Congress Puts Rail Safety on the Agenda

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TTD’s rail safety agenda got a boost last week when Senator Richard Blumenthal, along with three other Senators, included several reforms that rail labor has long championed in their Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2014. Some 130,000 miles of freight rail tracks crisscross the United States, driving the economy, supporting more than 175,000 employees, and carrying crucial cargo that often includes hazardous materials. It is essential that we insist on the highest level of safety to protect workers, passengers, and communities that have trains pass by on a daily basis.

The Blumenthal bill gets it right when it mandates that all freight railroads must be operated by at least two qualified employees. Modern freight trains are large, complex vehicles that routinely carry hazardous materials throughout the United States, and it is simply ridiculous, and incredibly unsafe, to charge a single person with the responsibility of operating a train. Not surprisingly, opinion polls consistently show that the public supports the mandated use of two-person crews. The Federal Railroad Administration has announced its intention to issue a rule on two-person crew requirements, a pending House bill on the issue has 82 cosponsors, and now Senator Blumenthal and his colleagues have lent their support to this effort. Good news all around.

This bill also calls for added protections to ensure that that signal employees and other track workers are not injured or killed by moving trains. Specifically, the bill requires that back-up technology is implemented to alert train crews when signal work and other maintenance is being done on tracks. Further, the bill requires that alerters be positioned in the locomotive cab to help ensure that operating crews are responsive and can stop the train in case of an emergency. Alerters have already been installed in many trains, but this bill closes a loophole that has allowed older cars, especially on commuter rails, to go without them.

We are disappointed that the bill requires the installation of audio and video recording devices in locomotive cabs. We look forward to working with Senator Blumenthal to modify the bill on this point and to make other improvements that will enhance safety.

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Meet the Koch Sisters

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You know the Koch brothers: anti-union big-businessmen bent on increasing their own net worth at the expense of working Americans and using their money to influence American elections.

But do you know the Koch sisters, Joyce and Karen?

No? Maybe that’s because unlike their counterparts, Joyce and Karen haven’t spent billions of dollars buying elections and undermining workers’ rights to fair compensation and working conditions. Instead, they’ve spent their lives striving to ensure that their children and grandchildren have the same opportunities they’ve had. An educator and a retired social worker, respectively, Joyce and Karen both come from union families, and they both know what it’s like to have to fight for a decent wage.

Together with the AFL-CIO, Karen and Joyce are standing up to reaffirm that their voices—and the voices of countless Americans—are as important as the special interests that are determined to use their wealth to influence politics and policy.

TTD stands with them, and we invite you to join us. You can be a Koch sister, too – and show American politicians that ordinary Americans everywhere deserve a voice.

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U.S. DOT Keeps Norwegian Air International Grounded

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Last week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) made a pivotal decision and dismissed a request by Norwegian Air International (NAI) for an exemption that would have allowed it to begin trans-Atlantic service to the United States while a request for a foreign air carrier permit was still pending at DOT. The decision comes on the heels of a months-long effort by the labor movement in the U.S. and Europe, members of Congress from both side of the aisle, and major American and European airlines to point out just how damaging NAI’s business plan would be. TTD’s president, Ed Wytkind, lauded the DOT’s decision as both “sound” and reflective of “the overwhelming body of evidence against NAI’s proposed rogue operation.”

Readers of MoveAmerica know the story by now: NAI is a Norwegian air carrier, but the company plans to base in Ireland – despite having no intention of flying into or out of Ireland – and its employees will be based in Bangkok and hired through a Singaporean agency. The NAI spin is that moving to Ireland is necessary to gain legal rights to fly to the U.S. Not true. While Norway isn’t a member of the EU, it is a signatory of the 2010 U.S.-EU Open Skies agreement and therefore has rights to establish trans-Atlantic service under that agreement. Instead, this plan is all about forum-shopping for the cheapest labor deal and by doing so NAI is violating the very agreement that allows it to fly to the U.S. Article 17 bis of the Agreement specifically says the rights afforded in the agreement cannot be used to lower labor standards – but that is exactly what NAI is doing here. So NAI needs the Open Skies agreement to gain expanded access to the U.S. market, but only wants it to apply when it’s convenient.

In dismissing NAI’s request for an exemption, DOT noted that this case was “novel” and “complex” and that granting the request would not be “appropriate or in the public interest.” The same logic should stand for NAI’s request for a permanent foreign air carrier permit: the DOT must shut the door on an airline operating scheme that at its core is about violating our public interest laws and doing an end around the explicit employee protections embodied in the U.S.-EU aviation trade pact. The employee protections in the Open Skies agreement were added during the second stage of negotiations in 2010 in recognition that while opening aviation markets is an important priority for the economy, it must not come at the expense of middle class airline jobs.

By denying NAI’s request for exemption last week, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx made the correct decision. We commend his action and now urge the Administration to keep NAI’s scheme from taking off.

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NAI Delivers a Timeout in Washington from Partisan Rancor

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In this time of extreme partisan fighting, there’s not much in Washington on which politicians agree. Enter Norwegian Air International, or NAI. This airline’s plan to launch new trans-Atlantic service into the U.S. has become a galvanizing issue in Washington for politicians across the political spectrum who recognize a scam that will harm our economy when they see one.

NAI’s bid for approval from our government to begin its new service has landed in Washington, sort of like that proverbial lead balloon. Its plan? It will register its airline in Ireland – but it won’t actually fly in and out of there. It will hire flight crews not in Norway, but in Thailand and employed on individual employment contracts with a Singaporean hiring agency. Why would a Norwegian airline do such a thing? It’s simple. To avoid strong Norwegian labor and social laws and to evade the airline’s existing collective bargaining relationships with its own employees.

The good news is that the groundswell of opposition to the NAI scheme continued to build yesterday when the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) solicited comments on its August 4, 2014 Notice regarding the applicability of Article 17 bis, an employee protection provision embodied in the U.S.-European Union (EU) Open Skies agreement, which sets out rules on how air carriers on both sides of the Atlantic, such as NAI, can engage in new trans-Atlantic air service. You see, nothing in the agreement says that a European airline can forum-shop for cheap labor around the globe and then apply to provide new service into the U.S. as if it is a European air carrier. I have to wonder if NAI has a secret appendix to the U.S.-EU agreement permitting it to game the accord that no one else has seen.

So, back to yesterday’s flurry of filings into the DOT proceeding.

TTD was joined by several of our member unions, including the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the Transport Workers Union of America, and the Air Line Pilots Association, to condemn the NAI application awaiting a decision from the DOT. Our labor partners overseas – the European Cockpit Association and the European Transport Workers’ Federation, both based in Europe – joined us in a massive demonstration of unity. Representatives Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) also each filed comments asking DOT to deny NAI’s application. And numerous major airlines in the U.S. and Europe – including United, Delta, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), American, Air France, Austrian Airlines, and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines – filed comments with the same message: #denyNAI.

Even the European Commission is under siege for its early support from NAI’s scheme: one set of comments to the DOT cites that several of the Member States of the European Parliament have agreed “that the business model proposed by Norwegian Air International is questionable,” and explains that questions Members have posted to the Commission on NAI’s business model “have been answered only partly and superficially.” Even many Europeans are wholly unconvinced that NAI’s scheme should be permitted.

This array of voices sends a clear message to DOT and the Obama Administration: granting NAI an exemption and foreign air carrier permit would be a mistake for the U.S. economy and airline industry and for American aviation workers who grow weary of government policies and decisions that encourage the low-road business model NAI is peddling.

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FMCSA to Put the Brakes on Driver Coercion

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We tend to assume it’s a given that no one should be made to break the law – it’s one of the tenets we rest on as a society. So it would be ridiculous to have to put additional laws in place that say employers can’t force their employees to break or ignore rules and regulations.

And yet experience shows we need to.

These sorts of laws are especially important for workers like bus and truck drivers, who too often are coerced into operating unsafe vehicles, exceeding hours of service limitations, or committing other unlawful acts, all in the name of profit. Asked by employers to meet demands to complete trips within certain timeframes or to show passengers around a destination after arrival, drivers frequently must choose between acquiescing in order to preserve their jobs, and refusing with the risk of losing hours or even employment altogether.

This sort of Catch-22 puts drivers’ well-being at risk: if drivers violate safety regulations in order to preserve their livelihoods, they are putting themselves in the very situations those regulations are designed to prevent. And in turn, those violations make the vehicles they operate and the roads they drive on less safe for passengers and other drivers.

Fortunately, Congress and federal regulators have stepped in to help solve this problem. Recognizing that the economics of the motor carrier industry sometimes result in drivers being coerced by their employers to break the law, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has issued a proposed rule that prohibits such coercion. This rule would provide drivers with clear protection against threats of losing work or their jobs if they object to operating a bus or truck under circumstances which their employer knows – or ought to know – would cause them to violate federal regulations. TTD has submitted comments in support of this rule, and is pleased that FMCSA recognizes how crucial and pressing an issue this is.

TTD and our member unions have long fought to improve the safety of buses and trucks, and of the drivers that make intercity travel possible. We believe that workers who have the courage to speak up in order to keep themselves and others safe should be commended, not punished.

Because which road would you rather be on: one on which all the drivers can take the necessary actions to ensure their safety, or one on which drivers have had to neglect regulations and sleep in order to keep their jobs? We at TTD know our answer, and we applaud FMCSA for knowing it too.

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Time to Derail Norwegian Airline Scheme

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Congress may be on break, but this month the Obama Administration faces a watershed decision with huge implications for the global aviation industry and its workforce.

By August 31st, the Department of Transportation (DOT) must rule on Norwegian Air International’s (NAI) application for an exemption that would allow it to begin transatlantic service in the U.S. before it has formally been granted a permit to do so. If approved, the exemption would allow NAI to move forward with a low-road operating model that will undermine good jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. It is time for our government to derail this scheme.

TTD, its member unions, and labor movement partners abroad have said it before and we’ll say it again: there is no reason for this exemption to be granted. While NAI is Norwegian in origin and ownership, the airline will operate as an Irish air carrier while hiring flight crews who will be based in Thailand and employed on individual employment contracts with a Singaporean hiring agency. All that, and the airline won’t even be flying into or out of Ireland. It’s just to avoid the application of strong Norwegian labor and social laws and to lower the bar on labor standards.

In doing so, NAI is trying to circumvent the U.S-EU Open Skies Agreement and usher in a Walmart-style race to the bottom for cheap labor. Opposition to NAI’s scheme has been mounting in Washington, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle signaling their discomfort with an arrangement that flouts existing trade agreements and weakens our recovering economy. In June, the House of Representatives unanimously approved an amendment to the FY 2015 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Act that declared that expansion of our airline trade relationships must not come at the expense of our laws and U.S. jobs. NAI specifically lobbied against that amendment, making the company’s aims abundantly clear.

Since then, members of Congress have continued to demonstrate their opposition to NAI’s exemption. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Daniel Coats stated in a letter to President Obama earlier this month that “NAI’s request raises serious concerns that DOT should not ignore,” and that DOT’s ruling “is a matter of critical importance to the future of the U.S. aviation industry, airline workers and our national economy.” And to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote that approving either the exemption or Norwegian’s application for a foreign air carrier permit “will destroy tens of thousands of middle class jobs.”

Klobuchar, Coats, and Pelosi are right. The United States has signed more than a hundred bilateral ”Open Skies” agreements that have opened new markets for U.S. airlines. As the international aviation marketplace continues to grow and become more interconnected it is imperative that Congress and the Administration ensure that future aviation growth doesn’t come at the expense of American jobs.

If approved, NAI’s scheme would launch a dangerous race-to-the-bottom that will hollow out the U.S. airline industry and decimate thousands of middle class airline jobs. The DOT should say no to this destructive vision for American aviation and our nation’s role in the global aviation marketplace.

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Chicago’s Game-Changing American Jobs Plan

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Over the past decade, U.S. transit agencies have spent an estimated $50 billion in taxpayer money to buy railcars and buses – a huge investment that should have produced tens of thousands of good American manufacturing jobs. But few of those jobs ever materialized, simply because manufacturing companies have been awarded contracts with minimal consideration of whether they would create jobs at home or abroad.

At a time when our nation is desperate for middle-class jobs and American manufacturing is still in decline, we can’t afford to pay companies to generate jobs overseas. That is why last week’s decision by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to include a landmark U.S. Employment Plan in its $2 billion procurement of railcars is an enormous achievement for the American economy and its workers.

CTA’s announcement is nothing less than a game-changer for how American transit agencies – and potentially other government entities – use their tremendous buying power to help rebuild our middle class and along the way revitalize U.S. transportation manufacturing. Under the CTA’s new solicitation for bids, manufacturing companies will have to disclose plans to create American jobs and opportunities for disadvantaged American workers. Crucially, their bids will be evaluated in part based on the quality of those plans. In other words, companies that pledge to build factories and generate jobs in this country will have a competitive advantage over those that refuse to, an edge that will be further sharpened if their plans include strategies to employ women, veterans and residents of low-income neighborhoods.

Chicago’s innovative new approach to linking transit purchases to job creation is part of an exciting national effort launched by the Jobs to Move America Coalition, which is pushing transit agencies across the country to adopt the U.S. Employment Plan as a key part of their bidding process. The CTA’s decision comes on the heels of Amtrak’s July Request for Proposal, which also includes a robust U.S. Employment Plan as a critical part of the bidding process. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority has taken similar action, and other agencies are expected to follow suit in the coming months. Clearly, the momentum is building in the right direction.

As a member of the Steering Committee, the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO is an enthusiastic supporter of Jobs to Move America. TTD’s unions understand better than most that transit investment can be a huge driver of job creation and economic prosperity. We are proud to be working with a coalition of more than 40 community, labor, civil rights, philanthropic, academic and environmental organizations on a visionary plan to strengthen our transit infrastructure while bringing good manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

The CTA’s announcement could lead to as many as 20,000 high-quality U.S. jobs. If other large transit agencies adopt the U.S. Employment Plan, the result could be tens of thousands more good jobs, for those who need them the most.

That’s moving America forward in a big way.

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Privatizing Airport Security Is Only Good for Corporations

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Earlier today, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) President J. David Cox, Sr. reminded a House Security committee of a simple fact: while Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) are too often blamed for screening procedures set by TSA management, these federal workers play a crucial role in ensuring that U.S. skies are as secure as possible.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that in the wake of the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress sought more unified and effective security and so federalized screening procedures. Private contractors – with a low-wage, no-benefit workforce and startling turnover rates – simply weren’t going to cut it: a TSO who is fairly compensated for his or her work, who is able to take a sick day when she or he has the flu, and who has incentives to stay in his or her job for long enough to gain expertise, is infinitely preferable to one who isn’t.

It’s a mystery, then, why some in Congress continue to push the Screening Partnership Program (SPP) – which allows for the privatization of aviation security – as a viable alternative to the proven and effective federal screening force. Private screeners employed as part of the SPP must follow the same operating procedures as federally employed TSOs; they use the same equipment; they make airports no more secure and save no taxpayer money. But they are paid less than their federally-employed counterparts and receive inferior benefits, despite doing the same work to keep our skies safe.

So the SPP doesn’t benefit the privatized TSOs. And it certainly doesn’t benefit America’s air passengers, as privatization replaces federally-employed TSOs, many of whom have years of training and experience, with newer, undertrained private employees. Moreover, last year the Government Accountability Office found that TSA had failed to ensure proper oversight of private companies that provide screening services, calling into question the efficacy of these companies when it comes to keeping our skies safe. So why the push to move back to privatized security?

The only ones who seem to benefit from the Screening Partnership Program are the private security companies, who are driven by profit, not security. And taxpayers, along with federally-employed TSOs, are left to bear the costs.

TTD unions understand the important role the federal government must play in ensuring the security and safety of our diverse transportation network. That’s why our Executive Committee adopted a policy statement supporting federal TSOs “who have served our nation and its aviation well in an extremely difficult time and working environment.” And TTD has endorsed legislation (H.R.1455), introduced by Rep. Bennie Thompson, that would mandate better oversight and consistent standards for any private company seeking to take over federal screening responsibilities.

We need to stop thinking that the wholesale contracting out of TSOs is some secret elixir for the frustrations of air travel today. Private companies might peddle that myth, but they have a profit motive that is driving their agenda. Congress and federal policy makers must do better and speak for maintaining the highest level of security standards that federal TSOs provide today. Passengers and aviation employees deserve no less and that’s what we will be fighting for.

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The Highway Trust Fund Needs More Than Its Potholes Patched

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America’s transportation infrastructure is in crisis. Across the country, transit systems are cutting service and jobs, highways are crumbling, and bridges are falling down. And behind this crisis is years of neglect: Congress has ignored the needs of our transportation system – once the envy of the world – out of political expediency and lack of courage. The result: a transportation investment gap that threatens our country’s long-term growth, undermines our economic competitiveness, and abandons millions of workers.

Unfortunately, this Congress – the least productive in history – is about to let this continue.

And though Congress (thanks mostly to obstructionists) doesn’t seem willing or able to do much of anything lately, they seem to have gotten the message that letting the Highway Trust Fund go bankrupt would be a problem. Last week the House passed HR 5021, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014, which transfers $11 billion to the Highway Trust Fund, enough to keep the Fund solvent and extend surface transportation programs through May 2015. The Senate is poised to vote on an amended version at some point next week.

But HR 5021 is a short-term patch, little more than a band aid. Yes, it’s undeniably preferable to keep the Trust Fund from going broke completely. But extending programs for less than a year doesn’t allow states (or their transit agencies and private construction contractors) to plan for the future and to put into place the major infrastructure projects our nation needs. With no certainty about how much federal funding will be allocated to their projects after next May – or if any will at all – it’s impossible to plan and implement projects to build and maintain roads, bridges, transit systems, and other infrastructure, which typically require years of revenue projection. That leaves states with little choice to do anything more but patch potholes, replace a few aging buses, and hope for the best, hardly a solution that leads to the kind of infrastructure we need to support our economy.

Still, if HR 5021 passes the Senate with several of its proposed amendments, it could lead us to a more effective long-term solution.

One promising amendment to the bill, proposed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) with bipartisan support, is a strong start in that it ensures that the Trust Fund is sustained in part by raising new revenue – which will be essential for any meaningful future funding strategy. But it doesn’t fix the ultimate problem: we need to force debate on a longer-term bill that will allow us to build infrastructure that works for America.

The amendment put forth by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Bob Corker (R-TN) can get us there. The Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment reduces the cost of the legislation and sets an expiration date – December 19th of this year – for surface transportation programs. Crucially, the Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment would both keep the Trust Fund solvent and ensure that Congress will undertake real debate on reauthorizing a long-term, bipartisan surface transportation bill this session. America needs this amendment.

We simply don’t have the time that Congress is wasting putting short-term patches on the Trust Fund. In order to remain an economic power, the United States needs infrastructure that works and construction and transportation projects that will employ millions. This is no time to procrastinate; it’s no time to run away scared from telling Americans the truth about the solution to this problem: we need revenue, not more excuses.

The Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment calls the question. Let’s hope lawmakers answer it correctly.

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One Year after Tragic Lac-Megantic Accident a Reminder of Unfinished Business

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This week marks the one year anniversary of a tragic rail accident – a runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude ran into Lac-Megantic, Quebec killing 47 people and demolishing an entire town.  While millions of carloads and containers traverse the country safely each year, too many accidents have occurred lately both in the freight and passenger sector. While the causes of these accidents vary and many investigations are ongoing, what is known is that more must be done to ensure that rail transportation is as safe and secure as possible for employees and the public.

For starters, too many rail workers, especially those responsible for operating trains and maintaining safety-sensitive equipment, are forced to report to work tired and fatigued.  TTD has long called for federal rules to be changed to ensure that employees are given proper notice of when they will need to report to work and predictable schedules so that adequate rest can be secured.

Congress must also step in to stop rail companies from only “counting” certain hours that signal employees work as a way to get around federal rules limiting on-duty time.  Let’s just say that there are some rail executives using creative calculating when it comes to adding up “covered work.” The problem is that this isn’t a game, and it is jeopardizing safety.

Congress must also adopt a mandated minimum crew size for freight train operations.  Last year’s accident in Lac-Megantic, caused by a train that was operated by a single crew member, is a tragic reminder of the dangers posed by risky one-person rail operations.  A freight train is massive – up to 19,000 tons and a mile and a half long – that simply should not be operated by one individual, especially given the myriad operating rules and regulations that must be followed.  And while two-person crews are the norm on U.S. freight lines, crew size is often an issue determined by collective bargaining rather than federal mandate.  Safety should not be bartered at the negotiating table.  And by the way, the public agrees with us on this, with a series of polls showing that up to 9 out of 10 Americans believe #2crewtrains should be a national standard.

Fortunately, some lawmakers are taking steps to address rail safety.  Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Jim Himes (D-CT),  Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) introduced legislation (H.R. 4576) earlier this year that mandates predictable and defined work and rest schedules and Congressman Michaud (D-ME) introduced a bill (H.R. 3040) requiring a minimum crew size for freight trains. We also applaud the Department of Transportation and its Federal Railroad Administration for moving on a new proposed rule on two-person train crew requirements.  Strong federal action is needed because we know from experience that the rail lobby will dismiss and downplay these dangerous operating practices.

In addition, first responders require the necessary tools and training to effectively respond to rail accidents, particularly those involving hazardous materials.  Domestic oil production has boomed and the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail has increased 70-fold in the last decade.  Despite that fact, many firefighters receive an inadequate level of training that does little more than teach them to call for help in the case of a hazardous materials incident.  Congress must direct adequate resources to states and localities for first responder training but also ensure that the level of training is sufficient.

This week’s anniversary of the tragedy in Lac-Megantic is a glaring reminder that it’s not just the workers on these trains that are endangered by unsafe rail industry practices. The neighborhoods and cities through which these trains travel should care just as much.  Congress and the Administration must take strong, immediate action to close gaps in rail safety that expose too many to unnecessary risks.

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