Roundup: Black-Lung Program Changes

Labor Department attempts to “level the playing field” for coal miners with black lung disease • As oil and gas boom in Texas, so do worker deaths • EPA issues new rules for farmworkers’ use of pesticide • 4-H joins science-related mentorship program for young women and girls • Once more: More to rural than agriculture.

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Lots of worker-safety news in the Roundup today.

First, coal miners suffering from black-lung disease could have a better chance to win benefits from the federal compensation program under reforms announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The rules will give sick coal miners access to higher-quality medical reports, improve training for doctors and government officials and give instructions to government lawyers to intervene in some cases, reports the Center for Public Integrity.

The initiatives, effective immediately, represent an attempt by the Labor Department to create a more level playing field for coal miners navigating a byzantine federal benefits system that often favors coal companies and the lawyers and doctors they enlist.

The changes come after the Center’s investigative report “revealed how doctors and lawyers, working on behalf of coal companies, have helped defeat the claims of miners sick and dying of black lung.”

Two coalfield senators said that the changes were welcome but that further action was needed:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the Labor Department’s initiatives “a step in the right direction,” and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said they were “a good first step toward leveling the playing field.” Both noted, however, that only some miners qualify for them and called for further action.

Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., said: “While this is certainly an encouraging development, it’s far from what’s needed to ensure these miners and their families receive justice. I’ll continue to push the Department of Labor to make the necessary reforms to get this right.”

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On-the-job-deaths of Texas oil and gas workers reached a 10-year high in 2012, with 65 workers losing their lives, reports the Houston Chronicle.

The number of deaths among oil and gas workers jumped 60% from 2011 to 2012, the investigation revealed.

Another 18,000 oil-and-gas workers were injured on the job from 2008 to 2013, the report says. The Chronicle reports that many of the deaths and injuries could have been prevented:

… many oil field workers were killed or permanently injured when supervisors opted for unsafe shortcuts, used poorly-maintained equipment or when green workers attempted complex tasks with inadequate training. Most oil field companies make up their own safety programs and rules because there are few regulations or industry standards — and as a result there are huge differences in training programs and safety standards used by companies who work together at the same sites. Sometimes those differences can be lethal.

Six times as many people died in Texas in the oil patch in 2012 as in the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 — an offshore disaster that prompted reforms and tightening of rules to protect both the environment and workers’ lives. The deaths in Texas have attracted far less attention. Even in some of the worst accidents in recent years, only a handful of fines were above $40,000 —  a pittance in terms of oil field profits.  In general,  on-shore drilling is far less regulated than offshore drilling and as a result there is far less public information about accidents or about how to prevent them.

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Farmworker advocates are calling new proposed pesticide standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency a mixed success for workers.

The proposed updates to the agricultural Worker Protection Standard are “intended to safeguard the nation’s 2 million farmworkers from pesticides’ perils,” reports the Center for Public Integrity.

The proposals would increase the frequency of pesticide training to once a year from once every five years and “include no-entry buffer zones to shield workers from spray and fumes.”

But the long-overdue update falls short of the more sweeping changes advocates envisioned. It fails, for instance, to require medical monitoring of applicators handling toxic chemicals; sets 16, not 18, as a minimum age for those handling pesticides; and eliminates a requirement that growers display in a central location information on pesticides being applied.

“As expected, there are some genuine improvements, but also at least one big step backward … and some real lost opportunities, especially when it comes to protections for pesticide handlers, and most especially teen pesticide handlers,” Eve C. Gartner, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law organization, wrote The Center for Public Integrity.

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The National 4-H Council is among more than 40 youth-serving organizations joining a national initiative to encourage girls and young women to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. The 4-H Council will be part of the Million Women Mentors initiative.

In making the announcement, the 4-H Council pointed to Tufts University research that shows “4-H girls are two times more likely (Grade 10) and nearly three times more likely (Grade 12) to take part in science programs compared with girls in other out-of-school activities.”

Jennifer Sirangelo became president and CEO of the National 4-H Council in January. She’s the first women to hold that position.

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An Associated Press analysis of the decline of the political influence of rural lawmakers implies that rural and agriculture are the same thing. They aren’t.

The story says the number of state legislators from rural districts is on the decline because of population shifts. But it discusses the implications of this political change almost exclusively on the impact on agriculture. And it focuses on legislators who are farmers.

Agriculture is but one part of the rural economy

 

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