Occupational Health News Roundup

It’s a toxic chemical that made headlines when it was linked to deaths and injuries among popcorn factory workers, and federal regulators are well aware of its dangers. But, unfortunately, diacetyl is still hurting workers. In “Gasping for Action,” reporter Raquel Rutledge at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes about diacetyl, a chemical that tastes like butter and is used in food products and e-cigarettes, and the dangers it continues to pose to workers who breath it in, particularly coffee workers. She writes:

Coffee roasters sometimes add it to flavor coffee. High concentrations of diacetyl also form naturally during coffee roasting.

Whether natural or synthetic, the chemical can destroy the respiratory system when inhaled, according to Takayuki Shibamoto, a professor in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at the University of California, Davis.

“They are exactly the same,” Shibamoto said.

What matters most, he said, is the amount and concentration of exposure.

Yet after more than a decade of studies detailing diacetyl’s danger, the U.S. Occupational Health & Safety Administration, or OSHA, has failed to issue regulations specifying what a safe level of exposure might be.

Rutledge writes about previous attempts to regulate diacetyl, industry opposition and OSHA’s response. She quoted OSHA head David Michaels, who had called for diacetyl regulations before he joined OSHA, as saying that diacetyl is one example of why a “chemical by chemical approach doesn’t work” when it comes to regulating worker exposure. Michaels said setting an exposure limit for diacetyl isn’t the answer, as manufacturers will simply substitute a new chemical that can be equally as harmful. Rutledge also chronicled the stories of sick workers:

James Stocks thought it odd when Emanuel Diaz de Leon showed up in his medical clinic huffing and puffing in December 2011. Diaz de Leon was 41, active and a nonsmoker.

“It just didn’t make sense,” said Stocks, a pulmonologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler. “His chest X-rays and lung function were like that of a 70-year old or a 50-year-old who smoked two packs a day.”

Stocks asked Diaz de Leon where he worked and what he did for a living. The answer made him curious. Stocks knew a bit about flavors and had read medical journals and media reports about injuries popcorn workers had sustained from a flavoring chemical. But he hadn’t heard of anyone becoming ill working in a coffee roasting plant.

He asked Diaz de Leon to bring him the company’s material safety data sheets, which list the potential hazards of the ingredients that he worked with every day.

“The moment I saw the word diacetyl, I knew,” Stocks said.

To read the full story, visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In other news:

Los Angeles Times: Last week’s explosion at a Torrance, California, oil refinery that injured four workers was triggered by pressure build-up inside a piece of equipment, reports journalist Veronica Rocha. The cause of the pressure build-up is under investigation. According to Rocha, the explosion sent ash filled with fiberglass and glass wool into the neighboring community, though local air quality officials said the ash did not contain asbestos. However, Emily Atkin and Sacha Feinman over at Think Progress report that health concerns are mounting, with local union officials calling on public health officials to take a deeper look. An ExxonMobil rep told Think Progress that the ash that fell over the refinery’s neighbors is “not expected to be hazardous.” A local union official said: “If this were a one-time, short-term exposure to the community, there is no need for them to be too concerned about it. But if it is toxic and not cleaned up, I have concerns about long term possible exposure and the health of this community.”

West Virginia MetroNews: West Virginia lawmakers have introduced legislation to guarantee workers paid sick leave. Reporter Shauna Johnson writers that eligible workers could earn one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours of work, with employers who don’t comply facing financial penalties and even misdemeanor charges. In related news, paid sick leave legislation in Oregon is heating up, with hundreds of residents recently showing up at a public hearing.

Huffington Post: Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich writes about the rise of the “independent contractor” classification and how that classification let employers sidestep labor laws and contributes to low wages, unstable working hours and job insecurity. He writes that instead of waiting for the courts to decide on a case-by-case basis whether an employer is wrongly classifying its workers — which recently happened to Fed Ex — he called on policy-makers to take action to protect all American workers. This is his suggestion: “Any corporation that accounts for at least 80 percent or more of the pay someone gets, or receives from that worker at least 20 percent of his or her earnings, should be presumed to be that person’s ‘employer.’”

MSNBC: Home health workers are joining forces across the nation to fight for better wages, writes reporter Suzy Khimm. Led by Services Employees International Union, the new push will include town halls and rallies in 21 cities, with workers calling for a wage increase as well as the right to unionize. Khimm writes that the nation’s 2 million home health workers have a median wage of just $10.01 per hour, with about half of such workers living in households with incomes below the poverty line. USA Today covered the new home health worker movement too. Reporter Paul Davidson writes: “Nearly half of the workers rely on public aid, a NELP report says. After logging 30 years in the field, Ethel Ayo, 59, of Aurora, Colo., earns $9.25 an hour caring for six Alzheimer’s patients in a boarding home. The 36-hour a week job ‘is very hard,’ she says. She gives resistant clients showers, among other duties, and sometimes diagnoses symptoms.”

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