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Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Earth Day, Labor, and Me

By Joe Uehlein - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 21, 2021

The approach of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 provides us an opportunity to reflect on the “long, strange trip” shared by the environmental movement and the labor movement over four decades here on Spaceship Earth.

A billion people participate in Earth Day events, making it the largest secular civic event in the world. But when it was founded in 1970, according to Earth Day’s first national coordinator Denis Hayes, “Without the UAW, the first Earth Day would have likely flopped!”

Less than a week after he first announced the idea for Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson presented his proposal to the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO. Walter Ruther, President of the UAW, enthusiastically donated $2000 to help kick the effort off ““ to be followed by much more. Hayes recalls:

“The UAW was by far the largest contributor to the first Earth Day, and its support went beyond the merely financial. It printed and mailed all our materials at its expense — even those critical of pollution-belching cars. Its organizers turned out workers in every city where it has a presence. And, of course, Walter then endorsed the Clear Air Act that the Big Four were doing their damnedest to kill or gut.”

Some people may be surprised to learn that a labor union played such a significant role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. When they think of organized labor, they think of things like support for coal and nuclear power plants and opposition to auto emissions standards.

When it comes to the environment, organized labor has two hearts beating within a single breast. On the one hand, the millions of union members are people and citizens like everybody else, threatened by air and water pollution, dependent of fossil fuels, and threatened by the devastating consequences of climate change. On the other hand, unions are responsible for protecting the jobs of their members, and efforts to protect the environment sometimes may threaten workers’ jobs. First as a working class kid and then as a labor official, I’ve been dealing with the two sides of this question my whole life.

On The Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America's Workers

Watchdogs Say US Chemical Safety Board Is "Flying Blind"

By Mike Ludwig - Truthout, December 8, 2017

In the early hours of August 31, explosions erupted at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, where floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey had cut off the power supply to refrigerated containers containing organic peroxide. Residences in a 1.5-mile radius had been evacuated, and deputies manning barricades began falling ill in the middle of the road one by one. Medics were called, but no further warning was given as columns of black smoke filled the air.

Arkema knew the fires were coming -- organic peroxides burst into flames unless they are kept cool -- but company officials had insisted in a press conference prior to the explosions that the chemicals were not toxic or harmful to people, according to a lawsuit filed in September by emergency workers injured at the scene.

The lawsuit describes the scene near the plant as "nothing less than chaos," with police officers doubled over vomiting and medics gasping for air on their way to assist them. At least 15 people were hospitalized. Arkema initially told authorities the victims had inhaled a "non-toxic irritant," but residues obtained from nearby residences tested positive for dangerous toxins, such as dioxins and heavy metals, according to a separate lawsuit filed by people living nearby.

What else is Arkema hiding? For answers to that question, the public is turning to the US Chemical Safety Board, where an investigation of the Arkema incident is ongoing. However, the federal agency has failed to implement a rule requiring chemical plant operators to report dangerous releases during accidents to its investigators. Congress mandated this provision back in 1990.

Had Arkema been required to report the looming chemical fires to the Chemical Safety Board, the government and emergency workers would have had more to go on than the "vague" disclosure offered by the company during the storm, according to Adam Carlesco, a staff attorney at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The watchdog group filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging the chemical board's inaction on the reporting rule. Other plaintiffs include the Memorial for Workplace Fatalities and two Gulf South environmental groups.

"America's sole industrial safety monitor is currently flying blind and placing the health of the public at risk," Carlesco said.

Big Business, Political Allies Look to Turn Hurricane Crises to Their Advantage

By Samantha Winslow - Labor Notes, September 25, 2017

You have to hand it to Big Business and their minions: in every storm cloud they find a silver lining.

The hazards faced by residents of Texas and Florida (and now Puerto Rico) come not just from the flooding but from business interests eager to take advantage of the crisis to toss out the rules—“it’s an emergency”—and squeeze workers.

Days after Harvey hit Texas, Grover Norquist’s right-wing think tank Americans for Tax Reform was already calling for suspending Davis-Bacon on the Houston clean-up and rebuild. That’s the law that requires prevailing wage standards (read: living wage) for businesses getting federal contracts.

With Trump as president, companies are hoping for a permanent repeal.

The precedent is there. After Katrina, President Bush suspended Davis-Bacon for six months, allowing contractors to drastically lower their wages. When Davis-Bacon was reinstated, existing low-wage contracts were grandfathered in.

Bush also suspended OSHA’s enforcement of health and safety standards and had the EPA waive standards for emissions and fuel refineries.

Federal Agency That Protects Whistleblowers Accused of Retaliating Against One of its Own

By Stuart Silverstein - Fair Warning, April 11, 2016

For nearly five years, Darrell Whitman was a federal investigator who probed whistleblowers’ complaints about being fired or otherwise punished for exposing alleged corporate misconduct.

He wanted to help whistleblowers, viewing them as a crucial line of defense against employers who violated health and safety standards or wasted taxpayer dollars.

But now Whitman, 70, is blowing the whistle himself. And he is accusing the agency where he used to work, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the branch of the Labor Department whose duties include protecting whistleblowers.

Whitman, in a whistleblower claim filed last week with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, charges that the San Francisco regional office of OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program routinely dumped legitimate complaints. What’s more, Whitman’s complaint says his disclosures to senior OSHA and Labor Department officials -– all the way up to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez — “did not spark good faith corrective action. Rather, they led to investigations of Mr. Whitman that eventually formed the basis for his termination” last May. He claims that three other investigators who protested the office’s practices also were fired or pushed out.

The result, Whitman claims, is that safety hazards and wasteful spending persist while whistleblowers often are silenced by employers that get away with illegal retaliation.

Whitman’s complaint largely tracks the concerns he raised in letters to federal officials (examples here and here) and in interviews with FairWarning and previously with KNTV (NBC in the Bay Area). He zeroes in on his former boss, Joshua Paul, and other officials in OSHA’s San Francisco regional office, which oversees California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii.

Sometimes, Whitman said, Paul ordered investigators to water down their findings or reversed the findings without explanation. In other instances, Whitman said, cases would be closed out after quickie investigations that barely examined the retaliation claims. Other times, he said, Paul dragged his feet in completing investigations for three years or more, apparently to put pressure on whistleblowers to settle.

At Paris Trade Union Forum: A call to ban fracking worldwide

By Blake Deppe - People's World, December 4, 2015

PARIS -- In the Climate Generations event area here at COP 21, the Trade Union Forum on Climate and Jobs presented on Dec. 3 an event called Resisting Extreme Extraction. Labor organizations including the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), the Argentine Workers' Central Union (CTA), and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) addressed the audience with a clear declaration: that fracking, in every country and every part of the world, has got to go.

These organizations are part of the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, an initiative coordinated by the International Program for Labor, Climate and Environment (IPLCE). Their call for a global moratorium on the harmful natural gas extraction process is bolstered by the findings of Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University. He published his findings about the disastrous effects of fracking in an article titled A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas, and shared them at COP 21.

"Natural gas is widely promoted as a 'bridge fuel,' " Howarth said, referencing the publication. "It is said that it allows continued use of fossil fuels while reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to oil or coal. And since 2009, over 40 percent of natural gas has come from shale gas, which is such a driver for climate change, because of methane. Most climate scientists, in their studies, are focusing on carbon, but methane is 120 times more powerful while both gases are in the atmosphere."

He explained that carbon, of course, is the larger instigator behind climate change, as there is more of it in the atmosphere, but in terms of actually slowing global warming, there is a key difference between the two. "Because of its long residence time," he said, "reductions in carbon emissions can only slowly change the atmospheric concentration." On the other hand, "methane emissions reductions lead to almost immediate reductions in atmospheric concentration. If we cut methane emissions today, we could really slow warming and prevent the [planet] from exceeding that two degree mark."

What Howarth is referring to is the very goal of COP 21: to avert a planetary warming of two degrees Celsius. This is a slightly more realistic ambition - in comparison with last year's climate conference in Copenhagen, which sought to avoid 1.5 degrees of warming - and one based on assessments made on global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But curbing that methane output can best be done by putting an end to fracking, and increased transparency, based on recent studies not funded by the fossil fuel industry, is shifting public opinion on this false 'energy alternative.' "There have been about 32 new research papers published on fracking recently," said Hogarth. This, he conveyed, provides an excellent counterbalance to the problematic studies carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Defense Fund, with the latter in particular notorious for its biased and industry-collaborative approach. He said that both the agency and the EDF "misuse their instruments during their studies, and thus draw unrealistic conclusions about fracking. The truth is, it is globally warming the planet today."

Using Violation Tracker to Analyze Workplace Safety and Labor Relations

By Phil Mattera - Dirt Digger's Digest, November 5, 2015

It’s widely known that BP has a terrible workplace safety record, especially at its Texas City refinery, where 15 workers were killed in a 2005 explosion blamed in large part on management. In 2010 BP had to pay a record $50 million to settle OSHA allegations relating to the incident and the serious deficiencies in its subsequent remediation efforts.

Figuring out which other companies have created the greatest hazards for their workers has been more difficult — until now, that is. Violation Tracker, a new database on corporate misconduct, brings together information on some 100,000 environmental, health and safety cases filed by OSHA and a dozen other federal regulatory agencies since 2010. The database links the companies involved in the individual cases to their corporate parents, and the penalties are aggregated. Here I look at the largest OSHA violators identified by Violation Tracker and discuss a key characteristic they tend to have in common.

Companies with the most OSHA penalties, 2010-August 2015

  • BP: $63,860,860
  • Louis Dreyfus (parent of Imperial Sugar): $6,063,600
  • Republic Steel: $2,635,000
  • Tesoro: $2,532,355
  • Olivet Management: $2,359,000
  • Dollar Tree: $2,153,585
  • Ashley Furniture: $1,869,745
  • Kehrer Brothers Construction: $1,822,800
  • Renco: $1,535,475
  • Black Mag LLC: $1,218,500

(Source: Violation Tracker. Amounts are totals of “current penalties” for serious, willful or repeated violations of $5,000 or more after any negotiated reductions in OSHA’s initial proposed fines.)

Last February, members of the United Steelworkers union walked off the job at BP refineries in Ohio and Indiana as part of a strike focusing on safety problems in the industry. USW president Leo Girard stated at the time: “Management cannot continue to resist allowing workers a stronger voice on issues that could very well make the difference between life and death for too many of them.” BP’s $63 million in OSHA fines and settlements since 2010, far more than any other company, have put it at the forefront of that deadly resistance.

Tesoro, another unionized oil refiner criticized by the USW for its safety shortcomings, has the fourth highest OSHA penalty total ($2.5 million) among the companies in Violation Tracker. In 2014 the union called on the company to develop a “comprehensive, cohesive safety program” after an accident at a California refinery in which two workers were seriously injured. The USW also took the company to task for disputing a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board citing “safety culture deficiencies” among the causes of a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers.

Kehrer Brothers Construction, on the top-ten list of OSHA violators with $1.8 million in penalties, is nominally a union contractor, but it was the subject of a 2010 lawsuit by the Roofers union complaining about wage theft. Earlier this year, OSHA accused the company of bringing in non-English speaking workers under H-2B visas and knowingly exposing them to asbestos on the job.

Not all of the largest OSHA violators are rogue unionized employers. Some are firms that have managed to keep unions out. Chief among those is Imperial Sugar, which in 2010 had to pay $6 million to settle more than 120 violations linked to a 2008 explosion at its non-union plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia that killed 14 people and seriously injured dozens of others. (Imperial, acquired by Louis Dreyfus in 2012, had unions at some of its other facilities.)

Dollar Tree, which has racked up more than $2 million in OSHA fines since 2010, is one of the large deep-discount retailers that target the portion of the population that cannot afford to shop at Walmart. The non-union chain has been cited repeatedly for piling boxes in storage areas of its stores to dangerous heights and blocking emergency exits.

Ashley Furniture was fined $1.8 million by OSHA earlier this year at its non-union plant in Arcadia, Wisconsin for 38 willful, serious or repeated violations stemming from the company’s failure to protect workers from moving equipment parts. One worker lost three fingers while operating a woodworking machine lacking required safety protections. OSHA recently proposed another $431,000 in fines for similar problems at another Ashley facility in Wisconsin.

A more obscure company in the OSHA top ten is Olivet Management, a real estate developer fined more than $2.3 million for exposing its own workers and contractor employees to asbestos and lead during clean-up activities at the site of the former Hudson Valley Psychiatric Center in Dover Plains, New York. The company was created by Olivet University, which calls itself “a private Christian institution of biblical higher education.”

There’s a smaller third category of top OSHA violators, represented by Republic Steel: a company with decent union relations that appears to have gotten sloppy in its safety practices. In 2014 Republic agreed to pay $2.4 million as part of a settlement with OSHA resolving violations at its facilities in Ohio and New York. The settlement, which also involved the creation of a comprehensive illness and injury prevention program, was praised by the USW. Yet this year Republic was fined another $162,400 for repeated and serious violations at its plant in Lorain, Ohio.

The lesson of all this seems to be that workers face the greatest hazards in non-union companies and rogue unionized firms, but they also need to be vigilant in workplaces with decent labor-management relations.

EcoUnionist News #59

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, August 4, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Ongoing Mobilizations:

Bread and Roses:

Feds Find Gaping Holes in CALOSHA Safety Net; Serious Enforcement and Inspection Failures Put California Workers at Risk

By Kirsten Stade - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, July 1, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC — The, U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has cited the worker health and safety program in California for falling below minimum performance standards in response to a complaint filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, the state
Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) must upgrade its enforcement and inspection programs or face a variety of federal sanctions.

In a letter to PEER dated June 26, 2015, OSHA Area Director David Shiraishi upheld the bulk of the “Complaint about State Program Administration” that PEER filed in February 2014. In its review, OSHA found that Cal/OSHA:

  • Fails to conduct an adequate number of inspections in dangerous workplaces and fails to follow its own policy of doing follow-up inspections on serious violators;
  • Does not issue citations in a timely manner, thus delaying hazard abatement and prolonging dangerous conditions. OSHA found the “amount of time Cal/OSHA takes to issue citations is 69% longer than OSHA for safety inspections and 33% longer for health inspections”; and
  • Takes too long to respond to worker complaints of unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Cal/OSHA “averaged almost working four days to initiate investigations for complaints alleging serious hazards” with one serious complaint sitting 106 days. For non-serious complaints, Cal/OSHA averaged more than two weeks before inspecting with one case sitting 300 days.

The OSHA letter contains recommendations for how Cal/OSHA can remedy the identified failures while concluding that “the State Plan is required to remedy these deficiencies.” Like California, nearly half the states are funded by OSHA to operate their own state plans which, by law, must be at least as effective as the federal program. This finding means that California is not meeting that minimum threshold.

EcoUnionist News #52

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 16, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Fracking the EPA:

Bread and Roses:

An Injury to One is an Injury to All:

1267-Watch:

Carbon Bubble:

Just Transition:

Other News:

For more green news, please visit our news feeds section on ecology.iww.org; Twitter #IWWEUC; Hashtags: #greenunionism #greensyndicalism

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