Behind the Lines

More Workplace Carnage

THE NUMBER OF JOB-RELATED injuries and illnesses in the United States in 1990 rose to 6.8 million, the highest level on record, according to a December 1991study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of on-the-job injuries and illnesses reported by employers rose by almost 200,000 over figures reported for 1989. The Labor Department has been tracking occupational injuries and illnesses since 1972.

Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIOís safety and health division, says that the statistics underscore the need to strengthen occupational safety and health laws. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) "program currently isnít protecting American workers," she says. Seminario is particularly concerned that the figures rose during a time of economic downturn, since there is usually a decrease in worker injury and illness during recessions due to layoffs and lower levels of employment.

The AFL-CIO is supporting a bill introduced in August 1991 by Representative William Ford, D-Michigan, that would overhaul the OSHA program. The bill would require employers to implement health and safety programs, to involve workers in identifying hazards and to provide training for workers exposed to hazards. The bill also calls for increased penalties for criminal violations of workplace safety laws and for more inspectors to enforce regulations. Seminario says that there are currently only enough OSHA and state inspectors to visit each work site in the United States once every 79 years.

 Seminario is hopeful that OSHA laws will be strengthened in the next year, noting that incidents "like the fire in Hamlet [North Carolina] focus public attention on workplace safety and health."

Dow Corning Coverup

DOW CORNING MISREPRESENTED findings from a 1973 company test on the safety of its silicone breast implants. According to a recently released report prepared by an outside laboratory under contract to Dow Corning, one of four beagle dogs which received implants in the 1973 experiment died and another developed a large tumor next to an implant. However, an article based on the study, written by two Dow Corning scientists and published in Medical Instrumentation magazine, says nothing about adverse outcomes. The article says that all four dogs remained in normal health and that no long-term toxic reactions were observed.

 The revelations about the 1973 study came on the heels of a January 6 Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-imposed moratorium on selling and inserting silicone breast implants. FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler said he would reconvene an expert panel which previously reviewed evidence about the safety of the implants to consider new data about the devices. Kessler said he had received increasing evidence that women with silicone implants suffer immune disorders.

Approximately two million women have received silicone breast implants since they came on the market in the early 1960s. Some evidence links silicone implants to chronic inflammatory disease and to the painful hardening of tissue around the implants. Animal tests have also linked silicone implants to cancer. Regulation of medical devices was not mandated by Congress until 1976, however, so the implants have never been forced to meet FDA requirements for proposed devices.

 A statement released after Kesslerís January 6 announcement by the National Womenís Health Network, a Washington, D.C.-based health advocacy organization which has long pressed the FDA to require manufacturers to conduct clinical trials on the safety of the devices, supports Kesslerís move to halt silicone implants: "We are pleased that the FDA continues to work to create a situation of informed choice by acting upon the evidence at hand rather than a well-orchestrated public relations campaign by plastic surgeons and implant manufacturers."

Miners Under Fire

ON OCTOBER 23, 1991, MILITARY FORCES in Honduras opened fire against union workers striking at the El Mochito mine, owned by the Canadian company, Breakwater Resources Ltd. Fifteen to 30 miners were injured, and one, Daniel Carrasco, was killed by military gunfire.

The miners were striking in response to the firing of 48 workers who had participated in a May 1991 strike over wage levels, according to the Vancouver-based Christian Task Force on Latin America. The miners had occupied the mine from October 7 to October 12.

Following the shooting and facing a threatened general strike, Honduran President Rafael Callejas stepped in to act as mediator between the workers and the company on November 7. Breakwater agreed to reinstate the fired workers with back pay.

 Sarah Cox of the Toronto-based Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice says that the incident is rooted in the growing strength of the solidarismo movement in Central America, particularly in Honduras and Costa Rica. Set up by government and private interests, solidarista associations are worker groups that emphasize cooperation with management and seek to displace militant unions. At El Mochito, solidaristas had taken over the union leadership and agreed to the salary changes that led workers to strike in May.

 - Holley Knaus