December 22, 2015 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At the Center for Public Integrity, reporters Jim Morris and Maryam Jameel investigate the nation’s “third wave” of asbestos-related disease. The story begins with two photos of Kris Penny, who used to install fiber-optic cable beneath the streets of Florida.

The first photo is of Penny in April 2015, looking healthy and happy. The next photo is one taken just six months later. Penny looks dramatically transformed after being diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the abdominal lining that’s nearly always related to asbestos exposure. After talking with a lawyer, Penny concluded he’d been exposed to microscopic asbestos fibers about 10 years prior while working underground. Morris and Jameel write:

Physicians, scientists and union officials had people like (Penny) in mind when they convened in New York in 1990 to discuss what they called the looming “third wave” of asbestos disease. The fire-resistant mineral first had killed asbestos miners, millers and manufacturing workers. Then it had taken out insulators, shipbuilders and others who worked with asbestos products. Eventually, conference attendees agreed, it would be roused from its dormant state in pipes, ceiling tiles and automobile brakes and kill again.

Environmental consultant Barry Castleman went to the New York conference. The takeaway, he said, was that “in-place asbestos was going to pose a continuing danger to millions of workers and to the general public.”

Penny sued AT&T, saying he wasn’t warned about the asbestos exposures he would face in his underground work environment. Morris and Jameel interviewed a safety coordinator with the Communication Workers of America, who said telecommunication workers nationwide continue to be at risk of asbestos exposure. For example, in Virginia in 2011 and 2014, Verizon was cited for exposing workers to asbestos. Morris and Jameel interviewed Craig Benedict, a former assistant U.S. attorney who used to investigate employers who knowingly exposed workers to asbestos — they write:

Benedict said he was “never surprised” and “never jaded” by the things he witnessed. In the most egregious cases, he said, it was as if the employers “took their workers outside, lined them up against the wall and shot them with high-powered weapons. They knew — just as certainly as someone who actually did that — that their actions over time had a very high likelihood of resulting in death or serious bodily injury.”

To read the full story, which was co-published with NPR and is part of an ongoing series on toxic exposures in the workplace titled “Unequal Risk,” visit the Center for Public Integrity.

In other news:

The Nation: Michelle Chen reports that Bangladeshi garment workers are still struggling for safety and dignity in the workplace. The article reports that two years after a pact to improve workplace conditions known as the Bangladesh Accord, most of the industry seems to be falling far short of safety benchmarks. According to research from the International Labor Rights Forum, workers say production targets and workloads are so demanding that managers prevent workers from taking restroom breaks, drinking water, ending work at a reasonable hour or taking time off for medical emergencies. Chen writes: “While the poorly kept-up production plants themselves may verge on collapse, the structure of labor oppression is savagely robust. …workers often must weigh the risk of any challenge to the employer against deep social disadvantage. Workers testify, in confidential interviews, about facing verbal, sexual, and physical abuse from higher-ups, and economic insecurity raises the stakes of all safety risks.”

Seattle Times: Daniel Beekman reports that Seattle has become the first U.S. city to allow taxi, for-hire and Uber drivers the chance to unionize. Not surprisingly, ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft opposed the measure. In fact, Uber driver Takele Gobena, who had pushed for union rights, said he was temporarily kicked off the app in August a few hours after participating in a news conference with the bill’s sponsor. Under the new ordinance, companies will be required to provide the city of Seattle with a list of its drivers, which organizers can use to reach out to workers. Beekman writes: “Backers of the groundbreaking bill, including drivers, broke into applause after the vote in the council’s crowded chambers and chanted, ‘When we fight, we win!’”

The Hill: OSHA has sent its rules to protect workers from harmful silica exposure to the White House for approval, reports Tim Devaney. The Office of Management and Budget will now have 90 days to review the rule. The silica rule dates back to August 2013 and is designed to cut silica exposure in half. The fight for a silica standard has been ongoing for decades, despite evidence of silica’s danger to human health. Devaney quotes Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at AFL-CIO: “In the nearly 20 years since the fight began to win a new silica standard to protect workers, thousands have become disabled or died from exposure to silica dust. But now the finish line is finally in sight.”

NBC News: The Associated Press (AP) reports that police in the Chinese province of Guangdong have detained seven labor activists on charges that they improperly intervened in labor disputes. AP writes that the detentions are part of a larger crackdown on labor organizing, noting that labor disputes are on the rise in China. The news service reports: “Chinese authorities are wary of the grassroots activism and have said hostile foreign forces are using illegal rights groups and activists to compete for the hearts of workers, sabotage the unity of the working class and undermine the state-sanctioned union.”

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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