How to Put the H' Back Into OSHA

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Dr. Adam Finkel (609) 258-4828; Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

How to Put the H' Back Into OSHA

Workplace Health Exposure Gets Short Shrift despite Death Toll 10x All Accidents

WASHINGTON - 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."

Read
the PEER testimony

See
"There is No ‘War' on Occupational Cancer" white paper

Look at broken
OSHA health standard-setting

Trace dropping
number of health inspections

###

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

Share This Article

More in: