Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

U.S. Chemical Safety Board Faulted For Sluggish Investigations

Last Wednesday, a fertilizer plant in Texas exploded, killing at least 14 people and leaving as many as 60 people missing. No one knows why the plant blew up. All eyes are on the U.S. Chemical Safety Board for answers, but answers may be a long time in coming. The CSB, a watchdog agency modelled on the Transportation Safety Board, is supposed to investigate chemical accidents and offer recommendations on how to prevent similar mishaps. However, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the board is still slogging through the investigations of much smaller disasters that happened years ago:

The number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins has fallen precipitously since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found. Thirteen board investigations — one more than five years old — are incomplete.

As members of Congress raise questions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general is auditing the board’s investigative process.

The CSB pledged to send “a large investigative team” immediately after the Texas fertilizer explosion. While their prompt response is comendable, the board is notorious for pulling investigators off one probe and sending them to another before they’ve had a chance to finish their original inquiry. Prompt action on the disaster du jour may be pushing other investigations further behind. 

The CSB has been underfunded and understaffed since its launch in 1988. 


[Photo credit: Dead Air, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Massive Explosion at Texas Fertilizer Plant; Carnage in the Strawberry Fields


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Announcing the "Workers, Unite!" Film Festival: May 10-17 in NYC

Between May 10 and May 17, the Workers, Unite! Film Festival will present an exciting program of documentary films about the global labor movement. The complete schedule is available for your reference. The main screening venue is Cinema Village at 22 E 12th St. in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

On May 15 at 8:30pm the festival will be screening Where Do You Stand?, a documentary by Alexandra Lescaze, Executive Director of the Sidney Hillman Foundation. 

Sidney Winner John Branch Wins Pulitzer Prize for Feature Reporting

Congratulations to John Branch of the New York Times on winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his account of a lethal avalanche.

Branch won the first Sidney Award of 2013 for his three-part series on the life and death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard from drug abuse and suspected post-concussion syndrome. 

"As Employers Push Efficiency, the Daily Grind Wears Down Workers"

While employers reap record profits from high productivity, the American worker is surveilled, underpaid, overworked, exhausted, demoralized, and disrespected:

WESTFIELD, Mass. — The envelope factory where Lisa Weber works is hot and noisy. A fan she brought from home helps her keep cool as she maneuvers around whirring equipment to make her quota: 750 envelopes an hour, up from 500 a few years ago.

There’s no resting: Between the video cameras and the constant threat of layoffs, Weber knows she must always be on her toes.

The drudgery of work at National Envelope Co. used to be relieved by small perks — an annual picnic, free hams and turkeys over the holidays — but those have long since been eliminated.

“It’s harder for me to want to get up and go to work than it used to be,” said Weber, 47, who started at the factory at 19. “It’s not something I would wish on anybody. I’m worn out. I get home and I can barely stand up.”

The relentless drive for efficiency at U.S. companies has created a new harshness in the workplace. In their zeal to make sure that not a minute of time is wasted, companies are imposing rigorous performance quotas, forcing many people to put in extra hours, paid or not. Video cameras and software keep tabs on worker performance, tracking their computer keystrokes and the time spent on each customer service call. [LA Times]

Semuels describes a two-tiered system where skilled workers can still command decent wages and a modicum of job security, but unskilled workers have become a disposable commodity in the eyes of employers. The labor market is so weak, bosses figure that if anyone complains about long hours or low pay, there are plenty of others who’d be happy to take the job. 

Semuels frames deteriorating working conditions as an issue of “global competitiveness,” she suggests that employers are forced to cut back because they face stiff competition from overseas. Increased competition from overseas and the temptations of outsourcing are part of the story, but declining union density also has a lot to do with the diminished fortunes of the American worker. 

[Photo credit: ElitePete, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: More School Cheating; Debtor's Prisons; IRE Awards

  • Workers are becoming casualties of the construction boom in Texas.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Gantz Brothers Win April Sidney for "American Winter"

Joe and Harry Gantz won the April Sidney Award for American Winter, a documentary that follows eight Portland, Oregon-area families struggling to survive the winter of 2011/2012 in the grip of the Great Recession.

At a time when 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty nationwide and the top one percent accumulate wealth at record-breaking rates, the filmmakers sought to cast a light on the fragility of the middle class and the threadbare state of our social safety net.

The families in American Winter cope with stagnant wages, the mortgage crisis, medical bills, death and disability. They suffer from budget cuts that have frayed the social safety net in the name of austerity.

American Winter follows hardworking families who, like so many Americans, are one crisis away from poverty. A woman struggles to raise her son alone after her husband’s sudden death; another loses her job because of her daughter’s chronic illness. A couple with young children must decide whether to pay their mortgage or keep their lights and heat on in the dead of winter.

“The film is heartbreakingly wonderful. Every American needs to see it,” said Hillman Executive Director Alexandra Lescaze.

Read my Backstory interview with Joe Gantz about the making of American Winter.


[Photo courtesy of American Winter.]

Report From Kansas: Re-Opening Dr. Tiller's Clinic, Under Siege

Kathryn Joyce travelled to Wichita to cover the re-opening of Dr. George Tiller’s abortion clinic for Religion Dispatches. The result is a chilling portrait of health care providers under unrelenting seige by anti-choice zealots who skillfully allude to the violence committed by the most extreme members of their movement in order to terrorize and demoralize health care providers. One murder is good for an infinite number of veiled threats.  

Tiller was assassinated in 2009 by an anti-choice extremist with close ties to local anti-abortion groups who continue to orchestrate intimidation campaigns against abortion providers and abortion-seekers. The assassin is rotting in jail, but the anti-abortion activists are capitalizing on his legacy.

One of the doctors who will work at the re-launched South Winds Clinic plans to ride to work lying on the floor of a vehicle to avoid potential snipers. 

The anti-choicers are waging all out psychological warfare on doctors who will be working at South Winds, a facility that will provide not only abortion, but full-spectrum women’s health care and family planning:

On Monday, Operation Rescue publicly released the name, photo and workplace of one of an out-of-state doctor, a woman in her early 30s, who will be working at the clinic. In audio the group posted, a man who sounds like Troy Newman posed as a reporter to speak to the young doctor, who said she’d been hoping to keep her name protected from “crazy people with guns.”

The anti-abortion siege has gripped Wichita for 22 years, ever since the so-called “Summer of Mercy,” but local women’s health advocates are determined to keep providing patients with their rightful access to health care. 

#Sidney's Picks: Fast Food Strike, Minimum Wage, and Prison Paperwork SNAFUs



[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Glue Fumes Cripple Workers in North Carolina

Sheri Farley suffers from an excruciating and debilitating condition known as “drop foot,” a form of nerve damage caused by five years of breathing glue fumes at an upholstery plant in North Carolina:

For about five years, Ms. Farley, 45, stood alongside about a dozen other workers, spray gun in hand, gluing together foam cushions for chairs and couches sold under brand names like Broyhill, Ralph Lauren and Thomasville. Fumes from the glue formed a yellowish fog inside the plant, and Ms. Farley’s doctors say that breathing them in eventually ate away at her nerve endings, resulting in what she and her co-workers call “dead foot.”

A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years. [NYT]

Some 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic substances at work, Ian Urbina reports for the New York Times, ten times as many as are killed in industrial accidents, yet the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) devotes less regulatory energy to making sure workers breathe clean air on the job. 

Backed by over 200 pages of source documents, Urbina’s feature is both heartbreaking and thought-provoking, it deserves to be widely read. 


[Photo credit: mag3737, Creative Commons.]