Latest Solidarity Issue

Occupational Safety and Health

American workers continue to suffer workplace injuries, illness and death. In 2008, more than 5,000 workers were killed on the job, many due to violations of poorly enforced OSHA standards. Fifty-three of those who died were miners. Although improvements in mine safety regulations and enforcement have decreased fatalities, more steps still need to be taken to prevent mine fatalities.

An estimated 50,000 people lose their lives to occupational diseases each year, and many more continue to live in pain and suffering. These diseases are often caused by toxic exposures at levels permitted by outdated or non-existent OSHA standards. Detailed health studies show that the catastrophe of Sept. 11, 2001, continues for rescue and recovery workers, many of whom have developed debilitating health problems due to exposures at ground zero during the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 3.7 million, nonfatal, workplace injuries and illnesses in 2008. The total number is probably between nine and 12 million after taking into account millions of American workers who are not covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), as well as underreporting of injuries among those who are.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) due to ergonomic hazards are the largest source of disabling injuries. Nevertheless, OSHA is prohibited from issuing an ergonomics standard by a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution enacted in 2001 by President Bush and a Republican-dominated Congress. The exact number of injuries due to ergonomic hazards is not even known because the Bush administration hid ergonomic problems by modifying OSHA record-keeping rules. Where standards do not exist to protect workers, OSHA should increase its use of the General Duty Clause and closely scrutinize the injury records kept by companies.

The number of workplace inspections under OSHA has declined from 174,000 in 1980 to 97,000 in 2005. During this same period, the inspection rate has dropped from 1.7 to 0.668 inspections per 100,000 workers. After decades of under-funding, state programs that enforce the federal OSHA Act struggle to put inspectors in the field. Workers who try to exercise their rights to a workplace free of hazards suffer discrimination and, sometimes, firing.

With the election of President Obama and expanded Democratic majorities in Congress in the 2008 elections, the UAW and the rest of the labor movement have the best opportunity in decades to improve workplace health and safety to reduce the toll of injury, illness and death. We now have powerful allies who will listen to our concerns. Now is the time to speak out on these issues.

Thus, the UAW and our allies will be urging the Obama administration to promulgate new OSHA standards for beryilium, silica, diacetyl (a butter-flavoring chemical that destroys the lungs when inhaled – aka "popcorn lung"), derricks, global harmonization of hazard communication, fall hazard, dust explosions, mandatory employer health and safety programs, worker training, workplace violence, metalworking fluids and more protective permissible exposure limits (PELs) for toxic substances.

In addition, the UAW and other unions will be urging the Obama administration to improve injury and illness reporting by reversing the Bush administration’s record-keeping changes for MSDs and other injuries, and by prohibiting employer programs and policies that discourage such reporting. We will urge the administration to adopt enforcement policies and practices that ensure the full involvement of unions in the inspection process, settlement discussions and agreements. And we will call on the administration to increase ergonomics enforcement and to explore new regulatory approaches to ergonomics that may be consistent with the CRA. This would include record-keeping citations and General Duty Clause citations for failure to record injuries and illnesses.

At the same time, we will urge the Obama administration and Congress to increase funding for OSHA, so the agency can improve standard setting, enforcement and worker training. This is urgently needed at the state level where funding has fallen. Funding for worker training must be brought into parity with non-regulatory compliance assistance that helps companies comply with OSHA standards.

Furthermore, we will urge the administration and Congress to increase funding for NIOSH to allow more research and recommendations to OSHA, enact stronger mine safety legislation and establish • an indoor air quality standard to protect workers in office, and service industries, from chronic lung diseases.

We will also work with our allies to pass the "Protecting America’s Workers Act" (H.R. 2067; S. 1580), sponsored by Represenative Woolsey (D-Cal.) and Senator Kennedy (D-Mass.). This important legislation would require OSHA to investigate all workplace fatalities and serious injuries and grant workers and their families the right to meet with investigators, increase penalties when fatalities and serious injuries result from willful and repeated violations and improve protections for workers who blow the whistle on unsafe conditions in the workplace.

Congress also should approve the "James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act" (H.R. 847; S. 1334), sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Senator Gilibrand (D-N.Y.). This legislation would provide the wounded heroes of 9/11 with medical screening, monitoring, treatment and compensation.

Action:

  • Tell OSHA to proceed with an aggressive regulatory agenda by issuing updated PELs and new standards in the many areas indicated above.
  • Urge OSHA to prohibit employer programs and policies that discourage the reporting of injuries, to require employers to accurately report ergonomic injuries and to take steps to eliminate these injuries.
  • Tell OSHA to ensure full involvement of unions in inspection proceedings, settlement discussions and agreements.
  • Urge OSHA to increase ergonomics enforcement and explore regulatory approaches to ergonomics consistent with the CRA.
  • Tell Congress to increase funding for OSHA standards development, enforcement and health and safety training.
  • Urge Congress to pass legislation to improve mine safety.
  • Tell Congress to pass the "Protecting Americas Workers Act" (H.R. 2067; S. 1580).
  • Urge Congress to pass the "James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act" (H.R. 847; S. 1334).
  • Help expand participation in Workers Memorial Day activities and use these activities to emphasize the need for stronger OSHA protections!

Chemical Security

In the eight years since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress have resisted effective legislation to protect workers and communities from terrorist attacks on chemical and water treatment facilities. As a result, there are 7,000 facilities in the United States that would pose a high risk to workers, and the surrounding population, if attacked by terrorists. Of these, 100 would put more than one million people at risk.

In 2009, the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats began to make progress on chemical security. With the support of the UAW and other progressive groups, the House passed the Chemical and Water Security Act of 2009. This legislation would require all covered facilities to make plans for the use of technologies that reduce the potential consequences of an attack; authorize the government to require implementation of such plans, where technically and economically feasible, at those facilities that present the greatest release risk; mandate employee training and participation in plant security, including in compliance inspections; allow states to set more protective standards; allow workers and communities to enforce protections through citizen suits against government agencies and by petitioning agencies for enforcement against individual facilities; and require the government to report on enforcement and compliance so the public can know the law is being implemented, while avoiding publication of the vulnerabilities of individual facilities.

During the coming year, the UAW and its allies will be urging the Senate to pass similar legislation, so President Obama can sign it into law.

Action:

  • Urge the Senate to pass and President Obama to sign chemical security legislation that requires all facilities to consider safer chemicals or processes and requires the highest risk facilities to implement them where feasible; covers drinking water and wastewater facilities; allows states to impose stronger security requirements; protects workers from abuse of background checks and requires worker participation in chemical security efforts.

H1N1 and Pandemic Influenza

A new flu virus, now known as H1N1, was identified in April, 2009. By the end of September, there had been more than 300,000 cases of laboratory confirmed H1N1 influenza worldwide. In the United States, between August and November 2009, more than 29,348 persons were hospitalized and 1,224 died from this virus.

In August, the California state OSHA program established a new Aerosol Transmissible Diseases (ATD) standard to protect health care workers. That standard requires development of an exposure control plan and training for employees in its implementation; placement of new flu patients in a separate negative pressure area; provision of surgical masks to suspected and confirmed H1N1 patients until they can be moved to a separate isolation area; provision of fit-tested disposable N95 respirators to all health care personnel who enter the rooms of suspected, or confirmed, H1N1 patients; development and implementation of response and investigation procedures for exposure incidents; provision of medical treatment to exposed employees; and maintenance of all rights and benefits including pay and seniority, of any employee temporarily removed from work to prevent disease transmission.

The UAW believes federal OSHA should establish a similar standard. In addition, Congress should require compliance by hospitals not covered by OSHA, such as those run by state governments.

Action:

  • Urge federal OSHA to adopt an Aerosol Transmissible Disease standard similar to that of California OSHA.
  • Tell Congress to mandate that facilities not covered by OSHA meet similar requirements.

Reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), enacted in 1976, authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review new chemicals prior to manufacture. But EPA must demonstrate potential risk or extensive exposure in order to require testing. As a result, since 1976, EPA has only succeeded in requiring testing for about 200 of the tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce and has only regulated the production or use of five substances. In the absence of testing, people may be suffering serious and even fatal illnesses caused by chemicals that have never been identified as the culprits. Asbestos, lead and benzene are just a few examples of chemicals that have done considerable harm to workers before enough evidence was accumulated to permit regulation. Unfortunately, this evidence too often consisted of irreversible damage or death among exposed workers.

Labor, business, environmentalists and the Obama administration all agree that TSCA needs to be reformed. The UAW and our allies have stressed that any reform of TSCA should remove the disparity in current TSCA regulations, which explicitly sets different triggers for investigating chemical toxicity, depending on whether the exposure is to workers or community members.

We also believe that reforms to TSCA should ensure that strategies to protect the general public don’t increase worker risk; require that all determinations of health and safety be made prior to manufacture, not just prior to marketing, so that workers are not exposed to unregulated toxic intermediates that never appear in commerce; phase out the most toxic chemicals that now exist in the workplace and provide health monitoring to exposed workers; provide transition funding to workers whose employment depends on a chemical that is found to be too harmful for continued production and/or use; and require that assessments of chemical risk in the workplace be conducted without reference to respirators or other personal protective equipment (PPE), so these do not become a substitute for required testing or an excuse to continue exposing workers to a substance at levels that would otherwise be considered excessive.

At the same time, we believe that any reforms should recognize that OSHA or MSHA standards have precedence over EPA regulations where specific workplace standards have been promulgated through notice and comment rulemaking. Furthermore, TSCA reform should grant the EPA Administrator authority to issue time-limited renewable permits for the manufacture and/or use of a chemical in a specific workplace, or group of similar workplaces, where it is demonstrated that they are controlling worker exposures to the lowest feasible level through the industrial hygiene hierarchy of controls. It also should require comparative analyses of different chemicals that might be suitable for a particular use rather than a simple quantitative estimate of the risk posed by the chemical currently in use. Such comparative analyses can reduce risk even where the level of risk posed by the chemical currently in use is considered permissible.

Finally, TSCA reform should restrict the ability of employers to use claims of confidential business information to withhold information about the hazards of their chemicals; preserve the ability of citizens to sue companies or EPA to enforce TSCA; and require EPA to issue public reports of its activities in carrying out TSCA.

Action:

  • Urge Congress to pass legislation containing comprehensive reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act.