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Commentary: The US doesn't care about protecting workers

Jim Morris, Progressive Perspectives on

Published in Op Eds

The United States doesn’t think much of its blue-collar workers. Sure, politicians praise them and solicit their votes. But the true measure of the nation’s commitment to the people who staff our factories, mines and warehouses — the legal protections we offer against illness, injury and death — shows that we really don’t care.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently announced that 5,486 workers died on the job in 2022, a nearly 6% increase from 2021. Employers reported 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2022, up by 7.5% from the previous year. This is almost certainly an undercount, given that many work-related health conditions go unreported.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been starved of resources — while being, paradoxically, vilified as a business-killer — since its creation in 1970. In fiscal year 2022, the agency spent $3.99 per worker, according to the AFL-CIO. That’s less than a venti Caffè Latte at Starbucks.

What’s more, the nation had only 1,871 federal and state inspectors to police its 10.8 million workplaces, translating to one inspector for every 77,334 workers, or enough to visit each workplace once every 190 years. This does not represent a serious commitment to employees’ wellbeing.

I note these statistics as a journalist who has written about occupational health and safety for decades and just published a book, "The Cancer Factory: Industrial Chemicals, Corporate Deception, and the Hidden Deaths of American Workers," that memorializes one of the most egregious instances of worker neglect since World War II. In this little-known episode, a chemical manufacturing plant in Niagara Falls, New York, owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, began using a pungent, yellowish liquid called ortho-toluidine to make an antioxidant for tires in 1957. Goodyear bought the chemical from DuPont and other suppliers.

DuPont knew by the mid-1950s that ortho-toluidine caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals and assiduously protected its own manufacturing workers from exposure. DuPont didn’t get around to telling Goodyear about this potential human carcinogen until the late 1970s, however, and Goodyear was slow to safeguard its own employees, even after receiving DuPont’s belated warning.

The predictable result: an epidemic of bladder cancer, a relentless and devious disease that can seem to disappear, only to resurface years later. At last count, there were 78 cases from the plant, four times what would be expected in the general population. Other cases have probably gone unrecorded.

The Goodyear plant also produced an excess of liver cancer due to its use of vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, to make polyvinyl chloride resin, a precursor to PVC plastic, from 1946 to 1996. It was, truly, a cancer factory.

OSHA is hopelessly behind in its control of chemicals. Many of its exposure limits are decades old and don’t reflect current science; most of the tens of thousands of chemicals in global commerce have been assigned no OSHA limits and haven’t been analyzed for toxicity.

 

The Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating and pondering additional regulation of some chemicals, including vinyl chloride, that are found in Americans’ homes, ambient air and workplaces. But the process of restricting or banning a chemical is excruciatingly slow and subject to the caprices of politics.

While some companies — probably most — take seriously their legal responsibility to provide a safe place of employment, others simply don’t care. Immigrant workers often get the worst of it.

In reporting for my book and the nonprofit news organization I run, Public Health Watch, I’ve encountered two clusters of the ancient lung disease silicosis among workers who cut and grind artificial-stone countertops. In each case, the victims were relatively young Latino men happy to have a steady job that paid $14 an hour.

When I interviewed a gravely ill Juan Gonzalez in California’s San Fernando Valley in October 2022, six months before his death at age 37, I asked him what message he had for consumers. “Many of us continue working in this field out of necessity, and many continue because of ignorance, not knowing what causes the damage: the stone,” he said in Spanish. “Behind the kitchen, basically, there’s sweat and blood and, at the worst, even death.”

We are in the third decade of the 21st century. The disease that consumed Gonzalez was killing miners and stone-cutters in Greece and Rome two millennia ago. We can do better.

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Jim Morris is executive director and editor-in-chief of Public Health Watch, a nonprofit investigative news organization. He is the author of The Cancer Factory, released by Beacon Press on January 23. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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©2024 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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