Friday, December 2, 2016

New OSHA rules impact privacy, drug screening and incentives

Last Thursday marked the start of a new slate of rules brought about by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. What originally began as a push by OSHA to streamline and modernize reporting become something bigger. These new rules, which slipped under the radar of most major news outlets, will effect most employer in some way -- and they had better be prepared.

Now, nearly a half-million worksites in what are perceived to be high hazard industries will have to report any injuries electronically to OSHA. That’s not unexpected in this day and age of rampant e-filing in the public and private sectors alike. 

Instead, it’s the outcome that’s unexpected.

In 2017, OSHA will begin posting the injury reports on their website, making them available to the public. OSHA is doing this to highlight what kinds of injuries and illnesses occur and where they occur, in hopes of identifying -- shaming, if you will -- employers that need to clean up their act and strengthen their safety programs. Many employers look at this an invasion of their privacy and a witch hunt, as the report doesn’t tell the full story (such as abuse by malingerers). 

Under that umbrella of improved and hopefully impactful reporting, OSHA has also put their sights on activities which at first glance are seemingly unrelated to reporting: post-accident drug screens and safety incentive programs.

OSHA believes that post-accident drug tests will cause many employees who dabble in recreational drugs at home and not within the hours of their employment to not report their injuries to their employer for fear of losing their job or facing some other sort of discipline, causing that injury to linger or become disabling or resulting in other workers being injured from failure to address the work environment’s cause of the injury.

OSHA wants drug screens to occur not automatically (as is the case at most workplaces) but now only when the situation permits such as when drug impairment could have likely been a root cause of an injury.

So, depending on your interpretation of the rule, here are examples of when you can use drug tests: An employee cuts himself with a knife or band saw; sprains and strains that resulted with no obvious tripping hazards present; or injuries by obvious or purposeful disdain for safety policies or safety devices.

And, here are some occasions when I believe you can’t use drug tests: Bee stings; sprains and strains from tripping hazards; employees struck by falling objects; repetitive use injuries from cutting, hammering, tearing; most back and shoulder strains; and injuries caused by machinery malfunction or a lack of machine guarding.

This is a real game-changer for businesses and it will require special attention by managers and supervisors on a case-by-case basis.

Certain safety incentive programs are also under fire for the same belief that they encourage non-reporting by sick or hurt employees. Going forward, all employers should play it safe and scrap any incentive programs that reward employees for a lack of injuries or lost-time accidents (such as bonuses or large gifts for “X” days injury-free). By having such programs in place, employees will non-report in order to get the prizes or they will non-report so as not to acquire the ire of others in their work unit if all are made ineligible for a prize due to one person’s injury.

OSHA began enforcing these new rules on December 1st so you had better be prepared and update your safety programs. There’s a lot to digest there and you’re better off consulting with your lawyer, comp insurance carrier, and government safety officials rather than just taking what this columnist says as gospel. I am, after all, just another businessman trying to make sense of all of these changes. And, they are significant changes at that.     

 From the 05 December 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, December 1, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Snow buntings – the first sign of winter

Everyone has their “official” sign of winter. They might consider the start of Jack Frost’s domain to be the first snowfall of the season or maybe Thanksgiving or the winter solstice.

As for me, I prefer to be look to the songbirds, just as others might with the first signs of spring.

In the spring, folks look for the return of the robins or red winged blackbirds. Later in the year, I don’t consider winter to be in effect until the snow buntings arrive.

These visitors from the Far North will arrive in Western New York anywhere from the third week of November to the second week of December. This year, I first saw them on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. While we had no snow to speak of on the lake plains of Niagara County, the Southern Tier got socked with snow that weekend, so the birds were pretty accurate in predicting when all the fun would start.

These small cousins of sparrows hail from Northern Canada and Greenland, right on the tundra and far above 60 degrees latitude where the True North starts. They spend their summers there feasting on seeds and small insects in the arctic landscape and from beaches along the Arctic Ocean. They make their nests farther north than any bird in the world.

Their winters are spent all across Canada and in the northern third of the contiguous 48. A few stragglers will make it as far south as Tennessee. They can winter farther north than any other bird except the raven.

As they do in their breeding grounds, snow buntings prefer wide open spaces when they are in our company. You can find them in good numbers in winter wheat fields, bean fields, and golf courses where they search out weed seeds. A few lucky birders will even get them to visit bird feeding stations.

If you live in an ag district you have more than likely seen these sprites in the winter. They are especially fond of roadsides in farm country, supplementing their seed diets with salt from the road. You will see flocks of a dozen to two dozen birds at a time, all taking off at once in a mass of wild, fast flight.

This time of year they sport egg-white underbellies while their white tops are heavily dusted with brown. In the summer they look completely different and no doubt offer stark contrast to their nearly sterile breeding grounds. Then, they are brilliant ghost white with a patch of black on their backs – really beautiful birds.

They are so beautiful that they are forever immortalized in song. We here along the Canadian border are very familiar with Anne Murray’s classic song “Snow Bird”.

As pretty as they are, though, just like Anne did, we can’t wait for them to leave in March as better weather and better times are on the way. As the song goes…
Spread your tiny wings and fly away
And take the snow back with you
Where it came from on that day

+Bob Confer
 is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

Photo courtesy of Simon Pierre Barrette via WikiMedia Commons.

From the 01 December 2016 All WNY News

Friday, November 18, 2016

In defense of the uneducated

It seemed that during this last election cycle and the aftermath that followed, the national press, pollsters, and pundits took too much delight in classifying certain sectors of our population as “non-college educated” or “uneducated”.

Rather than being used, and only sparingly, as a demographic category, it instead became a common and dismissive qualifier, a way of looking at the 60 percent of all Americans who don’t hold a college degree.

You could read between the lines – that is, if you weren’t smacked in the face by the outright accusations – that the uneducated were dupes and rubes and, because they lacked a diploma, were unable to make sound decisions about who should represent them in Washington.

Well, I hate to break it to those who think 4 years in a university grants them unprecedented knowledge and understanding, but those who don’t have a degree can be in many cases smarter, better off and better people than those who do.

I can say this unequivocally because almost all of the people in my life are “uneducated”.

I work in a workplace of 200 people where fewer than 10 of us graduated from college. Yet, somehow, despite being an “uneducated” environment, the company and those families are all succeeding. That’s because our ranks are filled by men and women who understand the physical and mental work and ingenuity needed to make the things that consumers desire. They do magic, using science, technology, skill, brain and brawns to transform little plastic beads into mammoth products. We have general laborers, technical personnel and tradesmen here whose breadth of knowledge, intelligence and critical thinking skills would shame most people with degrees.

I am friends with electricians, plumbers, repairmen and first responders who never went to college but still possess incredible amounts of skills  -- whether learned by experience or via certificate programs (which the elite still consider to show a lack of education). Yet somehow, they bring services and safety to the highly-educated who couldn’t repair a faucet, replace an outlet, change their oil or fight a fire to save their lives.    

I live in a community the economy of which is driven by agriculture. Most of the farmers don’t have degrees, but like my guys and gals at the plant, they have a Renaissance Man’s understanding of equipment, science, and economics. They know what it takes to transform seeds into a healthy harvest, or how to grow calves into living, breathing milk machines. They are working 24/7 and lovingly running their farms better than most people run their businesses and their lives. 

I was raised and loved by an extended family who, for the most part, don’t have college degrees. Somehow, those “uneducated” mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles raised wonderful high-character families, held excellent jobs, and made an impact in their communities. I am who I am because of who they are and I’m grateful for that and how I’ve turned out.

So, remember, dear media folk and political observers, before going off blasting the “uneducated”, calm yourself down, throw away your vicious, ugly, stereotyping and consider who they are. They are your families, friends, neighbors and coworkers, people who despite their alleged lack of knowledge have the brains that we as an advanced society need to put food in our markets, produce the goods we want and need, fix and build our homes and cars, save our lives, and raise our families and put love in their hearts and our communities.

The “educated” sure could learn a lot from them.           

From the 21 November 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: What to get the nature lover for Christmas

Trying to figure out what to get an outdoors enthusiast for Christmas can be a daunting task, especially if the shopper really isn’t an outdoorsy person. So, for the past 3 years, this column has offered some shopping ideas to the friends and families of nature lovers. With Black Friday just a week away, it’s as good a time as any to offer my suggestions.

Stealth Cam trail camera

It’s long been a stereotype in outdoors circles -- especially in manufacturers’ and outfitters’ advertising campaigns -- that trail cameras (also known as “game cameras”) are solely for hunters who use the devices to track deer movement on their favorite hunting grounds.

That overlooks the value and fun that a trail camera can bring non-hunters. EVERY nature lover should have a trail camera (or two or three) because it gives you some great insight into not only animal movements but also the very presence of animals that you never thought could be found in your yard or woodlot.

Trail cameras record what happens under two scenarios: One, at night, which is when an entirely different world of nature takes place and, two, when you are not around, which tends to give wildlife carte blanche to move about freely.

You will be amazed at what they show. My trail cameras in the Southern Tier have photographed everything from bears and coyotes to porcupines and fishers to owls and hawks. They are also great for detective work. If you have pests tearing up your yard or deer shredding your trees in the fall, set up a camera to see what’s causing the ruckus. Just this past week I put one in my yard to see what sort of deer has been destroying my saplings every night with rubs – it’s a nice 8-point buck!

There are literally hundreds of trail cameras to choose from on the market. Almost all do the same thing nowadays: they take photos or videos -- triggered by motion detectors -- that are put on SD cards that you can then transfer to your home computer. Some extravagant versions will broadcast to the internet while others will film Hollywood-quality footage. Most of the modern trail cameras have forgone the blinding white flashes and now use imperceptible infrared flashes.

If I had to suggest one to you, I would tell you to buy the P12 camera produced by Stealth Cam. It is among the more-affordable of the cameras out there and it can be purchased for just under $60 on websites like It is the camera that I use. It is easy-to-use and incredibly energy efficient – I’ve leave my cameras in the mountaintops of Allegany County where they get more than a year of good use out of 8 AA batteries, even under some adverse (read “cold”) weather conditions. To think, just 10 or 12 years ago, a good camera would get 3 weeks, if you were lucky, out of 6 C batteries.

There are a variety of pre-sets on the camera which will allow you to take individual pictures, a series of pulse photos, or video. The P12 will take decent 6 megapixel photos, some of which are shown here.

A Field Guide to Bird Songs

If the $60 camera is out of your budget, how about the $15 “A Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America”?

This is not really a field guide per se, but rather a CD put out by Peterson Field Guides. It does what bird books can’t – it allows you to hear actual recordings of birds, because that is a critical tool in finding and identifying birds in the field.

The disc features the songs of 267 species of birds found east of the Rockies. It looks at all birds, not just songbirds. It is perfect for the beginner and the experienced birder alike. I keep a copy in my truck and listen to it regularly to keep my birding skills at a high level.

From the 17 November 2016 All WNY News

Friday, November 11, 2016

Rural America is relevant again

In December of 2012, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered a harsh message to those of us who live in farm country.

In a Washington, DC speech to leaders of ag-intense states, he pointedly said, “rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country.”

Vilsack railed against farmers and rural lawmakers who had embraced so-called wedge issues such as regulation, even going so far as to criticize the fight against the Obama Administration’s proposal to remove minors from almost all work on the farm (a fight farm families won in large part because of this column).

The Democrat appointee said that conservative chorus of rural America would only be drowned out in the future because 50 percent of rural counties had lost population in the previous four years and that was causing them to be overlooked by the nation as a whole as the country’s population continued its ongoing shift to cities, suburbs and exurbs.

Now, fast forward four years. Those alleged irrelevant whiners are now very relevant again, and their whines were obviously a well-defined call for a mandate that manifested itself in a shocking victory by Donald Trump, overcoming the electoral efforts of the urbanites who had previously overwhelmed them. 

Across the breadbasket of this country, in places where people work with their hands to ensure the rest of the nation has food, lumber, minerals and energy, his message to bring glory back to their much-maligned roles, industries and communities resonated with them. On average, in predominantly rural counties across the union he trounced Hillary Clinton 2-to-1.

In states that Clinton thought she had in the bag, the rural folk pushed Trump over the top. Farm communities and small towns in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin posted 57%, 71%, and 63% wins, respectively, for the Republican. 

Their relevance is made obvious when one looks at the Electoral College map – the nation was a vast sea of red, except for the population centers on the west coast and in the northeast.

It’s a shocking change in fortunes: Those who had been forgotten, even mistreated, for so long now have someone who seems to genuinely care for them and vice versa.

That was apparent in the campaign’s discussions about their well-being. The poverty rates are much higher in rural America than in metropolitan areas, yet they don’t receive the press or the dollars. Trump obviously knows that and righting that wrong through economic development was an important part of his message and the concerns shared with him at his countless rallies. If he holds true to his promises, we could see resurgence in energy sectors ruined by his predecessor, as well as the development of smaller manufacturing facilities and job shops, and the critical economy-inspiring high-speed broadband networks that leaders always speak of but do little about.

Trump also knows the value of farming, one of the few wealth creating sectors of our economy and the engine that ultimately drives rural America. Obama didn’t (as made apparent by Vilsack’s 2012 commentary), because agriculture was constantly under attack in his 8 years. To list just a few of the slights: his administration attempted to inhibit almost all minor labor, proposed that all farm workers get commercial drivers’ licenses, totally redefined the Clean Water Act, instituted elaborate food tracking procedures and set new standards that severely limited rural residents’ abilities to heat their homes and facilities with wood. 8 years of that was too much, and they would have gotten the same from Clinton. It’s no wonder they revolted at the polls.

Trump’s jaw-dropping upset of Clinton shows that reports of the death of the rural voice were exaggerated.  Residents of the plains, the forests, Appalachian communities, and the south were heard, and heard mightily, at the rallies and, more importantly, at the polling stations. Rural America is relevant again. Hopefully, something great comes of it.

From the 14 November 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers