Just last Sunday (November 17), two workers were killed and 20 others were injured in a mining accident in southwestern Colorado. Add these to the other 19 fatalities that occurred in 2013, surpassing the number of workers (20) who lost their lives in U.S. coal mining accidents in 2012. And some may remember the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, which claimed the lives of 29 miners in one tragic and preventable event.
Deaths due to coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung) also fail to get “above the fold” attention in most news outlets. This despite the fact that between 1997 and 2007, 8,111 U.S. miners died of black lung, a deadly, debilitating, and irreversible lung disease caused by the inhalation of coal dust. This figure doesn’t begin to capture the years of disability and hardship that workers with black lung endure (along with their families who bear witness to their loved ones’ struggle to breathe and live their lives).
And while once on the wane, black lung is re-emerging and changing. We now see its occurrence in younger workers, with more limited time and exposure in the mines.
Too often, coal operators flout safety regulations and fail to implement well-established preventive measures that would stem the tide of death, illness, and disability in these workers. Adding insult to injury, we’ve also witnessed some coal companies attempt to evade their pension and health care obligations to their (often disabled) retirees.
But here’s what really got me: the series “Breathless and Burdened”, the product of a year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC television. The series is a heart-breaking and thoroughly disheartening exposé of how doctors and lawyers hired by coal companies have perverted the federal program designed to help these disabled miners and their family. I’m talking about lawyers who have hidden evidence, and doctors who consistently read X-rays as showing no evidence of complicated black lung (which entitles disabled workers to pretty paltry benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Program)—and in many cases, reporting no evidence of black lung at all. These doctors appear to stand by their diagnoses, even in the face of conflicting reports by independent medical experts and autopsy evidence to the contrary.
It’s encouraging that Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has suspended its pneumoconiosis X-ray reading program while it conducts a review in the wake of the exposé. Both the process and the findings of the review will be informative.
But the series also raises larger issues of importance—issues of undue corporate influence and the independence of our experts. It underscores the vital need for transparency to ensure that the science and evidence we rely on are untainted to prevent the erosion of trust in the institutions we rely on to protect the health and legal rights of our citizens.
And, of course, central to this story is the fate of the miners, their families, and communities who continue to risk their lives and health to mine the coal while also confronting the changes and hardships that will come as we seek to transition to a low-carbon economy. As a speaker at our recent forum on economic diversification in West Virginia said, “If coal is King, he hasn’t taken very good care of his subjects.” It’s absolutely essential that we ensure a just transition for these individuals who have already given so much.]]>
My friend and science writer Elizabeth Grossman puts a human face on the 16 heat-related worker fatalities that occurred over a seven week period this summer. Not surprisingly, three were farm workers. Outdoor workers are particularly at risk of heat-related illness and death; these include construction workers; transportation, sanitation, and utility workers; landscapers and building and grounds maintenance workers; and postal workers among others. Indoor workers can also be exposed to excessive heat, including those who work in foundries, laundries, kitchens, and workplaces with inadequate climate control. Given that over 106 million people were under a heat advisory and over 34 million were under an excessive heat warning on just one day during this period (July 18), the toll could have been higher.
OSHA reports that excessive heat sickened some 4,400 workers in 2011 and killed more than 30 workers a year since 2003. [These deaths occurred in all but a handful of states; see map of heat fatalities, with text describing each one.] To help address these entirely preventable incidents, OSHA launched a heat awareness campaign that provides resources, tips, and tools for outdoor workers, including a smart-phone app that pulls data directly from NOAA to perform heat index calculations and then displays the risk level and protective measures that should be taken to prevent heat illness. OSHA does not have a specific threshold or standard for heat stress; the Department of Labor denied a petition for an emergency temporary standard in 2012. OSHA must rely on its General Duty Clause to enforce worker protection from excessive heat. Several states have adopted heat protection regulations and campaigns for workers, including California, Washington, and Minnesota.
As our Heat in the Heartland report shows, our cities and citizens are feeling the heat; and heat waves top the list of weather-related killers in the United States. Children, the elderly, and people with chronic cardiac and respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that from 1999 to 2010, 7,415 people died of heat-related deaths, an average of about 618 deaths a year. Last summer’s heat wave in Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia resulted in 32 heat-related deaths over a two week period.
And as climate change continues to warm our world into the foreseeable future, we will experience more extreme weather events – and can expect more heat-related morbidity and mortality. It’s heartening to see agencies at all levels of government undertake prevention campaigns for workers, develop heat emergency response plans for citizens, and target interventions activities to protect the elderly during heat waves. Recognizing that summer heat also poses risks to young athletes, many states have also adopted new guidelines in response to a spate of heat-related deaths. The realities of a warming world will demand even greater agency attention to public health protection.
What’s missing, of course, is action from our leaders in Washington to reduce emissions that are causing rising temperatures in the first place. They, more than anyone, need to feel the heat.]]>
For 14 months, I was the Acting Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though NIOSH doesn’t have the challenges of a regulatory agency, I know what the responsibility, demands, and stress of the job can feel like. During my tenure at NIOSH – a worker health and safety agency – we were on the front lines of public health challenges in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as well as the anthrax events that followed shortly thereafter.
There was an enormous amount to do and a multitude of stakeholders to engage – first responders, laborers, iron and construction workers, postal workers, Senators and their staffs, public health officials, health care workers, law enforcement agencies – not to mention the rightly worried public. All while ensuring the agency continued to meet its mandates and responsibilities.
Administrator McCarthy knows what it’s like to set priorities, juggle multiple balls, and make things happen; her decades of government experience and her commitment to public service put her in good stead to take on this new leadership position. And on behalf of UCS, I congratulate – and thank — her for taking on this role at this most critical time. Like the past presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science have said, I believe Gina McCarthy is exceptionally qualified and ready to get to work.
And there is surely plenty to do. One of the most urgent items on her desk is finalizing the cleaner gasoline and tailpipe standards. These cleaner gasoline and vehicle standards (the so-called Tier 3 standards) will reduce air pollution, save lives, and create thousands of new jobs. This is precisely why the standards are supported by a diverse coalition of industry, public health, environmental, labor, and science-based organizations representing millions of Americans. Failure to finalize the standards this year would result in losing an entire 2013 model year’s worth of benefits. EPA estimates that by 2030 these standards would prevent up to 2,400 premature deaths, 3,200 hospital admissions, and 22,000 asthma attacks each year.
Also on the administrator’s to-do list is the serious heavy lifting needed to implement President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Strong and focused leadership is necessary to make sure that the EPA not only sets standards for power plants that will reduce carbon pollution, but also helps us prepare for the impacts of climate change that we are already experiencing and simply can no longer avoid.
On June 25, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum to the EPA on the “Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards” outlining a specific timeline for the EPA to draft and issue standards to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. The president’s memorandum instructs the EPA to issue standards under the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants.
More than 3 million Americans already voiced their support for draft standards for new power plants issued last year. The memo indicates that the EPA intends to propose a new draft by September 20, 2013. We need Administrator McCarthy to ensure that the re-proposed standard stays strong so that they foster a transition toward cleaner power generation sources. Draft standards for existing sources, which include our nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants, must be released by June 1, 2014, and finalized within a year. States must then submit their implementation plans no later than June 30, 2016.
This clear timeline provides ample opportunity for stakeholder input. We need Administrator McCarthy’s leadership to ensure the process stays on track. We cannot afford further delays on reducing emissions from power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution.
The president’s climate plan also directs the EPA to continue to reduce carbon emissions from our transportation system, including establishing the next round of standards for heavy duty vehicles, such as big-rig trucks. According to the analysis in our Half the Oil plan, doubling the efficiency of commercial vehicles could reduce oil consumption by 1 million barrels a day in 2035. The EPA should build upon the successful stakeholder engagement of the first round of standards to create robust, stringent standards that achieve significant and measurable reductions in global warming pollutants.
The Renewable Fuel Standard is another important policy to reduce oil use and expand the use of clean low-carbon renewable fuels. Congress amended the law five years ago, adding ambitious targets to take the biofuels industry beyond food-based fuels and including science-based lifecycle emissions requirements. While the framework is sound, the devil is in the details. The EPA needs to use the authority Congress gave it to revise the targets for advanced biofuels between 2016 and 2022. The agency should consider competition for agricultural commodities, constraints in our infrastructure, and ensuring that the lifecycle accounting and volume mandates avoid expanded use of palm oil and other biofuels implicated in the enormous emissions generated through clearing of peat and other tropical forests.
Administrator McCarthy has an excellent reputation for crafting regulations based on the best available science that will provide the maximum benefit at the least possible cost – as well as a tradition of working in an open and inclusive manner with multiple stakeholders. This is what the American people need and deserve as the EPA sets standards and takes action that will protect our health, clean up our environment, and help build community resilience to the impacts of climate change.