Don’t base policy on deadly lies

REAL BURDENS Grieving for a dead partner who never got to meet his son. Bringing up two children on your own. Working in a cafe but struggling to put food on the table. Laurie Swift, 27, can tell you all about burdens.

Wherever you go, business lobby groups are trotting out cookie-cutter reports claiming businesses are folding, jobs are being lost, and the economy is being devastated.

And the cause? The burden of regulation, with health, safety and environmental rules always targeted as top irritants.

The perpetual belly-aching about workplace regulations is packaged the same both sides of the Atlantic, and contains the same claims about the dire impact of employment and safety regulations on business and the economy. It’s a clarion call that gets heard by frequently uncritical government agencies.

In September 2010, the US Small Business Administration (SBA) issued ‘The impact of regulatory costs on small firms’, which claimed the cost of federal regulations reached $1.75 trillion in 2008.

The SBA-commissioned report puts the annual cost of environmental regulations at $281 billion. In doing so, it adopts the upper limit of far-and-away the highest estimate in any research considered in the review, which is almost 20 per cent higher than the average figure and 60 per cent higher than the lowest estimate. Still, it’s now a big chunk in the headline figure cited in an oft-quoted government report, including a 27 September 2010 op-ed by the authors in the Wall Street Journal.

SBA puts the annual bill for occupational health and safety laws at $64.8 billion. The authors, Lafayette College economists Nicole V Crain and W Mark Crain, also say “it is noteworthy” their earlier (2005) study found occupational health and safety regulations “were by far the largest element within the workplace regulations category,” making up 53 per cent of the regulatory compliance costs in this category.

In the UK, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) produces its own same-problem-same-solutions annual ‘Business burdens’ report. The 2010 edition, published in May, puts the puts the total cumulative cost to business of regulations since 1998 at £88.34bn. Health and safety “burdens” identified in the 2010 report cover regulations providing workers with protection from hazards including explosives, chemicals, work at height, biocidal products, vibration and noise. BCC estimates these safety regulations lead to a combined recurring annual cost to business of £374 million. The cumulative cost since 1998 tots up to £2.963 billion.

There’s just a couple of flies in their deregulatory ointment. The arguments are bogus and the statistics behind them are rigged.

In the US, the SBA report contains this admission: “This research, while mindful of this fact, does not consider the benefits of federal regulations, but looks at the overall costs imposed by them.” And in the UK, BCC relegates to the technical notes an admission that the costs to business identified “are net of the benefits that accrue to business.”

Both sides of the Atlantic, the business lobby discounts entirely the cost paid by the victims of slack health and safety standards. And this human price out-strips the business cost several times over. Analyses from the US, the UK, Australia and elsewhere, cited in Hazards’ 2009 ‘Who pays?’ report, establish how only a small part of the cost is borne by business – the one party with something to gain from cost- and corner-cutting at the expense of safety.

A 2008 analysis by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) concluded: “Although the costs of workplace injuries and work-related ill health are attributable to the activities of the business… the bulk of these costs fell ‘externally’ on individuals and society.”

Compared to the multi-billion annual cost of occupational injuries and diseases, many deadly, protective health and safety laws are really no burden at all. The Hazards report concludes: “Only a minute proportion of cases of occupational injury or disease result either in compensation for the victim or the prosecution of an employer. In cash terms, employers get off lightly. In human terms, employers just don’t suffer at all.”

And while the costs are inflated, the casualties figures are routinely depressed. A 2005 literature review, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found in the US both this human and cash cost “is significant but underestimated.” It concluded this was a consequence of the data on the incidence and cost of occupational illness and injury being marred by gaps and systematic methodological flaws in research on the burden of workplace harm. It is a criticism levelled at workplace morbidity and mortality figures in the UK (Hazards 92) and elsewhere.

‘Dangerous li(v)es’, a November 2010 campaign briefing from UK workers’ health and safety magazine Hazards, dismantles the business arguments for deregulation. It says the top bugbear of the UK business lobby is risk assessments, which it claims are petty bureaucracy and a burden. “But if you are too dumb to easily and quickly complete a risk assessment on your own business activities, you are too dumb to run that business,” it comments. It adds that the evidence, far from supporting the business-preferred approach of self-regulation, establishes “two methods are far-and-away the most effective in delivering safer, healthier workplaces – a credible inspection and enforcement regime and worker participation with active trade union involvement.”

The Hazards briefing adds that consigning health and safety enforcers to desk duty means dangerous rogue businesses will escape scrutiny and justice, “particularly those exposing their workers to slow-burn health risks like occupational cancer.”

It dismisses the case regularly trotted out by businesses and cost-conscious government agencies that running a safe, environmentally friendly business doesn’t require regulation and enforcement because “it is just a matter of common sense.” It concludes: “Boardrooms don’t care about demonstrating common sense, they care about demonstrating profitability.” While companies have absolute legal duties to protect the interests of shareholders, they only have heavily qualified duties to protect the health of their workforce and of the environment. “In this dangerously topsy-turvy system, it’s no wonder safety takes a backseat,” it concludes.

So, instead of common sense policing of the business world’s safety villains, the rigged and lop-sided business costings get repeated as fact and form a core part of the deregulatory arguments that shape governmental policy.

For example, the US Chamber of Commerce cites the SBA study as evidence in its ongoing campaign to have regulations, including safety and environment rules, eased and to block planned initiatives. The Chamber’s ‘This way to jobs’ public relations and lobbying push argues for fewer laws and more voluntary initiatives – in its words, ‘compliance assistance’ – on health and safety and the environment. The attack forms an explicit part of the business lobby group’s well-resourced anti-union, anti-regulation ‘Workforce Freedom Initiative’.

And both sides of the Atlantic the business lobby is complaining about a regulatory burden to business competitiveness that does not in fact exist. Out of all the OECD countries, the lowest levels of legal employment protection are found in the USA, Canada and Britain.

If the objective is to make work safer and reduce the related human and economic costs, then regulation and enforcement should be the preferred option.

Commenting on the US Chamber’s campaign, Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of union backed and grassroots safety groups, said it was rehashing an approach that had failed the economy, the environment and workers’ safety for decades.

‘‘We’ve had a whole generation of deregulation, starting in the Reagan years, and what it brought us was complete financial disaster because of under-regulation of the financial industry, the worst environmental disaster in our history because of inadequate oversight and regulation, and a series of major workplace disasters this year,’’ O’Connor told the Bureau of National Affairs on 19 October 2010. ‘‘So I wouldn’t say that deregulation has done a lot of good for American consumers and American workers.’’

University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor believes enforcement is not just the more effective option, it is the more efficient option. Calling on the Obama administration to impart “a sense of urgency to regulatory agencies” protecting health, safety and the environment, she notes: “By far the most important initiative is to reinvigorate enforcement across the board, especially with respect to criminal violations. Enforcement – especially criminal enforcement – produces tremendous bang for limited bucks because it gives white collar executives ample incentive to prevent practices that, quite literally, kill people.”

She adds: “Taking cases of wrongdoing to court pulls the debate down from the ideological stratosphere of ‘big’ government arguments to the hands-on practicality of the ways that greedy executives injure actual men, women and children with impunity.”

Professor Phil James of Middlesex University Business School, in research for HSE published in 2005, concluded “existing evidence suggests that legal regulations and their enforcement constitute a key, and perhaps the most important, driver of director actions in respect of health and safety at work.”

It’s not just that the business argument concentrates solely on the costs rather than the benefits, both business and regulators are inclined to over-estimate the costs and the consequences.

In ‘The going out of business myth’, US group OMB Watch cites a succession of dire warnings about the cost implications of the introduction of workplace safety regulations covering asbestos, cotton dust, vinyl chloride and other highly hazardous substances.

It notes: “The public needs regulatory safeguards to protect our health, safety, environment, civil rights, and welfare. Corporate special interests, however, have an interest in avoiding spending a single dime to improve their destructive behaviour. Again and again, when new regulatory protections have been proposed, corporate lobbyists have argued that business would be bankrupted and forced to go out of business. Again and again, they have been proven wrong.”

Industry estimated the cost of rules requiring benzene emissions to be controlled would be hundreds of thousands of dollars per plant. The availability of safer substitutes meant the actual cost was zero. Asbestos, cotton dust and formaldehyde rules came in at less than half the predicted costs. Vinyl chloride rules cost a quarter the pre-regulation estimate.

Cry wolf – predicted costs by industry in the face of new regulations‘, an April 2004 report from the International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec), found both industry, in resisting regulation, and regulators, through under-estimating the potential for beneficial innovation, over-estimated costs.

It noted: “Most of the statements about compliance costs and difficulties from industry organisations and lobbyists are general and vague. These statements range from claims that regulation will cause the downfall of whole industry sectors to the oft-repeated story of how regulation would drive one particular (usually imaginary) small or medium-sized enterprise out of business.”

David Michaels, author of the award-winning 2008 book ‘Doubt is their product: How industry’s assault on science threatens your health’ which dissected industry inflated cost and deflated risk estimates, and who is now the head of the US government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), commented: “In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are always disputed. Animal data are deemed not relevant, human data not representative, and exposure data not reliable. Whatever the story — workplace chemicals that cause cancer, diesel exhaust, global warming, sugar and obesity, secondhand smoke, plastics chemicals that may disrupt endocrine function — scientists in the ‘product defence industry’ will manufacture uncertainty about it” (Hazards 103).

It’s a toxic, but very deliberate, combination of bad science and bad sums. ChemSec’s ‘Cry Wolf’ report cites a leaked memo from the Washington DC-based crisis management and public relations consultancy firm Nichols-Dezenhall to the American Chemistry Council, regarding growing support in California for the use of the precautionary principle (PP) to control chemicals.

In a ‘Precautionary principle campaign proposal‘, the firm, now known as Dezenhall Resources, lays out a series of  “tactics” to resist this preventive approach, including: “Conduct and publicize an economic-impact study to dramatize the potentially devastating impacts to industry and consumers should California broadly adapt PP-based legislation and regulation. The study could specify threats to both innovation and technology-development, as well as provide region-specific breakouts (eg. LA, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Imperial Valley) so as to create multiple media-pitch opportunities and to generate support among target audiences.”

ChemSec found the industry’s smoke and mirrors “seem to exert an unduly large influence as they are frequently quoted by politicians and included in official background papers.” ChemSec concluded: “The cases studied show that cost estimates from specific interest groups within industry generally overestimates predicted compliance costs and underestimates innovation potential. The study of 25 environmental regulations confirms that regulators, too, tend to overestimate the costs to industry, although their overestimations are not as systematic or as large as those presented by industry.”

Research commissioned by US group Public Citizen and published in 2004 also observed a propensity for regulators to produce inflated estimates. It noted: “Studies, comparing cost projections during consideration of a regulation with actual post-regulatory compliance costs, show that regulators often overestimate costs.” It said when it came to environmental and occupational health and safety regulations, studies showed “most… turn out to be less costly than estimated beforehand.”

The Public Citizen paper concludes: “Regulatory agencies often overestimate the cost of regulatory compliance, sometimes substantially. There are dozens of examples of costs being inflated and the potential for innovation and productivity-enhancing activities ignored. If policy makers are to base decisions on quality work developed by their agencies, then regulatory cost studies need to have accurate information, realistic assumptions, and dynamic analysis.”

It’s not that governments don’t know regulation-lite approaches have deadly consequences. A lack of oversight by official agencies has been implicated in a sequence of occupational and environmental catastrophes, from the Gulf of Mexico to the cancerous clean rooms of microelectronics manufacturers. And studies by official agencies in both the US and the UK have shown businesses take dangerous liberties when left to their own devices, and are far more likely to do the responsible thing when facing a realistic prospect of inspection, enforcement and criminal penalties.

In between disasters, governments forget the evidence and gloss over the crimes and revert back to blind trust and business-friendly talk of health and safety deregulation. Only when the deaths come in a rush and industry’s safety and environmental peccadilloes are in the media spotlight, is common sense briefly restored and talk of responsible inspection and enforcement regimes preferred to blind trust. But responsible enforcement trumps blind trust all the time, not just when the media is showing an interest.

Business over-estimates costs and ignores benefits with a purpose. It doesn’t want regulations and it doesn’t want enforcement. In the deadly scheme of things, lying so they can leave their workforce in the firing line is the least of their money-motivated crimes. Somewhere down the line, people die when regulatory protection is removed. That’s the ultimate capital crime.

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Courts encourage businesses to harm more people

The more people harmed by a corporation’s negligence, the lower the court penalty for environmental and occupational health offences is likely to be, researchers have found.

Loran Nordgren and Mary McDonnell, writing in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science discovered the phenomenon held up in both theoretical and real life cases. Their examination of the sentences in real world US court cases involving occupational and environmental health crimes, where people were found guilty but where the numbers of victims varied, gave clear cut results echoing those of the laboratory studies.

The researchers examined 136 representative cases between 2000-2009 in which individuals from corporations had been found guilty by juries of negligently exposing members of the public to asbestos, lead paint or toxic mould, and where their victims had all suffered significantly. They confirmed those who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive penalties than those who harm a smaller number.

Commenting on the findings in his Bad Science column in the Guardian, Ben Goldacre concluded factors that may play a contributory role include “cases where lots of people were harmed may involve larger companies, with more expensive and competent lawyers, for example, or larger and more deniable lines of responsibility. But in the light of their earlier experiment, it’s hard to discount the contributory effect of empathy, and this is a phenomenon we all recognise.”

Dr Irving Selikoff, probably the most celebrated occupational health doctor of the last century, once commented: “Statistics are people with the tears wiped away.” But when you only see the numbers and not the victims, in what the study authors term “the scope-severity paradox”, the human cost is disguised and the penalty reduced.

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BP safety talk is really about shareholders

ALL'S WELL? BP's "powerful" new safety unit is seeking to make life more comfortable for its shareholders.

The creation by BP of a new global safety unit with “sweeping powers” has the safety of shareholders’ money as its “ultimate goal”, the company’s top boss has admitted.

In a 1 October news release from the oil giant’s London HQ announcing the “powerful new organisation”, BP chair Carl-Henric Svanberg said there were “difficult challenges ahead” but added “we have assembled a strong and able new team and are developing a robust strategy to deal with them and to deliver our ultimate goal – the restoration of shareholder value.”

Mark Bly, who headed BP’s internal investigation into the hugely damaging US Deepwater Horizon oil spill, will run the new unit. His report has been criticised for overlooking the role of BP’s top management, including its London-based board, in decisions contributing to the disaster, which killed 11 workers and unleashed an environmental catastrophe. In evidence last month to a US Department of the Interior-commissioned National Academy of Engineering hearing, Bly admitted his internal BP team has only looked at the immediate cause of the 20 April disaster, conceding the study “does not represent a complete penetration into potentially deeper issues.”

Commenting on the formation of Bly’s new global safety unit, Bob Dudley, who took over from Tony Hayward as BP chief executive on 1 October, said it will have authority to intervene in all aspects of BP’s technical activities. He added that the company will also conduct “a fundamental review” of its business performance incentives, including its “reward strategy”.

Dudley said: “These are the first and most urgent steps in a programme I am putting in place to rebuild trust in BP – the trust of our customers, of governments, of our employees and of the world at large. That trust is vital to the restoration of shareholder value which has been so adversely affected by recent events. The changes are in areas where I believe we most clearly need to act, with safety and risk management our most urgent priority.”

BP was fined a $15 million last month for pollution offences related to fires at its troubled Texas City refinery, which released highly toxic plumes including carcinogenic benzene into the air. Fifteen workers died in an explosion at the plant in 2005.

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Chemical giant denies brain cancer link

A high profile US legal case is to cast doubt on industry evidence claiming that vinyl chloride exposure is not linked to brain cancer.

Joanne Branham says she believes environmental exposure to the chemical is the cause of the brain cancer that took the life of her husband, Franklin, six years ago. She blames the vinyl chloride that they were exposed to for nearly four decades while living in the village of McCullom Lake, Illinois, a mile downwind from a chemical plant operated by Philadelphia-based Rohm and Haas.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) reports his cancer was one of an unexpectedly large number in the vicinity of the plant, with 31 cases scheduled to go before the courts. Commenting as the Branham legal case started this week in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, a Rohm and Haas spokesperson said the company “believes that these claims are factually and scientifically unfounded, and for this reason, will continue to vigorously defend these cases.”

Kevin Van Wart, Rohm and Haas’s lawyer, told jurors in his 20 September opening statement: “The science will show chemicals from the Ringwood plant did not cause Mr Branham’s cancer.” He added: “Unfortunately, Mr Branham is one of many people who die each year of cancer, for reasons we just don’t know. That is a reality of modern-day living.”

There is a legal precedent, however, and serious doubts have been raised about the science on which the chemical company lawyers are basing their claims.

In what is believed to be the only successful lawsuit in the United States alleging that vinyl chloride exposure caused brain cancer, a jury in 2006 awarded $1.2 million (£770,000) to the widow of 57-year-old Donald Lattin, who had worked at a Shell Chemical plant near Trenton, New Jersey; the case was subsequently settled for an undisclosed sum. Mr Lattin succumbed in 2003 to a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. It’s the same type that has afflicted 10 of the McCullom Lake plaintiffs.

Aaron Freiwald, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, believes he can prove that an industry-funded study on which the company is expected to rely is flawed. His investigation indicates that the study of more than 10,000 workers at vinyl chloride plants, begun in 1973 and updated most recently by epidemiologist Kenneth Mundt in the 1990s, failed to include as many as two dozen fatal cases of brain cancer.

“Instead of the Mundt study being something that Rohm and Haas and other chemical companies can point to as casting doubt on the link between vinyl chloride and brain cancer, it would become very strong evidence of that link,” Freiwald told CPI’s Jim Morris.

Freiwald has spent almost five years building his case against Rohm and Haas, which since 2001 has been part of the Dow Chemical Company. After reviewing old chemical industry documents, court filings, and newspaper clippings and interviewing survivors of dead workers, Freiwald concluded Mundt’s update of the vinyl chloride workers study was based on incomplete data. Mundt reported 36 brain cancer deaths; the actual number, in Freiwald’s view, is closer to 60.

“Mundt inherited a lot of problems from those earlier studies,” Freiwald told CPI. “The companies determined which workers were included and which weren’t. Older workers, in many instances, were not included. Those were the people with the highest exposures in most cases.” Both the original study and Mundt’s update were financed by the main chemical industry trade body, now known as the American Chemistry Council.

The undercounting, Freiwald said, was most pronounced at Union Carbide’s now-closed vinyl resin plant in Texas City, Texas. Union Carbide, like Rohm and Haas, is now part of the Dow group.

Mundt’s study makes note of only one fatal case of brain cancer at the plant. But a Union Carbide document shows 19 cases — 13 that apparently met Mundt’s criteria for inclusion in the study and six that didn’t.

In his research for his CPI investigation, Morris spoke to Vincent Cogliano, head of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monographs programme. IARC is the UN agency charged with assessing evidence of cancer risk and designating substances to cancer risk groups. Vinyl chloride is already included in the top group 1 ranking as a cause of certain liver, but not brain, cancers.

An IARC working group considered Mundt’s study and others when it reviewed the scientific literature on vinyl chloride in 2007. “There wasn’t enough evidence for them to say that brain cancer was significantly elevated” among vinyl chloride workers, Cogliano told Morris. “Only angiosarcoma and hepatocellular carcinoma [both forms of cancer of the liver] were considered causally related to vinyl chloride. They didn’t find good evidence for brain tumours.”

Should it turn out that two dozen brain cancer deaths were missed in the Mundt paper, “it would be compellingly significant,” said Cogliano.

The problem doesn’t end with Mundt’s paper. The bulk of the key evidence on vinyl chloride and brain cancer, some dating back to the 1970s, has come from studies of workplaces and has been financed by the industry itself – and when it didn’t like the findings, it set about suppressing the evidence.

A study of workers at 37 US chemical plants published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 1993 showed an excess risk of brain cancer associated with vinyl chloride exposure. But the industry was not pleased with those results, and internal documents describe a partially successful effort to have the authors recant their findings.

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BP may emerge unscathed after 11 deaths

CLEANING UP? BP's well remunerated directors may emerge from the Deepwater Horizon disaster with a squeaky clean record, despite the 11 deaths in the Gulf coming just five years after it killed 15 at its Texas City refinery.

The share price of UK oil multinational BP soared this week after the company indicated the leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico had been “killed”. The company has spent five months attempting to seal its Macondo well, after a 20 April explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and triggered an environmental catastrophe.

The share price surge came as more optimistic analysts predicted legal claims arising from the disaster could be significantly below the $20bn (£13bn) set aside by BP and a leading US campaign group, Public Citizen, ended its ‘Beyond BP’ call for a boycott of the oil company.

BP said the disaster, which involved a spill of 4.9m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, had so far cost the company $9.5bn. Approximately 25,200 personnel, more than 2,600 vessels and dozens of aircraft remain engaged in the response effort, the company said.

Jason Kenney, an oil analyst at ING Barings, told UK paper The Guardian BP’s sale of non-core assets to pay for the disaster could, ironically, benefit the company.

“They’re still investible; they’re still credible; they’re very much alive and they could come out of this reinvigorated,” said Kenney, who believes BP is unlikely to face criminal charges for the explosion. “I think, in time, we’ll look back at this and the US will be quite happy with a record financial penalty and not necessarily look at charging BP on a criminal basis.”

A 19 September statement from the BP America chair and president Lamar McKay, marking the completion of the relief well, pressed home the message that BP was a responsible corporate player that had emerged from the “tragedy” with valuable expertise. Sidestepping any mention of “oil”, “pollution” or “deaths”, McKay set about spinning a cocoon of virtue around the company’s “accomplishment” and its eagerness to allow others to learn from its “important insights”.

“Today’s completion of relief well operations on the Macondo well is a significant technological accomplishment and another important milestone in our continued efforts to restore the Gulf Coast,” McKay’s statement said. “BP will continue sharing what we have learned in an effort to prevent a tragedy like this from ever being repeated. We also believe that the industry will gain important insights on how to be better prepared to respond to any future incidents.”

Two official US investigations are set to signal whether BP is judged “grossly negligent” in the Gulf disaster. The rulings have serious implications for the company, as they will influence whether BP alone carries the can, or whether the blame is shared with its minority partners on the Deepwater venture and with Transocean, Halliburton or Cameron, other major firms involved in development of the well.

The presidential commission investigating the disaster is due to deliver its findings in January and, at about the same time, a US coastguard panel will present its conclusions.

When it came to any suggestion of criminal liability, BP got its marker in early. In July this year it declared it did not believe it has been grossly negligent in regard to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The announcement came the day BP announced chief executive Tony Hayward was to leave his post on 1 October.

On 15 September, Hayward defended the firm’s safety record in the North Sea, insisting recent criticisms had not exposed “any fundamental weakness”. In his first and probably last UK appearance since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Hayward told a committee of MPs that disaster had been personally “devastating” because he had made safety the firm’s top priority – but he was forced to explain to the Energy and Climate Change Committee why inspections on BP’s North Sea installations found some did not comply with guidelines over regular training for operators on how to respond to an incident.

What is known already is that proven criminal culpability in the Texas City refinery explosion which killed 15 in 2005 – and which has killed a number of workers since and only this week saw two employees hospitalised with steam burns – was not enough to see any company director face criminal charges, let alone a jail term. It wasn’t even enough to get the company to remedy hundreds of safety flaws or prevent new ones.

With BP and market analysts already indicating the worst is behind them, the signs are that adding environmental devastation and 11 more deaths to the price of BP’s oil lust, will again see the company’s directors maintain their plush, well remunerated seats in the boardroom without fear of even answering for their crimes in court.

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Call to stop trade in toxic e-waste

The international system intended to stop illegal hazardous waste exports is not working, the head of a UK watchdog has warned.

In a speech last week to INTERPOL, the UK Environment Agency chair Lord Smith called for a European alliance to tackle the toxic trade in electrical waste into Africa. He said better cooperation and exchange of intelligence across national borders was necessary to stop a crime that poses a “growing and persistent risk to human health and the environment”.

According Lord Smith, the Environment Agency currently provides criminal intelligence on illegal waste exports to 46 countries but has so far received intelligence from only 10 countries in return. The Environment Agency believes the illegal export of electrical waste – such as TV, laptops and mobile phones – is the single biggest growth area in environmental crime. Despite 50 million tonnes of e-waste being generated annually worldwide, it says only 10 per cent is being recycled.

“Electrical waste contains toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead, and the health of children in the developing world is being put at risk when this waste is illegally exported and then burnt to recover the valuable metals inside,” Lord Smith said. “Not only are children being exploited and their health put at risk when they carry out this work, but the toxins are also contaminating air, land and water.”

Lord Smith indicated the INTERPOL E-Waste Crime Group would only work if there was more effective exchange of information across borders.

The international Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) estimates over 1,000 materials, including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, PVC, heavy metals, plastics and gases, are used to make electronic products and their components—semiconductor chips, circuit boards, and disk drives.

It adds that a computer screen can contain between four and eight pounds of lead alone. Big screen TVs contain even more than that. Flat panel TVs and monitors contain less lead, but use mercury lamps. About 40 per cent of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.

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Really, would you kill a friend?

An Australian construction firm has been fined after a teenage worker died working on a government-backed home insulation scheme. Arrow Property Maintenance Pty Ltd was fined $135,000 (£82,200) on charges relating to the death of 16-year-old insulation installer Reuben Barnes.

Unions warned last year that the energy efficiency scheme, part of a government stimulus package and flagged up as a “green” jobs initiative, was being compromised by the use of contractors without the skills, training or experience to undertake the work in a safe manner.

Reuben Barnes was electrocuted while installing fibreglass insulation in the ceiling of a private home in November last year. During the hearing directors of the company said they considered the teenager “a friend”.

Queensland Council of Unions Rockhampton secretary Craig Allen said he thought the comments from Chris and Richard Jackson in court were “insensitive”. He said if they were friends they would not have allowed Rueben to work without training, at heights, in a house that was electrified and in a situation that was unsafe.

Barnes was one of four people who died during the rollout of the government’s controversial home insulation programme, which was also blamed for nearly 100 house fires.

The government introduced new safety measures after unions said the scheme should be halted until improvements were made.

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Post workers get off their bikes

Are cycles a desirable, green alternative to the use of cars at work? Not when you are lugging large quantities of mail, says the UK postal workers’ union.

Cycles are great for leisure pursuits, but are neither safe nor suitable when it comes to delivering large quantities of mail, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) has said. The union is supporting a decision by Royal Mail to scale back the use of cycles on deliveries.

The company’s policy was criticised by the Cycle Touring Club (CTC). Under the slogan “keep posties cycling“, CTC supporters on 8 September cycled to Royal Mail’s London headquarters to deliver hundreds of letters of protest.

Kevin Mayne, chief executive of the national cyclists group, CTC, said: “Postal worker cyclists and members of the public have expressed concern at the illogical and rash way Royal Mail has made this decision.”

But CWU says there are serious safety concerns about the use of cycles for mail delivery, pointing out that over the past 15 years, 13 cycle delivery postmen and women have been killed at work and thousands more injured as the result of road traffic accidents. The union says other problems include “the limited load carrying capacity with cycles”. Overloading is common, it says, affecting cycle stability.

Responding to the CTC campaign, a CWU spokesperson said: “This isn’t leisure cycling, it’s cycling for work, and considerations are very different when people cycle as part of their job. Postal workers can’t pick and choose where they go on their cycle like leisure cyclists or people commuting and changes in road and traffic conditions have made cycles no longer suitable on many routes.”

CWU said it supported the introduction by Royal Mail of new vehicles with a “high environmental performance”, which would end the use of 30,000 less efficient private vehicles by postal workers. The union has warned for years that there are environmental, insurance and safety concerns from the use of private cars on mail rounds.

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ILO sounds the ‘death knell for asbestos’

DYING INDUSTRY Asbestos kills at least 300 people every day. It's time the industry was killed off, say unions and campaigners.

A statement from a United Nations body confirming its desire to see the end of asbestos use worldwide is the ‘death knell’ for a substance which claims one life every five minutes around the clock, the global union confederation ITUC has said.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) this week warned in an official position statement that industry lobbyists pushing asbestos around the world must not claim to have ILO support.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said the ILO statement provides welcome support for the global union campaign to see a ban on asbestos worldwide and a just transition to safer, better jobs for displaced asbestos workers. “ILO has confirmed that it wants to see the elimination of asbestos use worldwide, full stop,” she said. “Coming on the heels of calls for a global ban on asbestos use from major scientific, medical and occupational health groups, this sounds the death knell for the deadly fibre and a fatal blow for the asbestos pushers.”

The ILO statement comes at a time the asbestos industry is pressing hard for an expansion of chrysotile (white) asbestos production and sales. All forms of asbestos except for chrysotile are already prohibited worldwide.

Industry lobby group the Chrysotile Institute, which takes a lead in the global promotion of asbestos exports, routinely cites ILO documents and claims they are supportive of its case for continued asbestos use.

The Chrysotile Institute’s ‘Safe use manual’ claims it “builds on the principles of controlled-use embodied in ILO Convention 162, Safety in the Use of Asbestos.” The Institute also claims on its website to have organised training courses “in cooperation” with the ILO “intended to promote the controlled use of chrysotile.” And a March 2010 Chrysotile Institute news release headed ‘Partners in Favour of Chrysotile Fibre’ and criticising those calling for a global asbestos ban said its case was supported by “documents from the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization among others.”

Concerned at the industry’s repeated misuse of ILO’s name, the Geneva-based body issued the position statement which highlights the UN agency’s commitment to “promoting the elimination of the future use of all forms of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials.”

The ILO statement also underlines that “the ILO Convention on Safety in the Use of Asbestos, No. 162, should not be used to provide a justification for, or endorsement of, the continued use of asbestos.”

The issue has caused renewed controversy in recent months, as the Chrysotile Institute has been trying to secure government and private funds to dramatically expand asbestos production in Quebec, Canada. The last-ditch effort to revive Quebec’s asbestos industry this month received a cash lifeline while the deadly mining operation scrabbles to find private investors. The rapid approval by the Quebec government of a Can$3.5 million (US$3.4m) guaranteed line of credit, plus political support from Canada’s federal government, allowed the Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Quebec to reopen for the month of September.

The new cash has given the mine – which has virtually exhausted its asbestos deposit, is under bankruptcy protection and which ceased operating in October 2009 – breathing space to find private investors. Without this it has been told a Can$58m (US$56m) loan guarantee from the Quebec government, which would underwrite the cost of opening a new asbestos mine, would not be forthcoming. If the mine goes ahead, it will export 200,000 tonnes of asbestos a year to developing countries for 25 years.

Sharan Burrow said the ILO position statement could have “life-saving consequences, in reinforcing the union case for a total asbestos ban.” At ITUC’s June 2010 global congress in Vancouver, delegates agreed to press for “a total world ban on the use and commercialisation of asbestos, in which regard Congress, meeting in Canada, makes a special appeal to the Canadian government to join a total world ban on asbestos.”

That did not mean consigning asbestos workers to the scrap heap, however. According to Sharan Burrow: “Bringing an end to asbestos use is crucial, but only one part of the equation. That’s why ITUC is pursuing a policy of just transition, replacing dirty, damaging and deadly jobs with safer alternatives. We don’t want to see asbestos workers jobless, we want to see them in good, union jobs that don’t kill them. Asbestos is a dying industry – we need to consign it to history and move instead to decent, green jobs where you work, not die, for a living.”

Fiona Murie, health and safety director of the global construction union federation BWI, whose members are in the asbestos exposures front line, warned that while the industry profited from asbestos use, workers paid with their lives. “The World Health Organisation’s latest estimate notes that asbestos already claims 107,000 lives a year,” she said, pointing to a July 2010 WHO factsheet. “Even that conservative estimate means every five minutes around the clock a person dies of asbestos related disease.”

The construction union health and safety expert welcomed the ILO statement. “This confirms what the industry has in reality known all along – ILO, alongside major respectable scientific and medical organisations the world over, opposes the ongoing use of a fibre that kills at least 300 people every day. The asbestos industry, aided and abetted by the governments of Canada and Quebec, must now cease and desist its callous and cynical subterfuge on asbestos and should accept no-one including the ILO wants its deadly product.”

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Hey, they were only workers – have an award

WHO PAYS? Businesses see safety as a cost item. But if you can't run a business without killing someone, you shouldn't run a business at all - and enforcers should see it that way too.

Companies scream blue murder about the burden of health and safety regulation and the heavy-hand of regulators. But recent events reveal official workplace safety inspectors in the US and the UK are a rarely seen and seriously threatened breed, who lack the resources and sometimes the will to police rogue employers. Instead, companies give enforcement a body-swerve by self-assessing themselves for enforcement holidays and glittering safety awards.

In May, US President Barack Obama vowed to end the “cosy relationship” between oil companies and US regulators in the light of the April 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster.

But it’s not just the oil industry that’s benefiting from a regulatory blind eye and kid glove. Celeste Monforton, writing last week in The Pump Handle blog, gave her shapshot analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) news releases during the Bush and Obama presidencies.

Commenting on releases issued by Edwin Foulke during his tenure as the George W Bush pick for OSHA’s top seat, she noted: “Mr Foulke’s OSHA had a preference for issuing news releases announcing alliances and recognising the safety performance of particular firms. More than 45 per cent of the 284 news releases issued from January through July 2008 fell into this category.” Less than a third of the news releases concerned enforcement action.

Barack Obama’s choice as OSHA head, David Michaels, adopted a different tone, Monforton found. “During Dr Michaels’ tenure, less than eight per cent of OSHA’s news releases concerned alliances, partnerships and recognition of particular employers,” she said. “Nearly 55 per cent of the news releases issued in the first seven months of this year reported on specific enforcement cases with the names of employers cited, the types and severity of violations found and proposed monetary penalties. Another five per cent of the agency’s news releases announce the successful disposition of whistleblower complaint.”

But health and safety enforcement takes enforcers and takes resources. Without a lot more of both, most dangerous employers will remain dangerously out of sight. As the US national union federation AFL-CIO noted in its 28 April 2010 Workers’ Memorial Day briefings: “In the United States, there is one OSHA inspector for every 60,723 workers compared to the International Labor Organisation benchmark of one labor inspector for every 10,000 workers.”

In the UK, a dramatic decline in Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspection frequency has become a major concern for unions and campaigners, but workers can still expect to see an inspector at least once in a working lifetime, with an inspection frequency of once every 38.4 years.

That’s not the expectation of US workers, with AFL-CIO warning resource-starved federal OSHA can inspect workplaces, on average, once every 137 years. The state OSHA plans average once every 63 years. Either way, most US workers will not live to see an OSHA inspection and some will certainly die because of this.

It’s a record that leaves the US languishing in the bottom half of a global health and safety ranking published in January 2010.

The Health and Safety Risk Index (HSRI) prepared by Maplecroft, a firm that assesses global risks to business, considered the occupational health and safety performance of 176 countries. Using data sources including the International Labour Office (ILO), World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Bank, HSRI scored performance on work related fatalities and injuries, number of accidents causing work absences, number of deaths from work related diseases, expenditure on health, life expectancy, government effectiveness, regulatory quality and the total number of ILO conventions ratified.

The UK was ranked at 30 in the safety league of nations, placing it at the mid-point of the “low risk” group, a performance described by Hazards magazine as “humiliating”.

The US, though, didn’t even make the “low risk” cut. It came in at 120 out of the 176 nations ranked, sandwiched between Uzbekistan and Togo. Of the 30 OECD nations included in the report, only Turkey ranked lower than the US.

So while OSHA is talking a better enforcement regime and President Obama’s arrival has heralded better rhetoric and resources, the US still stands out as a first world nation with second class safety.

Statutory health and safety enforcement agencies, wherever they are, acknowledge enforcement alone is not enough – they can’t police every workplace all the time, and nor should they. Instead, they utilise a mix of voluntary approaches to supplement enforcement. It is the balance that is at issue.

However, enforcement is increasingly the poor cousin in the health and safety world, as hands-off safety agencies slip into the background and companies exploit enforcement-lite approaches.

And there are plenty of respectable safety agencies out there putting a gloss on safety performance by handing out “prestigious” safety awards. A safety bauble presented at a swanky dinner is a more realistic prospect for some egregious safety offenders than any negative attention from an enforcement agency. It’s unquestionably a much more common occurrence than a deadly employer being invited to spend time in jail.

Occasionally companies do get caught out. Multinational mining group Vedanta Resources was last week stripped of a British Safety Council (BSC) international safety award after it was revealed it had not declared at least 40 workers died in a chimney collapse on 23 September 2009 at one of its sites in India. BSC immediately withdrew the award in response to findings thrown up by The Observer newspaper in its broader analysis of deaths of workers at all FTSE 100 mining groups.

BSC said it had stripped Vedanta of its honours because this was necessary to protect the integrity of the awards, which are actively “supported” by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s official health and safety watchdog.

Critics say the case casts light on a system that allows firms to put a respectable, and sometimes enforcement-agency endorsed, gloss on a suspect workplace safety performance.

The publicity is likely to be a source of embarrassment to both HSE and BSC. It would be remarkable if both organisations were unaware of the disaster in Korba, India, which was widely reported at the time, and any fatality in the award year automatically invalidates an application. And both should have known better. It is not the first time BSC international awards have attracted controversy.

A sequence of BSC ‘Sword of Honour’ awards to RTZ’s Rossing Uranium mine in Namibia in the late 1980s and early 1990s came at a time the country’s mineworkers’ union and mining campaign group Partizans were raising concerns about the impact of radiation, silica and other exposures on workers at the mine.

Among this year’s BSC awardees is National Semiconductor’s Greenock plant, which received an International Safety Award for the twelfth straight year. For much of this time, the plant has been at the centre of an occupational cancer controversy in which local campaigners say HSE is implicated.

The BSC international safety awards are supported and actively promoted by HSE whose logo appears on the front cover of the application form. A 17 March news release from BSC noted HSE “continually showed its support for the British Safety Council’s International Safety Awards (ISAs) Scheme.”

BSC is one of a select group of external agencies that can rely on HSE’s promotion of its commercial safety activities. This includes a 26 February HSE plug that noted “HSE is delighted to continue its support of the British Safety Council’s International Safety Awards,” which attract a £180 application charge in addition to requiring BSC membership, costing an additional £100 for the year.

Buying in to the alliance and awards world presents two clear conflicts for enforcement agencies. Companies see a way to establish, for relatively low effort, a positive relationship with the enforcement agencies – something which is used in mitigation when their real life lacklustre performance eventually results in a catastrophe or tragedy that can’t be hidden. And the health and safety enforcement agency distances itself from what should be seen as its primary role – as the advocate for and defender of workers, their health and their safety.

When dangerous firms are more like to be seen forming voluntary alliances or receiving awards than facing the courts, something is seriously amiss with the enforcement regime.

The solution is as simple as it is elusive. Increase the rights of workers to influence health and safety standards in their workplaces and provide them legal protection when they speak out. Provide sufficient official enforcement cover, backed up by penalties including jail terms for the worst safety offenders, to make rogue employers think twice before they put profits before safety. And reframe safety as a human rights issue, rather than a burden on business.

Because if you can’t run a business without killing people, you shouldn’t run a business at all.

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