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health and safety

Workers’ rights are being abused as they rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

By Casey Quinlan - ThinkProgress, November 27, 2017

Day laborers, many of them undocumented, are reportedly being exploited as they rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, and their health and economic well-being are are stake.

According to a report from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and University of Illinois Chicago that surveyed 360 workers, 26 percent of workers have experienced wage theft in their post-Harvey work and 85 percent did not receive health and safety training. Sixty-one percent of workers did not have the necessary respiratory equipment to protect them from mold and chemicals, 40 percent did not have protective eyewear, and 87 percent were not informed about the risks of working in these unsafe buildings.

Workers have been exposed to mold and contamination on a regular basis, and regardless of whether workers are undocumented, they often aren’t aware of their legal protections, according to the report. To make matters worse, Texas is the only state that lets employers opt out of workers’ compensation for work injuries.

Advocates for different labor groups focusing on undocumented laborers have been speaking out on the issue of exploitation and visiting work sites to survey workers and pass out flyers with information on labor rights. There is tension between these advocates in Houston and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) on how the federal funds for hurricane recovery should be distributed. According to the Guardian, worker groups would prefer the money be distributed through the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), since the mayor is seen as a progressive ally. They’re afraid that if the money is instead distributed through the general land office run by George P. Bush, as Abbott wants, immigrant and worker groups won’t receive the aid they need.

The Associated Press interviewed workers hired by individual homeowners, subcontractors working on residential and commercial buildings, and work crews from outside of Texas about the working conditions. Martin Mares, a native of Mexico who came to Houston in 1995, told the AP that the demand for labor attracted people who don’t usually do this kind of work and don’t know how to do it safely. He gave the example of a pregnant woman working without gloves in an apartment building that had flooded.

Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project wrote in the Guardian, “One woman contacted us when she and her crew, after spending more than 90 hours clearing out a Holiday Inn, were turned away without pay.”

Advocates for undocumented workers in Houston are also concerned about Senate Bill 4 (SB4), a Texas law that lets local law enforcement ask people they detain or arrest about their immigration status and hits local government officials with jail time and large financial penalties if they refuse to comply with federal detainer requests. The law is currently being held up in the courts, but that hasn’t completely erased fears among immigrant communities in Texas.

In addition to being exposed to mold and chemicals as well as experiencing wage theft, undocumented workers have already suffered from the devastation of the storm in unique ways due to poverty, lack of insurance, and their undocumented status. There are some 600,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. After the hurricane, many undocumented people were afraid to use local shelters because of their immigration status or didn’t want to leave homes because they were concerned about protecting property. Although local and federal officials have tried to persuade undocumented people that they are not there to enforce immigration laws, undocumented people are still worried about the risk of seeking help...

The Coal Industry Mantra: Jobs First, Safety…well….

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, November 20, 2017

Nothing quite says conflict of interest more than installing a former mine company executive as the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Anyone who has worked in a coal mine knows that only loyalty to the company bottom line could raise someone from the ranks of a coal miner to that of a CEO. Coal miners also know that when it comes right down to it, a safe working record takes back seat to the number of extra hours you put in and how well you produce coal. Safety takes time, and time costs the company money.

Over 104,000 miners have been killed in this country’s coal mines since 1900. We’ve seen tragedy as recent as Upper Big Branch, Crandall Canyon, and Sago. All of these travesties could have been prevented had company executives put the safety of the worker ahead of production and financial gain.

The image featured at the top of this post shows the Hurricane Creek Miners Memorial a few miles outside of Hyden, Kentucky. For some, the memorial serves as a reminder of the 38 husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers who lost their lives on a cold December day in 1970. For others, it symbolizes one of the greatest flaws within our nation’s history of mine safety legislation.

The Hurricane Creek mine explosion occurred a year to the day following the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. The act, a piece of legislation that could only be considered reactionary to the 1968 Farmington Disaster, was the most sweeping piece of mine safety legislation that had ever been put forth in our country. It mandated new safety equipment, new enforcement protocols, monetary fines for noncompliance, and it even began taking into account health issues to include black lung.

Yet despite its being passed, 260 miners died in our nation’s coal mines the following year—including the 38 men at Hurricane Creek.

Even though the act saw to it that laws and regulations were put into place, very little funding was given to the newly formed Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA). Without proper funding, the agency was woefully understaffed, lacking the necessary resources to inspect each mine and enforce the new laws. It was only after mine safety advocates, such as the United Mine Workers and widows of the fallen miners, raised hell about it, that more funding was put to the purpose. Even then, it was still not enough.

Seven years later, the Scotia disaster would lead to the passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. Yet again, funding issues plagued mine safety enforcement agencies.  It wouldn’t be until 2007— 40 years later—that the Mine Safety and Health Administration would receive enough funding to hire the number of inspectors necessary to perform all the mine inspections mandated by law. That funding only came as a reaction to the Sago disaster in 2006 where rescue efforts were nationally televised.

Time and time again we see the reactionary nature of mine safety legislation and funding. Even today, companies and politicians work in concert to weaken mine safety laws. Kentucky has reduced the number of inspections required by their state mine safety agencies, and West Virginia has attempted to completely eliminate theirs. Trump’s nomination of Zatezalo and his subsequent confirmation by Senate Republicans, all work to prove that little has changed.

I fear for coal miners today, more than I have in years. Right now, there are thousands of miners desperately seeking work. Coal companies are aware of the abundant labor market and are undoubtedly taking advantage of it. I’m sure the companies are preaching safety as they always do, threatening that any miner caught taking shortcuts will be fired. Then they remind miners that any upcoming layoffs will be based upon individual performance.

If there was ever a more crucial time for mine safety agencies to step up for the miner and enforce the laws that are meant to protect them, it is now. I feel many federal and state inspectors know this and are trying, but they are becoming increasingly powerless as politicians continue to cut budgets and impair mine safety laws.

New evidence at trial exposes gov’t frame-up of rail workers

By John Steele - The Militant, November 27, 2017

As the parade of witnesses for the prosecution continues in the frame-up trial of locomotive engineer Tom Harding and train controller Richard Labrie in the July 2013 derailment and fire that caused 47 deaths in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, more facts, many elicited in cross-examination, are pointing to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway bosses and the federal government’s Transport Canada as responsible.

Harding and Labrie, members of United Steelworkers Local 1976, face potential life sentences for “criminal negligence causing death,” as does Jean Demaitre, a former low-ranking company operations manager.

Harding is the main target of the frame-up. Boss and government officials claim the cause of the disaster was that the unionist didn’t set enough hand brakes on the 72-car oil train, allowing it to roll into town and explode.

But the hand brakes weren’t the way the train was supposed to be secured. Under company policy, Harding left the lead engine running with its air brakes engaged.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic bosses had gotten special dispensation from Transport Canada to run their trains with a one-person “crew.” So Harding, who had worked 12 hours, was required to get some sleep before completing his run in the morning.

What happened next was a fire broke out on the engine. The bosses knew the unit had problems. Francois Daigle, one of the three engineers, including Harding, who did the run through Lac-Mégantic, testified at the trial that he told company officials, including Demaitre, that the engine was belching black smoke and should be taken out of service. His concerns were ignored, he said.

Another prosecution witness, André Turcotte, the taxi driver who took Harding to his hotel, testified that the engine was spitting smoke and oil droplets. He said Harding told him the locomotive was being forced to work too hard, but the bosses said to keep going and to park the engine and leave it idling. Turcotte said Harding commented bitterly that the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic never checked their locomotives.

The prosecution called a number of firemen who put out the flames to testify. They reported that they were unaware the train was hauling crude oil. They said the train was not moving after the fire was extinguished, and that the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic official on site told them they could leave, assuring them everything was in hand. Harding, who had received a call about the fire, was told he wasn’t needed when he offered to go help out. The railway boss left, and, without power, the locomotive’s air brakes bled out and the train rolled into Lac-Mégantic and blew up.

Sébastien Pépin, a track maintenance foreman for Canadian Pacific Railway who witnessed the fire, testified he was astonished to see the engine left running with no crew around.

The train was equipped with an automatic brakes system that would turn on the air brakes on all the cars on the train, which would have prevented the train from moving no matter what happened to the engine. But Montreal, Maine and Atlantic bosses forbid workers from using this system. Whenever all the air brakes are set it takes time when restarting the train to wait for the brakes to bleed out. And, to make sure that all of them were released would require the one crew member to walk the entire train and check each brake. This would take time, and cost the bosses money.

As more of these facts come out, they raise questions of who is responsible for the disaster — the engineer who bitterly carried out the bosses’ order or the company that put profits before safety.

This has long been the general sentiment in Lac-Mégantic itself, where many people consider Harding a hero. After the fire broke out, he got out of bed and ran to the site, helping firefighters uncouple oil cars that hadn’t started burning. People there think the wrong party is in the dock.

As of Nov. 10 the prosecution had presented 20 of its 37 scheduled witnesses. Superior Court Judge Gaétan Dumas warned the jury that the trial, taking place in Sherbrooke, Quebec, which was projected to end Dec. 21, might continue into January 2018.

B.C. Using Kitimat Smelter Workers as ‘Guinea Pigs’ for Air Pollution Monitoring, Union Says

By Carol Linnitt - DeSmog.Ca, November 6, 2017

In October, B.C. Premier John Horgan made a visit to the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter on the banks of the Douglas Channel in Kitimat.

He praised the facility for being “a great example of how companies can improve conditions for workers and reduce pollution all while improving their bottom line.”

What he didn’t mention was the ongoing battle at Rio Tinto Alcan over a provincial permit that allowed the company to increase sulphur dioxide pollution by more than 50 per cent, or the union representing 800 workers at the smelter that appealed that permit, saying the increase in pollution was a direct threat to their health.

Exposure to sulphur dioxide aggravates the respiratory systems of asthmatics and is known to negatively affect the respiratory systems of children and the elderly.

At the heart of the controversy is a decision by the B.C. Ministry of Environment in 2013, which allowed the smelter to increase its sulphur dioxide emissions into the Kitimat airshed during a $5 billion expansion project. The ministry approved the increase in emissions under an environmental monitoring plan that would measure, but not prevent, the impacts of the pollution on human health until 2019, when the plan would be revisited.

B.C. did not require the company to install scrubbers, commonly used in smelters to remove airborne pollutants from emissions, a decision that still bothers Sean O’Driscoll, president of the smelter’s union, Unifor local 2301.

Having a monitoring program ongoing, with suitable human health mitigation plans required to be implemented at a later day, has folks feeling like they, their children and neighbours are being treated like guinea pigs,” O’Driscoll told DeSmog Canada.

Railworkers face frame-up trial in Lac-Mégantic disaster

By Michel Prairie and John Steele - The Militant, October 23, 2017

The state began presenting its frame-up case against locomotive engineer Tom Harding and train traffic controller Richard Labrie, members of United Steelworkers Local 1976, in court here Oct. 2. The two unionists are charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death from the July 6, 2013, derailment and explosion of a runaway 72-car Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway oil train in downtown Lac-Mégantic. In addition to the multiple deaths, the disaster wiped out most of the city’s downtown. Also on trial is former low-level company manager Jean Demaitre.

All three are fighting the charges. They could face life in prison.

Some 50 people attended the first day of the trial, including several activists from the Citizens’ and Groups Coalition for Rail Safety in Lac-Mégantic, and others who came to show their support for the rail workers.

“Why isn’t Edward Burkhardt, the MMA CEO in the courtroom?” said Lac-Mégantic coalition spokesperson Robert Bellefleur. “What about Transport Canada, which gave the MMA special permission to run the train with a crew of just one person, Tom Harding?”

“I don’t want answers from the three men on trial,” Jean Paradis, told the media. The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic executives are “in the [United] States. Transport Canada has let those cheap companies run railroads for less money, for making more money instead of acting for the safety of the people. Safety should come first, not third.”

Paradis barely escaped with his life as the massive fireball from the explosion that night engulfed the Musi-Café where a majority of those killed were incinerated, including three of his close friends.

“The three accused are victims of the system. The ones at the end of the line are always targeted,” Richard Custeau told the Journal de Montreal, explaining his hopes that one day those higher up in the hierarchy of the rail industry will be punished. Custeau’s brother Réal was killed at the Musi-Café.

“The MMA was a railroad bought cheap by investors, in order to increase its profits and then sell it,” Harding’s lawyer Thomas Walsh explained to a crowded hallway full of reporters at the lunch break. “Today most of the same people are running its replacement. Only the name has changed. Profits are being made at the expense of safety. Transport Canada looked the other way.”

Many in Lac-Mégantic consider Harding a hero. On the night of the disaster, he parked the train on the main line on a grade at the village of Nantes about 7 miles from Lac-Mégantic, left the lead engine running to power the locomotive air brakes, set hand brakes on seven tanker cars and took a taxi to a Lac-Mégantic hotel to get his night’s rest, as he had done many times before. As he slept a small fire broke out on the lead engine due to cost-cutting inadequate maintenance by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic.

When local firefighters arrived to put out the flames, they shut down the locomotive and, unknowingly, the locomotive air brakes. Harding received a call about the fire and offered to go to the train to make sure everything was OK. He was told that it was all taken care of and to go back to sleep. A short time later the train began to roll towards the city.

Awoken by the explosion, Harding rushed to the site, risking his life helping firefighters detach and move a number of unexploded tanker cars, preventing an even worse disaster.

Over and Over, the Government’s own witnesses prove that Harding and Labrie weren’t the cause of the Lac-Mégantic Wreck

By staff - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, October 30, 2017

Two days after a runaway train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, exploding and killing 47 people, Transport Canada inspector Alain Richer found another train belonging to the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway parked in nearby Vachon hadn’t been properly secured.

Richer, now retired, testified Monday at the trial of Thomas Harding, 56, Jean Demaître, 53, and Richard Labrie, 59. The three former MMA employees are charged with 47 counts each of criminal negligence causing death in connection with the 2013 rail disaster.

According to Richer, when he and another Transport Canada employee went to inspect the 89-car train, they noticed it had been secured with only five handbrakes.

“They hadn’t met the minimum required,” Richer testified.

He said MMA’s own internal regulations showed the train should have been secured with double that number of handbrakes.

Learn about the MMA Locomotive defect that set the stage for the Lac-Mégantic wreck

By Jon Flanders - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, October 30, 2017

“Non standard repair” of the broken out bore housing the cam bearing of the Lac-Mégantic locomotive that caught fire and led to the disaster is the understatement of the century. Take a good look at what the capitalist profits above all mentality looks like. Without strong unions behind the maintenance forces on the railroads standing in the way of “repairs”like this, expect more Lac-Mégantics.

“Following the accident, the locomotive consist was moved from Lac-Mégantic to a maintenance facility in Saint John for examination. A partial engine teardown of MMA 5017 was conducted (see Engineering Laboratory Report LP181/2013 for complete details). It was determined that the cam bearing had fractured when the mounting bolt was over-tightened after the cam bearing had been installed as part of a non-standard repair to the engine block. This temporary repair had been performed using a polymeric material, which did not have the strength and durability required for this use (Photo 14). Failure of the cam bearing reduced the engine oil supply to the valve train at the top of the associated power assembly. The decreased lubrication led to valve damage and eventually to a punctured piston crown. The damaged valves and piston crown allowed engine oil to flow into the cylinder and the intake and exhaust manifolds. Some of the engine oil collected in the body of the turbocharger. The engine fire later occurred in the exhaust stack due to the build-up and ignition of engine oil in the body of the turbocharger.”

from: http://www.tsb.gc.ca/…/rapp…/rail/2013/r13d0054/r13d0054.asp

Photo 14. Polymeric material applied to cam bearing bore and fractured cam bearing Photo of the polymeric material applied to cam bearing bore and fractured cam bearing.

Accused engineer Tom Harding wasn’t told of problem with locomotive, Lac-Mégantic trial hears

By Alison Brunette - CBC News, October 24, 2017 (reposted at The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy)

‘Could I have done something more?’ witness François Daigle says he still asks himself.

Former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) locomotive engineer François Daigle told the court he knew there was a mechanical problem with the locomotive at the front of the train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic when it left the station on July 5, 2013, but he didn’t tell the person who operated it.

Daigle stood in the witness box at the Sherbrooke courthouse for a fourth day on Tuesday, at times visibly shaken, repeatedly telling the defence he didn’t remember many of the elements pertaining to the days leading up to the disaster.

Daigle said he reported a problem with the 5017, the lead locomotive of the train that later derailed, hours before it left for Lac-Mégantic.

But when his supervisor did nothing, he didn’t tell anyone else about the problem.

Daigle’s fellow locomotive engineer, Thomas Harding, 56, as well as operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, and controller Richard Labrie, 59, are each charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death in connection with the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

Under cross-examination by Demaître’s lawyer, Gaétan Bourassa, Daigle told Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas and the 14-member jury that before Harding left for Lac- Mégantic with the convoy of crude oil tankers, Daigle saw him but didn’t mention the mechanical problems on the head locomotive.

“I remember I came across [Harding] in the cafeteria,” he said.

“He told you he was doing the fuel train?” asked Bourassa.

“Yes.” said Daigle. “I didn’t mention the 5017 [locomotive] to Tom.”

“Did you think to yourself, ‘If I had said something to Harding?'” asked Bourassa,

“Yes. I feel  guilty,” Daigle said. “I’ve often wondered if I could’ve done something.”

Problems with all MMA locomotives

Daigle told the court there were problems with all the MMA locomotives regularly, but nothing was ever done about it.

He said he sat on the company’s health and safety committee, made up of employees from Quebec and supervisors from the U.S., but he acknowledged he never brought up the issues with locomotives.

The derailment of the 73-tanker train on July 6, 2013 in Lac-Mégantic triggered a series of explosions. The ensuing fire killed 47 people. (CBC)

The employee who inspected the locomotive the morning before the derailment succeeded Daigle in the witness box.

Yves Gendreau, 42, is a former rolling stock inspector at MMA, and the 13th Crown witness to testify at the trial.

Gendreau testified he inspected locomotive 5017 on July 5, 2013.

“What did you notice about the locomotive that morning during the inspection,” asked prosecutor Marie-Éve Phaneuf.”

“There was nothing specific to repair on these locomotives, everything seemed okay,” he said.

Gendreau is expected to continue his testimony Wednesday.

Lac-Mégantic Trial Reveals More Damning Evidence

By Jordan Barab - Confined Space, October 24, 2017

The trial of three rail employees blamed for the deaths of 47 people due to a train carrying 73 cars of highly combustible crude oil that derailed in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic continues to move forward.

At around 1:00 am on July 6, 2013, the un-manned train began to roll down a hill toward the town after the lead locomotive was shut down due to a fire caused by mechanical problems. The government is arguing that Thomas Harding (the engineer and sole crew member) didn’t set enough hand brakes on the train. Two other MMA employees, Richard Labrie, 59, and Jean Demaitre, 53, are also being tried on 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death.

I have written about this tragedy here about how the workers are being blamed for what is clearly a failure of management to establish and enforce safe procedures and a safety culture at the railroad. MMA has since gone bankrupt.  My first trial update can be read here.

In the latest installment,  former MMA locomotive engineer, François Daigle, told the court that MMA had allowed to train to exceed a safe weight by almost 50% more than allowed:

Referring to a regulation manual and documents which listed the contents and weight of the 73-car train that derailed on July 6, 2013, Daigle confirmed the maximum weight allowed for an MMA train during the period from April 1, 2013 to Nov. 30 was 6300 tonnes — not counting locomotives.

The train involved in the tragedy weighed 9100 tonnes.

Daigle also confirmed that MMA did not maintain the trains adequately and they were discouraged from complaining about the poor conditions of the locomotives. The lead locomotive on the train that crashed into Lac Megantic was parked on a hill above the town due to mechanical problems. It later caught fire, causing the fire department to shut down the lead locomotive, which lead to the brake failure.

Another former MMA employee, Michael Horan, who was in charge of training and safety in Quebec, told the court that when MMA decided to allow trains to operate with one-man crews, they implemented no new safety precautions. For example, there was no new requirement that the locomotive engineer communicate to headquarters the number of hand brakes that had been applied. Horan also told the court that another railroad, Quebec North Shore and Labrador Rail (QNSL), that had instituted single crew trains did so under much stricter conditions.

Horan said that MMA did make the effort to meet municipal and emergency response officials along the route to talk about foreseeable problems and to make sure that there were procedures in place in the event of an unforeseen incident, such as a derailment. But the chance of a fire was never discussed, despite the fact that the trains were carrying crude oil.

Horan also told the court that Harding should have set 9 hand brakes, not seven, according to MMA procedures. The problem, as we reported before, is that Canadian Transportation Board report said that “testing showed that this number would not have provided sufficient retarding force to hold the train once the air pressure in the independent brake system was reduced” after the lead engine was shut down after the fire. In fact, the TSB concluded that, depending on various scenarios, the engineer would have needed to apply between 12 and 26 hand brakes in order to hold the train.

Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Was Avoidable Corporate Crime

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, Octber 24, 2017

Damning new testimony from an engineer of the locomotive involved in the deadly 2013 oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, reveals several ways corporate cost-cutting directly led to the accident, which claimed 47 lives.

We already knew for certain that a fire on the locomotive, which had been left parked and running for the night, per standard practice, was the direct cause of the disaster. That blaze resulted in the local fire department, directed by a rail company employee, to turn off the power to the locomotive. However, that action also shut off power to the air brakes, which eventually failed and caused the train to roll down the tracks into downtown Lac-Mégantic, where it exploded and leveled the area.

However, in newly released testimony reported by CBCNews, we learn about a troubling exchange between train engineer François Daigle, who had driven the oil train two days before its fiery derailment, and his supervisor:

Daigle said on that trip he noticed the locomotive kept losing speed and produced black smoke.

Daigle told the court he reported the problems to his supervisor, Jean Demaître, and sent a fax to the repair shop in Maine at the end of his shift.

Daigle said he asked Demaître to change the lead locomotive because of the repair issues.

“What was Demaître's answer?” Crown prosecutor Marie-Éve Phaneuf asked.

“You're complaining again?” Daigle said Demaître told him, continuing: “This is what we have, and at any rate, you are going to be receiving your pension after me.”

Daigle said he understood that to mean no changes would be made.

If that locomotive had been replaced, the Lac-Mégantic disaster most likely would not have happened. 

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