headway on each of these proposed rules, the agency will still need to repeat the regulatory procedures and send the rule to OIRA for review at least one more time before the rules would become final.

Rules That Will Fall Back

The spring agenda identifies several key health and safety rules that will not be moving forward in the near term. In some cases, the administration has chosen not to move ahead, even if it means the agency will thwart congressional or judicial deadlines. Most frustrating for advocates, the administration is not required to explain why it has chosen to change the rulemaking status or stop work on a rule. Instead, the citizens that these agencies are supposed to protect are left to speculate in the dark.

Although EPA’s regulatory plan from the fall agenda indicated that the agency’s rule on the definition of solid waste was in the final stages of development, the rule has been moved to long-term action in the spring agenda. The rule would revise the 2008 final rule on the definition of solid waste to better protect public health and the environment. EPA had agreed to a judicially enforceable deadline as a result of litigation, but the deadlines have long since passed. According to OIRA’s regulatory dashboard, the agency has not yet determined when it plans to move forward with the rule.

EPA’s recently proposed rule setting emissions standards for formaldehyde in composite wood products was also moved to long-term action in the spring agenda. Congress enacted legislation in 2010 that requires EPA to issue national emissions limits equal to those already required by California law. At the same time EPA proposed the emissions limits rule, it also proposed requirements for third-party certifications of products subject to those emissions limits. Congress set a January 2013 deadline for EPA to finalize the new standards, but both proposals were stuck at OIRA under review for over a year until they were finally released this past May. Even though the notice-and-comment period for these rules remains open until Aug. 6, EPA has already decided not to move forward on completing the emissions limits in the near term. The third-party certification rule, however, is still on the agenda for the spring. EPA has not explained why it chose to move forward only on the third-party certification rule or why the agency effectively denied the public an opportunity to comment on the emissions standard.

Conclusion

The spring 2013 agenda indicates that some important standards will be forthcoming. But unless the Obama administration acts aggressively to ensure these rules are finalized, our health, safety, and environment will continue to be compromised. The administration needs to resolve the pervasive delays and lack of transparency in the rulemaking process to show its commitment to completing these important public protections.

Workers Memorial Day thoughts

The following post is from Ross Eisenbrey. It can be found at Working Econmics, the Economic Policy Institute blog.

How many times have you heard business lobbyists and spokesmen say: “Regulations are killing jobs”? Or how about, “Excessive regulations are driving manufacturers overseas”?

Well think about what’s been happening in Bangladesh, where so many US clothing retailers and garment makers, from Wal-Mart to L.L.Bean, have gone to escape livable wages and regulation. That lack of regulations is killing workers, not in ones and twos, as happens here in the United States several times every day, but hundreds at a time.Factory fires as devastating as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of a century ago have now been followed by a building collapse that has so far claimed 300 lives, the workers crushed, bleeding to death or suffocating.

Several stories I’ve read report that only one business (a bank) heeded the warnings of police that the eight-story factory building was so unsafe that it had to be evacuated. The other businesses shrugged off the warnings and ordered more than 2,000 people to work in mortal danger.

Are businesses more responsible here than in Bangladesh or China, where mining disasters in recent years have killed hundreds of workers at a time? If so, it’s in part because U.S. regulation and tort litigation have made them so. Even with this regulation, small businessmen still send workers into unguarded, narrow and deep dirt trenches to lay pipe. And workers are killed in trench collapses every year, month after month, even though every contractor in America knows it’s unsafe and illegal. Businesses still send young men and boys to die in grain silos, even though they know it’s unsafe and illegal to “walk the grain” to loosen it when it gets caught up. The workers die by suffocation, they get ground up by augers, and they suffer as they die. But it still happens year after year, because the people in charge cut corners and just don’t care enough to make sure that the people working for them are safe.

If you think we can rely on businesses to self-regulate, think again. West Fertilizer, the small business that blew up and killed fourteen people in Texas last week, declared itself safe and estimated the chance of a catastrophic explosion at zero. They needed someone with authority and the power to change behavior to look over their shoulder, to look out for the workers and first responders who were most at risk, and to look out for the school children whose schools were within the blast radius. But no agency had or exercised that authority.

As a society, we need to pay more attention to the safety and health of our workers. Nearly5,000 workers were killed on the job in the United States in 2011, and an estimated 50,000 or more died from illness or disease they contracted from on-the-job hazards such asbreathing chlorine fumes or periacetic acid and exposure to silica dust, asbestos, berylliumand hundreds of other hazardous substances. The cost of these illnesses and deaths is about $250 billion—more than the cost of all cancers. Inadequate regulation kills workers, and it costs our economy plenty.

Workers Memorial Day is Sunday, April 28, and I hope you’ll take a moment to think about the tragedies in Bangladesh and Texas. Take a moment to think about what kind of a country you want and which problem you think is more serious, that regulations kill jobs or that unregulated work kills workers.