Making the case for precautionary action to improve worker health and safety

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.”

But then came more testing in lab animals (and worker as guinea pigs) and 1-bromopropane is not a safe substitute (here, here, here.)

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.”

Comments

  1. #1 Dick Clapp
    February 1, 2011

    Awesome review, Celeste! One other remarkable aspect of the Lowell Center report is the inclusive process the authors used to gain insights and choose the examples they highlighted. They held meetings with a diverse set of people and developed materials that illustrated a range of “sustainable solutions.” Finally, for those who haven’t seen the report, it is illustrated by Earl Dotter’s brilliant photos.

  2. #2 Christopher Haase
    February 1, 2011

    NICE summary with references!
    Would love to see more p2 and Chemical group case studies like this one promoted in the blogsphere.

    Success and cooperation never sell as well as doom, gloom and conflict.

    Methylene chloride is a prime example of industry leading the way before OSHA for safety and worker protection.

    In the paint and chemical assoc… there are some awesome groups continually leading the way on worker safety and hazardous chemical replacements. I will continue to encourage those to share in their success.

    Never has OSHA and EPA needed better clarity and real world examples to improve regulations.

    Industry needs to continually lead the in worker and environmental protection to show that the tail shouldn’t have to wag the dog.

    And industry can easily do this with anonymity by working with EDU and trade groups like your post reflects.

    What is the way to win our global trade and regulatory imbalance? Working together.

  3. #3 rick reibstein
    February 1, 2011

    Great article! Just want to mention a few components of the MA TUR program that have contributed to the success, because I believe that replication of this story elsewhere should be informed by the “fully equipped” approach that TURA exemplifies. 1. Facilities that use large quantities of chemicals pay a fee – that funds the program! 2. There’s a confidential assistance program (the Office of Technical Assistance – where I work) available to toxics users, affording expert help on an onsite basis – so much of what the program has learned and accomplished has grown out of this personal contact – building relationships is key, and getting down to the actual details at individual facilitis is essential. 3. TUR plans, that large users have to make, are a wonderful tool, but they can be honored in the breach – the key is to make sure they focus on good options analysis and are taken very seriously – with enforcement assurance. Understanding the hidden costs of current practice is important. 4. The plans are certified by certified planners – trained by TURI, regulated by DEP. This privatized sector helps spread the ethic of prevention so that’s in the consulting sector and inside the facility. I felt it necessary to add these points because these days there are too many pressures to do government on the cheap – don’t do it! You need all these components, or something else as strong.