Warehouse safety inspections take aim at growing injury rates

Federal officials are stepping up safety inspections of warehouses and distribution centers — an industry in which both workers and injury rates have increased significantly in recent years.

On July 13, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched a  program to prevent injuries among workers in the fast-growing warehousing and distribution industry, which gained more than a million workers over a decade. As of June, more than 1.9 million workers were employed in the industry, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

As the workforce grew, so did occupational-related dangers: The industry has a rate of 4.8 injuries per 100 workers, far outpacing the overall private industry rate of 2.7 injuries per 100 workers.

Common injuries in the warehousing and distribution industry include musculoskeletal problems from lifting and lowering items, and injuries sustained after being hit by industrial vehicles.

The new OSHA program will also apply to mail-processing centers and parcel-delivery services. The safety inspections will focus on hazards such as industrial vehicle operations, material handling and storage, walking and work surfaces, and fire protection. If heat or ergonomic hazards are found, a health inspection will be conducted as well.

Storage and loading areas of retailers with high worker injury rates — such as hardware stores, supermarkets, warehouse clubs and building-material retailers — will also be covered by the three-year program.

Structural racism linked to mass shootings

Structural racism is contributing to the growing number of mass shootings in U.S. cities, a new study finds. 

Published July 19, the research found that major cities with higher populations of Black residents are more likely to experience mass shootings, “suggesting that structural racism may have a role.” Discriminatory housing practices that forced people of color into poorer socioeconomic neighborhoods are among the structural factors that may factor into the disparity, the researchers suggested.

The study looked at more than 860 mass shootings — defined as a shooting in which four or more people were wounded or killed — in the nation’s 50 largest cities from 2015 to 2019. While factors such as income, Black-white segregation and education were examined, only a higher population of Black residents was found to have a direct association with mass shootings, according to the research, which was published in JAMA Surgery.

While criticizing it as an “imperfect” marker, the researchers noted that number of Black residents in a population is commonly used in research as a measure for structural racism.

The study also found that in cities with higher populations of Black residents, a higher rate of injuries and deaths occurred during mass shootings. The study adds to findings on racial inequities in gun deaths, such as the fact that Black Americans make up less than 14% of the U.S. population but account for 58% of firearm homicide victims.

Global treaty on chemical trade often snubbed

An international treaty designed in part to protect poor countries from receiving hazardous chemicals they can’t safely process and dispose of is routinely ignored, a new study says.

From 2004 to 2019, 64.5 million tons of chemicals covered by the Rotterdam Convention were traded around the world. Of those, 27.5 million tons were exported to countries that had pledged to not to receive them, therefore violating the treaty, according to the study, which was published July 10 in Nature Sustainability.

Adopted in 1998, the Rotterdam Convention covers more than 50 chemicals with high potential to cause significant harm to human health and the environment, such as asbestos, mercury compounds and various pesticides. Though the treaty does not ban the exchange of the chemicals, trade is only permitted when a country has specifically consented to allow its importation.

Ethylene dichloride, a carcinogenic solvent used to produce polyvinyl chloride plastic, or PVC, accounted for almost 86% of the traded chemicals, according to the researchers, who examined records from a United Nations trade database. Ethylene dioxide, a disinfectant and pesticide, made up about 10%.

While describing the treaty abuses as a worldwide problem, the researchers identified a number of trends. For example, the U.S. and nations in the Middle East were the major exporters of pesticides, while countries in Asia were their main importers. Germany was the biggest exporter of TBT — a biocide banned from boat paint because of its impact on marine life — while China, the U.S. and Western European countries were its main importers.

The U.S., which signed but did not ratify the Rotterdam Convention, exported about 4 million tons of chemicals during the study period to countries that had agreed under the treaty not to to import them, the research found.

Lower levels for silica dust exposure proposed for miners

Miners in the U.S. would have better protection from silica dust exposure under a new rule proposed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Published July 13 as a notice of proposed rulemaking, the regulation would lower the allowable level of occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica, also known as silica dust, during mine work. 

Specifically, exposure limits for silica dust would be lowered to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air during a work shift averaging eight hours. The administration’s current limit for miners, established in the early 1970s, is 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The rule change, which was announced in June, would bring the protections in line with other U.S. industries such as construction and maritime work. A 2020 audit from the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General concluded that the federal silica limit for miners was out of date, particularly in light of research linking exposure with illness and premature deaths among workers.

To meet the proposed lower silica dust exposure level, mine operators can use controls such as dust collectors, improved ventilation systems, wetting agents and enclosures, the regulation notes. 

Comments on the proposed rule are being accepted through Aug. 28.

Neighborhood socioeconomic status tied to dementia risk

People who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods are at higher risk for developing dementia, a new study finds. 

Published July 19 in JAMA Neurology, the study looked at health data on more than 1.6 million older adults served by the Veterans Health Administration, most of whom were men. Over 11 years, almost 13% of the patients developed dementia. 

People who lived in neighborhoods with higher levels of disadvantage — as assessed by income and education levels, employment, housing and other measures — were more likely to develop dementia than those in less disadvantaged neighborhoods. Patients in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, who were more likely to be Black or Hispanic, had the highest risk of dementia. They also had higher risks for depression, diabetes and hypertension.

Previous research has shown that neighborhood characteristics such as access to recreational space and healthy foods can influence both physical and mental health.

The Watch is written by Michele Late, who has more than two decades of experience as a public-health journalist.