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It’s Too Hot to Keep Using Pesticides

By Harrison Watson - In These Times, August 15, 2023

Farm workers are being sickened by agrochemicals—and, due to extreme heat, by the PPE they wear to protect themselves.

It’s summer and time to take in the sunshine. But beware: because of climate change, the planet is rapidly warming. Outdoor temperatures are climbing above 100oF. Raging heat waves are causing debilitating illness and death. In some places, floods sweep through the streets. In others, precipitation is declining and water sources are evaporating. The Union of Concerned Scientists has dubbed this time of year, from May to October, the ​“danger season.”

Humans have not evolved to withstand such levels of heat stress. Still, over 2 million farm workers find themselves out in the fields. Some are suited up in heavy layers of clothing, including flannel shirts, pants, boots, gloves and coveralls. The purpose of this personal protective equipment (PPE) is to shield farm workers from the chemical threats they face from working with and around toxic pesticides and herbicides.

Each year, farmers and farm workers use billions of pounds of pesticides to suppress pests across 250 million acres of crop fields in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does work to educate farm workers and help them navigate pesticide-treated fields safely. Still, according to the National Agricultural Worker Survey nearly one-third of all farm workers do not receive the annual, mandatory training.

“So some farm workers just don’t know how harmful pesticides are,” says Mayra Reiter, director of the Occupational Safety and Health division at the organization Farmworker Justice. ​“The EPA approves chemicals because they assume that farmworkers will wear PPE, but those farm workers aren’t wearing it.”

Every year, pesticides sicken 300,000 farm workers, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. No one has an accurate count of how many of them die.

And the PPE farmworkers need to protect them from these chemicals can’t protect them from the danger sealed therein: Wrapped tight in their PPE, the heat they generate working at a feverish pace has nowhere to dissipate. In some places, a third of farm workers out in the fields suffer from heat-related illnesses every year. 

This is because many farm workers are constrained by the current wage system to ignore workplace hazards or skip water, bathroom and cooling breaks. In several states, farm workers receive ​“piece-rate” wages — that is, instead of an hourly wage, they’re paid by the bucket, bushel or piece of crop they pick. 

OSHA fines Norfolk Southern for worker safety violations at East Palestine chemical cleanup

By Reid Frazier - Allegheny Front, August 9, 2023

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is fining Norfolk Southern nearly $50,000 for workplace safety violations during the chemical cleanup at the site of its East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. As part of a settlement, the company will also have to monitor any medical issues of workers brought in to clear and rebuild the tracks at the site. 

Those workers had previously reported health problems similar to those experienced by nearby residents after the February 3 derailment, which included 11 cars containing hazardous chemicals. 

After a five-month investigation, OSHA cited the company for failing to inform workers about which hazardous chemicals spilled at the site. The agency also found the company didn’t create a decontamination zone at the site, or ensure they wore appropriate chemical-resistant footwear. 

The violations also included allowing an employee without proper respiratory protection to pour cement on potentially contaminated soil, and not developing an emergency response plan that included clear lines of authority, communication and training, and site security.

“This agreement will improve the safety and health controls in place for Norfolk Southern employees who responded and help educate the rail operator’s employees on the lessons learned so they are prepared should another emergency occur,” said OSHA Cleveland area office director Howard Eberts in a statement.

Biological hazards in the working environment

By staff - International Labour Organization, July 13, 2023

The ILO released a report Biological Hazards in the Working Environment in 2022. The report contains a survey which calls on governments to respond and to ensure that employers and trade unions in their countries also respond. The ILO is now circulating the survey directly to trade unions and employers to ensure that it gets more response.

The promotion of safe and healthy working environments has been a constant objective of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since it was founded in 1919. The ILO has adopted a significant body of international instruments and guidance documents to promote the safety and health of workers and assist constituents in strengthening their capacities to prevent and manage workplace hazards and risks.

An important step forward in this respect was taken during the 110th Session (2022) of the International Labour Conference when the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187), were recognized as fundamental Conventions within the meaning of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. 1 Accordingly, all ILO Members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, have now an obligation, arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization, to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions.

Download a copy of this publication here (link).

Chemicals and climate change in the world of work: Impacts for occupational safety and health

By staff - International Labour Organization, July 5, 2023

Climate change has profound impacts on, and synergies with the world of work, especially regarding the sound management of chemicals. Many chemicals that are produced and utilized in the workplace can have impacts on the environment and climate, with climate change in turn impacting the ability to safely store, transport and use chemicals.Appropriate climate change adaptation and mitigation measures are needed as a matter of urgency.

The inclusion of a ‘safe and healthy working environment’ as an ILO fundamental principle and right atwork (FPRW) provides a framework for action to tackle emerging risks to workers from climate change,through a systems approach to managing occupational safety and health (OSH). Addressing harmful chemical exposures in the working environment through effective OSH policies and practices are a top priority for advancing climate change agendas and ensuring decent working conditions.

Download a copy of this publication here (link).

Northeast Ohio Protestors Demand Justice for East Palestine

By x409232 - Industrial Worker, June 20, 2023

At about one o’clock on Saturday, March 11, at least 40 local residents and activists gathered in Lisbon, Ohio to demand justice for East Palestine. They focused their protest on rail giant Norfolk Southern and its role in the derailing of the train on Feb. 3, 2023.

The seat of Columbiana County, Lisbon is less than 20 miles from the now infamous East Palestine. The afternoon air was cold but not biting – typical March weather here in the Mahoning Valley. But the atmosphere was tense. 

People had joined together to show their anger at Norfolk Southern and determination to make them pay for damages. They held signs and distributed info about community actions to get more people involved. They also gave testimony for the news cameras.

I made my way from my home in Salem, just a 10 minute drive down State Route 45. The derailed train had first passed through our town, already on fire, on its way to its eventual wreckage site. It easily could have been my own family evacuating in February–a thought that has kept me up many nights since.

I parked and shuffled from my spot near Fox’s Pizza Den into the town square. There, protesters had already gathered, holding signs for passing traffic. “Make Norfolk Pay,” read one. “You break it, you buy it,” read another.

Railroad Workers United didn’t attend for fear of company retaliation, but sent a solidarity statement read by a DSA member. “Put power back in the hands of the workers!” cried one speaker. “Workers make the world run.”

Now often called Ohio’s Chernobyl, East Palestine previously led a quiet existence. But the town of 4,800 was thrown into disarray, and then despair, by February 3’s 150-railcar “mega-train” derailment. This industrial catastrophe doused the surrounding area with extremely hazardous chemicals. 20 railcars contained deadly compounds, including one million pounds of vinyl chloride.

Residents around the town testified (and still do) of headaches, nose bleeds, dizzy spells, nausea, rashes, difficulty breathing, sore throats, and more. Norfolk Southern and the government specified a one mile hazard zone, but people 30 to 50 miles out–or more–are being affected. According to testimonies at the solidarity action in Lisbon, Norfolk Southern’s “clinic” staff and state officials have told sick residents that these symptoms are “all in their heads.” (Yet CDC inspectors have also fallen sick with the same symptoms. So much for that!)

Technical guidelines on biological hazards in the working environment

By staff - International Labour Organization, July 13, 2023

Since the General Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919 adopted the Anthrax prevention recommendation- R003 calling upon Member States to make arrangements for the disinfection of wool infected with anthrax spores there have been significant advances in the knowledge about biological hazards, their prevention, and the treatment of diseases they cause. However, despite many improvements including the eradication of smallpox and the regional elimination or control of other infectious diseases, the threat from biological hazards continues to be a global challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the world of work needs to anticipate and be prepared for known and emerging biological threats. SARS-Cov-2 has also highlighted the importance of the community-workplace interface and the need of strengthened collaboration between occupational health services and public health institutions.

The objective of the Technical Guidelines on Biological Hazards adopted by the 346th Session of ILO’s Governing Body in November 2022 (GB.346/INS/17/3) is to provide governments, employers, workers, and their organizations with key principles for the effective management of biological hazards in the working environment, in line with ILO standards and principles. The guidelines were drafted by a group of international specialists and were adopted by a tripartite meeting of experts from different countries that met in Geneva from 20 to 24 June 2022.

Through the dissemination and promotion of these guidelines, the ILO is committed to continuing to
respond to its constitutional objective of supporting its constituents in managing current, emerging, and re-emerging biological hazards in the working environment to ensure the protection of health and life of all workers.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

OSHA’s limits for toxic exposure cause preventable harm to Silicon Valley workers

By Ruth Silver Taube - San Jose Spotlight, May 11, 2023

Standards for exposure to toxic chemicals at work, known as permissible exposure limits or PELs, have long been and still are vastly and indefensibly weaker than standards for environmental exposure to these same toxics. This disparity puts not only workers, but also their offspring at risk—especially where women of child-bearing age are a sizable part of the workforce.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) acknowledges many of its permissible exposure limits for toxic chemicals in the workplace are outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health, and have not been updated since 1970. Former agency head David Michaels estimates 90% of OSHA’s PELs date to industry standards of the 1960s and are not safe.

OSHA typically takes more than 10 years to issue a new chemical standard, and has issued only 32 new standards in 50 years. Penalties for breaching these inadequate standards are minimal. OSHA’s maximum penalty for a serious violation is merely $15,625 per violation. Cal/OSHA’s is $25,000.

The only legally enforceable occupational exposure limits at the federal level are OSHA’s PELs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed a set of recommended exposure limits, and California’s enforceable workplace exposure standards, more stringent than federal standards, are still inadequate.

In “OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits (PELS) Are Too Permissive,” a researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology concluded there’s little reason to believe exposure limits on potentially toxic workplace substances set by any of the regulatory agencies are fully protective against serious adverse health effects.

Work Won’t Love You Back: We Were Warned

By Sarah Jaffe - The Progressive, May 5 2023

It was the workers’ nightmare come true.

The Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3 sent a toxic barrage of hazardous chemicals into the air, soil, and water and caused untold damage to waterways, wildlife, air quality, and people’s health. It was a grim confirmation of what rail workers have been saying would happen for years. And it could have been worse.

No one was killed or badly injured in the derailment itself, and most of the 149-car train’s cargo was nontoxic. Fears of a massive explosion, which led to the evacuation of nearby residents, did not happen. But it’s hard to say there’s a silver lining to a disaster that prompted a “controlled burn” of toxic chemicals producing a cloud visible from passing airplanes, says Ross Grooters, a longtime railroad worker and co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a caucus of rail workers that spans multiple unions. Still, they add, after an attempt by rail workers to strike over working conditions—including ongoing safety concerns—was squelched by members of Congress and President Joe Biden late last year, at least there is renewed attention on the rails.

But if the politicians and the rail companies had listened to the workers, this accident, and others, might have been prevented. In the weeks following the disaster, three more Norfolk Southern trains derailed—in OhioMichigan, and Alabama—the latter occurring just before the company’s CEO, Alan Shaw, appeared before Congress to answer questions about the Ohio disaster.

I first spoke to Grooters in late January for a story about the rail workers’ fight for paid sick leave. At the time, they described a constant pressure to do more with less, exemplified by a system known as precision scheduled railroading, or PSR.

“The ‘precision’ part of ‘precision scheduled railroading’ is how precisely can we cut the operation to the bone and still have it walk around as a full skeleton,” Grooters told me. “They’ve cut so deep that it just doesn’t function and they don’t have people to fill the jobs.”

There had been cutbacks to track and equipment maintenance, and more equipment fatigue and derailments. “It just feels really unsafe when you’re in the workplace. It’s like we’re rolling the dice with all these things.”

In 2020, for example, The Washington Post reported that more than 20,000 rail workers had lost their jobs in the previous year, of which more than 3,500 had been at Norfolk Southern. Simultaneously, train lengths were increasing, adding more cars to the workload of the same tiny train crew. A rail engineer told the Post at the time, “They found they can hook two trains together and cut a crew.”

Rail workers were stressed, but railroad stock prices jumped. The following year, two rail workers’ unions filed suit, alleging that Norfolk Southern had sliced rail crews so deeply because of PSR that engineers were having to do the work of conductors and brakemen. “[Norfolk Southern] cannot lawfully lay off roughly 4,000 conductors and brakemen, and then give their work to another craft,” the two union presidents said in a statement at the time.

East Palestine Derailment Disaster Continues to Unfold with Amanda Kiger

Rail Workers Group Heartened by Inclusion of Class One Railroads on 2023’s “Dirty Dozen” List of Employers Putting Workers and Communities at Risk

By Ron Kaminkow, Ross Grooters, and Jason Doering - Railroad Workers United, April 26, 2023

Today, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) announced the Council’s annual list of twelve employers whose unsafe practices put the health and lives of workers as well as the safety of communities at risk, known as the “Dirty Dozen” employers. The nation’s big Class One Railroads - including BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railway – were among them, after being nominated for the distinction in February by the group Railroad Workers United (RWU).

“Rail workers have, for years, been blowing the whistle on unsafe practices of Class One Railroads,” said RWU General Secretary Jason Doering. “These employers have pushed for single-person crews; implemented Precision Scheduled Railroading where cost-cutting measures have resulted in longer, heavier trains operated with fewer workers, while cutting back on both inspections and maintenance; put in place disciplinary policies forcing sick workers into work; failed to offer paid sick time; and continued their long-standing practice of retaliating against rail workers who report safety hazards and job-related injuries.”

“The tragedy in East Palestine, Ohio in February, 2023 brought the nation’s attention to what Railroad Workers United (RWU) has been warning against for 15 years,” added RWU Co-Chair Ross Grooters. “We hope this disgraceful distinction for the Class One Railroads as a 2023 ‘Dirty Dozen’ employer gains the attention of government agencies, unions, environmental and community organizations, and others. It is past time to force Class One Railroads to make the changes needed to protect the health and lives of rail workers and the safety of communities from coast to coast.”

“We thank National COSH for accepting our nomination of Class One Rail Carriers as a 2023 ‘Dirty Dozen’ employer,” said RWU Organizer Ron Kaminkow. “This is a ‘distinction’ these rail employers have worked hard for, and they deserve to take their rightful place on this year’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list.”

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