Occupational exposures to hazardous substances are the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for more than 50,000 premature deaths per year as a conservative estimate, and more likely exceeding 100,000 deaths. These deaths usually occur years after exposure, often preceded by lingering chronic illnesses. This toll exceeds that of homicide and suicide combined but triggers little outcry because this is a silent epidemic.
The listed cause of death may be cancer or lung disease, but the ultimate cause is workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals – often in amounts and duration far exceeding safe levels. Substances such as hexavalent chromium and asbestos remain prevalent in American workplaces. The challenge is not just from these known killers; every year thousands of new chemicals are launched into the stream of commerce for which there are no standards or safeguards.
For too long, stringent environmental protection has halted at the factory door.
While EPA and other agencies have helped reduce concentrations of carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins to ambient (outdoor) levels in the part-per-billion range, U.S. workers are still routinely exposed to concentrations 1,000 to one million times higher in the workplace.
Confronting this chemical tide is an outmatched opponent – the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), responsible for the well-being of 130 million American workers. During the Bush years, OSHA became moribund. Contrary to expectations, under Obama OSHA has not significantly changed course, and in some ways has made matters worse:
OSHA has issued no new health standards since 1998, save for one ordered by a court. Despite this huge backlog, the Obama administration has added extra review processes to further delay long-overdue regulations in the pipeline.
Save for a handful of substances, the vast majority of Permissible Exposure Limits have not been updated since 1968 and are woefully inadequate. Yet, updating even the most basic standards, such as a long-delayed new silica rule, has been blocked by the Obama White House; and The Obama administration’s emphasis on the total number of inspections completed has the perverse effect of discouraging toxic-substance sampling, which can take several days to complete, while an inspector can perform several construction safety inspections in a single day. Partly as a result, today OSHA is collecting far fewer air samples than during the Reagan years.
What progress has occurred at OSHA has been primarily on the safety side – which occupies most of the agency’s time and resources. So, while on-the-job exposures cause the premature deaths of at least ten times more workers than all workplace accidents combined, less than 5% of OSHA’s budget goes to workplace disease prevention.
PEER has obtained the comprehensive database for occupational exposure encompassing the entire history of OSHA and arranged it into an interactive website. We hope this new tool will galvanize public awareness of the need to put the “H” back in OSHA.