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May 22, 2009

New sheriff at OSHA

More money, increased focus on enforcement expected at OSHA

'OSHA lost its focus' - New chief ready to advocate for workers

More room for research at Van Andel Institute

Trades restore class to renovated schoolhouse

News Briefs


New sheriff at OSHA

'The Labor Department is back in the enforcement business'

Editor's note: Following are comments by new Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who made what amounts to the first public "mission statement" for the direction of the Department of Labor under President Obama. The April 28 statements by Solis - significantly made on Workers Memorial Day at the National Labor College in Maryland - represent a complete turnaround from her predecessor Linda Chao, working under President Bush. Solis pledges tougher enforcement for lawbreaking employers, while the Bush administration stressed cooperation and "consultation" with employers.

"It is truly an honor to be here at the National Labor College. I'm also proud to spend the day with our nation's labor unions. There is no doubt that knowledgeable, empowered workers mean safer workplaces. There is also no doubt that unionized workers are more knowledgeable and more empowered than those who are not able to organize.

"Today we are here to officially open the grounds of the National Labor College Workers Memorial. It is appropriate that we dedicate this memorial at the National Labor College. Not only will this calm and quiet spot serve as a gathering place to pause and remember the men and women who have lost their lives while pursuing their livelihood, but it will serve as a reminder to future labor leaders about the important work workplace safety.

On Workers Memorial Day, we remember a different kind of fallen hero - the worker who leaves for work in the morning and doesn't come home in the evening. The story in the newspaper might be brief - man killed by fall, or worker crushed by machine. But there are stories of pain and loss behind the headlines that go on and on for lifetimes, and their ripple effects are enormous. What about the family member who received the phone call, the empty chair now left at the kitchen table, the empty space in the bedroom or the emptiness a child feels when mom or dad is no longer around? Or the sleepless nights for the co-worker that witnessed the accident, or the gut-wrenching feeling of the person who had to make the phone call to the family?

So, we gather today with these workers' families and friends, we mourn the loss of their loved ones, and we recommit ourselves to honor their memory. We pay tribute to them not only with noble monuments of enduring brick and stone but also with our daily commitment to do all we can to prevent the kind of tragedies that took these cherished souls from us. On this point we can all agree: No one in America should go to work fearful for their health and safety.

The government has a fundamental responsibility to protect workers from unsafe work places. Some argue that inspection, enforcement, and regulation are "inconvenient," but as we stand here today we're reminded of exactly what is at stake when we put ideology ahead of common sense regulation. When it comes to workplace protection, workplace health and workplace safety, let me be clear: the Labor Department is back in the enforcement business.

I know that some try to frame issues of worker safety as pitting workers against business. But we all know that the vast majority of American business owners care deeply about the health and safety of their workers. To many small businesses, the employees who work with them day in and day out are like family.

But there are a few that do not make worker safety and protection a priority. There should be no controversy around the simple idea that workers ought to be able to come home from work safe and sound. As we stand here today, we're reminded that not every worker comes home, and that leaves a family to wonder what life would be like if mom or dad was still with them.

"American workplaces have become much safer since the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 established OSHA. The shocking number of injuries and deaths on the job that we saw almost 40 years ago are far lower today thanks to OSHA; but we are nowhere near the satisfactory level of safety and health that our working men and women deserve.

This nation was shocked when 12 workers were killed in the Sago Mine in 2006, when 14 workers were killed in the Imperial Sugar dust explosion in 2008, and when 15 workers died in the BP refinery explosion in 2005.

But what most people don't realize is that more than 15 workers are killed in the workplace every single day. Most of these workers are killed one at a time. These deaths don't generate headlines. In the United States last year, more than 4 million were injured, and 5,500 people died on the job. In addition to these deaths, the National Institute for Occupational Safety Health estimates that over 50,000 workers die every year from occupational diseases.
To me, that's more than enough evidence that we need to do better. We need to rethink our strategy when it comes to worker protection.

Over the last few years, we've seen an ideological response to worker safety and health that de-emphasized enforcement and standards. And recent reports on the effectiveness of the previous administration's approach make clear that it's time for a change in direction.

Under my watch, enforcement of our labor laws will be intensified to provide an effective deterrent to employers who put their workers' lives at risk. OSHA and MSHA will be about workers - not voluntary programs and alliances. I take very seriously the report issued earlier this month by the Labor Department's Inspector General which found insufficient focus on making workplaces safer. The failings are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Can we do better? Si se puede!

So long as I am Secretary of Labor, the Department will go after anyone who negligently puts workers lives at risk. We are creating a new program, called the Severe Violators Inspection Program, which will ensure that workers are protected from negligent companies that don't take worker safety seriously.

Over the past eight years, only one major health standard was issued by OSHA - and that was done under court order. OSHA will get back in the business of issuing standards that protect workers and strong enforcement of those standards. We stopped the previous Administration's delaying tactics in moving forward on a standard to protect workers against popcorn lung. And after more than a year's delay, we have announced the launching of the small business review process for diacetyl, a flavoring additive in popcorn that risks the health of workers.

We will not be controlled by ideology. Our regulatory principals are clear: Where workers are in danger, where mandatory regulations make sense, we will act.

I am announcing today that OSHA will begin the rulemaking on combustible dust. After the 14 tragic deaths in Port Wentworth, Georgia, last year, a bill passed in the House, moving forward on a combustible dust standard that is long overdue.

President Obama and I believe in strong enforcement of laws that protect workers, a strong federal role in protecting workplace safety and health, as the OSHA Act originally mandated.

After devastating mine disasters over the past few years, my department will focus on improving the health and safety of mine workers. One of the areas we are going to focus on is the disturbing increase in the incidence of occupational disease - particularly black lung disease. We will work hard to eliminate the scourge of black lung disease from our mining population. We also recognize that we must do more to ensure that miners understand their rights and responsibilities - including those who do not speak English as a first language. We will hold mine operators accountable for their responsibilities under the Mine Act and the MINER Act, and we will continue to make sure they understand the consequences of abdicating those responsibilities.

In order to make every workplace safe and healthy, the Department of Labor must continue to work with our partners across the country. These include employers, trade associations, labor unions, safety and health professionals, and individual workers. Strong enforcement of the law against employers means that we must ensure that employers have access to timely and useful information about how to prevent accidents before they happen.

I believe that the vast majority of American employers want to do the right thing.
The economic stimulus funds provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will support and improve America's infrastructure, putting tens of thousands of people to work improving our nation's roads, bridges, waterways and mass transit systems.

We will put people to work developing green energy, improving our electrical power grid, and reinforcing our federal infrastructure. We will send a loud and clear message to all recipients of recovery funds: If you want these funds, you need to make sure that your workplaces are safe, and you treat your workers fairly. And that's a message that will continue long after our economy recovers.

As our nation makes key investments to put people back to work, OSHA will strengthen enforcement by hiring an additional 36 inspectors to provide guidance training and outreach to employers and workers, and launch a new effort to collect information about injuries and illnesses in the construction industry. As part of its efforts to provide compliance assistance and outreach, OSHA will increase its efforts to protect our nation's workforce.

As we dedicate the building of this monument to fallen workers, we rededicate ourselves to defending and enforcing the right that every working man and woman deserves a safe and healthful working environment. Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication on behalf of the working families of our country."


More money, increased focus on enforcement expected at OSHA

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) - The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would get a 10% hike in its budget and staff, and a shift towards enforcement and away from ineffective GOP-pushed "voluntary compliance," according to the detailed budget Democratic President Barack Obama sent to Congress on May 7.

The $51 million OSHA increase, to $568 million, was one of several notable pro-worker changes proposed in Obama's spending plan for discretionary programs - those Congress can change - in the next fiscal year.

Obama also wants the number of federal OSHA inspections to climb from 38,600 this year to 40,900 in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, and the number of state inspections, which the feds help pay for, to rise from an estimated 50,000 this year to 57,650 next year. Federal OSHA enforcement money alone would rise 14.6%, to $227 million.

Other large budget hikes went to wage and hour enforcement, boosting DOL's ability to go after violations of minimum wage and overtime laws, and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which aids workers who lose their jobs to subsidized foreign imports. That would double, to $1.8 billion, as the program expands to cover more workers.

"The president's budget launches new and innovative ways to promote economic recovery and the competitiveness of our nation's workers," Obama's Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, said. "At the same time, the budget reflects our effort to invest in what works and cut or reduce programs that do not."

The OSHA increase marks not just more money for job safety and health but also a shift in emphasis away from the GOP Bush regime's combination of turning OSHA into a "consultative agency" for business and of going after only "the worst of the worst." A Government Accountability Office probe of the latter emphasis showed it flopped.

Solis said her department would hire 1,000 new workers, two-thirds of them investigators, thus returning the number of such probers to where it was in 2001, before Bush took over. Of those, 160 new investigators will be in OSHA, while 200 will be in Wage and Hour. Its budget would increase by 18%, to $228 million.

"If we expect our workers to come to work, every day, we have to protect them," Jordan Barab, acting OSHA administrator, told union nurses earlier in the week. Of his boss, Solis, Barab added that "She is assuming and hoping most employers want to do the right thing, but those who don't will be targeted for strong enforcement action."

Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), the program that gives extended jobless benefits, retraining money and even subsidies for health insurance coverage to workers who lose their jobs due to subsidized foreign imports, would double.

That hike will occur, the budget said, because Congress, in the stimulus law Obama pushed and lawmakers passed, expanded TAA to service-sector workers and to workers who lose their jobs because their firms lost business from now-laid-off workers whose own companies closed due to imports.

Those are workers like the deli servers whose deli closed because the nearby steel mill whose workers it served lost their jobs to imports. The service sector workers and the others will be eligible for TAA aid starting on May 18.

Other notable budget highlights include:

  • OSHA spending on "compliance assistance" would rise by $2 million, to $73 million. "State consultation grants," another Bush favorite, would stay at $55 million.
  • The Wage and Hour Division is expected to aid 300,000 persons "through securing agreements with firms to pay back wages owed to their workers. In government contract compliance actions, about 35,000 persons will be aided through securing agreements to pay wages owed to workers," the budget says.
  • The DOL office pushed by the Radical Right National Right to Work Committee and the Bush regime to investigate and harass unions, the Office of Labor-Management Standards, would be cut by $4 million, or 10%, to $41 million. A recent additional onerous provision, pushed through by Bush, that would have forced union officers and staffers to virtually disclose all their personal finances, was halted by Solis.
  • The National Labor Relations Board would get a slight increase, up $21 million to $283.4 million in both budget and staffing. The number of workers would rise by 48, to 1,285 - still far below levels during the Clinton administration.
  • The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which takes over traditional pension plans when the employers dump them -- usually due to bankruptcy -- and pays some benefits, plans to serve 692,484 retirees in the year starting Oct. 1, up from 665,850. It expects another 100 corporate pension plans, for a total of 4,050, to be dumped on its doorstep.



'OSHA lost its focus' - New chief ready to advocate for workers

Health and safety activist Jordan Barab assumed duties on April 13 as acting head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He will lead the agency until a permanent director is chosen and then will become OSHA's deputy assistant secretary on a permanent basis.

Barab ran the AFSCME union's health and safety program for 16 years. From 2003 to 2007, he was publisher of Confined Space, a workplace safety blog through which he routinely clashed with OSHA and the Bush Administration on policy issues.

"This appointment is a clear sign that Hilda Solis and the Obama Administration are going to reverse years of deteriorating attention to workplace safety and health at OSHA," said Laborers International Union General President Terence M. O'Sullivan. "OSHA lost its focus during the Bush years, but Barab's commitment to protecting workers is well established."

Barab wrote in 2007: "...there are still far too many health and safety professionals that don't understand that to a very great extent, who lives and who dies in the workplace is determined by politics - both power relationships in the workplace, and traditional politics that determines who controls our government. What that means is that organizing unions and electing politicians who will fight against unlimited corporate control over our regulatory agencies, our workplaces and the environment are of vital importance to protecting the health and safety of American workers."

(The AFL-CIO and the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America contributed).



More room for research at Van Andel Institute

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

GRAND RAPIDS - More room and support for the life sciences is on the way in this city's burgeoning medical corridor, in the ongoing eight-story, Phase II expansion of the Van Andel Institute.

Building upon the construction of the original research facility in 2000, the $170 million, 240,000 square-foot expansion will triple laboratory space for expanded basic and translational disease research and allow for the creation of a new Parkinson's Disease research lab.

Completion of the building in December will create a total of 402,000 square-feet of space, and create the capacity for 500 new jobs. The addition is directly to the west of the existing facility fronting North Division Ave. and bordering Crescent Street

"It's going well for us," said Mike Brandner of UA Local 174 and project superintendent for mechanical contractor Andy J. Egan. "This is a research facility, and there's a lot of different kinds of piping, systems, and medical gas. We have an outstanding crew here, they're doing some really good work."

The Phase II design plan mimics the existing building, offering abundant natural light, an open and flexible laboratory layout, as well as a demonstration lab for visitors to view research in progress.

The building will be new home for Van Andel Institute Graduate School, and space will also be utilized by students of the new regional medical school, Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine. The expansion will also allow the institute to broaden its research focus to include other neurological disorders and chronic illnesses

Water from a 25,000 gallon rainwater retention basin located in the bowels of the addition will be used to irrigate the building's green roof.

The building will also have triple-pane insulated glass, photovoltaic panels to provide power, a heat recovery system designed to reclaim heat from equipment and reduce loads on HVAC equipment, as well as low-flow water fixtures.

The expansion at the Van Andel Institute joins the other ongoing or recently completed cluster of construction projects on Grand Rapids' "Medical Mile." Included are the Lemmon-Holton Cancer Center, the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, Grand Rapids Community College's Science Center, Grand Valley State University's Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and the ongoing work at the new Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, which we will feature in an upcoming edition.

The expanded Van Andel Institute, said Chief Administrative Officer Steve Heacock, "represents the next stage of development for a strong, robust active life sciences environment in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. The last 10 years have been phenomenal. The next 10 years will make it pale by comparison."

THE $170 MILLION addition to the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids. The building's profile,
"yields a unique image for the institute, one that evokes the Grand Rapids River in its hillside cascade of skylight roofs," according to the institute.

CUTTING A 2-INCH chilled water line at the Van Andel Institute is Chad Abram of UA Local 174, working for Andy J. Egan.

THE BACKING FOR the exterior skin of the Van Andel Institute is installed by Jim Reed of Sheet Metal Workers Local 7, working for Universal Wall.


Trades restore class to renovated schoolhouse

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

BELLEVILLE - There's new life for an old one-room schoolhouse on the grounds of Willow Run Airport, where in the future, aviation education and history will be on the classroom's curriculum.

Built in 1938 for use in the Henry Ford Academy educational system, the Willow Run Schoolhouse had a number of uses over the years, acting as a training building for the Army Air Corps and later as a private residence.

The 3,000 square-foot schoolhouse was empty, dilapidated and home to a few critters about 10 years ago, when its most recent owner gifted it to the Yankee Air Museum. The structure was moved about 3½ miles from the west side to the east side of Willow Run Airport. And for the last 18 months or so, Phoenix Construction and the building trades - some volunteer, some paid - have been renovating the schoolhouse.

"It's just a beautiful little building," said Yankee Air Museum Curator Gail Drews. "They've done a great job, and we're really anxious to start using it."

Started in 1981 by a group of avid aviation history buffs, the Yankee Air Museum has acquired and returned to flying status five World War II aircraft. The pride of its fleet are a B-17G "Flying Fortress" called the "Yankee Lady," which was restored and returned to flying status in 1995. The museum also has a B-25D Mitchell, a medium-duty bomber similar to the type used by Jimmy Doolittle's raid over Tokyo. It is one of only two B-25Ds still flying today.

Located in a Willow Run hangar, the Yankee Air Museum has a number of other old aircraft and historical items. The museum survived a horrific fire in 2004 in its previous home in an old wooden hangar at Willow Run, where quick action by volunteers saved their aircraft, but the museum lost more than $1 million in fixtures and equipment as well as irreplaceable artifacts, photos and books.

Renovating the schoolhouse is a new facet for the museum, and it is only awaiting the final hookup of utilities before its next chapter begins. Drews said it would be used for day-long educational programs, for groups like Boy Scouts, on aviation-related history programs.

Joe Hoffman, a Plumbers Local 98 retiree, said he has worked at the schoolhouse on and off since last fall. With him that day were fellow 98ers Ron Cope, Fred Cirilli, Joe Huffman and Norm Hill.

"I've mostly been running copper through the crawlspace," Hoffman said. "I'm retired, I need to something to do once in a while. This seemed like a good cause and I wanted to help out. It's a really nice building."

THE RENOVATED Yankee Air Museum schoolhouse.


News Briefs

Work zone crashes drop 9 percent in Michigan
Statewide highway work zone crashes in the 2008 construction season dropped 9 percent from the year before, according to data released May 14 by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

There were 4,977 crashes, 1,378 injuries, and 13 fatalities in 2008, down from 5,499 crashes, 1,420 injuries, and 20 fatalities in 2007.

"While these numbers indicate a decrease, we must continue to be vigilant and help motorists understand that the life they save could be their own," said State Transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle. "All of the fatalities in work zones last year involved motorists and passengers. We hope the new legislation (PA 296 and 297 of 2008) invoking stiffer penalties for injuring or killing anyone in a work zone further enhances safety."

Signed into law last fall by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the two new laws provide stiffer penalties for injuring or killing another person in a Michigan road construction work zone. The law will impose fines of up to $7,500 in fines and 15 years in jail, for motorists who injure or kill anyone, not just construction workers, in a road construction work zone. Previously, under Andy's Law, similar penalties were applicable if a motorist injured or killed a road worker.

"This legislation not only continues to protect our workers, but it protects the public as well," Steudle said, adding that motorists, not workers, comprise the "vast majority" of work zone injuries and fatalities.

In an effort to promote work zone safety in 2009, MDOT has developed a 30-second public service announcement expected to air on radio stations statewide from Memorial Day to Labor Day through a partnership with the Michigan Association of Broadcasters.

Additionally, MDOT will provide special funding to the Michigan State Police (MSP) for overtime patrols in work zones. Heavy enforcement concentration will involve the I-96 corridor in Livingston County between US-23 and Kent Lake Road.

"Drivers play an important role in preventing crashes in work zones," said MSP Director Col. Peter C. Munoz. "Be alert and use appropriate caution when approaching work zones: look, locate workers, and lower your speed if workers are present."


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