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Workers Memorial Day: We are now canaries in the coal mine

At Hanford, throughout nation, there’s a new indifference to worker safety



April 28 is Workers Memorial Day. A day we remember and honor those brothers and sisters who died in the previous year due to a work related accident or illness. Hundreds of memorials will be held around the country.

The work related death toll was 79 in Washington state last year. Nationally about 5,000 deaths were workplace accident related and more than 50,000 deaths were due to workplace illnesses.

Behind these numbers we find that 50 percent of the work related deaths in Washington state were workers over the age of 60, 25 percent of the deaths nationally and 20 percent of deaths in Washington were immigrant workers, and the major causes of death were falls, being struck by an object, and occupational illnesses.

But we also know that work injury and fatality numbers are not accurate. Unreported injuries occur frequently in agriculture, residential construction, temporary work, and 1099 employment. According to the previous Secretary of OSHA, thousands of occupational illnesses go unreported every year because the vast majority of chemicals and toxic substances in the workplace have not been analyzed and there are no permissible exposure levels associated with working with them.

Whether you are a farm worker subjected to organophosphate pesticides, chemicals that are derivatives of nerve gasses developed in Nazi Germany, or a worker doing clean-up at Hanford who is subjected to an unknown toxic brew of chemicals and radioactive substances, you and your co-workers have become the modern day equivalent of canaries in the coal mine.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) owns the Hanford Reservation and is responsible for its clean-up. DOE hires various contractors and employs the Penzer North America Co. to screen and adjudicate workers’ compensation claims.

The Hanford Reservation is considered to be the most contaminated and toxic site in the Western Hemisphere. Clean-up workers deal with carcinogens such as asbestos, lead, beryllium as well as a toxic brew consisting of chemical and radioactive contaminated liquid waste stored in underground tanks.

Despite high rates of occupational induced dementia, chronic beryllium disease, nerve damage, lung cancer, asbestosis, etc., occupational illness claims have been turned down by Penzer at a rate 52% higher than the state average for occupational illness claims.

It doesn’t take a Tri-Cities rocket scientist to figure out that these numbers don’t add up. What the numbers reveal and what workers have testified to is a systemic pattern of denying occupational disease claims at Hanford.

Lonnie Rouse, a former Hanford clean-up worker diagnosed with occupational induced dementia but whose claim has been repeatedly denied, testified at a February hearing of the House Commerce and Labor Committee with his wife, Melinda. They and other workers described how their lives and their livelihoods had been stolen by DOE and Penzer leaving them with shattered lives, lost homes and savings accounts, and a death sentence.

It is hard not to conclude that U.S. DOE and Penzer have shown a casual indifference to the lives of these workers and their families. The bill that the Rouse’s testified on was HB 1723, which would have created a rebuttable presumption that the diseases contracted by Hanford workers are work related. The bill passed the House with a bipartisan vote but was heard and then held in the Republican-controlled Senate Labor Committee by Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane).

To my way of thinking, this act was immoral.

So we have a lot of work to do to make our workplaces safer and to provide “sure and certain relief” to workers injured or exposed to chemicals on the job. Unfortunately, this job has just become a lot harder with the Trump administration.

One of the first Executive Orders by President Trump required any federal agency wanting to establish a new administrative rule must first eliminate two existing rules. This makes little sense whatsoever, but in the context of health and safety it is a “closed for business” sign on OSHA’s front door.

By using the Congressional Review Act, the Republican Congress has eliminated two rules that will adversely impact the health and safety of workers.

First they eliminated the Fair Pay and Safe Workplace Rule which required employers seeking federal contracts to disclose wage-and-hour and OSHA violations. If the violations had been remedied, then they were still eligible for receiving a contract.

The original rule came to be because it was discovered that two-thirds of employers with federal contracts had wage-and-hour violations and one-third had OSHA violations. Now apparently it doesn’t matter if our tax dollars are spent on employers who cheat and hurt workers.

The second rule they eliminated was the Volk’s rule. This rule allowed OSHA to go back five years in time to cite an employer for a serious health and safety violation and levy penalties. Prior to the rule OSHA was limited to a six month look-back. The rule was needed because OSHA has a ridiculously limited enforcement capability (current staff could inspect every worksite in America once every 140 years) and because it was in the best interest or worker safety. This expanded protection is now gone, too.

So, as if our work was not hard enough already, we now have Congress and a president who show a cavalier indifference to the health and safety of workers. It is time that we use our collective power to back up the position that we will no longer allow workers to be the canaries at the workplace.

As we remember today our brothers and sisters whose deaths were caused by work, let us not forget them tomorrow or next week.

15-Jeff-JohnsonJeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 600 local unions and approximately 450,000 rank-and-file union members.

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