The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

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

Workplace Exposures Rise as Osha Health Inspections Fall

OSHA Drifts in Wrong Direction by Further Misallocating Scarce Resources


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.

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."

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

View the decline in health inspection sampling

Look at the methylene chloride (MC) figures

Read about the OSHA database

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.