January 4, 2017 Kim Krisberg 2Comment

At the Toronto Star, Sara Mojtehedzadeh reports on the “lethal legacy” of a General Electric plant in the Canadian city of Peterborough, Ontario, where hundreds of compensation claims have been filed for illnesses that workers say were caused by occupational chemical exposures. In fact, one occupational health expert described the plant as a “cancer generator.”

Mojtehedzadeh reports that a study commissioned by General Electric and that the Star obtained found that male workers at the plant were up to 57 percent more likely to die of lung cancer than the general population, while female workers were up to 129 percent more likely to die of lung cancer. Today, dozens of retired GE workers are challenging claims that there is insufficient evidence to tie the plant’s conditions to workers’ ill health. Mojtehedzadeh writes:

Ed Condon, like many, was grateful for much of what he got in return for his service at General Electric. For a man who dropped out of high school at 16 to support his eight siblings and later his wife and daughter, the factory gave him a sturdy living and helped him pursue personal dreams. A family photo shows a 41-year-old Condon smiling on GE’s front lawn: he has just graduated from a company-run Grade 12 math class.

His family says he had tried at first to conceal his illness; his wife of 40 years, Sandra, says she found icepacks stashed in the basement, later learning he had been trying to cool down his burning skull — one of the symptoms of his aggressively malignant brain tumour.

By the time he collapsed in a coffee shop and was diagnosed with advanced glioblastoma, Condon was also convinced that four decades of chemical exposure at the plant was to blame. In his final months, he took to carefully documenting the chemicals he worked with. The final list was 42 items long and included some of the world’s most deadly substances: arsenic; cyanide; vinyl chloride; asbestos; lead; benzene; DDT; epoxy resins; silica and cadmium.

Indeed, an inventory by the company’s Joint Health and Safety Committee in the mid-1990s found at least 3,000 chemicals actively in use at GE, according to the one-time secretary of the committee John Ball. Some 20 of the substances are now classified as definitive human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Read the full investigation at the Toronto Star.

In other news:

Arizona Daily Star: Emily Bregel investigates the Industrial Commission of Arizona, which has the power to reduce financial penalties proposed by state inspectors for workplace safety violations. Her reporting found that the commission “routinely reduces the penalties” recommended by officials with the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health — more specifically, of the 139 penalty proposals reviewed between January and November 2016, the commission reduced fines by more than $186,000. In fact, commission members voted to reduce penalties in more than half of cases reviewed last year. Federal OSHA began monitoring the commission’s meetings last summer. Bregel writes: “Many employers have come to expect they can negotiate for deeper cuts or downgraded citations during settlement negotiations with regulators hoping to avoid a lengthy appeal if employers quickly fix dangerous conditions, said Katie Tracy, policy analyst at D.C.-based Center for Progressive Reform. Deleting or downgrading a citation’s severity makes a company’s violation history look cleaner than it is, helping repeat offenders avoid detection, Tracy said.”

Fair Warning: Paul Feldman and Stuart Silverstein report on the progress and future of OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP), which now includes more than 500 businesses and allows the agency to deploy its limited resources toward the worst violators of worker health and safety. The article notes that while SVEP has its challenges and its impact has yet to be fully evaluated, advocates say it’s still an important tool for capturing the breadth and gravity of violations across industries. Feldman and Silverstein write: “Along with subjecting employers to a form of public shaming, the severe violator program helps OSHA work out settlements intended to force companies to clean up their job safety practices. The program, which replaced a George W. Bush administration initiative that an inspector general’s audit derided as ineffectual, also can result in extra inspections, sometimes at multiple sites, and force companies to hire new safety personnel. The effort, though, faces an uncertain future under the Trump administration.”

Bloomberg: Josh Eidelson reports that the nation’s second-largest union — Service Employees International Union — is planning a 30 percent budget cut over the next year in response to the incoming Trump administration. Noting that anti-union forces took control of the White House and Congress, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry wrote in an internal memo that the threat to workers’ ability to unionize requires a shift in strategy so the union can continue its work despite reduced resources. Eidelson writes: “SEIU, like most of its peers, was already in a state of slow-motion crisis before Trump’s victory. Things will only get worse after inauguration, when organized labor will find itself without a friend in the White House. Unions will instead be up against unified Republican control of the federal government and of half the nation’s state governments, where labor organizers have already suffered some severe blows.”

Wall Street Journal: Eric Morath reports that millions of U.S. workers will get a pay raise this year, as minimum wages in 19 states went up as of Jan. 1. For instance, in Massachusetts, the minimum wage went up to $11 an hour, boosting the pay of 291,000 workers, while 1.7 million workers in California got a raise of 50 cents to $10.50 an hour. Morath writes: “Jorel Ware, a fast-food worker in New York City and activist for the FightFor15 campaign, will see his hourly wage rise by $1.50—to $12 an hour—to start the year, under a new state law that requires fast-food workers in the city to earn elevated pay. The boost will mean no longer choosing between buying groceries and paying rent, he said. ‘I’d like to have a family and kids, but let’s be realistic, I can’t afford to survive on my own,’ 35-year-old Mr. Ware, who lives in the Bronx, said. With the raise, ‘maybe I’ll be able to step up and ask a girl out on a date.’”

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

2 thoughts on “Occupational Health News Roundup

  1. The description of the Peterborough plant is pretty horrific on so many different levels. Why, I wonder, doesn’t this type of article stir the same sort of outrage that global warming does? The deplorable managers who allowed this sort of outrageous activity were presumably ignorant, or willfully inhuman, or were forced to ignore hazards by willfully inhuman superiors. Factories like the GE plant are like little fiefdoms were atrocities take place in realitvely small areas out of public view, for one thing. Attribution of specific cancers is next to impossible at this time in human science, so industrialists get away with this sort of human sacrifice for profit and productivity. Much of humanity is still enslaved in horrific work situations because of the need to eat and buy insurance and to support families, so people just tolerate it and hope that they can survive it. GE was an early actor in the major off-shoring of manufacturing as a way of escaping responsibility for environmental and human health disasters, so we don’t have as many local industrial atrocities to report on or monitor, and the story gets forgotten.

    Although the stories of public health crimes involve more immediately lethal consequences than global warming, they don’t get any where near the attention. But the bad actors in both situations have a commonality that we need to expose and root out of the human condition, or it will ultimately degrade or extinguish all our lives. What is that evil that is common to both the global energy barons, and the global industrial barons who cause such destruction? Is it sociopathy? Is it ignorance? Is it a kind of sadism? We all profit from easy energy, and access to food , and these are obvious benefits of fossil fuel and industrialism, but is it necessary to have so much mindless environmental and human destruction in the process of providing these things that we need? Anyone?

  2. Capitalism is evil? Sorry, I know that’s a very flip answer (though I’m not sure it’s wrong), but it probably has roots in tribalism and total unwillingness to see past one’s self and today.

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