Friday, September 22, 2017

Democrats Question EPA Adminstrator Scott Pruitt On Historical Job Cuts At EPA

According to a recent press release by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Democrats sent EPA Director Scott Pruitt a letter inquiring into the historic cuts proposed in the FY 2018 budget:

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, EPW Committee Democrats, led by Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt requesting information on EPA’s active reduction of its workforce to historic lows. The Senators cited concerns that adoption of the Trump Administration’s proposed  FY 2018 cut of 25% to EPA’s workforce, combined with further White House direction to plan for additional longer term down-sizing, would damage EPA’s ability to carry out its Congressionally-mandated mission to protect public health and the environment.

Whenever I hear that Congressional leaders are sending out letters to various agencies requesting information, I cannot help but wonder what the wording of such letters appears like.  Additionally, I would like to know what the penalties are for not providing such requested Here is a letter sent by 5 Democrats filled with questions regarding EPA Director Scott Pruitt's intentions along with assessments of the cuts shown below:

Dear Administrator Pruitt:
   We write to request information regarding workforce reductions at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The EPA workforce has already been shrunk by about 10 percent in recent years, from 17,106 full-time employees (FTEs) in FY 2012 to 15,408 FTEs in FY 2016.  We are concerned that adoption of the Trump Administration's proposed FY 2018 25 percent cut (3,785 FTEs) to EPA's workforce and further White House direction to plan for additional longer term down-sizing would damage EPA's ability to carry out its Congressionally-mandated mission to protect public health and the environment. 
   According to media reports, EPA has already begun actively reducing the work force by offering termed buyouts (for voluntary separation from the aggency) and early-outs (for voluntary early retirement) to up to 1,227 employees, who would then have to leave EPA by September 2, 2017.  EPA's Office of Research and Development could lose up to 183 people, the office handling contaminated Superfund and other hazardous waste sites could lose up to 94 employees, the office handling chemical safety could lose 50 employees, and the enforcement office could lose up to 51 employees.  Regional EPA offices could also be impacted.  For example, there could also be up to 159 buyouts and early-outs in Region 3, which is based in Philadelphia and covers the mid-Atlantic, up to 147 buyouts and early-outs in Region 6, which is based in Dallas and covers Texas and the surrounding states. 
   To evaluate the impact of the ongoing and planned personnel cuts, we request information on EPA reorganizations, FTE ceilings and staffing levels, the specifics and impacts of ongoing buyouts and early-outs, and the plans for further workforce reductions.  Please answer the following questions and provide the requested information no later than September 29, 2017.
1) Since the submission of the FY 2018 budget, has EPA initiated any reorganizations to address programmatic changes (including more narrowly targeted reorganizations, such as changes to EPA offices and divisions or changes to reflect the elimination of climate-focused efforts)?  If so, please identify the changes in positions, staffing levels, and types of program work that have or would be affected by each initiated reorganization.  Please also update your response to this request on a quarterly basis going forward.
2) Please provide the FY 2017 and FY 2018 ceilings by program project (as identified in the Administration's budget request), and by program office and regional office.
3) Provide the most up-to-date numbers on the current workforce levels (i.e., current number of employees onboard) by program project area, and by program office and regional office.
4) Please identify the number of departures since the hiring freeze was put in place in FY 2017, and indicate how many additional departures are estimated for the balance of the fiscal year, including those resulting from voluntary buyouts and early-outs.  How many individuals have already submitted their paperwork under voluntary buyouts and early-outs?  Please provide these numbers organized by program project area, and by program office and regional office.  Please also update your response to this request on a quarterly basis going forward.
5) Have there been any new hires from outside EPA since the hiring freeze was imposed?  If so, how many?  Please provide these numbers organized by program project area, and by program office and regional office.  Please also update your response to this request on a quarterly basis going forward.
6) Please provide EPA's best estimate of the actual number of employees that will be onboard as of October 1, 2017, accounting for the effects of attrition, the projected voluntary buyouts and early-outs, projected hiring, and any other factors that might affect these numbers.
7) Please describe how EPA developed the numbers for the maximum number of voluntary buyouts and early-outs that each program or regional office can offer this summer, along with an identification of the specific programs and types of work that could be impacted by the voluntary buyouts and early-outs.  Please also provide the number of employees that would be remaining in each program or regional office if the maximum number of buyouts and early-outs was accepted in the program or regional office. 
8) Has EPA conducted any analysis of the impacts on EPA activities, and the resulting impacts on public health and the environment, of reducing the EPA workforce: (a) tothe levels projected by EPA for FY 2017; and (b) to the levels projected by EPA in the FY 2018 budget request?  If so, provide those analyses.  If not, explain why the EPA or the Administration did not believe such analysis was necessary prior to directing offices to offer buyouts and early-outs in FY 2017 and/or prior to developing the EPA budget for FY 2018.
9) Please provide a copy of EPA's Draft Agency Reform Plan, Draft Agency FY 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, and Draft Workforce Reduction Plan it was supposed to have submitted to OMB by June 30, 2017, as well as a copy of the final Plans once they are submitted to OMB by the September 2017 due date.
Thank you very much for your attention to this important matter.  Please provide your response no later than September 20, 2017.
Thomas R. Carper                                                          Benjamin L. Cardin
Ranking Member                                                           United States Senator

Sheldon Whitehouse                                                      Jeffrey A. Merkley
United States Senator                                                     United States Senator

Cory A. Booker                                                               Tammy Duckworth
United States Senator                                                      United States Senator

There you have the actual questionnaire sent by 5 Democratic senators along with a ranking member of the Environment and Public Works committee of the U.S. Senate.  Hopefully, in the future, the public is informed on whether the EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt responded "on time" and to the best of his ability.

Further, the public should have access to the answers and updates of the inquiries set by Congress.  This information would assist the public in participating in the voting process.  The more eyeballs that are on the information, the less transparent is the overall process. And transparency should be the overall goal in keeping the public safe with regard to clean water and chemical free environments after disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

The EPA is responsible for monitoring the 'Superfund Sites' along with current existing industries which pose threat to the natural resources by contamination.  EPA sets regulations.  Of course, regulations are difficult to set and enforce when the required workforce is absent due to downsizing.  Which seems to be the current issue in question by Congress and Environmental groups lately with the historic cuts.

More will be discussed on this topic in the near future.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

It's A Team Effort Between Humans And The Robots: Amazon

Over the last few decades, the concept of Artificial Intelligence has been manifesting itself in the form of robots.  The speculation is that eventually these robots will take over jobs of humans.  In the video below from a 'New York Times' article titled "As Amazon Pushes Forward With Robots, Workers Find New Roles", each has their own role -- human and robot:

The introduction to the article states the benefits of incorporating robots (or automation) into the warehouse setting as stated below:

FLORENCE, N.J. — Nissa Scott started working at the cavernous Amazon warehouse in southern New Jersey late last year, stacking plastic bins the size of small ottomans. It was not, she says, the most stimulating activity. And lifting the bins, which often weigh 25 pounds each, was also tiring over 10-hour shifts.
Now Ms. Scott, 21, watches her replacement — a giant, bright yellow mechanical arm — do the stacking.
Her new job at Amazon is to babysit several robots at a time, troubleshooting them when necessary and making sure they have bins to load. On a recent afternoon, a claw at end of the arm grabbed a bin off a conveyor belt and stacked it on another bin, forming neat columns on wooden pallets surrounding the robot. It was the first time Amazon had shown the arm, the latest generation of robots in use at its warehouses, to a reporter. 
“For me, it’s the most mentally challenging thing we have here,” Ms. Scott said of her new job. “It’s not repetitive.”

One can immediately imagine the benefit of incorporating robots into the warehouse setting where large shipments of varying weight are being distributed.  First, the common workplace injury due to improper lifting of boxes is greatly reduced by incorporating a robot.  Second, now, a human is in charge of monitoring and figuring out (troubleshooting) what the robot is doing incorrectly.  That is if a problem exists.

Overall, the heavy lifting is done by the automation portion of the factory - which is great.  Workplace injuries are reduced.  The workforce (human) is elevated in responsibility by figuring out how to troubleshoot a machine - doing the job previously assigned to the person.  That seems to be educating the employee toward working at a higher level of skill.

Therefore, as a result, incorporating robotic automation into a warehouse (or industry) now results in a more intelligent and highly skilled workforce (with better health)!!!  Maybe those robots are not so bad after all?

Monday, September 18, 2017

How Can The Paris Climate Agreement Be "More Favorable To The U.S."???

Of all of the misleading statements from our new President over the last nine months, the top ranked is that withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is necessary until a 'renegotiation' can occur which is more favorable to the United States.   This is a true lie of unimaginable magnitude.  Why you might ask?  Simple: The greenhouse gas reductions are set by each nation and then evaluated at various time intervals into the future.  Also, this has real world consequences -- some of which I wrote about in previous blogs - here and here.  I was reminded of the consequences this morning when I received the following from the daily "Politico Energy" - in my e-mail box regarding the U.S. stance on the Paris Climate Agreement:

PARIS POSITION AS CLEAR AS MUD: A weekend full of conflicting signals and mixed messages culminated with President Donald Trump's administration reiterating its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement "unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable to our country." Confusion first emerged Saturday when Everett Eissenstat, the No. 2 official on the National Economic Council, made comments at a Montreal meeting that some diplomats interpreted as signaling the U.S. might remain in the international deal while revising Obama's climate pledge. But White House and international officials told POLITICO's Nancy Cook, Andrew Restuccia and Kalina Oroschakoff those comments were misconstrued. "This is being misreported. Unhelpfully so I think," a non-U.S. attendee of the meeting said of the comments.
Administration officials stressed that view Sunday. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster called The Wall Street Journal's original report on Saturday that the U.S. was considering remaining in the Paris agreement a "false report" on "Fox News Sunday," POLITICO's Theodoric Meyer reports. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was less adamant on CBS' " Face the Nation ," saying there was a possibility the Trump administration could stick with it if they can negotiate what they deem a better deal: "The president said he is open to finding those conditions where we can remain engaged with others on what we all agree is still a challenging issue," he said. "The plan is for [National Economic Council] Director [Gary] Cohn to consider other ways in which we can work with partners in the Paris climate accord. We want to be productive, we want to be helpful."
It's worth noting: Italy, France and Germany have said the underlying framework of the Paris agreement won't be renegotiated, but multiple experts have said the U.S. could weaken its voluntary emissions reduction pledge - nationally determined contribution in diplomatic parlance - whenever it wants. Or in the words of Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy : "Dear White House, READ THE AGREEMENT. It already allows each country to set their own terms of compliance. So we good? Back in?"

Again, what amazes me after reading the excerpt above is that our President does not realize that the mandates of the Paris Climate Agreement allow for failure (i.e. not reaching reduction goals).  What more is there to say?  This is a great agreement.  To start, the agreement establishes agreement with (between) nearly 200 nations.  Further, the climate agreement is just one aspect of the agreement between nations.  At this point, you may be wondering the following questions:

Who is leading the effort to either misinform the President and his cabinet on the Paris Agreement?

Why is there a lack of education on the matter within the cabinet of the White House?

What part of "no reduction limits" does the President not understand?

What part of 're-assess' targets and efforts after 4 years does the President not understand?

Clearly, the objective of the Paris Agreement is to get all nations on board.  Each can set their own limit.  Furthermore, each can fail to meet their own limits.  How can the President and his cabinet not understand this simple concept?  The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still believes that the agreement needs to be renegotiated as shown in the excerpt below from a transcript of an interview on CBS on Sunday on 'Face The Nation':

REX TILLERSON (Secretary of State): Well, the position is being led and developed by Gary Cohn over at the National Economic Council. And I think, if you recall, the President also said, look, we are willing to work with partners in the Paris climate accord if we can construct a set of terms that we believe is fair and balanced for the American people and recognizes our economy-- our economy, our economic interest relative to others, in particular, the second largest economy in the world, China. If you look at those targets and terms of the Paris climate accord, they were just really out of balance for the two largest economies. So I think the plan is for director Cohn to consider other ways in which we can work with partners in the Paris climate accord. We want to be productive, we want to be helpful. The U.S. has actually has a tremendous track record on reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions.
JOHN DICKERSON: So there's a chance that-- that if things get worked out both on the voluntary side from the U.S., voluntary restrictions for the U.S. that it could change, but then also with China-- there's a chance the U.S. could stay in the accord, is that right?
REX TILLERSON: I think under the right conditions, the President said he's open to finding those conditions where we can remain engaged with others on what we all agree is still a challenging issue.

What??  The excerpts above show that neither the President or his cabinet members have an understanding of international agreements.  Unfortunately, their lack of political experience is clearly visible by their lack of understanding how to play on the political playing field.  Back in July after President Trump announced that the U.S. would withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the President of the European Commission gave his assessment of President Trump's announcement in the blog post I wrote - which can be found here.

Given the present announcements over the weekend along with the past blog posts and other compelling evidence, clearly the President has little understanding of how to run the country on the international stage.  Over time, his lack of understanding only deepens which threatens the position of the United States in future negotiations on issues tied to Paris Climate Agreement such as refugees, immigration, renewable energy investments, etc.  These issues are all tied to national security as well.


Given the current lack of understanding on part of our President on matters important to our nation, we should celebrate the few that still stand for change in a positive direction.  Governor Jerry Brown (California) along with others made commitments to keep certain states in the United States up to the challenge of the Paris Climate Agreement.  I wrote a blog post which also contains the 'Memorandum of Understanding' which California reached with China on the Paris Climate Agreement.  Further, President Trump has had ample opportunity (including at Hamburg, Germany) to discuss more regarding the Paris Climate Agreement.  Read here about that possibility in July.

Going forward, the governors and other state officials will be tasked with leading the efforts of the United States moving forward into the next revolution with renewable energy.  Already, as has been shown, the coal industry is dying out.  Renewable energy is growing at an exponential rate with international investments which are astounding.  Now is the time to accept and join the international effort to change toward a renewable energy future which protects the planet and its inhabitants moving into the future.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Food and Drug Administration Releases Statement Regarding Crop Protection During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

The Federal Agencies have been on high alert that last few weeks with the two disastrous Hurricanes that hit the lower United States of America.  Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma were both of magnitude category 4 when passing over the U.S..  Part of the process of recovery from such devastating disasters is to seek assistance from the Federal Agency level.

On the flip side of seeking assistance from Federal Agencies, the same Federal Agencies have a responsibility to ensure that post disaster, food, water, and the environment is safe to live in.  From a food safety standpoint, the Federal Agency would be the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- tasked with releasing statements regarding the viability of food sources.  Here is the press release from the FDA regarding crops and food status during recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Hurricane Irma:

This is the first time that two category 4 storms have hit the U.S. back-to-back, and the effects have been devastating. At FDA we have a large team working on providing assistance to those affected by these storms, including American farmers who have suffered crop losses. You’ll be hearing a lot from us in the coming weeks, as we do our part to help people continue to recover from these tragic events. Today, we’re providing more information for farmers and food producers who’ve been impacted by these storms, and in particular, the proper handling of crops that have been exposed to floodwaters.
The FDA has longstanding experience responding to flooding and storms. We play an integral role, working with states, in protecting the safety of the food supply – both human and animal food. We recognize that these hurricanes have presented unique challenges for farmers, and the FDA is committed to work with growers, as well as with our federal and state partners, to ensure that the food we serve our families is safe and that consumers have confidence in the products they consume.
We’ve been in close discussion with farmers, consumer representatives, and state officials regarding concerns about how crops may be impacted by these storms. One crop for which there have been a high number of inquiries is rice. This owes, in particular, to the impact of Hurricane Harvey on the large rice crop in Texas. I want to make it clear that the FDA has not issued a ban on rice or any other food crops. Rice grown in normal conditions and rice that has not been exposed to contaminated floodwaters from the recent hurricanes may enter commerce. Also, rice and other crops that were harvested and stored safely before storms hit should not be considered impacted by these events. The documents we’re issuing today, as well as the direct consultations we’re continuing to have with state officials and with farmers directly, are aimed at providing our most up-to-date, science-based information on which crops can enter commerce without creating risks to consumers or animals who may be fed crops as part of animal feed.
However, I recognize that crops have been and will continue to be impacted in a variety of ways by these storms. There have been substantial crop losses from both storms. Crops may be submerged in flood water, exposed to contaminants, or susceptible to mold. Some of the major concerns for crop safety are heavy metals, chemical, bacterial, and mold contamination. In many cases, it is challenging to determine what contaminants are in crops that were submerged by floodwaters. Both human and animal food must meet well-established safety requirements. FDA has experts that are working closely with state regulators and directly with producers to address questions and concerns.
The FDA takes seriously our obligation to provide guidance to support farmers and food producers, who are responsible for the safety of their products. Many of these resources are already available on FDA’s website. Others will be revised in the coming days and issued directly by the agency, as part of our ongoing effort to provide more timely advice for our stakeholders.
My staff and I are continuing to work with USDA, state partners, extension services and other stakeholders to help producers as they work to evaluate the safety of their crops. We recognize that in many cases, it is those on the ground who can best advise farmers and help producers evaluate specific concerns and conditions. We have experts in the affected regions who can help provide direct assistance and we are taking additional steps to support recovery efforts. We also understand that state Departments of Agriculture may have specific requirements regarding any attempt to clean, process, test, use or sell crops for human or animal food.
I recently had the opportunity to tour farms and packing facilities in Georgia. That trip reminded me of how farms are different than the other entities we regulate. Farms are not just a place of business. Many are homes. Most farms have been in families for generations. As a result, the impact of floods on farms and farmers is especially concerning to me. It has hit many farmers hard, destroying their homes and their livelihoods. We are leaning forward in our efforts to make sure that we’re providing timely assistance, and that our advice on crop safety reflects our most up-to-date, science based analysis. Our primary mission is the protection and promotion of the public health. We’re committed to making sure food is safe for consumers. But we recognize there are hard questions that must be quickly answered about crops affected by these storms, or else crops that might be safe -- because they were not exposed to contaminated floodwaters -- could age past their point of use. We recognize the tremendous impact this storm had on region’s farming families. We’re working diligently to provide them with timely guidance. My staff and I are committed to doing our part to help farmers get back to work.
More detailed information on the impacts of flooding on human and animal crop uses can be found here:
General information on evaluating the safety of food and animal food crops exposed to flood waters
Q & A on crops harvested from flooded fields intended for animal food
The FDA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, protects the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices. The agency also is responsible for the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products.

Part of the difficulty in recovering from disastrous events like these two are understanding who and where to go to contact for money, information, and security.  Federal Agency websites might shed light on the specific resources and commitments which they are responsible to offer the public.  Of course, in the short term, Federal Emergency Management Agency is the direct source to contact as well as state and local first response teams in disaster areas.

Although, if the food and resources on which you rely come from areas impacted by the hurricanes and floods, then the Federal Agency level is the place to look for information on products dispersed on a national level.  Each person who resides in the United States should be aware of the different Federal Agencies and their responsibilities to the nation.  One easy resource is 'Wikipedia'.  Here are a couple integral Federal Agency 'Wikipedia' pages -- Just click on the name which is hyperlinked:

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

The agencies above should cover a wide range of topics to get a person assistance in the need of a natural disaster (and unnatural too).  Furthermore, understanding what websites to visit to keep up to date on the status of our national supplies -- water, food, electricity, medicines, etc. -- is of critical importance - as we have seen over the last couple of weeks.  Each of us should be educated in the resources which agencies offered in order to help a fellow citizen in the event of a disaster.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Environmental Groups Question Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Cuts

With all of the storms that have reached the shores of the United States over the last couple of years, one cannot help but wonder why any federal funding to emergency and safety agencies would be on the chopping block in the FY2018 budget.  Each agency has their own importance during various parts of threatening storms.  Emergency agencies are critical during the first few days to weeks of a growing storm.  Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did the best job within the funding frameworks to provide initial response and working to help residents get back to work after the storm.  That short term work is critical.

Whereas, the safety agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency is critical in assessing the damage in the aftermath of a storm and making changes to protect the citizens of the nation.  An example would be the chemicals which were released into the air by the Arken chemical plant fire -- which resulted due to power outages and flooding at the plant.  Now that the storms (Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma) have past, the time has come to discuss the federal support which is needed with growing storms (in frequency and severity) that threaten our nation.

Recently, the EPA has announced that their will be major cuts to the agency.  I am astonished in light of the recent storms that Congress has not stepped up and called to block any cuts.  We should be expanding not shrinking.  Environmental groups had to sit through the announcement this morning.  A reporter from ABC News interviewed three top employees of three prominent environmental clubs in the video below (worth watching - around 7 minutes in duration):

ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

After watching the video, I cannot help but think what the members of the Trump administration are thinking? I will write more about the recent storms and the EPA in the coming days. I do not want to write a massive blog post and overwhelm you with too much content. Let's start with the video above to think about the issue at hand in light of the disastrous storms which brought an unknown amount of damage to our nation and a terrible amount of loss of life.

 A closing fact: just yesterday in Florida a nursing home was operating without Air Conditioning. The reports thus far show that the owners might be subject to scrutiny due to not operating according to state code. Six residents were killed in the incident. Why? What agency is in charge of enforcing the rules? Whose oversight resulted in the death of six elderly people? These are questions which remain to be answered along with others.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How Many Birds Per Minute Can Be Processed On A Single Line At A Poultry Processing Plant?

I am not used to thinking generally about the question posed in the titled since I work at a university.  Although, I am sure that there exists plenty of organizations whose job entails thinking critically about such matters.  Furthermore, since I enjoy learning about new problems and solutions to matters relevant in the world, my attention was captured at the following excerpt that arrived in my e-mail "inbox" from 'Politico Agriculture' shown below:

POULTRY INDUSTRY ASKS FOR LINE-SPEED INCREASES: The chicken industry has petitioned the Food Safety and Inspection Service to lift the speed limit on bird processing lines for some plants, setting up a clash with labor advocates who fear more injuries could result if the request is granted. Processing lines face a 140-bird-per-minute limit, but the National Chicken Council, in a petition dated September 1 but made public on Friday, asked for an exemption for plants that opt into the New Poultry Inspection System, a more rigorous food safety inspection program.
The National Chicken Council wants participating plants to be given "the flexibility to choose to operate at appropriate line speeds based on their ability to maintain process control," according to the petition, which was addressed to Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy undersecretary for food safety. In order to qualify for the exemption, the petition suggests plants also be required to take part in the Salmonella Initiative Program and establish a system for monitoring and responding to loss of process control.
The chicken industry contends that faster speeds wouldn't endanger workers and would help maintain efficiency in light of increased inspection. It also said the change would incentivize more plants to participate in NPIS and serve to eliminate competitive barriers between the U.S. and international chicken producers. The industry argued that lifting the speed limit isn't as dangerous as it sounds because speed increases would primarily occur in areas of processing plants that are largely automated. "There are multiple safeguards in place to ensure plants continue to operate in compliance with federal worker safety requirements, regardless of the line speed at which they operate," the council said in the petition.
Forty advocacy and labor groups, including the National Employment Law Project, wrote Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last month in anticipation of the request, arguing it would worsen worker safety conditions in an industry already plagued with injuries. "Even at current speeds, poultry slaughter and processing workers face serious job hazards that result in debilitating illness, injury, or death," they said. "Indeed, workers in poultry plants are injured at almost twice the rate of workers in private industry." USDA told the council it's evaluating the request.

Ever since I was a small boy, I have been amazed at factory work.  From the top down, from directing operations to the person working the line.  What are the various parameters which have to be optimized in order to make an "processing" or "assembly" line run smoothly?  A large part of that is dependent on the manufacturer's product -- what is either being "processed" or "assembled" to be shipped to either a store or the next stop in the production line?  I am continually fascinated by the concept of 'high throughput'.

After reading the above excerpt from 'Politico Agriculture' I started thinking about the hazards associated with increasing the speed too much on the "processing" line at a Poultry processing plant.  For one, the amount of inherent 'errors' which are made by each employee scales with speed.  The faster a processing line goes, the more 'error' prone the workers are.  That is, of course, after the optimal speed is reached.  I imagine that the standard speed (safe speed) is set quite a bit below the optimal speed.

At the same time, the owners of the poultry processing plant have an investment in mind.  Their main focus is high throughput of poultry.  Get as many through to the customer is as humanly possible.  This increases their bottom line and satisfies their shareholders (more profits).

How About The Labor Workers?

On the flip side of the requests made above, the opposition toward speeding up the processing line comes from the actual workers 'on the line.'  Here is a letter from the National Employment Law Project along with advocacy and labor groups in opposition to the increase in speed:

Dear Secretary Perdue,
The following organizations write to strongly oppose any proposed rule that would increase line speeds in poultry plants within the United States above the current 140 birds per minute (bpm). We were alarmed by the recent letter from Congressman Doug Collins (GA) requesting an increase in the line speed to 175 bpm, and we take issue with many of the claims therein. Most significantly, we are deeply concerned that any line speed increase would jeopardize the health and safety of both poultry workers and consumers at large.
Even at current speeds, poultry slaughter and processing workers face serious job hazards that result in debilitating illness, injury, or death.  Indeed, workers in poultry plants are injured at almost twice the rate of workers in private industry. These workers face over seven times the national average of occupational illnesses, such as repetitive motion injuries.  And, as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted, these rates are likely underreported.
Increasing the line speed by a full 25 percent to a shocking 175 bpm—or 3 birds per second—would only make a bad situation worse. This is evident for anyone who has visited a poultry plant. Workers stand, shoulder to shoulder, in cramped quarters, amid deafening noise and slippery conditions. They make thousands of forceful cuts a day at break-neck speed, using sharp knives and scissors, with acidic chemicals sprayed over the meat, and onto the skin, and into the eyes, nose and throat of the workers, as the meat moves down the line. A single wrong move could lead to an amputated finger or life-threatening cut. And cumulatively, these repetitive movements cause irreparable damage to the nerves, tendons, and muscles of the workers.
Despite Congressman Collins’ claim that production line speed is unrelated to worker health, experts are convinced otherwise.  For instance, according to the Government Accountability Organization (GAO), “High line speeds resulting from increased automation and other factors may exacerbate hazards. . . .[L]ine speed—in conjunction with hand activity, forceful exertions, awkward postures, cold temperatures, and other factors such as rotation participation and pattern—affects the risk of both musculoskeletal disorders and injuries among workers.”
Two further studies from the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) confirm these findings. They reported staggeringly high rates of injuries directly related to the rapid, repetitive motions. In one study, 34 percent of workers had carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and 76 percent had evidence of nerve damage in their hands and wrists.  In another study, 42 percent had CTS.  These numbers are not an unhappy coincidence. As NIOSH’s agency director stated, “Line speed affects the periodicity of repetitive and forceful movements, which are key causes of musculoskeletal disorders.”  In other words, the faster the line speed, the greater the risk of harm.
It’s also clear that the line speed in poultry plants may pose dangers to consumers. OSHA citations show that workers are denied breaks, including breaks to use the restroom, in order to keep lines going at full speed. Many workers end up soiling themselves while standing on the processing line; this poses an obvious danger of contamination.
While Congressman Collins and others refer to higher line speeds in other countries, evidence points to clear problems. Germany allows line speeds up to 200 bpm in poultry plants; the country also experiences particularly high levels of Salmonella and Camplylobacter contamination in poultry meats, which is largely attributed to the slaughter process.
In a recent statement, Congressman Collins referenced positive results arising from pilot programs allowing line speeds to be raised from 140 to 175 bpm. No such outcomes can be found. In fact, the GAO strongly criticized the USDA for the lack of credible evidence emerging from the pilot program to support its claims that higher line speeds were safe for workers and consumers.9 Furthermore, data from the pilot programs found an average line speed of 131 bmp, far below the 175 permitted. And even with the 131 bpm line speed, the USDA recognized the dangers of higher line speeds to workers and noted that more studies would be needed before any increases be made.
It should also be pointed out that USDA researchers have found that the regulatory pathogen testing results in the pilot plants may have been skewed as the antimicrobial chemicals used in those plants probably overpowered the collection broth used by inspectors to collect samples. That may have led to the reporting of false negative results, understating the actual level of pathogens in the poultry.  Consequently, USDA developed and began using a stronger neutralizing agent in its pathogen sampling program in 2016.11 Any food safety arguments made to increase line speeds using the track record of the pilot plants need to be viewed skeptically.
Finally, Congressman Collins argues that increasing line speeds is necessary to compete with German and Belgian factories, which operate line speeds of 200 bpm or more. However, Germany and Belgium are not permitted to export their poultry to the United States, so their industry standards have no impact in the U.S. market. Furthermore, as noted above, the poultry found in these foreign plants still has high levels of pathogens that continue to be of concern to European food safety officials.  

In short, we urge you to reject any calls to increase poultry line speeds. The overwhelming evidence to date suggests this increase would have disastrous results. Until the USDA completes its studies evaluating the safety of existing poultry plant line speeds, no changes in standards should be proposed or made. Any move by the USDA to increase line speeds in poultry plants would be in complete disregard to the safety of the 250,000 working men and women who endure already exceedingly harsh working conditions to feed their fellow Americans. 
A Better Balance
American Public Health Association, Occupational Health & Safety Section
Beyond OSHA Project
Brazos Interfaith Immigration Network/Centro de Derechos Laborales
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Communications Workers of America
Conquista Interpreter Services
Department of Public Health, UMass Lowell
Economic Policy Institute
Fe y Justicia Worker Center
Food & Water Watch
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Interfaith Worker Justice
International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Knox Area Workers’ Memorial Day Committee
Knoxville, Oak Ridge Area Central Labor Council
KOL Foods
National Council for Occupational Safety and Health
National Employment Law Project
Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest
New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy
NH Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health
Occupational Health Clinical Centers
OEM consultant
Oxfam America
Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH)
Presbyterian Church (USA) Washington Office of Public Witness
Public Citizen
Public Justice Center
SafeWork Washington
Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law
South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice
Southern Poverty Law Center
UnidosUS (formerly NCLR)
Western North Carolina Workers’ Center
WisCOSH, Inc.

Workers in any environment deserve protection against cruel and inhumane conditions.  History shows that the U.S. has exploited workers throughout time in various conditions.  Over the last two centuries, the U.S. has made leaps and bounds to an extent on improving workers rights on a national level.  Of course, this is no time to celebrate, there is plenty of work to still be done.  Illegal immigrants whose work the U.S. depends heavily upon still find themselves subject to torturous conditions in various parts of our nation.

The stories typically do not make national headlines, because the majority of us would rather turn our heads than speak up in favor of making positive changes to promote the health of workers whose labor ultimately contributes to the health of the nation.  Think about farmers, construction workers, industrial plant workers, and the beef and poultry industries whose labor is not all legal.   Each deserve a higher quality of life -- even if that means that the business owner receives less revenue and the customer pays more for produce and meat at the grocery store counter.

Michael Grabell wrote an article for The New Yorker back in May of this year titled "Exploitation and Abuse at the Chicken Plant" in which he uncovers the problems of exploitation at large chicken farms and processing plants.  Here is an excerpt below from the article describing the conditions each worker faces on a day to day basis:

Osiel sanitized the liver-giblet chiller, a tublike contraption that cools chicken innards by cycling them through a near-freezing bath, then looked for a ladder, so that he could turn off the water valve above the machine. As usual, he said, there weren’t enough ladders to go around, so he did as a supervisor had shown him: he climbed up the machine, onto the edge of the tank, and reached for the valve. His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it a hundred and eighty degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine “literally ripped off his left leg,” medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg.
Back at the plant, Osiel’s supervisors hurriedly demanded workers’ identification papers. Technically, Osiel worked for Case Farms’ closely affiliated sanitation contractor, and suddenly the bosses seemed to care about immigration status. Within days, Osiel and several others—all underage and undocumented—were fired.
Though Case Farms isn’t a household name, you’ve probably eaten its chicken. Each year, it produces nearly a billion pounds for customers such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, and Taco Bell. Boar’s Head sells its chicken as deli meat in supermarkets. Since 2011, the U.S. government has purchased nearly seventeen million dollars’ worth of Case Farms chicken, mostly for the federal school-lunch program.  
Case Farms plants are among the most dangerous workplaces in America. In 2015 alone, federal workplace-safety inspectors fined the company nearly two million dollars, and in the past seven years it has been cited for two hundred and forty violations. That’s more than any other company in the poultry industry except Tyson Foods, which has more than thirty times as many employees. David Michaels, the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (osha), called Case Farms “an outrageously dangerous place to work.” Four years before Osiel lost his leg, Michaels’s inspectors had seen Case Farms employees standing on top of machines to sanitize them and warned the company that someone would get hurt. Just a week before Osiel’s accident, an inspector noted in a report that Case Farms had repeatedly taken advantage of loopholes in the law and given the agency false information. “The company has a twenty-five-year track record of failing to comply with federal workplace-safety standards,” Michaels said.
Case Farms has built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants, who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with. When these workers have fought for higher pay and better conditions, the company has used their immigration status to get rid of vocal workers, avoid paying for injuries, and quash dissent. Thirty years ago, Congress passed an immigration law mandating fines and even jail time for employers who hire unauthorized workers, but trivial penalties and weak enforcement have allowed employers to evade responsibility. Under President Obama, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed not to investigate workers during labor disputes. Advocates worry that President Trump, whose Administration has targeted unauthorized immigrants, will scrap those agreements, emboldening employers to simply call ice anytime workers complain.

Workers who were interviewed in the article said that the pay to catch chickens per night was around $2.25 per thousand chickens.  Two crews (each with nine workers) could gather 75,000 chickens in a single night.  With those two numerical figures, the following math shows how much each worker brings home a night:

Oh My Goodness, what a rip off.  For the environment in which these workers are exposed to, this is outrageous.  Who would work in such conditions in their right mind?  Unfortunately, the only workers who would take work are those who are desperate.  Now, take into account that the 75,000 chickens need to be processed on a line running at a speed of 140 birds per minute.

Each worker gets around $9 per night to round up thousands of chickens in hazardous and infected conditions (feces, disease ridden cages).  Furthermore, with the rate listed in the initial letter at a safe speed, processing 75,000 chickens with a single processing line would take 8.9 hours.  Just over an 8 hour shift.  Interesting enough, according to Michael Grabell's reporting, a large farm like Case farm runs their lines at a speed of 40 birds per minute.  WOW!

Why then do chicken plants want to increase their processing speeds beyond 140 birds per minute?


Something is not right here in the current negotiations.  A large farm is operating a single processing line at a speed of 40 birds per minute.  Quite possible is that the author misquoted the speed of Case Farm processing line speeds.  When the minimum is set at 140 birds per minute, 75,000 birds can be processed in a single 8 hour shift.

What is ludicrous and inhumane to me is reading about workers being restricted from using the restroom.  Some of the workers interviewed by Michael Grabell literally wore 'diapers' while working the processing line.  Is that even sanitary?  What would OSHA think about these conditions?  OSHA stands for Occupation of Safety and Health Agency.  Furthermore, a pregnant worker was denied the possibility to use the restroom on a 8 hr shift.  What kind of businesses run their operations like this?

The take home message is that, our demand is motivating inhumane conditions.  Of course, in any business, inhumane conditions can be influenced by the 'bottom line' (i.e. profits).  If anyone see injustices like these reported in the article or sought changes to an existing line which are illegal, they should be compelled to speak up.  No one deserves to work in inhumane conditions like those described above.  Workers should be able to run a processing line at a maximum speed of 140 birds per minute -- possibly even a little less -- to avoid injuries.  Businesses should take into account employee health rather than possible profits.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What Does An Official Letter From The White House Requesting Funds For Hurricane Harvey Look Like?

Often after a terrible disaster such as Hurricane Harvey has hit parts of the United States, politicians will jump on the news and state that a "request of funds" to congress have been made.  I often wonder what such a request looks like.  Thanks to the journal 'Politico' - I do not need to wonder any further.  In the blog post below I show that a letter has been sent to Representative Paul Ryan in Congress.  The only aspect of this terrible event left to wonder about is why initially President Trump earlier this year set in his budget massive cuts to the same disaster relief funds which now he is requesting emergency funding from.  Makes zero sense.  Regardless, funding needs to be desperately sent to Houston in order to rebuild the extensive damage seen over the course of the last ten days.

Please Send Relief Funding

  As I mentioned above, I have been wondering what such requests look like from politicians to Congress in the event of a disaster like Hurricane Harvey.  The damage is enormous and the repair process will be even larger over the next few years.  I received a link from my morning e-mail from the 'tip-sheets' published by Politico this morning with the following letter from Mick Mulvaney of the Office of Management and Budget:

Dear Mr. Speaker:
    On Friday, August 25, 2017, at approximately 10:00 pm CDT, Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, striking the southeast coast of Texas and steadily moving toward the southwest and central parts of Louisiana.  Prolonged high winds, storm surges, and torrential rains have contributed to unprecedented and widespread flooding that has upended the lives of residents and damaged more than 100,000 homes.  As a result, to date, more than 43,500 people are in shelters and more than 436,000 households have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for support for temporary rental assistance, hotel/motel costs, and essential home repairs to help restore their lives to normal as quickly as possible.  Local businesses, schools, and public infrastructure have been damaged, and many families will soon need to regain stable housing, which has been difficult given the current situation.  As you know, the Federal Government has an important role to play in supporting and assisting States and local communities as they respond to natural disasters of this magnitude.
   At the direction of the President, and under the auspices of the National Response and Disaster Recovery Frameworks, numerous Federal agencies and coordinating and contributing resources and personnel (over 22,000 Federal workers) in response to the devastating effects of the storm.  As the affected region continues to battle the flooding, the Administration believes additional Federal resources are necessary to continue to fund critical, and often life-saving, response and recovery missions. 
   At this time, the Administration requests an appropriation of $7.85 billion in Federal resources for response and initial recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey.  This amount includes $7.4 billion for FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund (DRF), including funds to ensure FEMA is prepared for any additional disasters while continuing ongoing response and recovery efforts.  It also includes $450 million to support the Small Business Administration's disaster loan program to assist small businesses and homeowners. In addition to these emergency supplemental appropriations, in the event that the Congress enacts a fiscal year 2018 continuing resolution(CR), the Administration also supports authorizing FMA's response to Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters that require Federal assistance, including the potential for near-term response needs during Atlantic Hurricane season.
These additional Federal resources would enable the affected States to address disaster response and immediate recovery needs in the areas most affected by Hurricane Harvey.  These funds would be used to continue life-saving response and recovery missions; begin to address housing repair costs unmet by insurance; and provide low-interest loans to businesses and homeowners.  Because the need for this funding arises from an unforeseen, unanticipated event resulting in the loss of life and property, these resources should be provided as emergency funding.
   As you know, authorization of the National Flood Insurance Program expires on September 30, 2017.  The Administration will work closely with the Congress to reauthorize the program and implement reforms that can garner bipartisan support.  FEMA is working diligently to assess the fiscal position of the program to ensure that all claims are paid in a timely manner.  The Administration will follow up regarding any needs for this program.
The President visited Texas on August 29, 2017 to reassure the people of Texas that the Federal Government would help them rebuild from the catastrophic flooding and damage to the affected communities.  During the visit, the President emphasized that he is prepared to work with Congress to ensure that people affected by Hurricane Harvey receive the resources they need to respond  and recover as quickly as possible.  This request is a down-payment on the President's commitment to help affected States recover from the storm, and future requests will address longer-term rebuilding needs.
Finally, we must recognize that the debt ceiling could, unless modified, affect critical response and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey.  As Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has said, it is critical that the Congress raise the debt ceiling by September 29, 2017.  Given the need for additional spending as a result of disaster response and initial recovery from Hurricane Harvey, the Administration continues to urge the Congress to act expeditiously to ensure that the debt ceiling does not affect these critical response and recovery efforts.  Indeed, if the debt ceiling is not raised, it may not be possible to outlay the requested supplemental appropriations or funds for other critical Government operations.
Thank you for your consideration of these funding needs.  I urge the Congress to take swift action to provide the additional funding requested to address Hurricane Harvey's unmet response-related and other critical needs.  I stand ready to work with you to achieve this goal.

Mick Mulvaney

Regardless of political beliefs, the necessary funding should be sent.  The residents of Houston are all Americans and deserve to be helped in the time of need with the necessary funding.  I feel for those who have lost everything.  Furthermore, more tragic is those who lost love ones who did not survive the floods.  Nothing can replace the loss of life by such a tragic event.  The only hope a nation can have is to prepare by funding the necessary agencies which are quick to respond and have the necessary infrastructure to rebuild and recover from a tragic disaster like Hurricane Harvey.

Part of the funding process is to properly fund agencies at the Federal level.  An agency like FEMA - Federal Emergency Management Agency plays a critical role in the first few weeks along with the remaining recovery from such a disaster for Houston.  Which is why funding such as agency should be a top priority.

Why Take FEMA Funds?

A natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey reminds us of the potential unknowns that exist in our society.  From these terrible disasters, the government hopefully learns what to do and what not do in the event of a future disaster.  Part of the process is to send in Federal inspection agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency to check to see that businesses and other agencies are compliant and have not exacerbated the issue prior to Hurricane Harvey by ignoring critical regulation.  In the future, I will write a post regarding the EPA and chemicals released into the floods of Houston. For the present time, I would like to focus on Federal funding -- since that is the topic of the post.

To address the current funding issue related to Hurricane Harvey, look toward the current news cycle.  Reports are surfacing regarding the "flip-flop" nature of the politicians regarding natural disasters and funding.  Which is discouraging to say the least.  Although, the point should be made regarding President Trump's budget for 2018 -- which included massive cuts to Federal Agencies -- see article from last March.  Back in March earlier this year, a discussion of these massive cuts to Federal Agencies were aimed at increasing funding for President Trump's campaign promises -- building a wall on the U.S. southern border.  In an article from the Washington Post titled "Trump’s DHS budget includes billions to build his border wall" the following explanation was made regarding the shifting of funding around the Department of Homeland Security (under which the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- FEMA resides):

The budget plan envisions a $2.6 billion expenditure on border security enhancements, much of that for the design and construction of a larger wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Overall, DHS spending would grow by $2.8 billion, reflecting President Trump’s repeated calls to get tougher on illegal immigration.
The administration wants $314 million to pay for the hiring of 500 new Border Patrol officers and 1,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. In addition, it wants to spend$1.5 billion more than the current fiscal year on the detention and removal of undocumented people. 
Paying for that beefed-up immigration enforcement would mean significant cuts to other parts of the department, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s grants to state and local agencies.
The budget would cut $667 million from such programs, including disaster mitigation grants, which are designed to make communities more resilient before disasters occur. Also facing major reductions is the Homeland Security Grant Program, which includes the Urban Area Security Initiative. Its funds are distributed to major U.S. cities to help them pay for counterterrorism work, and previous efforts to restrict those payments have met stiff resistance in Congress.

Wow!  Take away money from FEMA to fund immigration issues.  Yes, the same FEMA which is under pressure to help rebuild and find disaster relief from Hurricane Harvey.  Yes, the same FEMA which is listed in the letter from Mick Mulvaney of the Office of Management and Budget above.  Yes, FEMA is the organization for which the White House is requesting funding for from Hurricane Harvey.

Why then would President Trump propose massive cuts from FEMA in his current fiscal year 2018 budget proposal released months ago?

In the letter above, obviously, the White House has taken a different position than what line up with the President's fiscal year 2018 budget cuts.  Although, according to an article from NPR titled "Trump Policies Could Undermine Post-Harvey Rebuilding" the proposed policies set forth by the President could be the impeding barrier toward future disaster relief:

JOYCE: Besides the executive order, the budget for the Federal Emergency Management Agency has become a target as well. FEMA is the government's front line when it comes to flooding. President Trump's proposed budget for next year cuts hundreds of millions of dollars that FEMA spends to help states prepare for flooding and other disasters. It also eliminates FEMA's flood mapping program. FEMA draws up maps that show who's in a flood zone and has to buy flood insurance and who doesn't. NRDC's Rob Moore says that could have far-reaching effects.
MOORE: What the Trump administration doesn't seem to understand is that these flood maps are used for decisions at every level of government. They're used by private developers for deciding where it is safe to build and what kinds of standards do we need to build to in order to be safeguarded against flooding?
JOYCE: FEMA is already in a delicate position financially. It's over $23 billion in debt. The tragedy unfolding in Texas and Louisiana will cost billions more and may well drive the agency further underwater. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

The above excerpt was from the article listed which was an interview conducted by NPR's Christopher Joyce, the National Resource Defense Council's Rob Moore, and Ari Shapiro of NPR.


President Trump is currently regretting his initial budget proposal of cutting FEMA funding at the present moment.  Especially, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the emerging Hurricane Irma.  In the months to come, the public will see the consequences of denying climate change and deregulating industry.  Hurricane Harvey has shown us already the horrible effects of deregulation of chemical industry by the release of enormous amounts of chemicals from the Arkema plant in Houston.  Furthermore, the superfund sites which were waiting to be assessed and dealt with have contributed chemicals of unknown concentrations.  We will find out about these levels of chemicals which have migrated from the contaminated superfund sites into the surrounding neighborhoods.

Regardless of the current political debate surrounding the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Houston Texas, funding should be released immediately to assist those who have lost so much and are left in disarray.  Hopefully, the process of rebuilding and recovery can proceed as quickly as possible.  Furthermore, hopefully, our current Administration wakes up to the realities that pose a great danger to us and the world at large by listening to science more often.