July 3, 2018 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At The New York Times, Benjamin Mueller writes about the death and funeral of Chief Ronald R. Spadafora, 63, who was in charge of worker safety during post-9/11 recovery efforts at ground zero in New York City. Mueller, who developed blood cancer, was the 178th member of the Fire Department and its highest-ranking member to have died from World Trade Center-related illnesses.

Mueller reports:

In a 2002 article in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Chief Spadafora described the safety precautions he had helped design, while conceding that he and other rescue workers had still been exposed to a toxic soup of chemicals: “asbestos, metals, silica, organic compounds, and aromatic hydrocarbons, to name just a few.”

And he recently wrote an article for a Fire Department handbook urging firefighters to wear their bunker gear in fires, to wash it afterward and then to shower, given the growing risks of cancer from burning plastics. “I thought I was invincible,” he wrote, “but I was wrong.”

Just as the World Trade Center site paused when a firefighter’s body was recovered, so too did members of the Fire Department pause on Friday (during Spadafora’s funeral). From the edge of the bus lane to the opposite curb, firefighters filled Fifth Avenue. Police officers shut the street to traffic for blocks. On the sidewalk outside St. Thomas Church, a uniformed firefighter mopped up a grimy spot.

Across the street, tourists and passers-by carrying shopping bags and cameras leaned against the metal barricades and glass storefronts. They asked who was being buried, little aware that the death toll from Sept. 11 was still climbing.

Read the full story at The New York Times.

In other news:

NPR: Eric Westervelt reports on a culture of fear and intimidation for whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, interviewing more than 30 current and former VA employees, including doctors, nurses and administrators, who describe being targeted for speaking out about serious problems and violations within the agency. Retaliation was especially bad at hospital complexes in Montgomery and Tuskegee, Alabama, which are part of the VA’s Southeast Network VISN7 and leads the VA in the number of whistleblower complaints per veteran served. In central Alabama, the NPR investigation found that senior leadership subjected whistleblowers to physical isolation, verbal abuse, bullying both at and outside of work, and counter-investigations. Westervelt writes: “Central to the problem is that whistleblowers’ retaliation complaints can often end up being handled by the very people accused of doing the retaliation. In Alabama and Georgia, as we’ve shown, it’s a common tactic to open up a counter-investigation of the worker who raises issues. That often includes nebulous charges that the whistleblower is creating a ‘hostile environment.’”

Oregon Public Broadcasting: Jes Burns reports that Oregon has adopted new rules to protect farmworkers from pesticides, establishing zones around pesticide applications that workers can’t enter and allowing workers to take shelter in housing instead of just moving away from the affected areas. The new rules, which will go into effect in 2019, are considerably stronger than those at the federal level, where the Trump administration has threatened to roll back such protections. Burns quotes Michael Wood, administrator of Oregon OSHA: “I think probably the best of the growers are avoiding situations where they’re applying pesticides in one part of the orchard when they have workers immediately adjacent to it.  This will simply make it a required practice for everybody.”

The Atlantic: Ariel Ramchandani reports on the children working America’s tobacco fields, focusing on farms in North Carolina and the many dangers that come with such work, such as tobacco and pesticide poisoning. Current labor law allows children with parental permission to work for hire as young as 12 years old and to do work deemed hazardous by age 16. Advocates estimate that between 300,000 and 400,000 children work in U.S. agriculture. Ramchandani interviews Sandy Tripp, a pediatric nurse practitioner who often cares for child farmworkers: “I can only say, ‘You need to be careful. Your back is growing. Your muscles are developing. If you have a mask, if you have access to protective equipment, you need to use it.’ No matter what type of work they do or who they are, teenagers have the unfortunate habit of thinking they are invincible, she said. ‘When they reach the ages of 12 to 16, they don’t have a sense of ‘This can really happen to me. I can get sick.’ They have no fear. Even if they have protective equipment, they may not use it.’”

WBUR: Benjamin Swasey reports that Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has signed a law bringing the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour in the next five years and instituting a new paid family and medical leave program. Part of a so-called “grand bargain” to keep a number of questions off the November ballot, the new $15 minimum wage will benefit about 840,000 workers, while tipped workers will see hourly wages grow to $6.75 over five years. The new law will also phase out time-and-a-half pay for working Sundays and holidays. On paid leave, the law will give workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member or new baby and up to 20 weeks for a personal medical issue. Swasey writes: “In a statement, the Republican Baker said he was thankful that all parties came together on ‘a better set of policies than what the ballot questions represented.’”

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