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OSHA Fails to Protect Workers From Dangerous Chemicals

What the Trump administration sees as cutting red tape is actually cutting important and hard-fought protections

hazardous waste

A laboratory technician demonstrates proper disposal of hazardous waste material with the ECO Funnel. (Photo: Cplabsafety/cc)

Nearly a half a century after Congress established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), one would think there would be a lot to celebrate this Saturday on Workers' Memorial Day. It is a established to commemorate workers who have died of work-related injuries and diseases. But when it comes to worker protections, the United States has a long way to go, and we fear we are going backward. On average, 14 workers die every day from a fatal injury at work and this statistic does not reflect deaths from occupational diseases caused by chemical exposures.

OSHA is failing when it comes to protecting workers exposed to dangerous chemicals. Of the thousands of chemicals in the workplace, OSHA has set only about 30 exposure limits, in addition to the 470 it adopted from industry that date to the 1960s or earlier. Many of these limits are dangerously unprotective.

OSHA cannot set an exposure limit for a new chemical until it has proven it poses a significant risk. In effect, chemicals are presumed "safe" until proven otherwise. 

There are several reasons for OSHA’s lack of up-to-date, protective standards. It requires dozens of staff and millions of dollars to do the studies required to justify a new standard.

It gets worse. OSHA cannot set an exposure limit for a new chemical until it has proven it poses a significant risk. In effect, chemicals are presumed “safe” until proven otherwise. Many health experts refer to this as OSHA’s “body in the morgue” requirement.

The result: in the last 20 or so years, OSHA has issued new regulations for only three chemicals.

OSHA has reasonably protective standards for a few toxic substances, such as asbestos, benzene, and formaldehyde, but enforcement is challenging. Federal OSHA only has enough inspectors to inspect every workplace once—every 159 years!

During the previous presidential administration, OSHA made it clear that employers should not rely on the agency’s exposure limits because they are not safe. Major chemical companies know this and don’t follow OSHA standards in their own workplaces; they control exposures at lower levels. But small businesses and self-employed people who aren’t covered by OSHA likely don’t know any better. It isn’t surprising then that many workers get ill and even die from chemical exposures.

There was a moment of hope in 2016 when Congress amended the Toxic Substances Control Act and made it clear that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not only responsible for protecting the general public from dangerous chemical exposures, but also workers on the job.  

EPA and OSHA protections are complimentary. EPA can issue standards based on animal evidence—it doesn’t need the dead bodies to prove its case. And unlike OSHA, EPA has a strict timeline to complete its assessments.

Some toxic chemicals manufacturers now are lobbying EPA to “defer” to OSHA, because they know the difficulty of getting regulations out of OSHA. 

The Trump administration's regulatory agenda is better characterized as a de-regulatory agenda. What it sees as cutting red tape is actually cutting important and hard-fought protections.  

The Trump administration’s regulatory agenda is better characterized as a de-regulatory agenda. What it sees as cutting red tape is actually cutting important and hard-fought protections.  

For example, the Labor Department delayed implementing strengthened standards for silica and beryllium, both years in the making.  Both substances cause irreversible lung disease and are carcinogens.

The administration also stopped developing a rule to protect workers from exposure to 1-bromopropane, a dangerous neurotoxin that has been classified as reasonably likely to cause cancer in humans.

In addition, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is delaying rules to protect miners from diesel exhaust, despite studies showing exposure increases miners' lung cancer risks. The agency is also re-evaluating its standards protecting miners from black lung disease—at a time when the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease ever reported.

Nor is the administration eager to hear what research has to say. It has proposed cutting the NIOSH budget by whopping 40 percent. Never mind that Congress had the wisdom to establish an entity to focus specifically on workplace health and safety research.

As former OSHA and NIOSH officials, we care deeply about the nation’s workforce and are concerned that the current administration is taking us in the wrong direction. When more needs to be done to protect this precious resource, essential safeguards are being rolled back. Our loved ones, friends, and colleagues deserve better.

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Kathleen Rest

Kathleen Rest

Kathleen Rest is the executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

David Michaels

David Michaels

David Michaels is a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and the former assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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