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Occupational Health News Roundup [The Pump Handle]

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 15:57
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(Before It's News)

At the Denver Post, John Ingold and Monte Whaley authored a year-long investigative series into the dangerous conditions facing Colorado’s oil and gas workers, the role of subcontracting in heightening worker safety risks, and the lack of employer accountability and oversight. The series, “Drilling through danger,” noted that 1,333 workers died in the nation’s oil and gas fields between 2003 and 2014, with 2014 being the second-most lethal year for oil and gas workers in Colorado in a decade. According to the newspaper’s analysis, there was about one oil and gas worker death per every 12 rigs in 2014. The reporters write:

OSHA rarely levies heavy fines against oil and gas companies. Only one time in the past 15 years has an oil and gas company paid a fine of more than $50,000 for a workplace safety inspection in Colorado. Three-quarters of the time, OSHA allows companies to settle their proposed fines for lower sums — shrinking them at a higher rate than the average for all businesses, The Post found. Since 2000, oil and gas companies have negotiated away more than $1 million in fines for safety violations, according to The Post analysis.

Regulation is so disjointed that no one can even agree on the number of workers killed on the job. The industry does not keep its own tallies. Totals kept by state health officials, the state workers’ compensation agency and OSHA all differ.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics abides by rigid privacy rules that mean its published state-level figures on oil and gas deaths are often incomplete, and, even when they aren’t, the bureau provides few precise details about the deaths.

In addition to telling the stories of workers who died in the oil fields and reporting on the industry’s opposition to investing in protective technologies, Ingold and Whaley also reported on a legal loophole that immunizes oil and gas companies from worker lawsuits. They write:

Known as the “exclusive remedy” provision, it is meant to be a win-win for employers and employees: Injured workers receive quick benefits, even if they are at fault for their injuries; companies are protected from costly lawsuits, so long as they participate in the workers’ comp system.

“It takes out the concept of employee fault,” said Mimi Metzger, a Denver attorney who specializes in workers’ comp law. “That is what employees take for granted.”

But the provision also is a significant shield for companies. In Colorado, there is no such thing as punitive damages against companies with lax safety programs that injure or kill their employees. Workers are limited to recovering only what workers’ comp says is needed to treat their injuries — typically paid out by a company’s insurance carrier.

Read the entire investigation at the Denver Post.

In other news:

Los Angeles Times: Matt Pearce reports that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for firing women who weren’t — according to him — pretty enough to work at his golf club in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. According to lawsuits, employees said that the preference for “attractive women came from the top” and that Trump made inappropriate and patronizing comments toward women employees. Pearce writes: “When Trump did visit, the club’s managers went on alert. They scheduled the young, thin, pretty women on staff to work the clubhouse restaurant — because when Trump saw less-attractive women working at his club, according to court records, he wanted them fired. ‘I had witnessed Donald Trump tell managers many times while he was visiting the club that restaurant hostesses were ‘not pretty enough’ and that they should be fired and replaced with more attractive women,’ Hayley Strozier, who was director of catering at the club until 2008, said in a sworn declaration.“

Washington Post: Todd Frankel reports on the lives of workers in Congo who mine for cobalt, an essential component in the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles. Workers, including children, toil in extremely dangerous conditions with little oversight, facing exposure to toxic metals linked to respiratory problems and birth defects. The article noted that while no one knows for sure how many children are involved in cobalt mining, UNICEF has estimated that up to 40,000 girls and boys were working in the mining industry in the southern part of the country. Frankel writes: “In Kolwezi, a provincial mine inspector frustrated by a recent run of accidents agreed to talk to The Post on the condition that he not be identified, because he was not permitted to talk to the media. …That morning, he said, he had helped rescue four artisanal miners nearly overcome by fumes from an underground fire in Kolwezi. The day before, two men had died in a mining tunnel collapse, he said.”

BuzzFeed: Sara Spary and Laura Silver investigated working conditions inside global fashion retailer Asos, concentrating on its worldwide distribution warehouse in northern England. In interviews with current and former warehouse employees, the reporters found that workers are often afraid to take bathroom or water breaks for fear of missing productivity targets, are subject to intrusive security searches, some allege losing their jobs after calling in sick, and many say unfair scheduling practices give them no notice if a shift is canceled or an assignment is ended. Spary and Silver write: “The company said it had ‘anticipated unproductive time’ built into its picking and packing targets and that it took into account ‘comfort breaks, as well as a built-in fatigue factor.’ But workers told BuzzFeed News they found it challenging to fit in bathroom breaks. ‘If you cannot do the target, they come to you every hour and say you have to improve it or you will get a performance management meeting with HR,’ one person claimed. Another alleged: ‘You are literally treated like a machine.’” In response to the BuzzFeed investigation, British officials announced they would begin an examination into Asos’ workplace practices.

The Nation: Michelle Chen reports that Harvard is experiencing its first campus strike in over 30 years, as the university’s dining staff went on strike to demand a living wage. Striking workers and their supporters are calling on the university to protect workers’ health benefits and enact an annual minimum wage of $35,000 for year-round jobs. Chen writes: “After the strike launched last Wednesday, a Harvard spokesperson stated the university was ‘disappointed that they have been more interested in planning a strike than working on a solution that meets the needs of their members and the wider community.’ Workers are disappointed that the richest university in the country seems more interested in fattening its $35 billion endowment than sustaining a living wage for its poorest workers.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

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