Washington, DC — The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration has been missing in action as a mounting toll of occupational exposures kills tens of thousands of workers prematurely each year from cancer, neurological and cardiopulmonary diseases, and other maladies, according to testimony released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). OSHA needs to radically change direction to effectively cope with the more than 70,000 chemicals used inside American workplaces.
Occupational diseases are the eighth leading cause of death in this country, killing more than 40,000 workers every year – a toll almost ten times that of all workplace accidents combined. Yet, OSHA devotes more than 95% of its resources to safety concerns. Only about 3% of its inspections sample for toxic substances and even that number has been dropping. Meanwhile, workers are routinely exposed to thousands of times higher levels of the very substances that EPA has successfully helped reduce to trace levels in the general environment.
In testimony submitted on the final day of the “OSHA Listens” stakeholder outreach process, PEER lays out steps that the agency must take to create a credible health program, including:
- Commit to setting standards on the most significant toxic substances by restoring a separate Health Standards Directorate (abolished under Bush) and reversing the internal “brain drain” by returning lost standard-writing slots. For example, OSHA is still trying to modernize its standard for silica dust, known to be a killer of workers since ancient Roman times;
- Use an industrial process-by-process approach to increase the use of “best available technology” to control entire suites of substances, thereby leapfrogging the chemical-by-chemical approach to standards currently used;
- Take the lead in developing the nation’s first-ever compendium of risk-based exposure goals, so that workers will have information about what levels pose acceptably small risks of disease;
- Target health inspections where workers are exposed. OSHA has a database of all its air sampling but does not use this tool to pinpoint where health inspections are most needed;
- Increase penalties for the longest and most serious overexposures, so that slowly poisoning workers is not a viable cost of doing business; and
- Enlist outside experts and industry to formulate best practices for product stewardship and then use OSHA’s “general duty clause” to enforce those health protections.
“With a commitment to doing the hard work of taking health as seriously as safety OSHA, can make major strides at countering the silent epidemic of occupational disease in this country,” stated Dr. Adam Finkel, a risk assessment expert in academia, a former OSHA Director of Health Standards Programs and a member of the PEER Board of Directors, noting that safety issues took up the overwhelming volume of the “OSHA Listens” sessions. “It will take political will to redress decades of abysmal asymmetry between safety and health inside OSHA.”
“Even with its new leadership, we are concerned that the issue of workplace toxic exposure remains out-of-sight, out of mind at OSHA,” added PEER Policy Director Erica Rosenberg, noting that PEER is also leading an effort to document occupational exposures and provide workers and their doctors with new tools to recognize the causes of what are often long-developing diseases. “We know more about toxic exposures and body burdens in domestic cats and dogs than we do about exposures to American workers.”