Canaries Excel at Identifying Workplace Chemical Hazards

April 01, 2019
You may have heard that miners used to bring canaries with them into coal mines to help detect the presence of dangerous carbon monoxide.  According to Smithsonian magazine, that practice began in 1911 and continued through the 1980’s.  Recently, researchers have found that canaries are not only good at detecting carbon monoxide, but many other chemicals.  Simon Dove, Associate Director of the British Ornithology Society, recently reported that “canaries can detect some workplace pollutants at concentrations equaling or exceeding the abilities of the equipment that most industrial hygienists currently use.”
Dr. Dove indicated that canary songs differ based on the pollutant detected. For example, Spanish Timbrado canaries will sing loud, choppy song notes with their beaks wide open when exposed to organic contaminants, but produce a softer, lower tune melody in which their beaks remain shut or just barely opens when exposed to metallic contaminants. In the journal Working Birds, Serinus Finch from the American Trust for Ornithology cautioned that female canaries can’t used for occupational monitoring since they don’t sing, but apparently, they have been used by families on one of the Canary Islands (Ile de Cosa Nostra) to keep secrets.
Jay Warbler, a PhD student at the University of Dunnock, noted that although canaries can be used to distinguish a wide variety of contaminants based on their songs, they should not be used to detect the lack of oxygen or the presence of chemicals that are immediately dangerous to life and health. “The only bird that PETA didn’t seem to have a problem with using for that purpose was the pidgin, but we found that they can survive anything.”
When asked about the possibility of using canaries to detect contaminants in US workplaces, Robin Goldfinch from OSHA’s Directorate of Standards and Guidance said, “is this some kind of April Fool’s joke?”
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Sniffing out Hazardous Chemicals
Have you ever seen a computer with a nose? Well, UL has one. Sort of. UL’s Cheminformatics Tool Kit, formerly known as REACHAcross™ is a chemical toxicity prediction software application that can determine whether a chemical is hazardous in a matter of seconds. It scans a database of more than 70 million chemical structures, as well as more than 300,000 biological and 20,000 animal data points, reducing chemical testing complexity by a large degree.
What’s even more important, UL Cheminformatics Tool Kit can do this with equivalent accuracies to animal testing, which may soon make many of these unfortunate tests obsolete. In lab conditions, scientists can only reproduce 80% of animal testing results; with UL Cheminformatics Tool Kit, results can be accurately predicted in 87 percent of cases. Plus, the test aids in discovering 89% of toxic substances while also detecting nontoxic chemicals. Many tests that would normally use animals may no longer be necessary.
UL Senior Toxicologist Craig Rowlands helped bring the database to UL. The original database and software were developed at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University by Thomas Luechtefeld and other academic scientists. UL purchased the software and database from ToxTrack, where Luechtefeld is a co-founder, and still collaborates with the project’s original scientists to improve and expand the program’s capabilities. The UL development team worked with ToxTrack to identify new sources of data and select the appropriate models to include based on discussions with the initial software users.
They spent several weeks creating the original database. “This took a lot of manual configuration,” Rowlands said. “Since then, several databases have been created by governments to easily download the same information, so it’s not as difficult to train the models.”
Developers downloaded data in the form of reports, and they created a natural language processing algorithm to individually read the reports and extract information. The team cleaned up and reprocessed the data before it could be used.
To give you an idea of how big the amount of data UL Cheminformatics Tool Kit is working with, the system needs about two full days to train a model using an array of cloud-based computer servers. Each hazard model requires more than one billion calculations to train. From start to finish, training and validation of all prediction models using cloud processing take roughly two weeks of work. The result is an artificial intelligence algorithm that can predict nine different chemical hazards with a high level of accuracy.
The latest version of UL Cheminformatics Tool Kit works by utilizing neural network algorithms. The network creates “images” of chemicals for specific properties that act much as human memories do.
“For example, if someone thinks of chocolate, there is a human memory of how chocolate tastes, and one might even ‘taste’ chocolate just from it being mentioned,” Rowlands said. “This is similar to the ‘memories’ or ‘images’ that are created for a chemical property, such as the image of an acidic chemical. If the image is associated with specific chemical toxicity, the image of chemical acidity can be used to help predict the specific toxicity for the chemical.”
UL Cheminformatics Tool Kit helps eliminate the complexity of testing chemicals for toxicity. All that’s needed to start the process is to enter the chemical structure or the chemical abstract number into the program. If this structure is correct, the user can select up to nine hazard prediction models to run. The program delivers results predicting whether the chemical is hazardous within 30 to 60 seconds. Similar hazardous and nonhazardous chemicals are also provided for comparison, and the program’s output can either be downloaded as an electronic file or printed out as a report.
To find out more about UL Cheminformatics Tool Kit, visit its website or download and read the UL white paper that further explores more of its capabilities.
Wisconsin Pallet Manufacturer Cited After Three Employees Exposed to Wood Dust
OSHA has again cited Avid Pallet Services LLC after a follow-up inspection found employees continued to be exposed to wood dust. The company faces penalties of $188,302 for repeated, serious, and other-than-serious safety and health violations. 
Inspectors determined that the Beloit, Wisconsin, pallet manufacturer failed to implement sufficient engineering controls to limit dust exposure, as well as train employees on the health hazards of wood dust. OSHA had previously cited the company for these hazards in 2016. Additional citations were issued after the follow-up inspection for failing to evaluate respiratory hazards, medically evaluate and fit test employees using respirators, inform employees of their right to see exposure records, and use adequate machine guarding on band saws. 
“Employers are legally required to ensure that exposures to dust are properly evaluated and managed to protect employees from potential health hazards,” said OSHA’s Madison Area Office Director Chad Greenwood.
See the OSHA woodworking eTool webpage for information on evaluating exposure, exposure limits and effective exposure prevention programs. 
The company has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission
Georgia Contractor Fined $106,078 for Trenching Violations
OSHA has cited Corley Contractors Inc. – based in Dallas, Georgia – for exposing employees to excavation hazards while installing water and sewer lines at a worksite in Acworth, Georgia. The company faces $106,078 in penalties.
OSHA initiated an inspection as part of the Agency’s National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Trenching and Excavation after observing employees exposed to trenching hazards. Inspectors determined that Corley Contractors Inc. – operating as C&L Contractors – failed to install a protective cave-in system inside the excavation area, and did not provide a safe means to enter and exit the excavation.
“In a matter of seconds, employees can be seriously or fatally injured when a trench collapses,” said OSHA Atlanta-West Acting Area Office Director Jeffery Stawowy. “Employers are required to slope, shore, or shield trench walls to protect workers from cave-ins.”
View OSHA’s Construction Hazards Prevention Videos on trenching and soil classification for information on trenching safety.
The company has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and proposed penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Construction Company Cited After Two Workers Hospitalized for Valley Fever
Cal/OSHA has issued serious health and safety citations to Underground Construction Co., Inc. of Benicia after two of its employees contracted Valley Fever. The workers were exposed to the fungal disease while using hand tools to dig trenches in Kings, Fresno and Merced counties—areas where the soil is known to contain harmful spores that cause the infection.
“When soil is disturbed by activities such as digging, driving, or high winds, Valley Fever spores can become airborne and potentially be inhaled,” said Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum. “Without the proper training, protection and mitigation procedures, workers are likely to be exposed and get sick.”
Cal/OSHA was notified in September 2018 that the employees were hospitalized after being diagnosed with Valley Fever, also known as Coccidioidomycosis. Symptoms of the disease are similar to the flu and include fatigue, shortness of breath and fever. Severe cases can cause serious lung problems.
The workers were tasked with digging trenches up to 51⁄2 feet deep to allow access to gas pipelines for maintenance. Dust was not controlled, and the workers did not wear any respiratory protection. Exposure to the disease could have occurred in any one of the three counties where the fungal spores are known to be endemic.
Cal/OSHA’s investigation found that Underground Construction Co., Inc. did not evaluate the hazard of performing digging work in areas known to contain the coccidioides fungal spores. The employer did not suppress or control harmful dusts and failed to provide employees with respiratory protection. Cal/OSHA issued three citations to the employer with $27,000 in proposed penalties.
Since 2017, Cal/OSHA has cited 12 businesses for work-related Valley Fever.
Valley Fever is caused by a microscopic fungus known as Coccidioides immitis, which lives in the top two to 12 inches of soil in many parts of the state. When soil is disturbed by digging, driving or high winds, fungal spores can become airborne and may be inhaled by workers who are not protected. While the fungal spores are most likely to be present in the soils of the Central Valley, they may also be present in other areas of California. Cal/OSHA’s Valley Fever informational page provides detailed information including resources for workers and employers.
Tips for reducing the risk of Valley Fever exposure include:
  • Determine if a worksite is in an area where fungal spores are likely to be present.
  • Adopt site plans and work practices that minimize the disturbance of soil and
  • maximize ground cover.
  • Use water, appropriate soil stabilizers, and/or re-vegetation to reduce airborne
  • Limit workers’ exposure to outdoor dust in disease-endemic areas by
  • Providing air-conditioned cabs for vehicles that generate dust and making sure workers keep windows and vents closed, suspending work during heavy winds, and providing sleeping quarters, if applicable, away from sources of dust.
  • When exposure to dust is unavoidable, provide approved respiratory protection to filter particles.
  • Train supervisors and workers in how to recognize symptoms of Valley Fever and minimize exposure.
Ceramic Material and Supply Company Fined $250,000 for Willful Failure to Guard Machinery After Fatal Accident
Cal/OSHA has issued more than $250,000 in citations to Aardvark Clay & Supplies, Inc. for its willful failure to properly guard equipment after an employee was fatally entangled in a clay manufacturing machine called a pug mill. Safety guards had been removed from the industrial mixer and the worker had not received training on the machine before the accident.
“Pug mills have rotating blades that can cause amputations and fatally injure employees,” said Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum. “Employers must ensure all machinery and its parts are properly guarded, and employees are effectively trained to prevent tragic accidents like this.”
The Santa Ana company uses industrial pug mills to manufacture and mix clay. On September 20, 2018, an employee became caught in the unguarded mixing blades of the machine when he tried to identify why the clay stopped traveling through the extruder.
Cal/OSHA’s investigation found that all four of the shop’s pug mills had unguarded openings exposing employees to the moving parts. Safety regulations require mixers to have a cover to prevent employees’ hands from entering the machine during operation. Aardvark Clay & Supplies also failed to effectively train workers on the hazards involved with operating the machinery and did not identify or correct the hazards. Although the manufacturer had provided safety guards for the machinery, the employer removed the guards. At one point, fabricated guards were added to the machines but were later removed when the employer believed they interfered with the rate of production.
Cal/OSHA cited the company $250,160 in proposed penalties for five violations, classifying one as willful-serious accident-related, one willful-serious, two serious and one general. The willful-serious violations were cited for the employer’s failure to guard machine openings and points of operation. The serious violations identify hazards from the unguarded cutting portion of the clay machine and failure of the employer’s safety program to identify unsafe conditions, implement corrective procedures and effectively train employees on work-related hazards.
From 2013 to 2017, contact with objects or equipment was among the leading causes of fatal occupational injuries in California. To avoid accidents and fatalities, employers can get free assistance from Cal/OSHA’s Consultation Services to ensure machines are properly guarded.
A citation is classified as serious when there is a realistic possibility that death or serious harm could result from the actual hazard created by the violation, and violations are classified as accident-related when the injury, illness or fatality is caused by the violation. A willful violation is cited when the employer is aware of the law and violates it nevertheless, or when the employer is aware of the hazardous condition and takes no reasonable steps to address it.
Rechargeable Power Banks Recalled
This recall involves Universal Rechargeable Power Banks for use with smart phones and tablets. The recalled chargers came in a variety of colors and shapes, including a unicorn head, a cat with sunglasses, and a rainbow between two clouds.
If you have one of the recalled items, you should immediately stop using the recalled power banks and contact Daniel M. Friedman & Associates to arrange to return the product for a full refund.
The firm has received three reports of the charger overheating including one report of a house fire causing up to $150,000 in property damage.  No injuries reported received.
The power banks were sold at Burlington, Kohl’s, Ross and other stores nationwide from November 2016 through January 2019 for about $25.  They were manufactured bby Yiwu City Fuman Leather & Accessories Co., Ltd., of China and imported by Daniel M. Friedman & Associates, a division of Steven Madden, Ltd. of Long Island City, N.Y.
Swivel Fittings Recalled Due to Fire Hazard
This recall involves multiple sizes of ProPlus Brass Flare Swivel fittings used as connectors for copper tubing. The brass, gold-colored fittings connect two male flare nuts opposite to each other. The Swivels were distributed by Leran Gas Products and Interline Brands, and were used primarily for LP gas (propane) applications by professional installers. Interline has received two reports of the swivels leaking at installation.
Consumers should immediately contact Interline for a full refund or a replacement fitting. If you have recalled fittings that have already been installed, you should contact Interline to arrange for a professional installation of a free replacement fitting.
These fittings were sold at hardware retailers from August 2017 through November 2018 and sold to professional installers by Leran, Barnett, Hardware Express, SupplyWorks, Wilmar and Maintenance USA stores from August 2017 through July 2018 for between $1 and $8. They were manufactured by Zhejiang ACME Pipe Fitting Co., LTD, of China, and imported by Interline Brands, Inc., of Jacksonville, Fl.
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