Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Workers across the country can now literally breathe easier. Last Friday, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new rule to protect workers from beryllium exposure.  According to OSHA, the new rule will save 94 lives and prevent 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease (CBD) each year.

Beryllium is a metal present in many materials used in the aerospace, defense, telecommunications, automotive, electronics and medical specialty industries. Approximately 62,000 people are exposed to beryllium in workplaces across the country. OSHA estimates that 11,500 construction and shipyard workers come in contact with beryllium while performing open-air abrasive blasting.

When workers inhale beryllium dust, they risk contracting lung cancer and other fatal diseases, such as CBD of the lungs, even when they inhale very low levels of the toxic metal as dust. CBD is an incurable, devastating lung disease that gradually scars the lungs, disabling and ultimately killing many of those afflicted.

OSHA first attempted to strengthen protections for workers from beryllium exposure in 1975, but industry backlash stymied the process and ultimately killed the rule. That’s why in 2001, Public Citizen, along with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union – which has since merged with the United Steelworkers – petitioned OSHA to lower workers’ exposure to beryllium.

In 2012, the Center for Public Integrity profiled Bruce Revers, a retired machinist and CBD patient living with the devastating effects of beryllium exposure. Doctors diagnosed Mr. Revers with CBD in 2009 after years of exposure to beryllium in the workplace. He reported that breathing is so difficult that even simple tasks like collecting the morning newspaper from the curb are a struggle to complete. Even though Mr. Revers wore a respirator in the factory where he worked, he still contracted CBD because the standards for allowable exposure are still much too high to be safe for workers in these industries.

In 2015, OSHA finally released a proposed version of the beryllium rule, which originally excluded construction and shipyard workers. In its comments on the proposed rule, Public Citizen urged OSHA to lower the existing PEL and extend the protections of the new rule to these at-risk workers, which OSHA did in the final rule. The final beryllium rule reduces the legal limit for workplace beryllium exposure – known technically as the permissible exposure limit (PEL) – to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour time-weighted average, one-tenth of the previous PEL of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

After decades of fighting for a stronger beryllium standard, Public Citizen is celebrating this long overdue victory for workers.  We will continue to fight for strong safeguards for working people in the next administration.

Emily Gardner is the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Sammy Almashat is a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Keep up with Public Citizen’s work on these issues by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.

Every year, Congress works to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual bill that sets the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense, among other provisions. The NDAA for Fiscal Year 2017 – currently awaiting President Obama’s signature – contained a grab bag of policy provisions affecting whistleblowers, open government policies, workers, and consumers.  ICYMI: We are recapping four important victories for health, safety, and democracy that were part of this year’s NDAA final legislation.

Whistleblower Protections

In 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office documented a stark reality for military whistleblowers who challenge the retaliation they face for bravely reporting waste, fraud, and abuse. These servicemembers endure lengthy delays in their cases and are rarely successful when they file retaliation complaints.

One of the most significant reforms contained in the final NDAA is a prohibition of retaliatory investigations against whistleblowers. This victory is important – prolonged investigations serving only to harass and intimidate individuals for exposing corruption have devastating effects for these whistleblowers and their families. By closing this loophole, lawmakers have greatly expanded existing protections for military whistleblowers.

Preserving the Freedom of Information Act

Due to pushback from open government advocates, lawmakers removed provisions from the NDAA that would have limited the applicability of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Not only were these new proposed exemptions unnecessary, but also they would have been contrary to the public interest by shielding from disclosure important information regarding the actions of the military. To limit the public’s access to this information in essence creates a carve-out for the Pentagon from FOIA’s broad right-to-know. As an open government watchdog organization, Public Citizen can attest to the importance of FOIA in holding government agencies accountable. We commend lawmakers for removing this dangerous provision during the conference process.

Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order

President Obama signed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order (EO) on July 31, 2014 to require companies bidding on federal contracts to disclose past labor law violations. The EO also includes a provision prohibits federal contractors from forcing their employees to arbitrate discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault claims. In 2015, Public Citizen and our allies in the Fair Arbitration Now coalition submitted comments in support of the regulations implementing the EO, sending a strong message that access to the courts is a fundamental American right that should not be discarded in the fine print of contracts.

While the future of the EO unfortunately remains uncertain, it now faces one fewer obstacle.  During NDAA conference committee negotiations, lawmakers removed harmful provisions that would have exempted certain defense contractors from complying with the EO.

Consumer Protection

Finally, the NDAA includes language ensuring that military housing is as safe as possible for servicemembers and their families and free from known hazards.  Specifically, the NDAA includes provisions that mitigate the risk of death and catastrophic injury posed to military children caused by corded window coverings from military housing. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has documented the strangulation and asphyxiation hazard to children caused by window covering cords for decades. Moreover, as recognized by the provision’s sponsor, U.S. Sen. Blumenthal (D-Conn.), military families are at a unique disadvantage to mitigate this hidden health hazard due to frequent deployments, relocations, and temporary housing.

However, even as we celebrate these important victories achieved through the NDAA process, our work isn’t over yet. Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division will continue to hold lawmakers accountable for their work on health, safety and democracy when the 115th Congress convenes next month.  Tune in to Citizen Vox to stay informed about all of our work in the coming Congressional session.

800px-leve-personne_bras_telescopiqueNew U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on worker injuries shows that nursing assistants remain at high risk of workplace injuries, despite an overall decline in worker injuries across industries in 2015.  Last year, these workers had among the highest number of injuries and illnesses resulting in days away from work, alongside “heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers” and “laborers and freight, stock, and material movers.” The BLS data is compiled from the agency’s 2015 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, an annual survey of non-fatal work-related injuries and illnesses from selected employers.

But the story doesn’t end there.  It is important to note that nursing assistants also experienced musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) at a rate of 171 cases per 10,000 full-time workers.  MSDs are injuries to the muscles, nerves and tendons of the limbs and lower back. Nursing assistants and other health care workers often develop MSDs from lifting and moving patients manually on a regular basis, requiring time off work to recover.

Public Citizen released a five-part series “Nursing: A Profession in Peril,” which showed how nursing employees injured while moving patients suffered lasting chronic pain, depression and reduced mobility. Many of these injuries have devastating and lifelong consequences, even causing some workers to lose their jobs when they could no longer fulfill their lifting duties.

Part four of the series documented that some health care employers have addressed this problem by implementing programs that replace manual lifting with equipment such as portable lifts and slide boards. Not only do these programs keep workers safe – they also save employers money. Studies show that employers recover expenses within approximately four years of implementation due to factors such as reduced workers’ compensation payments for manual lifting injuries.

Although 11 states have passed laws to respond to the MSD injury crisis, there is currently no federal standard requiring health care employers to protect workers by implementing safe patient handling programs in their facilities. Such a standard would be critical in preventing MSDs among nurses and other health care workers. Despite the fact that President-Elect Trump claims he will take actions to “protect American workers” within his first 100 days in office, his plan does not actually outline any details for addressing worker safety.  Furthermore, his administration has threatened a temporary moratorium on all new regulations, which will likely include halting important public health and safety rules.

While advocates await the next administration’s plan to improve occupational health and safety, one thing is certain – nursing employees deserve safe workplaces just like all other working people.

Emily Gardner is the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Keep up with Public Citizen’s work on these issues by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.

By: Emily Gardner & Sammy Almashat

All children – regardless of immigration status – deserve a safe childhood free of the toxic effects of nicotine poisoning. A recent article in The Washington Post Magazine highlights the devastating conditions on tobacco farms, where employers permit young children to labor for hours on end in the sweltering heat, often providing little access to water or protective gear. As a result of handling tobacco plants, child tobacco workers may experience symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Many of the children and their parents are undocumented, leaving them vulnerable to employer exploitation. (In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented the dire conditions for child workers on tobacco farms.)

tobacco-837764_640Take the case of Eddie Ramirez, one of the teenagers profiled in the Post article. Eddie, age 17, has been working in the fields since he was only 12 years old, even though he initially found tobacco work unbearable. Although he tried finding other, safer jobs, only tobacco farms would allow him to work without a green card or U.S. citizenship.

Many supporters of child tobacco labor argue that children like Eddie need to do this dangerous work in order to help their families make ends meet. Unfortunately, the Post’s article offers little critique of this flawed argument. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, child labor proponents used similar arguments to justify children toiling in perilous factory jobs for low wages, a chapter in American history being replayed on tobacco and other farms today. In addition to putting children’s health at risk, child labor perpetuates the cycle of poverty by interrupting children’s education and limiting their future prospects.

Failing to protect children from hazardous labor is unacceptable. However, current U.S. law still permits children – younger than 12 years old in some circumstances – to work on tobacco farms, exposing them to nicotine, pesticides, and other dangerous conditions that could have long-term health consequences.  In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a rule which would have banned child labor in tobacco and certain other hazardous work in agriculture.

Unfortunately, DOL pulled the rule in 2012 under intense pressure from agribusiness.

Recently, labor and children’s advocates have demanded that the government renew its efforts to prevent children from working in direct contact with tobacco in U.S. agriculture. Over 100 groups and nearly 50 members of Congress wrote letters calling on President Obama to ban this practice. In the final days of the Obama administration, our government should correct the grave mistake it made in 2012 and end the exploitation of child tobacco workers.

Emily Gardner is the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Sammy Almashat is a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Keep up with Public Citizen’s work on these issues by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.

Each day this week we’ll be highlighting some of the anti-regulatory bills that Public Citizen and our allies have been pushing back against this fall.

Image courtesy of Eric Lynch/Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Image courtesy of Eric Lynch/Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

When Congress returned from its longest summer recess in 60 years, and before they ran back to districts to campaign, conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives were determined to assail our system of public protections. Remember that arcade game staple, whack-a-mole, where players try to hammer down the target as others pop up, more and more quickly?  Essentially playing whack-a-mole in the four weeks of September, Public Citizen and our partners in the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards defended against multiple pieces of legislation aimed at limiting the power of the government to protect the public.

Conservatives attempted to pass four misleading and damaging anti-regulatory bills and were successful in pushing through three of them – the fourth was shelved until Congress’ post-election return.

  • Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act (H.R. 5063) – passed on Sept. 7, 2016
  • Regulatory Integrity Act (H.R. 5226) – passed on Sept. 14, 2016
  • REVIEW Act (H.R. 3438) – passed on Sept. 21, 2016
  • Midnight Rules Relief Act (H.R. 5982) – shelved for the lame duck on Sept. 26, 2016

Regulations protect and safeguard our lives in everything from the food we eat to the water we drink and from the air we breathe to the products we use. These government standards ensure that we can go about our daily lives without much fear of dying at work, eating poisonous food or having our cars go up in flames. The process for producing these vital standards is already glacially slow and exceedingly cumbersome, and if signed into law, these damaging bills would exacerbate the problems in the rulemaking system.

The slow process of our current rulemaking system already has a negative impact on communities of color and low income communities, who it has been shown face the biggest health, safety and economic threats and inequities in public protections.  Further delays to public safeguards would do nothing but increase this disproportionate impact, heightening the injustices and inequities in our society.

These bills that conservatives rushed through would prolong and further delay lifesaving rules from reaching full enforcement and having maximum impact. They aren’t about protecting the public good; they’re about helping industry line their own pockets at the expense of the American people. The bills were cleverly designed to use back door approaches to gut key safeguards. And, since the bill titles were designed to be bland and meaningless, here they are re-named to call them out for what they really are.

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