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Nation Topics - Working Conditions

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Arriving in San Francisco after a ten-hour drive through a snowstorm, Lucas Benitez sounds earnest and exhausted.

The fighters are powerless workers in need of rights and justice.

High-tech workplace surveillance is the hallmark of a new digital Taylorism.

Depleted uranium constitutes one of largest
radioactive and toxic-waste byproducts of the nuclear age. Over the
past half-century, 700,000 metric tons of DU--more than half of all
the uranium ever mined in the world--was produced at three
government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee;
Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio. This DU now sits in some
50,000 steel cylinders, each weighing about thirteen tons, stacked in
huge piles outside the enrichment plants. A major leak in one of the
cylinders could pose an acute risk to workers and the public. After
years of prodding, DOE is starting a multibillion-dollar effort to
convert these wastes to a safer form.

DU is less
radioactive than other isotopes and is officially considered to be
more of a toxic than a radiological hazard. However, whatever the
case with the most common form of DU, there are other forms that have
been proven highly dangerous. From the early 1950s through the 1970s,
some 150,000 tons of uranium, containing plutonium-239 and larger
amounts of equally dangerous neptunium-237, were recycled from
nuclear-weapons production reactors and processed at the three
gaseous-diffusion plants. This material also went throughout the DOE
nuclear-weapons production complex in several states, and some
apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans
battlefields.

According to a DOE study released this past
January (www.eh.doe.gov/benefits), workers who handled recycled
uranium at the Paducah plant between the 1950s and 1970s were heavily
exposed. The report noted that some workers were required to strike
large cloth-filter bags with metal rods to remove heavy
concentrations of uranium laced with neptunium and plutonium. They
were given little protection, and no effort was made to measure
exposures or inform workers about the dangers of handling this
material because the union might have demanded hazard
pay.

Workers' exposure risks were revealed in an official
review of DOE occupational epidemiological studies, which found that
workers at fourteen DOE facilities bore increased death risks from
cancer and other diseases following exposure to radiation and other
substances. Excess deaths from various cancers and nonmalignant lung
and kidney diseases were found among uranium workers at six
facilities. This report prompted the Energy Department to concede
officially on January 28, 2000, that its employees were harmed by
workplace exposures, and it served as an underpinning for a major
nuclear-weapons worker-compensation program enacted by Congress last
year. Under the new law, workers at the three gaseous-diffusion
plants exposed to recycled reactor uranium are eligible to receive
compensation for twenty-two listed cancers through a process in which
the burden of proof is shifted to the government.

Workers
are not the only casualties of the cold war uranium mess. The
National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that large areas at
DOE nuclear-material production sites cannot be cleaned up to safe
levels and will require indefinite, long-term institutional controls.
Official cost estimates to deal with this daunting problem are $365
billion and climbing. In effect, the production of depleted uranium
and other nuclear materials may have created de facto "national
sacrifice zones." Meanwhile, the Pentagon gets DU free of charge, as
our nation pays an enormous cost in terms of workers, the
environment, public safety and the US Treasury.

Madame Curie's denial of radiation dangers is emblematic of the legacy we now face as America's romance with the atom draws to a close.

Blogs

Workers die because those in power look the other way.

April 29, 2015

Will the Labor Department's much-delayed new rules for the H2-B visa program strengthen protections for immigrant workers?

April 3, 2015

This week’s Supreme Court ruling is one step toward protecting pregnant workers from the whims of their employers.

March 27, 2015

Writing “Race Together” on a coffee cup is not a solution to institutional racism—but it is a burden on an already underpaid workforce.

March 18, 2015

A climate of impunity for employers, coupled with the threat of deportation, is forcing undocumented workers to bear the costs of injury and abuse.

March 17, 2015

The LWC counters that their tactics have involved creative direct action, not conspiracy or extortion.

March 13, 2015

Some solutions might help mothers on an individual level while increasing systemic problems.

March 13, 2015

A new report reveals the gradual erosion of employer liability requirements that have left workers alone to shoulder the costs of workplace injury.

March 9, 2015

These guestworkers were vindicated this week when the contractor who arranged their captivity was slapped with a $14 million guilty verdict. 

February 20, 2015

Domestic workers are demanding an end to slavery-like conditions in the homes of the Hong Kong rich.

February 11, 2015