More than 40,000 workers die each year from exposure to toxic chemicals at work — 10 times the number that die from safety incidents such as falls, fires and explosions. So why isn’t OSHA doing more to curb these health threats?
It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation for OSHA, according to an investigatory article in the Sunday, March 31, 2013, New York Times.
The Times went through thousands of pages of court and government documents and spoke with more than two dozen workers to paint a picture of one such situation involving a glue used in furniture cushions, n-proply bromide, aka nPB.
During a six-year period, federal authorities have learned that about more than 140 cushion workers in the U.S. have been sickened by working with nPB, causing them neurological problems that render them unable to walk.
In particular, the article takes a look at the situation at Royale Comfort Seating in North Carolina, which provides foam cushions for furniture sold by Broyhill, Ralph Lauren and Thomasville.
Workers at Royale use nPB to glue together foam pieces for inside cushions. The Times says “medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years.
Why has its use grown? Because it replaced another chemical,TCA, that the EPA found harmed the ozone layer.
Now, replacing TCA with nPB has been called a “regrettable substitution.”
Can’t OSHA do something?
OSHA inspected Royale facilities in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2011. Each time, inspectors found workers were breathing dangerous levels of glue fumes with nPB.
OSHA issued citations and recommendations for remediation. Part of the problem: It can’t enforce a safe nPB level, because a government standard for the chemical doesn’t exist. It’s just one of thousands of chemicals used in U.S. workplaces that don’t have government-enforced permissible exposure limits (PELs).
What about the local doctors who have seen the workers from Royale and other furniture manufacturers appear with severe neurological problems? Couldn’t they blow the whistle on this situation?
The experience of one physician, Dr. Ben Wofford of the Clinic for People Without Health Insurance, answers the question.
Wofford saw cushion-plant workers who weren’t able to stand on their own. Yet, he knew that Royale was providing 100 jobs in the area after many other employment opportunities disappeared.
Reluctantly, Wofford wrote a letter to OSHA in 2005 alerting the agency to the situation. But in the same letter, Wofford wrote, “I would hate to see this plant’s multiple shortcomings result in its being shut down.”
So OSHA issued citations to Royale, but as it does in many situations, it reduced the associated fines in hopes that the company would choose to cooperate with the agency and work toward the health of its employees. Royale has paid $20,000 in OSHA fines, but it’s also paid nearly a half-million dollars in court settlements and plant upgrades.
“I’m the first to admit this is broken,” OSHA administrator David Michaels told The Times. “Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people end up on the gurney.”
- OSHA throws the book at Royale and risks putting the company out of business because furniture manufacturers will just contract for cheaper cushions made by companies in China, or
- OSHA issues small fines and hopes the company will follow its recommendations to stop using nPB. In the meantime, workers continue to get sick.
Is there a solution to this? Let us know what you think in the comments below.