A 40-year-old construction worker diagnosed with acute silicosis was recently given five years or less to live. The construction worker is among the 2.2 million people across the United States each year who are exposed to dangerous levels of silica on-the-job. If the worker dies from his illness, he will become one of the more than 50,000 people annually killed because he was exposed to dangerous levels of toxins while performing work duties.
This construction workers story was part of a recent report published by the Center for Public Integrity. The report told a slow-motion tragedy for workers in the U.S., who are routinely exposed to deadly levels of chemicals at their workplaces. More than 190,000 of these workers will get sick because of their exposure each year, and their illnesses and deaths will result in $58 billion in annual costs. These workers should be protected by their employers and by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but they are not getting the protections they deserve.
Protections from Toxic Chemicals are Insufficient to Protect Employees
Occupational Safety and Health Administration is understaffed, with 15 percent fewer workers employed by the agency as compared with 30-years ago. OSHA has insufficient staff to conduct inspections of workplaces to ensure safety precautions are being followed. Health inspections, or inspections to ensure workers are not being exposed to dangerous levels of toxins, are very labor intensive. As a result, four times fewer inspections of health hazards are conducted -- which means there is almost no chance of a workplace getting a random inspection to determine whether employees are being exposed to chemicals.
Even when OSHA can conduct an inspection, regulations to protect workers from chemical exposure are terribly inadequate. OSHA has only been able to add one new rule related to permissible exposure limits (PELs) for chemicals since the initial PELs passed in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1971. OSHA was advised back in 1974 to set new limits on silica and it tried to establish these limits. However, in 1989, the court struck down OSHA's new PELs on silica and other updated PELs on more than 150 additional chemicals and toxins. A burdensome rule making process has existed ever since that has made it impossible for OSHA to impose new limitations on the level of toxins employees can face on the job.
Among the chemicals OSHA does regulate, permissible exposure limits in the workplace are between 10 and 1,000 times less protective than the exposure limits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set for the general public. The stronger EPA limits, combined with the fact the EPA staff has grown 24 percent in the past three decades as OSHA staff has been cut, means the general public gets more protection from exposure to dangerous chemicals than workers do.
Congress has not shown initiative in getting more power to OSHA to regulate chemicals. OSHA is trying again to impose new rules for silica, at least, but has been making an attempt to establish a rule since 2011 and is already facing threats of industry lawsuits even though the rule is not finalized. OSHA is unlikely to be able to provide protection for workers on the issue of chemical exposure any time soon and employers need to make the voluntary choice to protect employees from harm.