Australian Union Workers Fight for Asbestos Safety, Monitoring

Recently, an auction house (Pickles Auctions) located in Canberra, Australia was shut down due to improper removal of asbestos products. The closure was deemed necessary after it was determined the removal of the asbestos was both unauthorized and improperly performed.

The news was brought to the government’s attention through the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), who is authorized to enter worksites to investigate potential worker health hazards or safety breaches.

However, under new laws currently being considered by the Canberra government, union inspection of such sites could be made more difficult. As the present proposed laws stand, the CFMEU organizers who spoke up against improper safety at Pickles Auctions could have been prosecuted.

Sadly, Canberra government officials recently voted in favor of drafting tougher auditing laws as they pertain to unions. Though no knew laws have been enacted yet, surely this would be a major blow against worker safety in Australia.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring product that has been used in building insulation and many other commercial products. When inhaled, asbestos can cause mesothelioma.

The CFMEU is currently arguing against the proposed monitoring restrictions. Additionally, they are calling for the government to enact an asbestos register that would track individuals who have been exposed to asbestos. The goal of such a register is to document and track initial exposures so that workers can more easily seek fair compensation if mesothelioma does occur later in life.


Georgia Senators Urge OSHA to Issue Combustible Dust Regulations

On February 7, 2008 an Imperial Sugar refinery exploded in Port Wentworth, Georgia, killing 14 workers and injuring dozens more. The cause of the explosion was combustible dust.

Following the disaster, OSHA representatives were chastised during a hearing at the House Education and Labor Committee for their apparent lack of concern about protecting U.S. workers from the dangers of combustible dust. At the time, OSHA stressed that they were assessing whether or not regulatory action was necessary to create standards for combustible dust in the workplace.

More than a year later, it seems OSHA is still unmotivated to address the topic. OSHA recently announced its regulatory agenda for the next year, and apparently there are no plans to propose a rule for combustible dust.

Rather, OSHA indicates a pre-rulemaking notice will be issued instead. A pre-rulemaking notice is supposedly requested when more information on a subject is required. However, many suggest these pre-rule notices are nothing more than a placeholder for actual progress in worker safety. Rather than propose actionable changes, OSHA simply “requests more information” to skirt the issue.

Now, it seems Georgia’s senators would like to see more action from OSHA on the issue of combustible dust. Recently, both Senator Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss publicly urged OSHA to officially release regulations regarding this dangerous work hazard. Based on briefings of the Imperial Sugar explosion compiled by the Chemical Safety Board, Senator Isakson had this to say:

“I believe we should embrace the findings of the Chemical Safety Board, including the recommendation that OSHA establish mandatory standards modeled after the National Fire Protection Association guidelines. Sen. Chambliss and I are working closely with Secretary Solis to ensure that the lessons we have learned as a result of the Port Wentworth disaster will help us prevent future tragedies.”

OSHA will be releasing its most recent version of its regulatory agenda in December. Only time will tell whether the additional pressure from these Georgia legislators will prove effective.


Asbestos Exposure From Brake Dust Still A Concern

Asbestos is a fiber that is prized for its strength and heat resistance. These two unique qualities make asbestos an excellent component in vehicle brake pads. However, the hazards of asbestos exposure have long been known – inhaling such fibers can cause scarring of the lung tissue and, in some cases, rare lung cancers such as malignant mesothelioma.

Due to these health risks, the use of asbestos in brake pads had been largely phased out in vehicle production by the 1990s. Unfortunately, this does not mean that asbestos has stopped being a hazard to auto mechanics and others.

For one, late-model vehicles often still harbor brake dust that contains asbestos fibers. When this brake dust is released into the air – either by cleaning or repairing the brakes – asbestos inhalation can still occur. Original equipment brakes on vehicles as recent as 1993 were still being sold in the United States with asbestos brakes. Additionally, high-end imports, such as those sold by Land Rover, continue to incorporate asbestos linings into new vehicle models.

For two, many after-market brakes for sale in America still contain asbestos. These non-OEM parts continue to pose risks for auto industry workers and do-it-yourself gearheads.

So why, after decades of research that documents the hazards of asbestos brake dust, are automotive products still being manufactured with the fiber? Beginning in the early 1980s, European countries began banning the sale and production of all asbestos products. Today, 60 countries worldwide have enforced regulations that make the sale of asbestos products illegal.

The United States is not one of these countries.

In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced a proposal to ban the production of asbestos products in the United States. Under the proposal, a total ban on all domestic and imported asbestos products would be initiated by 1996.

Unfortunately, EPA’s proposed ban was overturned in the courts. This was largely due to heavy lobbying on behalf of brake rebuilders and other asbestos-related businesses.

As such, brake manufacturers are free to fabricate brakes that contain asbestos if they so choose. Furthermore, no law requires such hazardous products to be labeled in any way that might warn mechanics and other individuals about the potential for asbestos exposure. Sadly, this fact exacerbates the possibility for unnecessary inhalation of harmful mesothelioma-causing agents.

To minimize potential for asbestos brake dust exposure, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration recommends either wet cleaning procedures or the use of an enclosed high-efficiency vacuum when working with automotive brakes. Dry procedures such as air hoses are strongly discouraged, as these processes cause brake dust to become airborne.


Teaching the Financial Benefits of Worker Safety and Health

Ensuring employee safety and health is not only the human thing to do; it is also just plain good for business. At least, this is what numerous partners of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have been reporting. Repeatedly, companies with strong occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) programs are experiencing cost savings and other business advantages simply by improving work conditions for their employees.

Now, NIOSH is attempting to teach the upcoming generation of business executives the benefits of such programs. In conjunction with the National Safety Council (NSC) and the Williams College of Business at Xavier University, NIOSH is promoting fair treatment of employees through an MBA course called “Business Value of Safety and Health.”

The course, offered at the Xavier campus in Cincinnati, Ohio, serves to inform business students of the many benefits – financial and otherwise – that come from instituting OEHS programs in the workplace.

The course has been offered since the Spring semester of 2009. Through real-world examples and case studies, the course teaches students how to evaluate OEHS initiatives and identify the most cost-efficient opportunities. Beyond financial benefits, the Xavier course program is also intended to promote research among safety and health professionals and reduce the overall number of workplace injuries and deaths.

So far, the inaugural course has been deemed a success. So much so, in fact, that Xavier now plans to expand course offerings related to OEHS practices. A new Center for Excellence in the Business of Health and Safety has been formed to create curriculum that tailors work safety practices and benefits to specific fields such as risk management, finance, economics and marketing.

Xavier and NIOSH are also co-sponsoring an “Economics of Sustainability – Health, Safety and the Environment Conference” in the fall of 2010. Dates for the conference are set for October 27 through October 29.

NIOSH intends to partner with other colleges to form and promote similar courses.

Fatal Occupational Injuries Decline 10 Percent in 2008

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has just released a slew of intriguing data pertaining to 2008 work-related deaths. Overall, the news is good, with a full 10 percent decrease in workplace fatalities when compared to 2007 figures. Furthermore, 2008 occupational deaths (5,071 in total) register as the smallest annual preliminary total for any year since the BLS began recording such data in 1992.

Why did the U.S. see such a dramatic drop in workplace fatalities? At first glance, one might hypothesize that the high rate of unemployment witnessed in 2008 may have played a part. After all, if people are not working as much, they are also not being placed in as many hazardous work situations.

However, when comparing fatality rate of full-time workers, the BLS also reports a significant drop – 3.6 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2008 as opposed to 4.0 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2007.

Still, industries in which worker safety is generally an issue (construction, mining, etc.) have experienced larger drops in hours of employment than other sectors. Such a shift may have diminished the number of potentially dangerous work situations over all.

Additionally, the downturn in the economy has also resulted in smaller staffs at government agencies. This means that short-staffed agencies such as the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries may be backlogged with processing of documents related to workplace statistics. Again, the 2008 figures are only preliminary findings, and may be updated in the future.

Regardless of cause, the report is good news for the U.S. economy as a whole. Additional stats gleaned from the report include:

  • Workplace suicides rose 28 percent (251 total cases)
  • Workplace homicides declined 18 percent
  • Industries in which fatal injuries rose for 2008 include farming, fishing and forestry
  • 16 percent of all 2008 workplace fatalities involved a foreign-born employee
  • Men accounted for 93 percent of all workplace-related deaths
  • Fatal workplace falls across all industries diminished by 20 percent
  • Injuries among the private construction sector dropped by 20 percent


Nanoparticles Linked to Lung Disease in Seven Chinese Workers

Seven female employees of a polyacrylic coating facility in Beijing, China have been diagnosed with severe lung disease. The root cause, as described in a case report published in the European Respiratory Journal, is inhaled nanoparticles present in the polystyrene boards that the women worked with on a daily basis.

All seven women were admitted to the hospital between January 2007 and April 2008 for shortness of breath. Lab tests confirmed a myriad of other side effects, including hypoxemia (low oxygen saturation in the blood), severe skin rash from constant itching and fluid in the thoracic cavity and heart. These symptoms proved life threatening, and two of the seven workers eventually died from their illness.

A myriad of medical tests eventually found the presence of nanoparticles (30 nm in diameter) present in each worker’s lungs. Toxic chemicals the women frequently worked with include n-butyl ester, di-tert-butyl peroxide, butonic acid and toluene.

Some experts hypothesize that the workers’ exposure could have been avoided had the Chinese plant installed proper ventilation systems and personal protective equipment had been provided.

Nanoparticles are particles less than 100 nanometers in diameter. Frequently, they are chemically altered compounds used to improve the properties of consumer products. For example, titanium oxide is used in sunscreen to improve transparency.

The topic of nanoparticles has been a heated source of debate recently. While the use of such particles has the potential to greatly improve a wide range of products, their long-term effects on human health have only just begun to be researched.

In previous studies, researchers have expressed concern for the ability of nanoparticles to behave much like asbestos fibers when inhaled. Asbestos is a naturally occurring fiber that, when breathed in, becomes lodged in the lungs. Asbestos is the sole known cause for mesothelioma, a rare type of lung cancer.


Senate Introduces Bill to Amend Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced a bill to amend the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970. The bill, marked as S. 1580 and backed by Senator Edward Kennedy, seeks to expand the power of OSHA. Major changes that would result from the bill’s approval include:

  • An expansion of OSHA protection to public sector workers – presently, 8.5 million government workers are not covered by an OSHA State Plan
  • Improving protection for whistleblowers and restructuring administrative procedures related to whistleblower investigations
  • Bolstering rights and access to information for workers injured on the job (as well as their family members)
  • Raising civil penalties and adding inflation adjustments to those who violate OSHA laws
  • Redefining criteria for criminal violations

The bill is strongly backed by those advocating legislation geared towards reducing work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths. In the Senate itself, support comes largely from liberals, with 20 cosponsors (19 Democrats a one Independent) presently backing the bill.

Bill S. 1580 is presently the only OSHA-related bill being circulated in the Senate. However, several work-related safety bills are currently being introduced in the House of Representatives. These bills are varied, and pertain to similar topics, including whistleblowers, how companies report injuries and illnesses and mandatory inspection reporting to OSHA from large firms. More mesothelioma news.

Men Estimated to be 40 Percent More Likely to Die From Cancer

Overall, men are 40 percent more likely to die from cancer, according to a recent study. Additionally, men are 16 percent more likely to contract cancer in the first place. The study, which was initiated by Cancer Research UK, suggests alarmingly different expectations of cancer survival between men and women.When looking specifically at cancers that affect both men and women, males fared even worse. In such instances, Cancer Research UK estimates that men are 60 percent more likely to contract the cancer, and 70 percent more likely to die from it.

The study cites two factors that likely result in the higher cancer risks among men – unhealthy lifestyle choices and a reluctance to visit the doctor.

The dramatic results of the study were a surprise to the research team, which had expected to see similar mortality rates between the two sexes. Indeed, there is no known biological reason why men would die more frequently from cancer than women.

Experts say that the study is a strong indicator that men need to be made aware of the consequences of not taking care of their bodies. Through simple lifestyle changes, it is believed that half of all cancers could potentially be prevented.

Some of the manageable factors that contribute to increased cancer risk include smoking, high alcohol intake, unhealthy diet and excessive weight in the mid-section.

Perhaps the easiest lifestyle change for men to make is to simply visit the doctor on a regular basis. Even if cancer cannot be prevented, routine doctor visits may help catch the cancer in an early stage of development. When caught early, the chances for survival dramatically improve for most types of cancer.


Risk of Cancer Caused by Air Pollution on the Decline

The number of Americans expected to contract cancer as a result of inhaling toxic air pollution has dropped according to recent estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Based on a recent EPA report that looked at 2002 levels of air pollution, it is estimated that 36 out of every 1 million U.S. residents is expected to develop cancer from inhaling toxic air pollution. This number is down from a similar EPA estimate released in 2006, which estimated 42 cancer cases per 1 million individuals. The older study was based off of 1999 air pollution levels.

The numbers represent a national average, and the EPA took precaution to stress that the rate of expected cancer cases related to air pollution vary dramatically depending on the particular living environment. For example, communities that feature a high level of industrial air pollution, such as areas in northern Mississippi and central southern Kentucky, have pollution-related cancer rates estimated above 100 people per 1 million.

People living in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Pittsburg and Los Angeles are also at a higher risk. This is due to high volumes of pollution created by vehicle traffic, gas stations, construction equipment and even dry cleaners.

The EPA’s figures are based on data culled from 180 pollutants. The EPA attributes the drop in expected cancer cases related to air pollution to be a result of improved fuel standards and fuel efficiency of motor vehicles.


Smithsonian Museum Embattled With Employee Over Asbestos Exposure

The Smithsonian is one of our nation’s most treasured museums. It is also one of the countless buildings in the country that was built with asbestos-containing materials. And though the presence of such hazardous materials has been known for more than 17 years, upper management has been accused of failing to raise awareness and follow proper maintenance procedures in accordance with OSHA regulations.

The accusations come largely from Richard Pullman, a maintenance worker and lighting specialist who has worked at the museum for more than 27 years. In a 2008 employee safety meeting, Pullman was shocked to learn that asbestos was present in walls throughout the museum. These walls are the same ones that Pullman has been drilling into, cutting and sanding for more than two decades.

This was alarming to Pullman, and rightly so. Acts such as these that cause asbestos particles to become airborne and inhaled dramatically increase the risk of lung diseases such as mesothelioma. Following the meeting, Pullman visited a lung specialist (he had already been experiencing shortness of breath) and the doctor diagnosed him with asbestosis.

Shortly after the safety meeting, Pullman also filed federal workplace safety complaints with OSHA regarding failures of the museum to notify, train and monitor employees regarding the risks of asbestos at the museum. In a response sent to The Washington Post, OSHA indicated that the museum should have “cordoned off the area, posted warning signs, and used an impermeable dropcloth, wet methods and local ventilation when working on the walls.”

Despite these incriminating facts, the Smithsonian claims no wrongdoing. Several tests performed at the museum have indicated that asbestos levels at the museum are well below legal limits. However, a 1992 asbestos testing commissioned by the Smithsonian found between 1 and 5 percent asbestos in several walls – a level that mandates notification and complex cleanup requirements under OSHA regulations. A recent independent study commissioned by Pullman himself seems to confirm this test, resulting in chrysolite levels of as much as 13.7 percent.

The employee and the museum are now embittered over the matter. Pullman has filed several worker compensation claims, but has so far been denied. And though the Smithsonian has taken great strides in removing asbestos dust and other hazardous products from the museum, they continue to deny the fact that regulations were broken or Pullman was unnecessarily placed at risk.

It should be noted that visitors to the museum are likely in no danger of unhealthy asbestos exposure. The material is only toxic when airborne, making maintenance workers the most likely to be affected. For more information on the story, please refer to the in-depth article at the Washington Post.