‘Slow-motion’ tragedy for American workers

The power of industry to stall or stop lifesaving workplace rules in the US has been exposed in a Center for Public Integrity (CPI) investigation. CPI cites silica – which the federal safety regulator OSHA says threatens 2.2 million workers in the country, and which can cause cancer, deadly lung diseases and other serious health conditions – as a “striking example” of the government’s failure to properly regulate toxic substances in American workplaces.

“The silica rule still isn’t finished. If it is enacted despite industry protests, it will be only the 37th health standard issued by the agency in its 44-year history,” CPI notes. It says this is an ignominious record given the human and economic costs of work-related disease in the United States.

According to a widely cited University of California, Davis, study, an estimated 53,000 people died in the US in 2007 from on-the-job exposures – outnumbering those killed in suicides, motor vehicle accidents, falls or homicides. More than 400,000 others got sick as a result of their jobs. The price tag: an estimated $58 billion. Federal safety regulator OSHA puts the annual toll at more than 50,000 deaths and 190,000 illnesses.

CPI’s 18-month investigation “found that the epidemic of occupational disease in America isn’t merely the product of neglect or misconduct by employers. It’s the predictable result of a bifurcated system of hazard regulation – one for the general public and another, far weaker, for workers. Risks of cancer and other illnesses considered acceptable at a workplace wouldn’t be tolerated outside of it.”

OSHA doesn’t try to put a happy spin on its largely 44-year-old workplace chemical-exposure limits: The operative word, the agency says, is “antiquated” – simply complying “will not guarantee that workers will be safe.” In 2013 the agency launched a side-by-side comparison with other standards, some discretionary and some required only in California, to urge employers to voluntarily rely on more protective guidelines.



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