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As OSHA emphasizes safety, long term health risks fester

October 31, 2013

If you were one of millions of viewers who watched the documentary Blackfish on CNN this past week, then you know how the orca Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Ms. Brancheau’s death was tragic in and of itself but more so because it could and should have been prevented. This was not an isolated event, but rather one in a series of attacks involving captive killer whales in water shows. The film raises important issues from animal rights to worker safety.

Beyond the terrible, shocking story, what caught my attention was the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA’s, response to the trainer’s death. Following this tragedy they began a three-year legal battle with SeaWorld, issuing citations and violations, and levying the highest allowable fines.

OSHA’s response to the Brancheau tragedy stands in stark contrast to what NY Times Ian Urbina reveals in “As OSHA Emphasizes Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester.” I read this article months ago and it’s been on my mind ever since. I highly recommend watching the eight-minute video “A Toxic Trade” that accompanies this article. Like Blackfish, this story sticks with you.

OSHA was established “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.” When it comes to hardhats, ladders and scaffolds OSHA has a solid record of enforcement. When something headline-grabbing happens, for instance, a fertilizer plant explodes or a killer whale attacks a trainer, then the media sounds the alarm, affected communities demand action, and OSHA responds. But safety is only part of their mission. What about when workers’ health is endangered in longer-term, more insidious and less spectacular ways?

Adam Finkel, a former senior executive at OSHA and later a whistleblower, writes in Updating OSHA Inspection Policies:

“Every year more than 4,500 workers die in traumatic occupational accidents, while epidemiologists estimate that about 40,000 additional workers die prematurely from chronic over-exposures to toxic substances.”

So, almost ten times as many workers die from toxic exposures but according to Finkel:

“OSHA devotes more than 95% of its resources to safety concerns from accidents rather than diseases.”

Sheri Farley is a case in point. Ms. Farley suffers from painful and debilitating paresthesia, also known as “dead foot.” She considers herself “damaged goods.” Her doctor has described her and similarly afflicted workers as “upright cadavers.” She is one of many factory workers at a foam cushion manufacturing plant in North Carolina exposed to aerosolized n-propyl bromide (also known as 1-bromopropane , nPB and 1-BP) “at levels 10 to 200 (or more) times the levels recommended by manufacturers of the chemical.”

1-Bromopropane is known to cause a number of adverse health effects. It is listed under California’s Proposition 65 as a reproductive toxicant and is also a known neurotoxicant. According to the California Department of Health Services it can cause sterility in both male and female test animals, and can cause harm to developing fetuses. It can damage nerves, causing weakness, pain, numbness, and paralysis.  Additionally, there is evidence of carcinogenic activity of 1-bromopropane in rats and mice.

This is a case of regrettable substitutions.  In the 1980s glues contained the solvent 1,1,1-Trichloroethane (TCA) but its manufacture and use were banned beginning in 1996 to protect the ozone layer. Manufacturers began to use methylene chloride instead. It earned the nickname “methyl ethyl bad stuff” because of the number of workers it sickened and killed each year. To protect workers, OSHA amended the standards for its use. As Urbina writes,

“Before long, roughly a third of the cushion-making industry had switched to nPB-based glues…they were inexpensive, strong, fast-drying and, best of all, unregulated.”

OSHA has never set a permissible exposure limit for nPB (note “permissible” not “safe”). The CDC does not have a recommended exposure level. The EPA has considered banning it but has taken no such action. Urbina quotes one EPA official as saying, “There just wasn’t the political will.” However, nPB (1-BP) has been added to the list of chemicals the EPA will begin to assess in 2013. For now, workers across America continue to be exposed to this chemical.

Can watchdog agencies be pushed into taking action? Perhaps. Urbina’s exposé appeared in the NY Times on March 30, 2013. In July, OSHA issued a Hazard Alert on nPB. But how meaningful is an alert when it includes this disclaimer?

“This Hazard Alert is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. It contains recommendations as well as descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards [and other regulatory requirements].”

So what should be done to change this?

In “Room for Debate: Where OSHA Falls Short, and Why” experts weigh in and essentially say that OSHA has been undermined by decades of funding cuts. Those cuts should be reversed so that OSHA has the resources required to do its job. It needs more support and less interference from Congress so that rules to protect workers can be written and enforced. Additionally, the EPA should be empowered to pass chemical safety legislation and get dangerous chemicals out of our workplaces.

To learn more: 

Read Urbina’s complete story. It’s everything investigative journalism should be.

n-PB as an “eco-friendly” drycleaning chemical? Read this and you’ll know what questions to ask your drycleaner.

How To Put The “H” Back Into OSHA

Shifting OSHA’s Priorities to Protect Public Health

Work-Related Death: A Continuing Epidemic

Workplace Exposures Rise As OSHA Health Inspections Fall 

More factsheets and warnings about 1-bromopropane: