Occupational Health News Roundup

This week, the Center for Public Integrity launched a new investigative series into the failure of regulators to protect workers for toxic exposures. The series begins with the story of a bricklayer who developed acute silicosis after exposure to silica, a deadly substance that threatens more than 2 million workers and that OSHA has been struggling to regulate for 40 years. The bricklayer, Chris Johnson, is just 40 years old and can expect to survive less than five years. Reporters Jim Morris, Jamie Smith Hopkins and Maryam Jameel write:

An 18-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has 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.

For years, the best OSHA has been able to do is set chemical limits so that no more than one extra cancer case would be expected among every 1,000 workers exposed at the legal maximum over their entire careers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for the public are 10 to 1,000 times more protective. The real gap is often worse, a former OSHA official says.

“I can’t see any justification for treating people that differently,” said Adam M. Finkel, who heads the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and was director of health standards programs at OSHA from 1995 to 2000.

The reporters describe the toll of such occupational illnesses as a “slow-motion tragedy” that often unravels outside of the public eye. Among the investigation’s top findings is that the system for preventing occupational illnesses and fatalities linked to chemical, fume and dust exposure is so weak that “OSHA warns companies not to rely on its legal exposure limits to protect employees.” In addition, a Center for Public Integrity analysis found that U.S. workers face high cancer risks if exposed over their careers to certain chemicals at their legal limits. Going back to the example of silica exposure and the 40-year fight to protect worker health and safety, the reporters write:

In February 2011, OSHA finally sent a proposed silica rule to the Office of Management and Budget for vetting. It emerged 921 days later in 2013. OMB officials will not say why it took so long; 90 days, plus a single 30-day extension, is supposed to be the maximum unless the rulemaking agency asks for more time.

Apart from trimming the silica exposure limit to the NIOSH-recommended number for all workers, the proposed standard would require employers to control dust with methods such as water or vacuum systems and provide medical monitoring for highly exposed workers. OSHA predicted it would save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year.

The Labor Department held 14 days of hearings in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2014. Among the witnesses was construction worker Santiago Hernandez, who’d come to the United States five years earlier from Tlaxcala, Mexico, expecting to find safer conditions.

Instead, he said in written testimony, “things are actually much worse here than in Mexico. … The protections you receive here are useless. Employers give you a little paper mask that, when you finish, is just as dirty and dusty on the inside as on the outside.”

To read the full story, which was co-published with Slate, click here. To read the full investigative series, titled “Unequal Risk,” as well as future installments coming this week and stories from families affected by occupational illness, visit the Center for Public Integrity. Also, click here for a number of helpful infographics that illustrate the state of occupational illness and the regulatory response.

In other news:

Frontline: In “Rape on the Night Shift,” Bernice Yeung writes about the women janitors who face rape and sexual assault risks while they work in typically isolated surroundings and often for companies more concerned with public embarrassment than employee safety. Yeung begins with the story of Erika Morales, who worked for a subsidiary of ABM Industries Inc., the largest cleaning company in the country. Morales said she faced persistent sexual harassment from a supervisor and one night, as she was cleaning a local branch of Bank of America, her supervisor cornered her and began forcefully taking off her clothes. Fortunately, Morales was able to fight him off. In her investigation, Yeung found 42 lawsuits from the past 20 years in which ABM janitors said they were sexually harassed, assaulted or raped at work. She writes: “The night shift janitor is an easy target for abuse. She clocks in after the last worker has flipped off the lights and locked the door. It’s tough work done for little pay in the anonymity of night, among mazes of empty cubicles and conference rooms. She’s even less likely to speak up if she’s afraid of being deported or fired.” To watch a Frontline investigative report about rape on the night shift and read more in-depth coverage on the issue, click here.

NPR: OSHA is launching a new program to protect the health and safety of nurses, reports Daniel Zwerdling, who earlier this year authored an in-depth series on the dangerous experiences and conditions nurses often face on the job as well as the employers who turn their backs on nurses who’ve sustained preventable injuries at work. In an exclusive interview with NPR, OSHA chief David Michaels said agency inspectors will begin investigating what hospitals are doing to protect nurses. While OSHA has previously made recommendations on how hospitals can prevent high rates of injuries among nurses, the agency says it will now move from “merely recommending safe practices to potentially fining hospitals if they do not adopt them,” Zwerdling reports. However, there is skepticism about just how much of a difference OSHA’s new actions can make. Zwerdling writes: “For instance, OSHA’s staff is so small compared to its mission that OSHA officials estimate it would take 100 years to inspect every workplace in the nation just once. So even though the agency has more than 1,000 inspectors, an OSHA official acknowledges that they will likely investigate dozens of the nation’s 4,000 hospitals each year, not hundreds.”

Huffington Post: Dave Jamieson reports that IKEA says its previous wage hike was so successful, the company plans to raise wages again — the new increase will bring starting wages at the furniture company to nearly $12 an hour. In January, IKEA implemented a system in which the starting wage for any given U.S. store takes into account that particular community’s cost of living as determined by the MIT Living Wage Calculator. Jamieson writes that IKEA reports a number of benefits after raising wages, including less employee turnover and the ability to attract more qualified applicants. Jamieson reports: “Ikea may have implemented its raises in the most unique manner, thanks to its reliance on the MIT Living Wage Calculator. For comparison, at the College Park, Maryland, store, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the minimum wage will be $14.54 next year, while at the store in Pittsburgh, it will be $10.”

Slate: Alison Griswold interviews Barbara Ann Berwick, the woman at the center of the recent California Labor Commission ruling that deemed Berwick an employee of the ride-hailing service Uber, as opposed to an independent contractor. While Uber is appealing the decision, the commission ruled that Uber owed her about $4000 in expenses. In response to the success, Berwick says she plans to launch a series of classes on how drivers can successfully file complaints against Uber and be deemed official employees of the company. Griswold writes: “(Berwick) breezes through the company’s ‘control mechanisms’ for its drivers— last-minute cancellations without pay, the five-star rating system, rider feedback, and weekly emails — as though she is delivering a well-practiced spiel. ‘Four mechanisms don’t just constitute pervasive control,’ Berwick says, citing a key phrase California uses to define an employer-employee relationship, ‘in my opinion, they constitute abject control.’”

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