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As Death Toll in Bangladesh Collapse Climbs Past 1,000, Another Factory Fire Claims 8 Lives

9:00 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: IndustriAll Global Union)

Originally posted at In These Times

Bodies continue to pile up at Rana Plaza, once a powerhouse of Bangladesh’s garment industry, where more than 1,000 corpses have been unearthed since a factory collapse two weeks ago (and today, another survivor was discovered). Meanwhile, yet another disaster, a May 8 fire at the Tung Hai Sweater Factory in Dhaka’s Mirpur district, claimed eight additional lives. In total, the death toll since 2005 from fires and other preventable incidents at factories in Bangladesh now exceeds 1,500, according to garment-industry watchdogs—including more than 110 killed by a fire at the Wal-Mart-affiliated Tazreen factory in November.

In a strange twist, the casualties in the latest fire appear not to have been ordinary workers. According to a New York Times summary of Bangladesh news reports, “The victims included the police deputy inspector general, Z. M. Monzur Morshed, as well as the factory’s managing director, Mahbubur Rahman. Mr. Rahman was also a director of the country’s most powerful industry trade group, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.” The fact that prominent industrialists were meeting with a police official in the factory after hours exposes the tight nexus between commerce and the state that has drawn public scrutiny in the wake of Rana. The powerful businessman behind the huge factory complex, Sohel Rana, was notorious for exploiting cozy political connections to bolster his manufacturing empire.

Tragically, it took the scale of the carnage at Rana Plaza to shine light on a barely regulated industry known for treating its Global South workforce—which profits from vast numbers of rural migrant women workers with few other job options—as disposable tools. Lower-grade accidents that attract less media attention have also inflicted day-to-day harm. According to the International Business Timessince the Tazreen fire, “40 more factory incidents have led to the deaths of 10 people, with 650 workers injured.” In a country where low-wage workers often toil to support families on less than $40 per month, work-related injuries can prove financially fatal. Read the rest of this entry →

How the Poultry Industry Is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

3:04 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Juan (not his real name) was instructed to get back to work after falling while lifting an 80-pound box of chicken. X-rays later showed two fractured vertebrae. He was fired, and the employer has not paid any of his medical bills.

Walk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

Read the rest of this entry →

Toxic Train Wreck Exposes Weakness in Federal Chemical Policy

11:21 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The August 6, 2012, fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, caused by a release of flammable vapor, was one of several recent accidents in an industry with little to no government oversight. (D.H. Parks / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

In late November, while other parts of New Jersey were recovering from the superstorm, the quiet town of Paulsboro was blindsided by a very unnatural disaster. A train derailed while crossing a local bridge, sending freight cars tumbling into the water below and releasing a toxic swirl of the flammable gas known as vinyl chloride, used to make PVC plastics. In the following days, chaos ensued as residents hurriedly evacuated. Authorities struggled to manage the emergency respons, leaving people confused and frustrated by a lack of official communicationabout hazards.

Though the derailment came as a shock to residents, this was an accident waiting to happen, environmental advocates say. Paulsboro is just one of the latest in a spate of recent disasters(including others involving vinyl chloride) in industries that handle massive amounts of toxins with minimal oversight.

At a recent community meeting about the aftermath of the incident, residents expressed exasperation at the government’s disaster-response team, accusing officials of keeping them in the dark about toxic risks, reports the South Jersey Times:

“How much is all of our lives worth to you?” Michael Hamilton, a Pine Street resident, asked. “What if somewhere down the line we develop cancer? Who is responsible, and when will you take responsibility?”

Community activists and officials are seeking accountability for the chemical fallout as well. There are immediate concerns—that residents were not adequately informed about the exposure risks, or that in the initial emergency response, workers may not have received appropriate protective gear. Read the rest of this entry →

Filipino Banana Workers Frustrated in Battle Over Dole’s Pesticides

12:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Aidan Wojtas / Flickr / Creative Commons

Originally posted at In These Times

You might think that neoliberal globalization has replaced the banana republics of the last century. But inside the engines of industrial agriculture, the rot of the old fruit empires still festers. The long struggle of a group of Filipino banana workers to hold Dole accountable for toxic exposures reminds us that international capital still has a lot more clout than international law.

The lawsuit, involving about three thousand Filipino workers, claims that in the 1980s, Dole and other companies damaged the health of banana workers in Davao, a remote region of the Philippines, by using the highly toxic pesticide DBCP. The alleged exposures took place years after DBCP was “banned from general use” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1970s. The toxin–a product of Dow Chemical–has been linked to various potential health problems, such as asthma, cancer, sterility and miscarriages.

But the Los Angeles Superior Court dismissed the suit, citing technical issues related to California’s statute of limitations rules. Claire Espina, a lawyer for the workers, said the ruling was an unfair application of state law.

Espina tells In These Times that the goal was simply to force Dole to take responsibility for a mass assault on workers’ health. “To know that it was banned, and to push for it anyway and to knowingly use it [in the Philippines]–I think that conduct like that merits punitive damages,” she says. Read the rest of this entry →

Research Raises More Toxic Health Concerns for Popcorn Workers

7:33 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(NIOSH)

Originally posted on In These Times

The aroma of hot buttered popcorn evokes all sorts of childhood nostalgia, but for many workers, those savory vapors pose a modern industrial health hazard.

Evidence has been building over the years of a respiratory illness primarily afflicting factory workers exposed to the microwave-popcorn butter flavorant, diacetyl (DA). Now, researchers have discovered another potential hazard related to DA: long-term risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Drug Design studied the effect of the “ubiquitous butter-flavoring agent” and detected an association with “long-term neurological toxicity,” particularly among industrial workers who are smothered in the stuff every day.

The federal government has in recent years urged the industry to limit potentially toxic workplace exposures to DA, but it has not defined an explicit regulatory exposure limit. Federal authorities have published advisories for employers to control DA exposure, but like many chemicals wafting across the country’s assembly lines and pervading our processed foods, DA (and similar chemical substitutes) are still amply used, with little restriction on behalf of public health.

Dr. Swati More, one of the study’s authors, says the findings should raise concerns that, in addition to posing respiratory risks, DA exposure “may lead to brain deterioration. The question that needs to be answered is, how much of diacetyl does one need to consume and for how long.”

Though the University of Minnesota study focuses on long-term effects related to beta-amyloid protein clumping in the brain, and was conducted at only the cellular level (not on humans), it adds to a growing body of research on the toxic impacts linked to DA exposure. Academic, media and government investigations have revealed both anecdotal and epidemiological evidence of “popcorn lung.”

The main occupational health issue surrounding popcorn lung, which has been acknowledged by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is bronchiolitis obliterans. (There is also some evidence of respiratory risk for extreme popcorn eaters.) Read the rest of this entry →

Two Years After Fatal Disaster, Push to Protect Coal Miners Wears On

6:35 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Upper Big Branch memorial (Photo via ubbminersmemorial on Facebook)

Originally posted on In These Times

In late July, a somber crowd gathered before a long granite wall etched with the rough silhouettes of men standing against jagged mountain peaks. They represented the 29 miners who died in an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia in 2010. The disaster initially jolted lawmakers to investigate safety conditions in mines, but today, King Coal still rules both in Appalachia and on Capitol Hill.

But some hope to chip away at the industry’s impunity by reforming the lax regulatory system. A new bill, introduced by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), would impose stronger penalties on mine operators that knowingly cause or maintain safety problems like those that at Upper Big Branch. The legislation would also beef up the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) investigative powers.

According to a summary of the bill, companies that violate safety rules would face heavier punishment, including criminal penalties. One provision, which responds to reports that Massey had illegally manipulated its ventilation systems, would impose fines of more than $200,000 for unauthorized ventilation changes, which could “lessen clean air flow in the mines and increase the likelihood of explosions.”

The bill would give MSHA new subpoena power to probe witnesses and other evidence, such as safety records, during investigations. Another measure would explicitly bar companies from “Keeping Two Sets of Books”–a tactic mine operators may use to conceal unsafe conditions from regulators. Read the rest of this entry →

When Safety Becomes Voluntary: Workplace Self-Policing Program Under Scrutiny

2:04 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Bob and Carol Simpson, CartoonWorks

 

Cross-posted from In These Times

What’s the value of a worker’s life? According to the calculus of corporate efficiency, it’s often still cheaper to put workers at risk than to spend money to protect them. And the federal government generously rewards those who have perfected this cost-containment strategy in industries where workplace hazards are just part of business as usual.

For years, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has granted many companies a pass on government oversight with the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Touting big-name members like Coca Cola and ExxonMobil, the program works like a sort of gold star for employers with good safety records, which OSHA believes are capable of regulating themselves. As In These Times has reported previously, many companies granted this status can basically enjoy years of relief from regular federal evaluation.

To ordinary citizens this may seem like a fox guarding a hen house packed with dynamite, but many employers champion the VPP as a way of “partnering” with government to avoid onerous state oversight. Congress recently reviewed the program at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, which examined the VPP in light of recent reports about horrid workplace accidents, along with criticisms that the initiative undermines both labor standards and the government’s role in protecting the public from industrial exploitation.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor with the think tank Center for Progressive Reform, told ITT, “What the voluntary program does, let’s make no mistake about it, is it allows people to self-regulate. Basically, if you have someone who can fill out the paperwork, you’re off the hook.” Read the rest of this entry →

Ground Zero Workers May Get Cancer Coverage, But the Health Disaster Remains

9:54 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

WTC 9/11

(photo: slagheap/flickr)

Cross-posted from In These Times

More than a decade after the Twin Towers came crashing down, the disaster still weighs heavily on the bodies of workers and survivors. A federal panel’s recent decision on cancers related to 9/11 could bring some long awaited relief, as well as new challenges for sick survivors of Ground Zero.

The panel’s analysis may open a channel for covering various forms of cancer through the healthcare fund of the federal Zadroga Act, which offers compensation for sicknesses resulting from the disaster. Though the multi-billion dollar fund won’t expand without further congressional action, the panel’s decision is a boost for survivors who had previously met resistance from lawmakers who were reluctant to include cancer care in the program, fearing the potential financial liability.

Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health called the decision a breakthrough. “It is the preliminary and necessary first step to including a whole range of people who are suffering from various types of cancer, and essentially opening the door to medical services and compensation,” he said. But he added, “There are number of unanswered questions that still remain,” including challenges people may face in applying for compensation, through a process constrained by the legislation’s five-year time frame and pending federal guidelines on the review process for health claims.

Since 9/11, emergency responders and other survivors have been plagued with health problems associated with dust and pollutants surrounding the “Ground Zero” site. Advocates say the health problems were aggravated by the government’s failure to provide protective gear and other safety measures following the disaster. Read the rest of this entry →

Workplace Toxics Reveal the Beauty Industry’s Ugly Side

6:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: healthjusticenetwork.wordpress.com

Cross-posted from In These Times

You shouldn’t have to suffer to be beautiful. But many women suffer for the beauty of others, polishing nails and styling hair with a toxic palette of chemicals.

Working long hours amid noxious fumes, salon workers, typically women of color, are in constant contact with chemicals linked to various illnesses and reproductive health problems.

While environmental justice campaigns have historically focused on localized pollution issues, the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance organizes around the intersection of workplace environmental health and racial and economic justice. According to the Alliance’s analysis, the hazards endemic to the nail salon industry are stratified by ethnicity and gender: roughly four in ten workers are Asian immigrants, many of them of childbearing age, poor, uninsured and with limited English-speaking ability. And they are assaulted daily by invisible threats:

On a daily basis and often for long hours at a stretch, nail and beauty salon technicians – most of whom are women of reproductive age – handle solvents, glues, polishes, dyes, straightening solutions and other nail and beauty care products, containing a multitude of unregulated chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, allergies, respiratory illnesses, neurological and reproductive harm. Read the rest of this entry →