The Nationalization Option: Considering a Government Takeover of Citigroup
The Wall Street Rip Off: Fees and Consequences
Eyes on the Prize: Incentivizing Drug Innovation Without Monopolies
New Directions for Government Motors
A BIG Idea: A Minimum Income Guarantee
Grassroots Power and Non-Market Economies
Dying for Work
Fifteen workers in the United States die every day due to job injuries, according to “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” a report issued by the AFL-CIO in April. The report criticizes the Bush administration for allowing meaningful worker-safety measures to stagnate, resulting in extreme under-enforcement of workplace safety standards.
In 2007, the most recent year for which job fatality data is available, 5,657 workers died as a result of injuries sustained on the job, according to the report. This total was a slight decline from 2006. Employers reported more than four million work-related injuries and illnesses, but “Death on the Job” documents vast employer underreporting of workplace injuries, and estimates that a more accurate number would be 8 million to 12 million injuries and illnesses a year. The direct and indirect economic costs of disabling injuries and illnesses run between $145 billion and $290 billion a year.
“Eight years of inaction and neglect by the Bush administration on major hazards and increased emphasis on employer assistance and voluntary compliance has left workers’ safety and health in serious danger,” the report states.
The largest number of fatal work injuries occurred in construction, with 1,204 deaths. Transportation and warehousing had the next most fatal injuries, followed by forestry, fishing and hunting.
“Unfortunately, as demonstrated by recent job safety disasters, such as the Sago mine explosion, the Imperial Sugar Refinery dust explosion and construction crane collapses in New York and Miami, which claimed dozens and dozens of lives, too many workers remain at risk and face death, injury or disease as a result of their jobs,” the report states. [See “The System Implodes: The 10 Worst Corporations of 2008,” Multinational Monitor, Nov/Dec 2008.]
The manufacturing sector accounted for the largest percentage of non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses, with 18.8 percent of the 4 million reported injuries and illnesses. The health care and social assistance industries accounted for 16.6 percent of injuries and illnesses, followed by the retail industry at 15 percent.
The under-reporting of injuries and illnesses is a significant problem, according to the report. Referring to employer-reported injuries and illnesses, William Kojola, industrial hygienist at the AFL-CIO, says, “Those numbers are pretty much fictitious.” One study cited in the report found that government counts of occupational injury and illness underestimate incidence by as much as 69 percent. “This is an issue of research, but it’s also an issue of what policies and programs employers are putting in place that work as a disincentive for workers to report illnesses,” Kojola says.
Those policies and programs include employers implementing programs that discipline or fire workers if they report injuries, or incentive programs where workers are given cash awards or vacations for having a low injury and illness rate, according to Kojola. “These are really insidious programs that drive these illnesses and injuries underground,” he says.
However, the report commends recent initiatives by the House Education and Labor Committee, which held an oversight hearing on the issue, and the Senate Labor Appropriations Subcommittee, which provided funding for several initiatives to address underreporting problems, including $1 million for an enhanced OSHA recordkeeping enforcement program.
The report remains highly critical of OSHA’s job safety enforcement and coverage, due in part to a lack of sufficient resources. “A combination of too few OSHA inspectors and low penalties makes the threat of an OSHA inspection hollow for too many employers,” the report states. “More than 8.8 million workers still are without OSHA coverage. OSHA’s resources remain inadequate to meet the challenge of ensuring safe working conditions for American’s workers.”
There is currently one OSHA inspector for every 66,258 workers, according to the report. At these staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 137 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once, the report finds, a significant decrease in protection from 1992 — the year the AFL-CIO began its annual reports — when federal OSHA could inspect all workplaces under its jurisdiction once every 84 years.
A March report by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General found that OSHA’s inadequacies may have contributed to workplace fatalities. At 45 of the worksites where OSHA oversight and follow up on safety violations was deficient — and where proper enforcement actions may have diminished workplace hazards — 58 workers were subsequently killed in the course of their employment.
The AFL-CIO report also finds OSHA penalties for safety violations and worker fatalities shockingly low. In fiscal year 2008, “serious” workplace safety violations — meaning the violation posed a substantial probability of death or serious injury — carried an average penalty of only $921.
“That’s a trivial amount,” Kojola says. “It doesn’t act as much of an incentive for an employer to comply with the standards. And when it comes to fatalities, the situation is far worse.” The average total penalty for fatality cases was just $11,311. In Utah, the average penalty was a mere $1,106.
“Where is the incentive? It’s petty cash penalties for situations where a worker is killed from a willful violation,” Kojola says.
In addition, criminal prosecutions resulting from worker fatalities are exceedingly rare, according to the report. In most cases they are labeled misdemeanors, and in 2008, only two cases were prosecuted.
“The criminal penalty provisions of the [Occupational Safety and Health Act] are woefully inadequate,” the report states. “Criminal enforcement is limited to those cases where a willful violation results in a worker’s death or where false statements in required reporting are made. The maximum penalty is six months in jail.”
But Kojola is optimistic workplace safety enforcement will improve under the Obama administration. The administration has already taken significant and beneficial steps, he says, including expediting the development of a standard on diacetyl, a chemical in the flavoring for buttered popcorn which can cause a serious and fatal lung disease when inhaled by factory workers.
The Obama administration also issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on the hazards of combustible dust — a measure the Bush administration refused to take even after 14 workers were killed by a combustible dust explosion at a sugar refinery in Georgia.
“Already, within the first couple months, [the Obama administration] has taken more decisive steps than the Bush administration did in eight years,” Kojola says. The Obama proposed budget released in May allocated OSHA a $51 million increase over last year.
— Jennifer Wedekind
As the resource sector carries the Australian economy through the global financial crisis, significant uranium deposits lie dormant and undeveloped in Australia’s outback. Spurred by the possibility of the Australian economy sliding into recession, Australian state and federal governments have been busily removing the barriers to further uranium mining within Australia.
If capital is scarce, then rainfall is scarcer in the mostly arid state of South Australia. Within this state are the currently operational Beverly and Olympic Dam uranium mines, as well as the Honeymoon mine, which has recently received approval for construction to commence. These mines all require copious amounts of water to function.
The Beverly Uranium mine is operated by U.S.-based General Atomics, through subsidiary Heathgate Resources. In August 2008, General Atomics was granted approval to significantly expand operations at Beverly, increasing the size of the mine from 16 square kilometers, to 100 square kilometers. Expansion of the mine was approved by Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett, former environmental activist and lead signer with rock band Midnight Oil.
The mine extracts uranium through the controversial acid in situ leaching (ISL) process. This involves pumping acid into an aquifer which dissolves the uranium ore, before the solution is pumped back to the surface, where the uranium is removed.
“The liquid radioactive waste — containing radioactive particles, heavy metals and acid — is simply dumped in groundwater,” says Jim Green, National Nuclear Campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.
Hydrogeologist Gavin Mudd, of the Civil Engineering Department at Monash University, states that the ISL technique “treats groundwater as a sacrifice zone and the problem remains out of sight, out of mind.”
However, Ric Phillips of General Atomics wonders what all the fuss is about. “Essentially, the mining fluid is existing ground water from the formation. We add a little bit of oxidant and a little bit of acid. … Essentially, it’s a water pumping exercise.” Phillips possibly understates the quantities required in the process, given that for every ton of yellowcake which is produced, 18 tons of sulphuric acid, one ton of hydrogen peroxide and 7,000 tons of water are required.
The Beverly Uranium mine operates on the land of the Indigenous Adnyamathanha people, who are routinely ignored by government and the mining company. Kelvin Johnson, an Adnyamathanha man, highlighted the injustices faced by his people, stating, “We protest because our land is being damaged against our wishes. … We protest because it is our right and our responsibility to look after this country.”
Not too far away from the Beverly mine is the Olympic Dam mine, operated by BHP Billiton. This mine consumes 35 million liters of water each day from the Great Artesian Basin, yet does not pay a cent for this water. According to Green, “The Great Artesian Basin is a vast body of underground water that lives deep under the surface from central to North Eastern Australia.” The Great Artesian Basin plays a critical role in supporting many mound springs, which support rare and delicate fauna and flora.
The Olympic Dam mine is currently the third largest mine in the world, producing copper, gold and uranium. However, BHP Billiton is planning a nearly $17 billion expansion of this operation. To support this expansion, a further 216 million liters of water will be required on a daily basis, while 650 megawatts will be needed to power the mine, producing between 4.5 million and 6.6 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.
“BHP Billiton is cost cutting on environmental protection by designing its ‘tailings storage facility’ to leak an average of 3 million liters of radioactive liquid waste a day, every day, over decades of proposed mining,” says David Noonan of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Noonan claims that “BHP plans to line only 15 percent of the proposed 44 square kilometer tailings facility that will be up to 65 meters high.”
In addition, “Exporting uranium to new customers like China will be an integral part of creating value from the Olympic Dam ore body,” according to Dean Dalla Valle, Chief Operating Officer of BHP Billiton’s Uranium Australia. Green is heavily critical of the move to sell uranium to China, which is yet to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
Soon to become the third operational uranium mine in South Australia, preparatory work has recently commenced at the $98 million Honeymoon uranium mine. The mine is a joint venture between Canada-based Uranium One through subsidiary Southern Cross Resources, and Japanese trading house Mitsui and Co. Located 400 kilometers northwest of Adelaide, Honeymoon will utilize the same ISL process in operation at Beverly. According to the Environmental Impact Statement released by Southern Cross Resources, ISL is the “preferred option,” as it has “clear advantages in terms of economic benefits and minimal environmental impact.”
The Honeymoon mine is the first to receive approval after the Australian Labor Party dumped its “three mines” policy in April 2007. In support of this policy change, then Federal Opposition Leader and current Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated that Australia is “blessed in terms of our rich supply of energy resources and we need to develop them as a reasonable way to combat climate change.” Such thinking is criticized by Gavin Mudd, who states that this argument rests “on the arbitrary and implausible assumption” that the only alternative to the export of uranium for energy production is the further construction of coal fired power plants.
Reiterating his support for increased uranium mining, South Australian Premier Mike Rann stated that “(the resource sector) is going to help pull us out of these global economic conditions in better nick that most other places.” Across the border, recently elected West Australian State Premier Colin Barnet has also moved to attract uranium mining to his state. Upon election in November 2008, Barnet dumped the policy preventing uranium mining from occurring in Western Australia. Immediately following this announcement, BHP Billiton announced plans to reactive plans to mine the Yeerilie uranium deposit.
With the looming threats posed by climate change and the global financial crisis, Governments within Australia are claiming that mining uranium deposits has now become a moral and economic imperative. Consequently, concerns which previously stunted this industry in Australia are being conveniently forgotten in the rush.
— Patrick O’Keeffe