Washington, DC — The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration is doing fewer health inspections despite more workplace exposures to toxic and hazardous substances, according to an analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). While workplace exposures are linked to the premature deaths of 10 times more workers than all workplace accidents combined, OSHA now spends less than 5% of its limited resources on workplace health protection.
Occupational exposures are the eighth leading cause of death in this country, resulting in more than 40,000 premature deaths per year from cancer, neurological disease, cardiopulmonary disease, and other maladies. Yet OSHA figures show a slump in health sampling that began in 1991:
- The number of exposure measurements taken is few and getting fewer. For the most recent year (2007), OSHA took about 53,000 samples nationwide, whereas it was collecting nearly three times as many samples in 1988, at the end of the Reagan administration;
- At its current rate of health inspections, it would take OSHA about 600 more years to make any chemical exposure measurements at half the nation’s industrial facilities that handle hazardous substances; and
- Obama officials have taken no steps to reverse this trend, and continue to stress targets for the total number of inspections completed. This provides a powerful disincentive for inspectors to conduct toxic-substance sampling, which can take several days to complete, while an inspector can perform several construction safety inspections in a single day.
The figures were derived from preliminary analyses of a massive database of exposure measurements for all federal and state inspections obtained by Dr. Adam Finkel, PEER Board member and former director of health rulemaking for OSHA, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
“The EPA has helped to steadily lower the concentrations of toxic substances in our communities and homes, but workers still are allowed to face levels millions of times higher of the very same substances,” stated Dr. Finkel. “OSHA must reverse its ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude about the most important part of its mission.”
The OSHA exposure figures become even starker when looking at individual substances. For example, methylene chloride (MC) is a neurotoxin and a probable human carcinogen used in more than 90,000 establishments nationwide. It is the last substance for which OSHA issued a specific regulation without a court order (in 1997). Today, OSHA is sampling for MC at the same low rate (about 30 companies per year nationwide) it was before the regulation – a rate that will take it 1,600 years to sample at half the facilities using MC. Preliminary analyses show that nearly one-third of the facilities sampled in 2007 have average MC concentrations above 100 parts per million – four times the legal limit, and a level associated with an excess lifetime cancer risk of roughly 1 chance in 100.
“Workplace exposures have spawned a silent epidemic in America,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Obama nominee to head OSHA, Dr. David Michaels, begins his Senate confirmation process in October. “The health risks in some occupations are so high that your career choice can determine your life expectancy.”