paint strippers

Workers’ Rights

Published — December 24, 2018

Our top workers’ rights investigations this year

Paint strippers, many containing methylene chloride, line the shelves at an Ace Hardware store in Maryland. The global cooperative has not indicated that it will stop selling the products, which can be deadly. But several Ace stores in Vermont are among the retailers nationwide that have pledged to do so. (Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity)



Introduction

In 2016, the most recent year for which there is data, 5,190 workers were killed on the job: more than 99 per week, or 14 people a day, according to federal data.

By its own count (according to data from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA), there is one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers.

That has translated into little oversight into workplace safety and regulation, and this year, we investigated more incidents of workplace injuries and deaths.  

More of our top stories this year: 

Fatal Flaws

We partnered with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Ohio Valley ReSource to report on how states and territories regulate their own workplaces rather than defer to the feds.

While some of these programs are effective, others don’t adequately protect workers, reports show.

Fatal flaws: How Kentucky fails its workers

In Kentucky, the state agency tasked with protecting workers failed to properly investigate nearly every single worksite death in two years, according to a federal investigation and analysis by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

The flaws showed up in almost all of the 44 fatalities examined by federal OSHA in fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

‘The good, the bad and the ugly’ of state worker safety programs

The ability of states and territories to create and maintain their own safety programs is rooted in Section 18 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.  But the track records of those programs vary widely. Some are cash-starved and suffer from high staff turnover and investigative lapses as a result. Others are relatively well-funded and stable. Recently released federal audits of the 28 programs (six of which cover only public-sector employees) found significant problems in ArizonaIllinoisKentucky and Maryland, for example, while praising IowaNew JerseyOregonTennessee and Washington.

A teenager dies on the job. His family’s work begins

According to a Kentucky state investigation, shortly before closing time on November 3rd, a 19-year-old forklift operator was returning the equipment to the main facility for storage. Exactly what happened next is not clear.

“The victim had hitched a ride on the forklift,” an inspector with Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health concluded in his report. The operator’s manual for the 6-ton forklift, with front tires nearly four-feet tall, clearly prohibits passengers.

As the forklift approached a gate, Grant either fell or hopped down from the six-ton forklift. Somehow, he ended up underneath it, and the forklift’s rear wheel ran over his chest and neck.

In Kentucky, deregulation and worker safety collide

In the early days of the 2017 legislative session, Kentucky passed right-to-work, which allows workers to not pay union dues even if they work at a unionized company; eliminated the prevailing wage, which had created a minimum hourly rate for public works jobs; and created a sunset provision so all administrative regulations expire after seven years.

The 2018 session continued that trend with a reworking of the state’s workers compensation system that that shortened the amount of time some injured workers can receive benefits, among other changes. That bill also contained limitations on benefits for coal miners affected by black lung disease.

“We’re in an economy where these businesses are in business to make money, and maximize profits,” said Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO. “You do that by cutting corners, putting people in unsafe conditions, not complying with the regulations — and claiming that they’re overly burdensome.”

Death in the oilfields

Pryor Trust explosion

Drilling is an inherently dangerous undertaking, with a fatality rate nearly five times that of all industries in the United States combined in 2014, the last year such rates on oil and gas extraction were published by the government. Production pressures — and the temptation to cut corners — intensify during boom times, as America is experiencing now due to a rush of fossil-fuel exports.

The work of coaxing oil and gas from thousands of feet underground is performed in biting cold and breathtaking heat by stoics like Parker Waldridge, who burned to death at 60 in a driller’s cabin, known as a doghouse, atop the floor of Rig 219.

“It is a macho world,” said Frank Parker, a safety consultant in Magnolia, Texas, who has studied the industry and its workers for more than 50 years. “They get up in the morning and eat nails for breakfast. We need those people to do that kind of work. We’ve just got to find a way not to kill them.”

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Our investigation into a deadly paint stripper

paint strippers

About a dozen retailers have pledged to stop selling paint-removal products that can kill their customers, but formal restrictions promised by a federal agency have yet to materialize.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in May that it would “shortly” finish its proposed rule about certain widely available paint strippers — those containing a chemical called methylene chloride — and send it to the White House office that must sign off before new regulation is enacted.

Now, seven months later, the EPA won’t say when it anticipates taking that step or if it is still contemplating a ban on retail sales. The agency would only say that it is “currently evaluating the proposal … to determine the appropriate regulation.”

Since a ban was first proposed on methylene chloride paint removers in January 2017, at least four people have died using the products to strip paint or other coatings. In enclosed areas such as bathrooms, the fumes build up, putting workers and consumers at risk of death by asphyxiation. The chemical can also trigger heart attacks.

A 2015 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, cited by the EPA in its proposed rule, found at least 56 deaths in the United States since 1980 that were linked to methylene chloride.

“This should be an easy decision,” said Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an advocacy group that has called on the EPA and retailers to act. “People died using the product, and we know that there are alternatives. … Why not take it off the market?”

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Eight years after Deepwater Horizon, is another disaster waiting to happen?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is deepwaterhorizon-1024x730.jpg

Within seconds, a bright, white flash erupted on the lower deck of West Delta 105 E, an oil-production platform positioned a dozen miles off the Louisiana coast. Disoriented, one crewmember found himself 10 feet away from where he had been working before he blacked out. Another likened the impact to a sledgehammer blow to his head. A third told investigators he felt like he’d been hit by an 18-wheeler, his hard hat, glasses and earplugs knocked off in the blast.

For a fourth, death came instantly. Jerrel “Bubba” Hancock, a 24-year-old father of two, was the closest to the hatch of a large metal tank when flammable vapors ignited, unleashing a fireball the afternoon of Nov. 20, 2014. He died of blunt-force trauma to the head and chest.

Hancock’s death during a maintenance job could have been avoided, federal investigators concluded in late 2016. Safety lapses leading up to the accident were laid bare in a 73-page report by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), a little-known agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for policing the sprawling offshore industry. It was the sort of comprehensive post-mortem for which BSEE had been designed.

But the agency has faced crippling challenges on several fronts, from staffing to its ability to hold companies accountable. Born in the wake of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon explosion — which killed 11 workers and dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — BSEE has struggled to implement safety regulations that are now under threat of being rolled back. The agency’s team of roughly 130 inspectors is responsible for conducting 20,000 inspections annually across 2,000-plus facilities from the Gulf to the Alaska coast. Its annual budget of $204 million is about a third of the cost of the sunken Deepwater rig.

Under the Trump administration, the fate of the small bureau — and its roughly 800 employees — is also in doubt. As the White House and the Interior Department pursue “energy dominance,” opening more federal lands and waters to drilling than ever before, BSEE’s status — along with the safety reforms that helped empower it — has become increasingly tenuous. Concerns over the agency’s potential demise have swirled on Capitol Hill for months, buoyed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s calls for deregulation, restructuring and his controversial pick to lead BSEE: Louisiana native and longtime oil-industry ally Scott Angelle, who has pledged to take the bureau “from an era of isolation to an era of cooperation.”

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