Category Archives: Workplace Safety

Two Years After Fukushima: Status of NRC Safety Reforms

The following post is from Ed Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Following the March 11, 2011, nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set up a task force to identify the lessons the U.S. nuclear industry should learn from the accident to avoid something similar here. Two years later, where does that effort stand to make U.S. reactors safer?

There is no question that the NRC and the nuclear industry have taken steps to address some of the safety vulnerabilities revealed by the Fukushima disaster. But it is far from clear whether those steps will be sufficiently robust to prevent the next disaster.

The NRC Task Force developed a set of recommendations and divided them into three categories based on their level of urgency. Since then, the agency has begun to implement some of the more straightforward recommendations, such as requiring plant owners to install instrumentation to monitor the status of spent fuel pools during an accident, install reliable hardened containment vents, and reevaluate seismic and flooding risks.

But dealing with the bigger issues is taking longer, and so far the response by both the NRC and the industry has been inadequate.

After Fukushima, the task force recommended, among other things, that nuclear plants upgrade their emergency response plans to be able to keep reactor cores or spent fuel pools from melting down in the event of an extended loss of electrical power (called a station blackout) or other severe events. Soon afterward, the industry rolled out its own response plan, dubbed Diverse and Flexible Coping Strategies (FLEX), which calls for plant owners to buy additional emergency cooling equipment, including portable pumps and power supplies, and stockpile it at reactor sites and two regional distribution centers. The rationale for FLEX is that if enough equipment is scattered in enough different locations, there would be working equipment available in the event of an emergency, no matter what calamity befell the plant and its surroundings. The basic concept is “more pumps,” but not necessarily “better pumps.”

Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) expressed misgivings about the FLEX program. Nuclear plants around the country began to acquire hundreds of pieces of off-the-shelf equipment on a voluntary basis before the NRC formulated its own requirements for the equipment and the strategies to use it. UCS feared that the industry was creating a fait accompli that would make it difficult for the NRC to require a significantly different or more stringent approach.

Today, it is clear that UCS had good reason to be apprehensive. The NRC, with minor exceptions, endorsed the industry’s FLEX program as an acceptable way for plant owners to comply with the agency’s March 2012 order for plants to develop interim plans to cope with an extended station blackout. To its credit, the NRC required that licensees develop detailed procedures for implementing FLEX strategies. These plans, however, have deviated from the original task force recommendations in important ways.

For example, the task force recommended that nuclear plants be capable of withstanding a station blackout for eight hours without using portable FLEX-type equipment—an explicit recognition of the difficulties Fukushima workers had setting up and using such equipment. The task force also recommended that the portable equipment be capable of functioning for three days without off-site support, again an explicit recognition that there may be practical difficulties accessing a plant site after a major disaster. Regardless, the industry’s FLEX guidance, as approved by the NRC, does not have any set minimum timelines, leaving the possibility that it could be considerably more lax than the task force recommendations.

That would be counterproductive, especially since the task force recommendations on these two issues are not strong enough. Nuclear plants should be able to withstand a station blackout for 24 hours without using portable equipment and be able to function for seven days without off-site support.

Another issue is how the industry protects the FLEX equipment. The task force recommended that plant owners store the equipment well above the maximum predicted flood levels at each plant, recognizing that flood predictions are uncertain. But the FLEX program has no such requirement, ignoring one of the major lessons of Fukushima: Plant owners need to be prepared for the unexpected. The FLEX program’s “more pumps, not better pumps” strategy could result in plant owners having more unusable pumps during a crisis.

The NRC recently told Congress that it had considered and rejected a proposal that plant owners install “dedicated bunkers with independent power supplies and cooling systems.” UCS believes this approach, which France is instituting, deserves more serious consideration.

UCS’s concerns about FLEX were heightened recently when the NRC suggested it may be willing to consider the program not just as a short-term, stopgap measure but as an official, long-term strategy to address station blackout risks. The agency originally planned to develop a new rule on an expedited basis to require plants to cope with extended station blackouts. This is important because a rulemaking, unlike an agency order, provides more opportunity for public comment. But the agency recently decided to delay the station blackout rulemaking for two years, postponing the process that would allow the FLEX program’s problems to get a wider and more public review.

The industry has also argued against the NRC staff’s recommendation that Mark I and Mark II boiling-water reactors install filters on their containment vents, claiming that they can reduce the risk of radioactive releases during a severe accident by just using FLEX equipment and strategies. But given all the uncertainties about the reliability of FLEX, their proposal is not an adequate substitute for the installation of filters.

The NRC is delaying other critical post-Fukushima initiatives. For example, the agency immediately put the task force’s top recommendation to fundamentally revise how the NRC regulates severe accidents, on the back burner. Now the staff has asked for even more time to develop an approach. Likewise, the NRC also has delayed reviewing spent fuel safety risks, a vital addition to the public debate, and has postponed any decisions about expanding emergency planning zones for years.

The NRC’s task force identified important issues the NRC and U.S. nuclear industry must address to ensure that reactor safety lapses do not result in a nuclear disaster. And yes, there has been some progress two years after Fukushima. But the NRC has been tentative while the industry and Congress is pressuring it to slow down implementing safety reforms. As the NRC moves forward, it needs to be wary of considering half measures as progress if they fail to adequately address underlying problems. The health and safety of the 111 million Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant hang in the balance.


More American Workers Will Die as Silica Rule Delayed

The following post is from Randy Rabinowitz at The Fine Print, the Center for Effective Government blog.

Two years ago next week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) a proposed standard to protect workers from silica dust.  1.7 million workers are exposed to silica on the job, mostly in construction, sandblasting, and mining. Silica has long been known to cause silicosis, a progressive, irreversible, but preventable lung disease that kills people.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that in 2007, 120 workers died from silicosis; 180-360 new cases of the disease are reported each year. Recent evidence shows that silica exposure also causes lung cancer. OSHA estimates that a lower allowable limit on silica in the workplace would prevent 60 deaths each year.

OSHA’s current exposure limit, based on a consensus standard from the 1960s, is woefully out of date. OSHA first set out to adjust the standard in 1974; its current effort to update the silica standard began in earnest in 1997 and stalled between 2004 and 2008. In 2009, the Obama administration’s team at OSHA reignited the effort to protect workers from silica exposure. By Feb. 14, 2011, they had forwarded a proposed standard to OIRA, together with a regulatory impact assessment of the illnesses the standard would prevent and the compliance costs to industry.

And there the proposal has languished for two years. OIRA is authorized to review economically significant standards like the silica rule for up to 120 days (four months)  to determine whether the benefits of rules exceed their costs (even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that OSHA may not rely on cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether to protect worker health). In this case, OSHA has already found that the benefits of the silica rule clearly outweigh its costs, and had stricter silica rules been in effect during the two-year delay, 120 deaths could be avoided.

If OIRA disagrees with OSHA’s proposal to protect workers, it is supposed to return the rule to OSHA so the agency can fix it. But OIRA has not done that.  Instead, OIRA has held several meetings on the proposal, all but one with industry opponents of the rule. We don’t know what was discussed or why OIRA has blocked publication of the proposed rule. By holding up the standard, OIRA has put Americans in harm’s way and has prevented a public conversation about how to best protect workers from silica.

It’s time for OIRA to stop blocking the silica rule.  Sign this White House petition now to tell officials to put job safety standards in place to protect workers.

To sign the petition, follow these simple steps:

      • If this is your first time signing a petition on the White House’s “We the People” website, click on the “Create an Account” button.
      • After you create an account, you’ll get an e-mail from asking you to verify your account (this could take several seconds to arrive). Click on the verification link in that e-mail.
      • After you click on the link, you’ll be able to sign the petition by clicking the green “Sign This Petition” button on the page.

Those who have signed a “We the People” petition before simply need to click the “Sign In” button to log in and sign the petition.

Overtime rules help the economy

By Catherine Ruckelshaus
Legal Co-Director, National Employment Law Project  

Big drug companies’ salespeople don’t usually inspire much sympathy for being overworked or exploited. But last week’s Supreme Court decision in Christopher v. GlaxoSmithKline was a reminder that even pharmaceutical sales representatives, who brought a case for working 60-odd hours a week without being paid overtime, can face unfair working conditions that need to be checked.

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which established a minimum wage floor, outlawed some forms of child labor, and discouraged overly-long workweeks by requiring premium pay for any hours worked over forty in a week.  By paying time-and-a-half one’s regular hourly wage for overtime, the policy is intended not only to compensate workers for long hours, but also to promote work sharing or spreading by employers, who can hire additional workers for the extra hours needed.  Especially in tough economic times, it’s a practice that is not only fair, but makes good economic sense.

In a nutshell: workers should not shoulder the burden of a weak economy without extra pay.

First, when an employer insists on long hours per week, workers lose out on time they could be spending with their family, on parenting, going to school, or leisure time.  Last year, the Wall Street Journal recognized that while productivity gains were on the rise, companies were keeping most of them for themselves: they gave their super-productive employees only 6% of the gains, which translates to a 0.3% increase in wages.

Second, stretching workers’ hours to cover for laid-off colleagues without paying overtime decreases the employer’s incentive to hire more people.  This is especially relevant during periods of high unemployment.

In the current economic downturn, remaining workers who were not laid off have been forced to work longer hours, often for the same pay, according to a recent overview by USA TODAY.  The review found that while productivity rose 4% in 2010, a big jump over previous years, this was in part due to squeezing more hours from fewer workers.  Employers have become more aggressive, requiring workers to work off the clock, and calling them exempt from overtime while requiring long hours. The Glaxo pharma sales reps were treated this way, and fast food and retail workers dubbed “managers” at Walmart and other places are often as well.

Employers get away with this chiseling because overtime enforcement is difficult. Enforcement relies on worker complaints, and incumbent workers don’t want to risk losing their job. In periods of high unemployment like now, asking for fair pay is job suicide. The US Department of Labor is starting to investigate abuses without waiting for individual complaints, and weighed in on the Glaxo workers’ side, saying they should get paid for their overtime hours, but the Supreme Court was unmoved.

If employers did the right thing and followed overtime rules, workers would be able to spend time at home with loved ones or simply enjoy a few well-earned hours of rest.  And we might even see an uptick in new hires.

CNN – Home care workers deserve protections

By Catherine Ruckelshaus, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Catherine Ruckelshaus is legal co-director at the National Employment Law Project. She is a co-author of the report, “Fair Pay for Home Care Workers.”

(CNN) — Five years ago Monday, the Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to a hardworking woman from Queens, New York.
Evelyn Coke, a single mother of five and immigrant from Jamaica, worked nearly every day for more than two decades in the homes of the elderly and the infirm, feeding, bathing, carrying them, administering their medications and tending to their needs.

Coke loved her work but grew unhappy that she was paid less than minimum wage and never for overtime. She often worked three consecutive 24-hour shifts, or more than 70 hours a week. After many years of quietly taking it, she stood up and brought her case to court.

Her case went all the way to the nation’s highest court. On June 11, 2007, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that Coke — and millions of home care workers like her — are not protected by federal minimum wage and overtime laws, even if they’re employed by for-profit home care agencies.

Why? Because through a legislative loophole, federal regulations exempt so-called “companions” from the basic labor protections that most everyone else takes for granted. It’s up to the Labor Department to change the rules, the court said.

Continue Reading.

Economic Policy Institute – Center for Public Integrity makes a strong case for more regulation and better enforcement

By Ross Eisenbrey

Business groups and conservatives constantly attack the federal government for overregulating. They claim that businesses are “drowning in a sea of regulations” and that job creation and profitability are being sacrificed in favor of a nanny state. Workplace safety rules, in particular, have been a favorite target of the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations, but the fact is that the federal government regulates too little, not too much. Most of the 4,500 workplace fatalities and 50,000 occupational disease deaths each year could be prevented with better rules, more diligent employers, and better enforcement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Center for Public Integrity has begun publishing Hard Labor, a series of articles exploring this reality, and the first two stories make for compelling reading. One describes the consequences of OSHA’s inability to issue a combustible dust standard to protect against the kind of fires and explosions that have killed 130 workers since 1980, injured another 800-plus, and caused more than 450 accidents. Factory managers ignore hazards in plain sight—for example, piles of metallic dust that crackle with static electricity and ignite into small fires every week. Nothing is done to prevent the build-up, despite the past occurrence of catastrophic explosions at the same company that left some workers dead and others with gruesome, debilitating injuries. Finally, the critical elements come together and instead of a small fire, another terrible explosion occurs as airborne dust ignites, and more workers die from horrendous burns.

OSHA has no standard that addresses this hazard in spite of the pleas of union representatives and the urgings of the federal Chemical Safety Board, which has jurisdiction to investigate explosions and recommend preventive standards but has no power to issue them. OSHA hasn’t regulated, and workers continue to be burned, disfigured and killed unnecessarily.

Continue Reading.

Public Citizen – Bringing the heat of reality to a GOP freeze on public safeguards

The U.S. House of Representatives refuses to let up on its quixotic mission to destroy public safeguards. Its latest incarnation is H.R. 4078, the “Regulatory Freeze for Jobs Act of 2012,” a misguided bill that seeks to halt regulatory protections until the unemployment rate is equal or less than six percent.

photo by Velo Stave via flickr

It was the topic of the hour at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law, featuring two professors associated with the Hoover Institute, Allan Meltzler and John Taylor, who were there to bolster a weak argument that by “freezing” regulations, somehow all of our country’s jobs problems would magically disappear.

Fortunately, Public Citizen President Rob Weissman was there to speak on behalf of reality.

Weissman, who also serves as co-chair of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, reminded the subcommittee it was regulatory failures that helped create the current jobs crisis. He said a freeze on public protections not only would fail to create jobs, but would place the economy in serious jeopardy, particularly if newly created financial regulations were weakened or blocked.

Read the full story here.