Worker safety experts: Court ruling on silica dust limits is a “huge victory”

A US Appeals Court in Washington DC upheld new Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) rules that improve worker protections against deadly exposure to silica dust.

Silica dust is the product of grinding, drilling, abrasive blasting, and milling of substances used by the construction, ship building and maintenance, mining, foundry, and hydraulic fracking industries.

Exposure to silica dust, a hundred times smaller than a tiny grain of sand, can cause silicosis, a progressive and irreversible lung disease, as well as lung cancer and other serious respiratory problems.

The court observed that “silicosis is the most prevalent chronic occupational disease in the world” and that 2 million workers in the US are exposed to silica dust.

In its ruling, the court said that OSHA, which issued the new rules in 2016, acted properly when it lowered the allowable level of silica dust exposure at work.

Business groups, led by the US Chamber of Commerce, had challenged OSHA’s new worker safety rules calling them unnecessary.

Occupational health experts praised the court’s decision.

This is a huge win for millions of workers in construction, foundries, mining, shipbuilding, and many other industries. Low-wage workers and those in the informal sector can now be assured of safer working conditions,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH).

In 1971, OSHA first established silica dust exposure levels. The agency set the upper limit of exposure at 100 micrograms per cubic meter for general industry and 250 micrograms per cubic meter for the construction industry.

By the 1990s there was concern that these levels were too high and that too many workers were being exposed to unsafe and unhealthy levels of silica dust.

OSHA conducted painstaking research that lasted nearly 20 years. As a result of this research, OSHA determined that the exposure level should be lowered to 50 micrograms per cubic meter for all industries.

OSHA also determined that employers should provide periodic, free medical examinations to workers exposed to silica dust to determine whether they were at risk of developing silicosis or other associated diseases.

Business groups opposing the new OSHA rules argued that current exposure levels were sufficient to protect workers.

But the Court found that OSHA’s estimates that the lower exposure levels would save nearly 650 lives a year and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis and related lung diseases a year to be persuasive.

Businesses also objected to the medical screening requirements of the new regulations and to an additional requirement that allows workers to withhold the results of their screenings from their employers.

The Court found that OSHA acted within in its authority when it issued the medical screening requirement and that workers have a right to privacy regarding the results of their own medical screening.

Some unions challenged the new OSHA rules saying that they didn’t go far enough.

The North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU), a federation of construction industry unions, wanted the new rules to tighten up language regarding workers who will be eligible to receive periodic, free medical treatment.

The Court ruled against NABTU and allowed the language in the new rule to stand.

Despite this setback, Chris Cain, director of safety and health for NABTU, called the overall Court ruling a “huge win for the nation’s construction workers and affirms that OSHA put out a strong science-based standard.”

Other unions wanted the new regulations to guarantee that workers who have to be removed from a job because of health effects resulting from silica exposure will not have their wages lowered.

The Court remanded this challenge back to OSHA for further study.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, praised the decision.

“Working people won a huge victory today with the court’s decision fully upholding OSHA’s 2016 final silica standard,” said Trumka. “This will protect millions of workers from disabling disease and save thousands of lives. The court rejected industries’ arguments and directed the agency to further consider additional union safety recommendations.”

Martinez said that the court ruling presents a clear path forward.

“Now that industry’s challenge to this sensible, life-saving rule has failed, OSHA must focus on rigorous enforcement,” Martinez said. “National COSH will continue our efforts to inform workers about how to exercise their right to a workplace free from harmful dust and other hazards.”





Worker death reminder dropped from OSHA website

(Podcast on Union Edge Radio)

President Trump’s Department of Labor on August 24 quietly removed the names of workers killed on the job from the front page of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) website.

The deletion of the scrolling list that included the names, date of death, and cause of death is the latest move by the Labor Department and the Trump administration to weaken enforcement of workplace safety rules.

Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of OSHA, told the Wall Street Journal that the point of the list was to “impress on the American people that we had a serious problem with workplace safety in the United States.”

The current administration moved the list to the back pages of the website, deleted some of the names, and eliminated information about the cause of death .

While the Trump administration tries to minimize the problem of workplace safety by removing a stark reminder that work can be and often is dangerous, the problem is getting worse.

“The toll of workplace injury, illness, and death remains too high, and too many workers remain at serious risk,” said the AFL-CIO in announcing the release of its annual report on the state of safety and health protections for America’s workers.

According to the report, 4863 workers died on the job in 2015, the latest years for which statistics are available.

That’s 13 deaths a day at work.

Those deaths don’t include an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 workers a year who die from occupational diseases such as black lung, chronic beryllium disease, Mesothelioma, and many others.

There were also 3.7 million job related injuries and illnesses reported in 2015.

Because of underreporting, that number is likely low. The AFL-CIO estimates that if unreported injuries and illnesses are taken into account, the number of on-the-job injuries and illnesses would be between 7.4 million and 11.1 million.

Such a public health problem would seem to call for a more vigorous response from the protector of public health–the government.

But that has not been the case during the first eight months of the Trump administration.

The administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins on October 1, would reduce OSHA funding from $552.8 million in fiscal year 2017 to $543.3 million in fiscal year 2018. OSHA had requested $595 million in funding for 2018.

The cut to OSHA’s 2018 budget proposed in the Trump budget is just 2 percent below OSHA funding for 2018, which might not seem like a lot, but OSHA already lacks the resources to vigorously guard against workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths.

There are only enough OSHA inspectors to inspect workplaces once every 159 years.

There is only one OSHA inspector for every 76,402 workers.

Under the current OSHA budget, the amount spent on workplace safety is only $3.65 per worker.

And it’s not just the budget cuts to an agency that is already underfunded that affect workplace safety.

President Trump’s Labor Department in January delayed implementation of OSHA regulations designed to protect workers from beryllium poisoning.

When beryllium, a light yet strong metal used in many industries, is cut or ground, beryllium dust and vapor, which can cause a lung disease that can’t be treated and can be fatal, is released into the air.

After delaying implementation of the beryllium regulation, the Labor Department in June issued a new draft of the regulations that exempted the construction and shipbuilding industries from important protections of the original regulations.

The Labor Department also recently delayed enforcement of silica control regulations.

About 2.3 million US workers are exposed on the job to materials containing silica. When these materials are cut, drilled, crushed, or ground they emit silica dust into the work environment.

Exposure to silica can cause lung cancer, silicosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Looking forward, the Trump budget proposal for the next fiscal year–2018, which begins October 1–eliminates funding for the Chemical Safety Board, which investigates the causes of explosions, fires, and other workplace safety incidents caused during the manufacture of chemical and petroleum products.

It also eliminates funding for OSHA grants that provide safety training to workers in high-risk jobs.

The Labor Department now seems more concerned about not offending employers than with protecting workers’ health and safety.

On OSHA’s new website, the box at the top of the website that once contained the names of workers killed on the job has been replaced by a box entitled “OSHA WORKING WITH EMPLOYERS.”


USW local voices concerns about new beryllium regulations

United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8888 gathered more than 1600 signatures on a petition calling for public hearings on proposed new regulations that weaken worker protections against the ill-effects of beryllium.

Local 8888, the largest union at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, gathered signatures on the petition in just two weeks.

The new beryllium regulations proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exempt the shipbuilding and construction industries from key protections in the proposed regulations.

Beryllium is a light yet strong metal that becomes toxic when its dust or fumes are inhaled even in small amounts. It causes a debilitating and, in some cases, deadly lung disease. It has also been linked to cancer.

For more than ten years, OSHA worked on new regulations that could protect workers from exposure to beryllium.

It finalized and issued the regulations in January, but the regulations were put on hold pending further study on order from President Trump.

After fewer than five months of study, OSHA drafted new regulations and announced in June that the public had until August 28 to submit written comments on the proposed regulations.

The new regulations kept many of the worker protections contained in the original regulations.

For example, the new regulations retained the same maximum allowable exposure levels–0.2 micro grams per cubic meter average per work day–as the original regulations.

But the new regulations exempted the shipbuilding and construction industries from other important protections.

For example, companies in the shipbuilding and construction industries will no longer be required to provide medical monitoring to workers who work with products containing beryllium.

Medical monitoring is important because  there are no safe levels of beryllium exposure.

Because of the laws governing occupational safety and health regulations, OSHA can’t ban exposure to beryllium; it can only minimize exposure to it.

In the absence of a complete ban, monitoring worker exposure is essential because early detection of lung problems caused by beryllium can minimize its damage.

In the shipbuilding industry, substances containing beryllium are used in abrasive blasting operations to clean surfaces of ship hulls that need to be painted.

The proposed new rules will also exempt the shipbuilding and construction industries from

  • measuring beryllium levels at work,
  • providing safety training to workers exposed to beryllium, and
  • keeping records about its use on the job.

Rep. Robert Scott, a Democrat who represents Newport News, criticized the exemptions proposed by OSHA.

OSHA’s proposed new rules, wrote Scott in a letter to the Department of Labor, “has created two classes of workers exposed to beryllium–greater protections for those in  general industry and inferior protections for those employed in construction and (shipbuilding),” wrote Scott.

When OSHA first proposed the exemptions in June, Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH) also criticized OSHA’s exemption.

“No matter where they work, US workers deserve protection from exposure to hazardous–and potentially lethal–toxic materials,” said Martinez.

“They need the same protections as other workers–including monitoring and assessing exposure to potential harm,” continued Martinez.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, also criticized the exemption when it was proposed in June and blamed the Trump administration for taking a backward step on worker safety to appease corporate special interests.

“The result will be more debilitating lung diseases, cancers, and deaths for workers who are exposed to this highly toxic substance,” said Owens.

Even though the public comment period for the proposed exemption ended August 28, USW wants OSHA to hold public hearings on the proposal before it becomes final.

Local 8888 forwarded the petition to the USW headquarters in Pittsburg, which will then use the petition to convince OSHA to hold public hearings.

USW “will use the public hearings to make a strong case for shipbuilders to be covered by the new federal rule,” said Local 8888 in a message to members.

The overwhelming response to the petition by union members shows that safety concerns are “a big deal” to workers at the shipyard, said the union.

OSHA delays another worker safety standard

For the second time this year, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has postponed implementation of worker safety standards that would protect the lives of hundreds of workers.

OSHA on April 6 announced that it was delaying implementation of new safety standards limiting worker exposure to crystalline silica, a fine dust that can cause silicosis, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease, lung cancer, and kidney disease.

Silica dust, which is created during the use of power tools such as saws, grinders, drill, and jackhammers, is common at construction sites, foundries, and fracking wells.

The new exposure limits, which would only affect the construction industry, were set to go into effect in June, but implementation was postponed until September.

In March, lobbyist from several construction industry trade groups urged OSHA to postpone implementation for one year.

In February, OSHA postponed new safety standards for working with beryllium from March until May.

Beryllium is a lightweight metal used in the manufacture of electronic devices, aircrafts, and missiles.

When beryllium is machined, dust from the machining can be inhaled and cause a chronic lung disease.

OSHA’s decision to delay implementation of the silica safety standards was criticized by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH), a coalition of local and state occupational safety groups.

“The federal safety standard limiting worker exposure to silica dust has been decades in the making,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of NCOSH. “It is backed by solid scientific evidence and the experience of workers who have suffered cancer, silicosis and other life-threatening diseases. There is no reason for delaying this rule, which will save more 600 lives each year.”

The dangers of silica have been known since the 1930s. The government first enacted silica safety standards in 1971, but those standards proved to be inadequate.

After extensive research, OSHA proposed new silica safety standards in 2011. After years of further research and public input, OSHA the new safety standards were finalized in May 2016.

There are actually two safety standards: one for the construction industry, the other for general industry and maritime services.

The safety standards for the construction industry were to be implemented on June 23, 2017. The other standards were to be implemented a year later.

At the time that the safety standards were published, Tomas Perez, the then secretary of the US Labor Department said that the new standards would save the lives of 600 workers a year and prevent 900 new cases of silicosis.

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of NCOSH said that the delay in implementing the new safety standards imposes an unwarranted risk to the health and safety of construction workers.

“With construction season underway, three months of delay means that millions of workers will be exposed to hazardous silica dust that will make them sick and take their lives,” said Goldstein-Gelb.

According to OSHA, 2 million construction workers at more than 600,000 construction work sites are exposed to silica dusts.

Of those exposed, 840,000 are exposed to silica levels higher than those of the new safety standards.

Goldstein-Gelb said that steps that companies can take to comply with the new safety standards would be minimal.

“Tools to wet down silica dust and vacuum it up are practical, affordable, and readily available,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “The new standard was announced more than a year ago and employers are aware of their responsibilities to limit worker exposure. To protect workers, the time to act is now.”

Temp work is still dangerous work

Ajin USA and two temporary staffing agencies are facing $2.5 million in fines after an investigation by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that serious safety violations at the Ajin auto parts factory in Chambers County, Alabama led to the death of Regina Allen Elsea, a 20-year old temporary worker.

Elsea, a bride to be, was working on a production line on June 18 at Ajin’s  metal stamping factory that makes auto frame parts.

When the assembly line stopped because of a problem with one of its robotic machines, Elsea entered the robot cell to fix the problem, but while she was working, the robot started without warning. Elsea was caught inside and crushed and impaled to death.

Elsea was one of 250 temporary production workers at the Ajin plant, which employs 700 production workers. Elsea had been hired by Alliance Total Solutions.

Alliance, another temporary staffing agency, and Ajin, a global auto parts manufacturer based in Korea, are facing fines totaling  $2,565,621 for safety violations uncovered during the investigation of Elsea’s death.

“This senseless tragedy could have been prevented if Regina Elsea’s employers had followed proper safety precautions,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health.

Ajin’s Alabama factory makes auto frame parts for Kia and Hyundai, two Korean auto companies with plants in Alabama and Georgia.

Michaels said that Hyundai and Kia also played a role in Elsea’s death.

“It is unfortunate that Hyundai and Kia, who set strict specifications on the parts they purchase from their suppliers, appear to be less concerned with the safety of the workers who manufacture those parts,” said Michaels.

“Kia’s and Hyundai’s on-demand production targets are so high that workers at their suppliers are often required to work six and sometimes seven days a week to meet the targets,” continued Michaels. “It appears that – to reduce its own costs in meeting these targets – this supplier cut corners on safety, at the expense of workers’ lives and limbs.”

Elsea was working on a Saturday when she was killed.

Ajin had been fined in 2014 for other serious safety violations, and in 2015, Michaels traveled to Korea to warn Hyundai and Kia executives about safety problems at their suppliers’ factories.

Elsea’s death, according to OSHA’s report, was caused by a willful disregard for safety precautions.

OSHA reported that when Elsea was fixing the robotic machine, its power source had not been disabled, one of the basic tenets of factory safety.

OSHA cited other instances in which Ajin workers were required to fix problems with robotic machines without their power source being disabled.

The OSHA investigation also found that Alliance Total Solutions, the temporary staffing agency that hired Elsea, to be a fault for not providing their employees with information they needed to prevent injuries like the one that killed Elsea.

Safety for temporary workers is often an afterthought that doesn’t come to the fore until a tragedy occurs, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has warned that temporary workers are more at risk of on-the-job injuries than permanent workers.

“A growing body of research demonstrates that temporary workers have higher rates of workplace injury [OSHA, 2013; Fabiano, 2008],” reports NIOSH. “According to ProPublica research, temporary workers have double the risk of suffering severe injuries on the job, including crushing incidents, lacerations, punctures and fractures [Luo,T].”

Three years ago, ProPublica published an expose on the dangers of temp work in blue collar jobs.

The expose was based on the review of five years of workers compensation data in five states. Data from 3.5 million worker compensation claims were reviewed.

ProPublica researchers found that “caught in” and “struck by” claims were significantly higher among temporary workers than their permanent counterparts.

In its report, ProPublica detailed some of the on-the-job safety violations that either killed or maimed temporary workers like Elsea.

The tragedy of Elsea’s death is even more pronounced because it was easily preventable, said Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA’s regional director in Atlanta.

“Ajin USA only had to ensure that proper safety measures were followed to de-energize the robot before the workers entered the station,” said Petermeyer. “Incidents like this one are not isolated and that is why OSHA has developed and implemented its (safety manual for the auto parts industry).”

Unfortunately for Elsea, Ajin and Alliance appear to have not read the manual.

OSHA: DuPont deadly gas leak was preventable

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited DuPont for eleven safety violations that caused or contributed to the deaths of four workers in November at the company’s chemical plant in La Porte, Texas.

In a media release about the results of its investigation into the cause of the workers’ death, OSHA said that the deaths could have been and should have been prevented.

“”Four people lost their lives and their families lost loved ones because DuPont did not have proper safety procedures in place,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Had the company assessed the dangers involved, or trained their employees on what to do if the ventilation system stopped working, they might have had a chance.”

DuPont has been fined $99,000 for its negligence.

The workers were killed by a deadly vapor of methyl mercaptan that escaped after it had leaked from its storage vessel into pipes. It was then unknowingly released into a venting system as workers were performing maintenance.

Among other things, OSHA cited DuPont for not correcting equipment deficiencies, failing to train employees about respiratory hazards such as methyl mercaptan, failing to train workers in the proper method for responding to a chemical leak, and failing to require the use of respiratory equipment that could have saved the workers’ lives.

Methyl mercaptan is a deadly chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides. It can paralyze the respiratory system which then leads to death.

Three of the workers were killed while trying to rescue the first worker overcome by methyl mercaptan.

An earlier investigation of the deadly vapor release in La Porte  by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) found a number of safety problems at the DuPont plant.

“The release (of methyl mercaptan) occurred through a valve that was opened as part of a routine effort to drain liquid from the vent system in order to relieve pressure inside,” said former CSB Chairman Rafael Moure Eraso while testifying before a congressional committee in February. “We found that this vent system had a history of periodic issues with unwanted liquid build-up, and the valve in question was typically drained directly into the work area inside the building, rather than into a closed system.

“In addition, our investigators have found that the building’s ventilation fans were not in service, and that the company did not effectively implement good safety practices requiring personnel to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) that was present at the facility.”

Moure Eraso also cited the lack of safety culture at Du Pont and gave two examples:

One occurred in January 2010 when a faulty hose at a DuPont plant in Belle, West Virginia caused phosgene gas to leak killing one worker. The other happened later in 2010 at the DuPont plant in Buffalo, New York when a welding spark ignited leaking gas and caused an explosion that sent hot metal shards flying through the plant. Fortunately, no one was killed.

The charge that a safety culture is lacking at DuPont may seem out of place to some because DuPont management spends a lot of time conducting safety meetings and stressing the importance of avoiding injuries that could lead to lost work time.

But Safety/News Alert reports that DuPont’s safety efforts seem to be aimed primarily at avoiding personal injuries rather than focusing on process safety issues, which can be more difficult and more expensive to address.

The Houston Chronicle reports that DuPont’s inattention to safety standards has come at the same time that DuPont is paying more attention to cutting costs.

According to the Chronicle, “the deaths in La Porte brought the total to eight fatalities at DuPont sites in the last seven years. And it all happened as the company undertook an aggressive campaign to reinvent itself, by boosting productivity, selling off assets and slashing costs.”

Workers’ Memorial Day: “Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living”

Going to work can be dangerous.

More than 4,500 workers in the US died on the job in 2013, the latest year for which data is available.

According to the Center for Disease Control. another 3 million workers in private industry were injured or sickened on the job as were more than 740,000 state and local government workers.

Of those injured on the job, 2.8 million workers were treated in emergency rooms and 140,000 required hospitalization.

On April 28, Workers’ Memorial Day events will be held all over the US to commemorate those who died and to demonstrate for improved health and safety on the job.

“On this Workers’ Memorial Day, we need to join hands to seek stronger safety and health protections and better standards and enforcement,” said James Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters. “To quote Mother Jones, a small woman but a giant in the American labor movement, ‘Mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living’.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 22 released its revised Census on Fatal Occupational Injuries.

According to the revised data, 4,585 workers were killed on the job in 2013, slightly below the 4,628 killed on the job in 2012.

But while overall worker deaths remained about the same, there was an alarmingly high incidence of on-the-job deaths of Latino workers. There were 817 deaths of Latino workers in 2013, up by 9 percent from the previous year.

For all other racial and ethnic categories, the number of on-the-job deaths declined slightly.

Among Latinos killed on the job in 2013, 66 percent were immigrant workers.

The industry with the most deaths was construction; 828 construction workers died on the job in 2013. Latinos in 2013 were 25.5 percent of the construction workforce and 29 percent of those who died on the job.

Juan Carlos Reyes of Brownsville, Texas was one of those Latino workers killed on the job, and it was no accident.

Reyes was working on the fourth floor of building that was to become a Marriott hotel in Harlingen, Texas. His employer was a non-union electrical contractor. The platform on which he was standing became unstable, and he fell to his death..

OSHA conducted an investigation and issued five citations for safety violations, including one that OSHA described as willful.

One of the safety violations cited by OSHA was for improperly constructed scaffolding.

Reyes worked in the state that had the most on the job fatalities of any other state–Texas.

In 2013, Texas recorded 508 worker fatalities, down a bit from 2012 when 536 Texas workers died.

Worker deaths in Texas are well above those of other states with comparable populations.

California had 396 worker fatalities, 28 percent fewer than Texas; New York had 178, about 180 percent fewer than Texas.

Of the 508 workers killed in Texas, 192, or 38 percent, were Latinos.

Two Workers’ Memorial Day events in Texas organized by the Workers Defense Project (WDP), will honor the Texas workers who died on the job and urge state and local leaders to take action to make work in Texas safer.

WDP helps low-income workers, especially immigrant workers from Latin America, organize and fight for job safety, fair treatment, good wages, and respect on the job.

One of the events will be held in Austin where state lawmakers are in session. After a media conference that begins at 8:00 A.M. at the Capitol, those participating in the event will meet for a short training session then fan out to urge lawmakers to pass legislation to make work safer and to protect workers from other abuses such as wage theft.

In Dallas, participants will meet at City Hall then lobby City Council members for a city ordinance requiring that workers receive at least a 10-minute rest break for at least every four hours of work.

“Sadly, Texas remains the deadliest state to work construction in the country,” reads a statement on a WDP Facebook page announcing the Austin event. “But this legislative session, Workers Defense Project is fighting to win change to better protect workers. This Workers’ Memorial Day, WDP will honor the workers who have died building our state and urge our elected officials to listen to construction workers and pass life saving laws. Join us for a day of action including a press conference, legislative visits and an exhibit.”