Every day, workers are exposed to chemicals at a level between 10 and 1,000 times greater than levels permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency. This troubling fact comes from a new report by the Center for Public Integrity. Workers are being exposed to silica and other chemicals that cause illness and death at levels that would not be permitted anywhere outside of the workplace. This is because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been unable to update its permissible exposure limits (PELs).
An experienced workers' compensation attorney knows OSHA has warned employers not to count on the agency's safety standards when it comes to keeping workers safe from exposure to toxins that could cause serious illnesses. OSHA has only added one new rule on chemical exposure since initial regulations and limitations included in the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed in 1971.
Although the agency did try, the courts struck down its updates to PELs in 1989 and imposed a burdensome rulemaking process. Congress has not moved to give OSHA more authority and the agency has been hit by lawsuits from industries when it has tried to pass new rules and regulations, so the result is workers are left unprotected.
Workers Face a "Slow-Motion Tragedy"
Risks from toxic exposure due to OSHA's inability to act are so significant that Center for Public Integrity has indicated American workers face a "slow motion tragedy." More than 50,000 workers die every year because they are exposed to toxins at a level that causes serious illness. Another 190,000 get sick every year due to toxic exposure on the job. This comes at a cost of $58 billion.
While there are many chemicals causing risks of serious illness, one of the biggest risks for employees within the construction industry is silica. As many as 2.2 million workers are routinely exposed to dangerous levels of silica, which can cause conditions like acute silicosis. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) urged OSHA to impose stricter rules on silica exposure back in 1974 and OSHA did take action. However, the OSHA updates to silica exposure rules were part of the regulations struck down by the courts in 1989. OSHA did not begin again in trying to regulate silica exposure until 2011 and the rule making process is still ongoing.
In addition to problems with the burdensome rule making process, OSHA also faces other limitations on protecting workers from on-the-job injury. While the EPA's staff has grown by 24 percent over the past 30 years, OSHA now has 15 percent fewer employees than the agency had 30 years ago. Investigations into health hazards like silica and other chemicals are much more labor intensive than traditional safety inspections, and the understaffed agency conducts four times fewer health inspections as a result.
Changes need to be made to prevent dangerous exposure to chemicals workers face on-the-job. If OSHA cannot make those changes, employers need to ensure they are doing what they can to keep exposure levels safe so illnesses do not develop.