Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Wednesday, June 16, 2004


Workers are Canaries

While researching the article on Ronald Reagan’s legacy, I ran across this excellent 1998 article from the Houston Chronicle about the almost insurmountable barriers to protecting workers against chemicals in this country.

What’s the problem?
Constrained by politics and often overmatched by industry, OSHA has managed to tighten standards for only 26 of an estimated 650,000 chemicals and chemical mixtures to which U.S. workers are exposed. Some on this long list are known to be dangerous; others have not been studied.

Industry challenges of proposed limits, backed by industry-funded science, are the norm. Proof is demanded, then more proof. Years, maybe decades, pass.

***

Chemical industry leaders say it's not necessarily a bad thing for regulation to take time, given the costs and difficulties of compliance.

"It is slow and cumbersome, but that's the way our system of government was established," said C. T. "Kip" Howlett Jr., a vice president with the Chemical Manufacturers Association and executive director of the Chlorine Chemistry Council.
OSHA Director Eula Bingham tried to address the problem in the 1970’s, but along came Ronald Reagan:
Carter brought in Eula Bingham, a university professor from Cincinnati, to run the agency, and Bingham was motivated. The 1970s already had seen two occupational health catastrophes, one involving asbestos, the other vinyl chloride.

Thousands of workers had developed cancers foretold by studies of the two substances. Warnings had been ignored, and more disease seemed inevitable if something wasn't done.

One of Bingham's main missions, as she saw it, was to adopt a workplace cancer policy that would enable OSHA to move quickly against a suspect chemical once a reasonable burden of proof had been met.

Supported by a young, aggressive staff - and a 1978 federal report estimating that 20 percent of all cancers were caused by on-the-job exposures - Bingham prevailed in January of 1980.

Under what became known as the OSHA generic carcinogen policy, companies that made or used toxic chemicals faced the prospect of swift, strict regulation. Gross epidemiological evidence - a body count - no longer would be necessary to elicit a government response. Convincing animal data would do.

"I took so much heat on that," Bingham, now back at the University of Cincinnati, recently recalled.

All for naught, as it happened. By 1981, Carter and Bingham were out, and so was the policy.

"It didn't go anywhere," Bingham said. "All activity stopped."
And, of course, workers are the first ones to suffer. Peter Infante, former director of OSHA's Office of Standards Review (also mentioned in the Reagan article below)
By and large, Infante believes, blue-collar workers - the men and women who develop most of the chronic diseases and suffer most of the traumatic injuries - generate little interest or sympathy.

"In the early 1900s," he wrote in a 1995 article, "canaries were routinely taken down into the mines. When the canaries passed out or died, the men knew that there was a problem with exposure to carbon monoxide and immediate action was needed. The analogy here is clear. Blue-collar workers appear to be the canaries in our society for identifying human chemical carcinogens in the general environment."

Infante noted in the article that 21 of 22 chemicals recognized as lung carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer were first identified through studies of workers. More than half of all IARC carcinogens were spotted in this fashion, he wrote, yet apathy persists.
The answer, of course is to stop treating all chemicals as if they’re innocent until proven guilty by the illness or death of workers. This is the goal of the European REACH initiative.

But of course, to do that we need to elect a President and Congress that doesn’t believe (or isn’t beholden to) the crap spewing out of the chemical industry.

Anyway, it’s a good article. Read it and save it.

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