Occupational Health News Roundup

Serious health problems are driving workers at a car part manufacturer in Alabama to call for a union. In an in-depth article for NBC News, reporter Seth Freed Wessler investigated occupational exposures at the Selma-based Renosol Seating plant, where workers make foam cushions for Hyundai car seats and headrests. According to the story, at least a dozen current and former employees report sinus infections, chronic coughs, bronchitis, shortness of breath and asthma since working at the factory. The story begins with worker Denise Barnett:

Denise Barnett was thankful seven years ago when she started a job at the Renosol Seating plant, one of 90 hourly workers making foam cushions for Hyundai car seats and headrests.

“Here in Selma, a job is hard to find,” said Barnett, 37. In Dallas County, where Selma is the county seat, the unemployment rate is about 12 percent, and 60 percent of children live below the poverty line.

Before landing this position, Barnett, who like most Renosol workers is African American, worked at a gas station for minimum wage. For Selma residents like her, a job at Renosol—$11 an hour plus healthcare—is like gold.

But in early 2013, Barnett developed a nagging cough that kept her up at night. One evening last July, Barnett came home after picking up her two young boys from her sister’s house and had a serious coughing attack. “I made the kids run back into the car and rushed to the hospital,” she said. When Barnett arrived in urgent care, she said, she could barely breathe and spent two nights in the hospital.

“They say I have asthma,” said Barnett, who said she’d never been a smoker and now uses two inhalers and a nasal spray. “I never had that before.”

Wessler reports that Barnett and other sick workers have a theory about what’s causing the respiratory complications — a chemical called toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, which is used to make the car seat foam and is a documented cause of work-induced asthma. The story notes that companies are largely left on their own to regulate exposure to TDI. OSHA head David Michaels told Wessler that “OSHA’s workplace exposure limits for many chemicals are out of date and not adequately protective.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the plant’s parent company, Lear Corporation, claims the Selma plant is a safe environment for employees. So in conjunction with occupational medicine researchers at Yale University, NBC News coordinated independent testing of workers’ TDI exposure. Of the six workers whose blood had been tested at the time the article was published, four showed exposure to TDI and one showed a low level of exposure. Wessler quoted one of the researchers:

“This is a high frequency of exposure, and it’s cause for concern,” said Adam Wiznewski, PhD, senior research scientist at Yale. He said that the workers may not be representative of the rest of the Renosol’s 90-person hourly workforce, but that exposure in even four workers indicates a problem. “The company definitely needs to be looking at its industrial hygiene, and they probably need to look into personal protective equipment for workers, and medical surveillance of health issues.”

To read the full article, which includes more worker stories as well as a history of longtime health and safety complaints from Renosol workers, click here.

In other news:

ProPublica: In collaboration with Univision, reporter Michael Grabell wrote about the death of Janio Salinas, a 50-year-old temp worker who lost his life after being buried alive in a mountain of sugar at a sugar plant in Pennsylvania. Grabell reports that federal investigators recently found that just two weeks prior to the incident, a safety device that would have saved Salinas’ life was removed because a manager believed it was slowing down production. The company was fined just $18,000 for Salinas’ death. In a related article, Grabell reported that Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., has written OSHA’s director about the growing number of workplace injuries and fatalities involving temporary workers. The articles are part of ProPublica’s “Temp Land: Working in the New Economy” series.

Food Safety News: Reporter Cookson Beecher writes about the connection between poor housing conditions among farmworkers and food safety. He started the article with a housing example that’s sadly not surprising to advocates in the field: A farmworker and her kids living in a decommissioned walk-in freezer. In interviewing Bobbi Ryder, CEO and president of the National Center for Farmworker Health, about the type of housing farmworkers need to stay healthy and maintain food safety on the job, the answer was simple: “They need the same things that you and I need. Clean running water for drinking and bathing, access to washers and driers so when they come out of the field after a hard day’s work they can wash their clothes, enough space so communicable diseases aren’t a problem.”

Slate: Need a laugh and a remarkably good breakdown of income inequality in America? Check out this clip from John Oliver’s show, “Last Week Tonight.” It is so worth 15 minutes of your time.

Los Angeles Times: Activists in Los Angeles are taking the first steps toward raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Emily Alpert Reyes writes that the Los Angeles Workers Assembly has submitted a proposed ballot initiative to city officials. If voters approve the initiative, the wage hike would go into effect immediately for larger businesses.

Mother Jones: Congratulations ladies! Workplace discrimination is officially over! Just ask Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who recently said: “We’ve come a long way in pay equity and there are a ton of women CEOs now running major companies.” Writer Patrick Caldwell noted that McConnell has repeatedly opposed federal measures to address the gender pay gap.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.