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Friday, 29 May 2015 08:00

The US Government Must Address Toxic Chemical Exposure in the Workplace

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atoxhaz(Photo: eek the cat)

Why would a nonprofit organization need to launch a website that provides the public with data on exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace? Quite simply, because the US government isn't doing a good job of it.

In a recent news release, PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) states, "Workplace chemical exposures are the nation’s eighth leading cause of death but the US lacks any strategy for preventing the more than 40,000 premature deaths each year." PEER goes on to note:

"More Americans die each year from workplace chemical exposure than from all highway accidents, yet we have no national effort to stem this silent occupational epidemic," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that allowed chemical exposure on-the-job is roughly 1000 times higher than in the general ambient environment. "In the US, environmental protection stops at the factory door."

As a result, PEER has established a web resource that does the work that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) should be offering online. The database is called, "Put the H back in OSHA."

When it comes to chemical exposure, the federal government has shown an industry bias for decades, exhibiting lax enforcement of its insufficient regulations.

Indeed, PEER reveals an ominous trend:

Occupational risks may be on the rise as thousands of new chemicals are introduced in U.S. workplaces each year. Yet OSHA figures show a slow decline in health sampling. At its current rate of health inspections, it would take OSHA nearly 600 years to sample chemical exposure at half the nation’s industrial facilities that handle hazardous substances....

"Reversing this long lethal trend requires a national commitment to ‘green’ the American workplace," added Ruch. "Above all, OSHA needs to rediscover its ‘H’ by taking affirmative steps to sharply reduce the slow poisoning of American workers."

A person's income level, by the way, is related to the likelihood of exposure to harmful chemicals: Many of the people who labor in an unhealthy workplace are paid very little. 

An article by the advocacy organization Safer States confirms this:

Nearly each day, four million people in the United States go to work as janitors, cleaners, maids, housekeepers, landscaping and groundskeeping workers, pesticide handlers and other maintenance occupations. Over 3% of the workforce is employed in these jobs, which are among the lowest paying jobs in the country. But the below-average wages aren't the worst thing about the job: these people are exposed to toxic chemicals in their workplace on a daily basis.

These professions are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of at-risk job categories, however. According to The Legal Examiner, "More than 32 million workers (more than 20 percent of the entire U.S. workforce) are exposed to hazardous chemical products in the workplace." That is an approximate number, because there is no government inspection of many companies or work environments where toxic chemicals are present.

Along with a fair wage, workers should be guaranteed a safe and healthy workplace. PEER is to be commended for developing a resource to expose harmful work conditions due to dangerous chemicals. It is unfortunate, however, that the US and state governments are doing an inadequate job of ensuring the health of the nation's labor force - particularly those on the lower end of the wage scale.

Not to be reposted without permission of Truthout.