The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production (LCSP) is known for challenging the status quo. Its scientists and policy analysts refuse to accept we have to live in a world where parents are worried about toxic toys, or companies feel forced to choose between earning profits and protecting the environment. Leave it to LCSP researchers to describe six cases of systemic worker health and safety failures, yet manage to identify small successes or opportunities to create them. That’s the Lowell way:
“…infuse hope and opportunity into a system that may appear severely broken.”
In “Lessons Learned: Solutions for Workplace Safety and Health,” the Lowell researchers set the bar high. They promote system-wide solutions that have the potential to improve the health of workers, their communities and the environment, while stimulating innovation.
The authors provide six unique case studies on hazards as diverse as the solvent methylene chloride to a bulldozer on a construction site, and about workers in dozens of different industries. In “Floor finishers, lacquer sealers, and fires,” we learned how a community —Dorchester, Massachusetts—mobilized after several workers were killed in flash fires while refinishing hardwood floors with flammable lacquer sealers. Community leaders formed a floor finishing safety taskforce, and used participatory methods to involve the contractors (80% of the floor finishers in Boston are ethnic Vietnamese,) suppliers and customers to accept safer substitutes that were equally effective.
Over a six year period, the movement engaged in public awareness campaigns and targeted outreach to small contractors, and saw that economic incentives were instituted to discourage floor finishers from using highly flammable products. Such toxic use reduction strategies fulfill both social goals (e.g., worker protection) and economic goals (i.e., fair business competition.) The strategy worked and gained state-wide support. Late last year, Massachusetts passed a law banning the commercial use of flammable lacquer sealers for floor finishing.
In “Regulating methylene chloride,” the authors describe the perils of regulating one workplace chemical at a time. Methylene chloride was used extensively in degreasers, paint stripping agents and other industrial products and processes. The United Auto Workers Union petitioned OSHA in 1985 for a standard to protect workers from it; 12 years later OSHA issued a health standards on methylene chloride. At a time when it is popular to talk about the burden of regulations, these authors quantify the cost of delayed protection. In the time it took to enact the standard—a period in which workers continued to be exposed to health-harming levels of methylene chloride—as many as 30,000 to 54,000 workers per year may have suffered damage to their central nervous and cardiovascular systems.
If that cost of delay is not bad enough, by the time OSHA’s methylene chloride rule was on the books, some users had already substituted a different compound: 1-bromopropane. The authors note:
it “…became a favored replacement solvent in some applications because it worked well, it was a quick, drop-in substitute, and there were no regulations governing workplace or environmental emissions and minimal toxicity testing to suggest any hazard.”
Clearly, the answer for worker and community health is not this whack-a-mole approach to toxics, but a sustainable chemicals policy that integrates toxic use reduction. The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production’s 20+ years of experience implementing the Toxics Use Reduction Act makes them subject experts. The authors explain, under Massachusetts state law:
“…manufacturers using more than 10,000 pounds per year (less for chemicals of high concern) of some 900 chemicals are required to undertake a yearly accounting of how those chemicals enter, are used in, and are released from their facility as waste or emissions (e.g., releases to air, water or ground).”
“Every two years, the firms are required to undertake a planning process to identify alternatives to reduce or eliminate those chemicals. In reviewing alternatives, firms are required to include workers and consider environmental, consumer, and occupational health hazards to ensure that risks are not shifted. Firms pay a small fee on chemical use that funds the regulatory program but also funds voluntary, confidential technical assistance and training, and research support at
the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.”
The report’s other case studies address:
*the toll of work-related musculoskeletal disorders and how State initiatives for safe patient handling are easing the burden for some health care workers;
*the economic and social costs of injuries and illnesses among construction workers and how solutions lie upstream in project design;
*the inseparable link between food safety and worker safety, and the means to accomplish both through a sustainable food production system; and
*the disperate federal system of laws and agencies responsible for managing chemicals in commerce, illustrated by butter-flavored food additives that can damage the lungs.
The authors conclude in a manner true to the Lowell Center’s positive spirit and big vision:
“A crucial conclusion of this research is that work-related injury and illnesses could be prevented if chemicals, production processes, and technologies were designed with worker health in mind. …With the current need to get people back to work and green the economy, stimulating innovation that designs out hazards holds great promise for breaking free of the false dichotomy of safety versus profit–it doesn’t have to be a trade-off.”