April 15, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

In much of the reporting I’ve seen on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the plant workers are an anonymous, if much-praised, group. The New York Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi digs deeper to tell us more about who some of these workers are, and what their experiences can tell us about occupational health and safety in Japan. He begins with the story of 55-year-old Masayuki Ishizawa, who was at the plant when the earthquake struck and had to plead with the security guard to be let out the of the complex to flee the tsunami:

Mr. Ishizawa, who was finally allowed to leave, is not a nuclear specialist; he is not even an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the crippled plant. He is one of thousands of untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers who handle the bulk of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants here and in other countries, lured by the higher wages offered for working with radiation. Collectively, these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees last year, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which regulates the industry. These workers remain vital to efforts to contain the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plants.

They are emblematic of Japan’s two-tiered work force, with an elite class of highly paid employees at top companies and a subclass of laborers who work for less pay, have less job security and receive fewer benefits. Such labor practices have both endangered the health of these workers and undermined safety at Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors, critics charge.

Even if you think you’ve seen enough about the Fukushima plant, this article is well worth reading.

In other news:

TIME: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a hazard alert to hair salon workers regarding potential formaldehyde exposure from hair straightening treatments like Brazilian Blowout.

Environmental Health News: Peru’s miners aren’t the only ones exposed to high levels of mercury; research has found that mercury levels are also high in Andean shops that sell gold.

Charleston Gazette: Researchers at West Virginia University find that West Virginia coal miners are still dying from black lung disease – decades after a federal law put new limits on coal-dust exposures with the goal.

Knoxville News Sentinel: The wall of a basin holding 850,000 of gallons at the Gatlinburg Wastewater Treatment Plant collapsed and killed John Eslinger, 53, and Don Storey, 44.

NPR: A veterans organization called Dryhootch is providing veterans a place to gather and help one another – without alcohol.

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