You are here

health and safety

What Have We Learned From the Lac-Megantic Oil Train Disaster?

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, December 21, 2016

Brian Stevens first learned about the Lac-Megantic disaster — in which an unattended oil train caught fire and exploded, killing 47 people in the Quebec town — when he saw the news reports on TV.

Stevens is currently National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, but he previously spent 16 years as an air-brake mechanic working on trains. At a recent conference in Ottawa examining lessons from the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster, he recounted his reaction to seeing those initial scenes of destruction.  

That ain’t Canada, that can’t happen in North America because our brake systems won’t allow that,” he said when he eventually learned the images he was seeing were from Canada. “My heart sank … It was crushing.”  

Stevens went on to explain his opinion of the root cause of the problem, summing up the challenges in Canada with one simple statement: “The railways write the rules.” 

He also placed blame on the deregulation of the Canadian rail industry that began more than three decades ago.

Lac Megantic started in 1984. It was destined to happen,” said Stevens, referring to the start of that deregulation.

One example of the effects of deregulation can be seen in the cuts to the number of people conducting inspections, from over 7,000 railway and rail car inspectors in 1984, down to “less than 2,000” now, according to Stevens. 

He didn't mince words about what he's seen change in the three years since Canada's worst rail accident.

“The railway barons continue to exist and continue to drive the industry and the government,” said Stevens.

Without the Union…

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 20, 2016

By the time I started my coal mining “career” in 2007, the union was all but gone in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. I had been raised union and knew the benefits that came with it, but in its absence, I ended up joining thousands of other young men naive enough to believe we didn’t need a union. It  didn’t take long to realize how much control the coal companies had regained over all of our lives.

At one time, it seemed as though there were more union miners than non-union in central Appalachia. Throughout the mid-1970s and 80s, dozens of large union mining complexes (mines with attached coal preparation facilities and rail service) were operating in the region. These complexes employed thousands of men, and many women.

As I understood it, life was good for those who worked at the complexes. Miners made a union wage, had union benefits including guaranteed days off, voluntary overtime, excellent retirement and healthcare benefits, and worker’s rights that enhanced the safety culture at the mine. The sheer size of the complexes also gave the miner’s many amenities not found at smaller truck mines, including large “clean” and “dirty” locker rooms with heated floors, showering facilities, and even paved parking lots. But they weren’t to last. The seams that supported larger facilities were rapidly depleted as more mechanized forms of mining, such as long wall systems, were being implemented.

And then the coal markets busted.

The dark side of Christmas: the impact on sweatshops

By Amoge Ukaegbu - New Internationalist, December 8, 2016

It’s not elves, but underpaid Chinese workers working around the clock that will enable you to unwrap your presents, writes Amoge Ukaegbu.

Television screens are filled with Christmas advertising, propagating the apparent need to buy something, and above all electronics, apparel, toys – the most popular Christmas gifts. The festive countdown is well underway.

Three points specifically define the ‘festive’ season: advertisements and commercialisation, shopping and spending, and increased revenue for the Western economy. Data from Capgemini and new in the UK’s industry association for e-retail, the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), reveal that in 2015, British retailers took in over £24 billion (roughly $30 billion) during the Christmas period alone, more than the entire GDP of countries like Nepal or Honduras. This spending craze is linked with advertisement and the increasing consumerism promoted by mass-, and now social media.

US discount events, hyperbolically labelled ‘Black Friday’ and Cyber Monday’, have been transposed across Europe, with the periods before Christmas and between Christmas and New Year’s Day becoming the busiest spending times in our annual calendars.

Over last year’s discount weekend, British consumers spent a whopping £3.3 billion ($4.16 billion). Masses took to the internet to buy, spending £968 million on Cyber Monday alone, causing the websites of large UK retailers, including Argos, Tesco and John Lewis, to crash. Struggling to cope with the surge of online purchased goods, courier firms imposed daily caps on the number of orders accepted from online retailers.

Oil Refineries Don’t Just Pollute; They Also Kill Workers

By Jim Morris - Center for Public Integrity, December 13, 2016

ANACORTES, Washington—From 500 yards away, John Moore felt the concussion before he heard it.

Labor Groups Protest Reopening of Rail Lines Near Fukushima

By William Andrews - CounterPunch, December 15, 2016

Labor activists have protested the reopening this month of a railway line in parts of northeast Japan where they believe radiation levels are still dangerous.

The Joban Line runs from Nippori Station in Tokyo to Iwanuma Station, just south of Sendai City. It is one of main connections between northeast Tokyo’s major station of Ueno up along the coast through Chiba, Ibaraki and Miyagi prefectures.

This region was severely damaged by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th, 2011, while the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster meant that large areas through which trains pass were contaminated by radiation.

The Joban Line was directly hit by the massive tsunami wave in 2011, sweeping train carriages away. Though parts of the line were quickly reopened that same year, two sections of the line—between Tatsuta and Odaka stations, and between Soma and Hamayoshida—remained closed, with passengers served by buses for some of the stations.

However, the operator, East Japan Railway Company (JR East), and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, have been keen to reopen the whole line as part of the northeast Japan reconstruction efforts. The Joban Line represents a valuable source of income from both passengers traveling between Sendai and Tokyo as well as freight.

Following decontamination measures, rail services resumed from Iwaki to Tatsuta in late 2014. However, north of Tatsuta lies the areas located within a 20km radius of the devastated Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which is widely considered a no-go zone.

In July this year, JR East resumed services on the 9.4-kilometer stretch between Odaka and Haranomachi stations as the evacuation order was lifted for the southern part of Minamisoma City, though few residents are willing to return to a community so close to the contaminated area. Media reports suggest only 10-20% are coming back to live in the area.

On December 10th, the previously closed 23.2-kilometer northern section of line between Soma and Hamayoshida reopened for rail services. It means passengers will now be served by a further six stations on the section, though three of these (Shinchi, Yamashita and Sakamoto stations) had to be relocated inland by up to 1.1 kilometers as an anti-tsunami measure. Along with the construction of elevated tracks, the total cost of the latest reopening is said to be 40 billion yen ($350 million).

By spring 2017, the line will be reopened between Namie and Odaka, and then later in the year between Tatsuta and Tomioka. The final section linking Tomioka and Namie, passing through somewhat infamous areas like Futaba, is set to reopen by the end of fiscal 2019 (end of March 2020).

Local tourist bodies are naturally delighted and are pulling out all the stops to attract people. At the newly reopened stations, passengers are able to buy commemorative tickets, take hiking trips, and even try on historical armor.

No More Toxic Chemicals in Agriculture!

By Farmworker Association of Florida - La Via Campesina, December 7, 2016

December 3, 1984 was a day of infamy that resounded around the world.  Today, we say "No more" to poisoning of people and the planet!

Thirty-two years ago, on this day, a leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India resulted in a horrendous tragedy that poisoned hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the middle of the night and early morning hours of December 3rd.  More than 30 tons of the pesticide methyl isocyanate were released into the air, causing widespread panic and suffering, as some 600,000 men, women and children experienced severe symptoms from exposure to the toxic gas and several thousand victims died.   In the ensuing years, there have been another estimated 15,000 deaths related to the pesticide accident, and an untold number of children born with physical and/or mental health problems.

Today, we remember Bhopal and all the innocent victims who were needlessly harmed and killed.  But, sadly, this is still happening - in smaller ways - all the time all over the globe.  As long as transnational agrochemical companies continue to grow, gain power, produce and distribute increasingly more toxic agricultural chemicals, people, animals, the air, land, water and our food around the world will continue to be contaminated by pesticides, while corporations profit at the expense of health, human rights and a safe environment.  And, farmworkers are often the first ones on the frontlines of these exposures. 

AGROTOXICOS DAY is a call to action (español) to peel back the curtain on the myths surrounding the lies the agrochemical industry tells the world.  Small-scale, local and sustainable agriculture is the true key to end world-wide hunger and to pull communities out of poverty, disenfranchisement and disempowerment.   Millions of acres of agricultural land world-wide are dominated by the cultivation of a few crops - corn, soy, palm oil, sugar cane - that do not feed people at all, but are used for fuel and other products.   Agriculture must return to its origins of being deeply rooted in communities and in working with, not against the earth.

In October, the Farmworker Association of Florida sent a delegation to Brazil to meet with others from South America to share information and develop networks and strategies of resistance to the domination by transnational corporations coopting agriculture.  In Florida, FWAF has four community gardens projects at which we are learning and practicing agroecological principles.  These gardens are a grassroots form of resistance to the dominant culture of agriculture. 

Stand up today and demand "no more toxic chemicals" in agriculture

International Day of the Struggle Against "Agrotoxicos"

Working for Corporations, but Failing Workers and the Planet

By Genevieve LeBaron and Jane Lister - New Internationalist, November 24, 2016

In recent years incidents such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in April 2013 and the exposé by The Guardian of slavery and human trafficking in the Thai shrimp industry in 2014 have focused attention on the supply chains of global corporations.

What has been reported less is that both of these incidents, and many others, took place within ‘certified’ and audited supply chains. The Thai shrimp in British supermarkets had been ‘ethically’ certified by an NGO that sets voluntary standards for the certification of agricultural products and encourages producers to adopt ‘safe and sustainable practices’. Similarly, in Bangladesh the Rana Plaza factory, which made clothes for Matalan, Primark and Walmart amongst many others, passed a compliance audit just months before it collapsed.

Many key questions and serious concerns hang over the ethical audit regime. These include: are audits effective in identifying non-compliance and driving up standards, what does the audit regime mean for governments and NGOs, where does power lie within the audit regime and, ultimately, in whose interest is the ethical audit regime working?

To monitor and verify standards, NGOs have developed transnational ‘sustainable production’ certification standards, such as the Rainforest Alliance certification, Marine Stewardship Councils and Fair Labour programmes.

These certification standards are voluntary and rely on private audits, designed and paid for by corporations, to assess standards. NGOs have also increasingly partnered with firms to develop bespoke voluntary programmes: Greenpeace has worked with Coca Cola to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and Oxfam with Unilever to integrate smallholder farmers into its supply chains.

As such, the contemporary governance of global supply chains is increasingly reliant on an ethical and voluntary ‘benchmarking regime’ supported by both corporations and civil society groups, which has audit inspections as its cornerstone. This auditing regime comprises company codes of supplier conduct, voluntary certifications, standardised metrics (e.g. the Higg Index for ‘ethical’ clothing) and aggregated indexes for comparing corporate environmental and social performance (e.g. the Global Reporting Initiative).

Corporations can choose whether to use independent third-party auditors or in-house auditors. Third-party auditors are generally deemed more neutral and hence legitimate, but even third-party auditors are not impartial. Walmart, for example, applies its own criteria for selecting a list of whom it deems ‘acceptable’ auditors.

Auditors are bound by rigid confidentiality clauses and clients exercise full discretion over what audit information is reported. Auditors produce standardised metrics and rankings that give the appearance of transparent and neutral monitoring; yet the information audits provide is selective and fundamentally shaped by the client. Information about abuses and non-compliance is rarely made available to governments or consumers and, as such, they are rarely resolved.

Auditors typically offer advice to help factories prepare action plans to address non-compliance findings. However, auditors have no influence over a company’s eventual business decisions; their advice can be ignored; and there is no external accountability for the action plans.

Corporations have embraced Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goals and ethical audits as an opportunity to preserve their business model and take responsibility for supply-chain monitoring out of the hands of governments. Corporate adoption of CSR has brought the ‘supply chain ball’ back into their court, and away from governments.

Through the presentation of active monitoring and ‘continuous improvement’, corporations have been able to deflect pressure for stricter state and international regulation that might otherwise curb business growth. This enables the preservation of existing business models and profits.

Adopting ethical audits has also enabled corporations to position themselves as responsible companies. This helps drive sales as retailers increasingly recognise the importance of ‘eco’ and ‘ethical’ products for consumers. A 2013 study of 1000 brands found that 28 per cent of brand value relates to corporate social responsibility.

The increasing use of private audits to monitor supply chains is serving to restructure the global regulatory system to privilege the private interests of business growth, profit and market advantage over the public interest and social goods of improving labour standards, general wellbeing and ecological protection. In a nutshell, the audit regime is ‘working’ for corporations, but failing workers and the planet.

The increasing use of audits as a tool of governance is bolstering corporate interests and influence over consumers and policymakers and, ultimately, deepens corporations’ power to make their own rules and norms and evaluate and report on their own performance.

Whilst audits give the impression of active supply-chain monitoring and ‘continuous improvement’, the regime actually reinforces endemic problems in supply chains. It deflects pressure for stricter, state-based regulation and legitimises unsustainable global production models – in particular, a retail economy that promotes consumption and environmental degradation.

Through voluntary certification programmes, and with state support, the structural problems within the audit regime – deception, failing to detect or ignoring problems within supply chains, and a compliance mentality – are being swiftly institutionalised within global governance mechanisms.

Geelong refinery workers just scored a huge win for safety

By Rosie Jones - Green Left Weekly, October 12, 2016

The Geelong refinery dispute may not hold the record for the longest campaign for workers’ rights, but the dispute over safety nevertheless won due to a concerted campaign.

On October 5, almost 300 workers voted to walk out of the refinery, owned by Viva Energy Australia, over safety concerns. They began a 24-hour picket, covering four access gates to the refinery. The initial walk out was facilitated by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).

The next afternoon, a notice was put up on all four gates, literally nailed to the trees along refinery road, saying the AWU and the AMWU had received an injunction order from the Supreme Court to refrain from any further participation in the action — not just on the site but anywhere. In response, concerned community members set up a small camp at the main gate to support the workers.

Washington State Labor AFL-CIO Resolutions On Mass Public Transit, Railroad Health and Safety

By staff - Washington State Labor Council, July 27, 2016

Every year, delegates to the Washington State Labor Council convention discuss, deliberate and act on resolutions submitted by the affiliated union locals and councils. These resolutions establish policy, programs and action for the WSLC. The following were passed by delegates at the WSLC’s 2016 Convention held July 19-21 at the Coast Wenatchee Hotel and Convention Center.

The following resolutions specifically address matters of transportation workers. See the original post for a complete list of resolutions passed:


Resolution #7

WHEREAS the Greater Puget Sound Region’s traffic is the sixth worst in the country, the average driver losing 66 hours of his or her life each year due to gridlock; and

WHEREAS, relief from gridlock will get major help from the bold Sound Transit 3 plan (ST3) announced by Sound Transit, to go before the voters of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties this November; and

WHEREAS, ST3 will greatly expand mass transit in the Puget Sound region adding 62 miles of light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit, to the existing Sound Transit System and upon completion of ST3 we will have 116 miles of light rail — about the size Washington, D.C.’s Metro System — extending from Tacoma in the South, West Seattle and Ballard to the West, Issaquah and Redmond to the East, and Everett to the North; and

WHEREAS, ST3 will be a $54 billion infrastructure project creating about 50 million labor hours providing many tens of thousands of building and construction jobs and great opportunities for local hire and for new, young apprentices to join the trades and few years into the project and ST-3 will account for over 1 in 10 construction jobs through both good and bad economic cycles; and

WHEREAS, the wages from these jobs will be spent locally giving an economic boost to businesses in the region and bringing much needed tax revenue into state and local governments; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, that the WA State Labor Council support the Mass Transit Now campaign to pass ST3 this November; and be it further

RESOLVED, that the WSLC engage with affiliated unions and community partners to endorse Mass Transit Now and pass ST3.

'Payday loans of the mining industry' download risk to workers in one of world's most dangerous jobs

By Sharry Taylor - Rabble.Ca, September 26, 2016

Goldcorp founder Rob McEwen has called them "the payday loans of the mining industry" and they're introducing a new, intense pressure on an industry already reviled for Indigenous land theft, dangerous working conditions and environmental infractions.

"Streaming" is a form of speculative futures in the gold mining industry where instead of charging interest, financiers provide loans secured by a mine's assets in exchange for a future cut of production. As gold has become more difficult to find and access, higher production costs have left many mines unable to finance production through debt and equity. Since 2004, streaming has emerged to fill this void.

Mining companies agree to sell a percentage of their future gold to the streaming company at a deep discount. When the gold has been mined, streaming companies sell their cut at the spot price, collecting the difference as profit.

Once a mine is producing gold, the streaming deal becomes active with the mine first repaying its debt to the streaming financier. Yet since streaming deals promise a share of production over the life of the mine, even once this debt is paid off the mine must continue to pay. At one non-unionized mine in northern Ontario, the streaming deal in place will yield the streaming company a predicted $18 million in profit from the mine over its estimated life of six years; more than a 50 per cent return on their original loan to the mine.

Streaming represents a new emergent layer in capitalism that is more acutely derivative and parasitic. This layer overlies the productive economy and its workers in technically creative ways, expropriating maximum surplus value while avoiding messy risks. Streaming takes a cut of production while leaving political and operations-related risks to be borne by mining companies.

This means that "risk minimization" for streaming company investors is really "risk displacement" onto people affected by mining operations. When profit margins are squeezed by streaming deals, other parts of the mining operation must compensate in order for it to be profitable. This could manifest in a myriad of ways, from union-busting to toxic waste dumping. It is becoming evident that part of this risk is shifted onto miners, whose work is intensified by the pressures from streaming's relentless skim.

Sources at one streamed Ontario mine say that management holds quarterly meetings with the miners, reporting figures that point out the relationship between costs, gold production and mine viability. How much rock has been removed from the mine, the gold recovery rate from it, total ounces of gold recovered, and its average selling price; these are aggregated along with life- of-mine costs into an important figure called the "all-in sustaining cost," or AISC.

The AISC represents the overall cost per ounce of producing gold at the mine at a particular moment in time. If the AISC is continually above the price of gold, the mine ceases to be profitable. Miners get a sense from these meetings how close to this point they are. Since streaming costs are factored into the AISC for each quarter, streaming agreements have a direct impact on the goals that are set for miners and the production pace to which they must aspire in order to be "profitable." Sources at the streamed Ontario mine say that towards the end of the quarter, miners are encouraged and incentivized to work faster, which puts their safety at risk.

At their most recent quarterly meeting in August 2016, mine management focused heavily on safety, since reportable injuries went up in 2015 and a miner was seriously injured by falling rocks in June. Yet miners were also told that they are "behind" in gold production for the year-to-date. When a crew recently identified a serious safety issue that resulted in part of the mine's permanent closure, management praised the team for identifying the issue, but also mentioned that it cost the company $1.2 million. These mixed messages essentially transfer corporate financial decisions onto miners as they consider matters of safety.

Streaming deals mean that part of the miners' future work is already promised away. This future loss weighs heavily upon the present, increasing a mine's AISC and therefore the urgency for present production while gold prices are high enough to support the costs. This directly pits the concept of being jobless against that of safety for miners, while streaming companies sit back and wait for their returns.

Streaming's exploitative terms mean that miners must work at maximal speed and efficiency in order for a mine to remain viable. With priorities shifted by this knowledge, streaming has the potential to influence miners' decisionmaking in ways that could well turn out to be deadly.