Occupational Illnesses Given Short Shrift By OSHA

Illness and disability caused by long term exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace carries a $250 billion price tag but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may be doing little to help the 40,000 workers who die each year due to exposure-related workplace illnesses. OSHA has been careful to regulate arsenic, asbestos and lead exposure in the workplace, but thousands of other chemicals, like n-propyl bromide, or nPB, exist unchecked leaving many U.S. workers paying dearly to collect a paycheck.

Sheri Farley worked at Royale Comfort Seating for five years, spraying glue that contained nPB on furniture cushions at the assembly plant. The glue left a yellow coating on everything in the factory and, according to her doctors, ate away at her nerve endings. She now suffers from a neurological injury that has caused "dead foot"; she cannot sit for longer than 20 minutes without experiencing extreme pain and walks with a limp.

The factory disputes that exposure to toxic chemicals at its plant caused Farley's life-long injuries. The company has not opted for a different, non-nPB-containing glue because of price and effectiveness.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considered banning the toxic glue at one point but it has yet to act. Many of the factories that utilize the glue employ under 100 workers and new regulations would be cost-prohibitive.

The toxic levels of fumes at the furniture plants could have been bettered controlled through an effective ventilation system or workers could have been provided respirators to limit their exposure. The company declined both. Instead it set up floor fans that seemed to be broken more often than they were working and opted for dust masks rather than $18 respirators that did little if anything to protect workers from the toxic fumes.

Farley eventually settled with Royale. But she is not alone. In her community, she visits regularly with others who have been permanently disabled by the exposure to toxic fumes in the workplace.

Source: The New York Times, "As OSHA Emphasizes Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester," March 30, 2013

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