By Robert Craycraft
Asbestos was once used as a flame-retardant and for electrical insulation in buildings, ships and homes. Before it was discovered to cause cancer, millions of American workers and veterans handled and were otherwise exposed to deadly asbestos fibers.
An unknown amount of the hazardous material is still present in our communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that roughly 3,000 people continue to die from mesothelioma and asbestosis every year; some experts estimate the death toll is as high as 10,000 annually when other types of asbestos-linked diseases and cancers are included.
In early February, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law held a hearing on H.R. 526, the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act (or FACT Act). Generally speaking, the more transparency the better. However, in this case, the asbestos industry is using the guise of “transparency” to push the FACT Act as a way to delay compensation to asbestos victims and their families. The bill would require the trusts that manage victim compensation to retroactively compile information on all claims they’ve paid and to require the trusts to answer any and all information requests by asbestos company defendants.
These paperwork requirements could have the effect of slowing or even stopping the important work of the trusts to compensate victims that have developed deadly diseases like mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) called the FACT Act a “Trojan horse” which “guarantees that the insurance companies pay as little as possible.”
Earlier this month, the Department of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) heard a presentation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on employers’ continuing obligation to make and maintain accurate records of workplace injuries and illnesses.
OSHA has said that “the duty to record an injury or illness … does not expire just because the employer fails to create the necessary records when first required to do so.” In other words, being fined by OSHA for violating a record-keeping rule does not absolve the employer of its ongoing responsibility to keep up-to-date records. Employers that continue to fail to keep the legally required records continue to be subject to fines.
This should be a matter of common sense – arguing the contrary is like saying a driver pulled over on the highway and fined for speeding should no longer be required to obey speed limits.
But this commonsense obligation to keep accurate records (and obey the law) apparently is not enough for some employers. That’s why OSHA is planning to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking by the end of the year seeking to amend its record-keeping regulations to clarify that the duty to make and maintain accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses is an ongoing obligation.
This Labor Day, I’ll be thinking about my family.
My great grandfather, an immigrant from eastern Europe who crossed the Atlantic to work in a western Pennsylvania steel mill, died in that mill in 1929 when a piece of industrial equipment came crashing down on him.
His daughter – my grandmother – was less than a year old.
How many millions of families have suffered similar tragedies? The deadly nature of work in the “Steel Valley” is well documented. Local histories and literary classics such as Blood on the Forge and Out of This Furnace testify to this bloody past.
Clearly, we’ve come a long way since 1929, most significantly with the formation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 1971.
Nevertheless, tragic workplace deaths occur in America almost every day. Scroll through OSHA’s 2014 document recording “FY14 Fatalities and Catastrophes to Date” (PDF), and you’ll begin to get a sense of the lives lost each day that may have been prevented.
Last week, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law House Bill 951 which requires the state to convene a work group to study the benefits of implementing a safety and health questionnaire and rating system as a part of the state funded public works projects. We applaud the Maryland Senate and House for their unanimous decision to send this important worker safety and health legislation to the Governors’ desk.
Keeping construction workers safe on the job should be a top priority. However, safety and health can be a distant thought for some contractors. Maryland has not been able to escape this reality; in 2012 seventeen construction workers died on the job and an additional 5,000 reported workplace injuries.
The legislation was inspired by a 2012 Public Citizen report that showed safety shortfalls cost the state $712.8 million between 2008 and 2010. During that time, Maryland recorded 18,600 construction industry accidents in the state. Additionally, 55 construction-related fatalities were reported in those years.
Each year, New York City invests about $2 billion to encourage private development in the form of tax incentives and grants. But, according to a report released yesterday by the Center for Popular Democracy, the city does not require as a prerequisite for those grants progressive development practices that ensure worker safety and health.
Under programs offered by the New York Economic Development Corporation, the city in 2013 handed out millions in lucrative tax incentive financing to corporate entities at 596 locations. Thousands more of these projects are ongoing in New York City through other funding mechanisms known as public benefit corporations.
During 2011 and 2012, 36 construction workers in New York City lost their lives on the job. Most of these deaths occurred on construction projects where no mandatory safety and health training was required.
These horrific stories of construction worker fatality could all change with the de Blasio administration and the reintroduction of the Safe Jobs Act. If the Safe Jobs Act is approved by the New York City Council and signed into law, it will mandate safety and health training for all tax-incentivized development projects.
City residents should be outraged that their tax dollars are paying for the unsafe practices of unsavory developers and lining the pockets of construction contractors with a known record of safety and health violations.
An example of these egregious acts is the Brooklyn Bridge Park project, which is tax-incentivized. In 2012 a worker was struck in the face by a heavy metal end cap that dislodged during a water supply pressure test. At the same construction site, a pedestrian was struck by falling debris. During the past seven years, Brooklyn Bridge Park contractor Hudson Meridian has been cited seven times for failure to provide adequate guard rails to protect construction workers.