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1996 James Q. Jacobs

There are as many as 575,000 hazardous chemical products in workplaces. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that over 32 million workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals. Evidence collected by OSHA indicates that chemical exposure occurs in every type of industry. In 1986, a total of 136,212 work-related chemical injuries were treated in emergency rooms according to National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) data. The chronic disease rate included 25,388 cancer cases and 12,890 cancer deaths.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported an occupational injury and illness incidence rate of 8.4 per cent of workers. Painters, plumbers, construction, and other workers experience serious central nervous system problems from exposures to solvents. Welders suffer from acute and chronic respiratory disease, and show increased rates of lung cancer. The Associated General Contractors has admitted that there are 82 hazardous chemicals involved in concrete work, including very toxic carcinogens such as benzene and vinyl chloride. Hospital personnel who administer cytotoxic (chemotherapy) drugs experience both short-term health effects and chronic effects (cancer, leukemia, birth defects, miscarriages, and chromosomal damage). Some 40-50,000 manufacturing workers per year experience chemical source illnesses. They file 10,000 worker compensation claims in connection with chemical injury.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration within the Department of Labor to implement safety and health programs. The primary purpose of the Act is to assure safe and healthful working conditions for every American worker over the period of his or her working lifetime. Congress authorized the Secretary of Labor to set mandatory safety and health standards, stating, "The Secretary, in promulgating standards dealing with toxic materials, or harmful physical agents under this subsection, shall set the standard which most adequately assures, to the extent feasible, on the basis of the best available evidence, that no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to the hazard dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life."

The process of protecting workers proceeded slowly at best. For example, acute toxicity to vinyl chloride was reported as early as 1938. In 1949 liver damage was reported in 15 of 48 workers exposed to vinyl chloride in Russia. Early in 1974 the Federal Government declared angiosarcoma of the liver to be on occupational disease after six cases of the exceedingly rare, fatal disease were found among vinyl chloride workers at the B. F. Goodrich Chemical Company plant in Louisville, Kentucky. The federal standard allowed workers to breath 500 ppm (parts per million parts of air) of vinyl chloride vapors even though that level readily caused cancer. More worker deaths due to the rare liver cancer were soon discovered elsewhere. As many as 700,000 workers were estimated to be at risk.

In March, 1974, The New York Times reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had asked pesticide makers to voluntarily stop using vinyl chloride aerosol propellant. A month later the Times reported that Clairol was recalling 100,000 cans of hair spray after a request for voluntary recall from the Food and Drug Administration. Spraying an aerosol with vinyl chloride propellant in a bathroom for 4 seconds produced a level known to cause cancer. During 1974 the Food and Drug Administration recalled or banned about 100 aerosol products, including hair, deodorant, and insecticide sprays.

In the April 5, 1974, Federal Register, OSHA declared an emergency level of 50 ppm for vinyl chloride, a level shown to cause cancer in mice. At the same time NIOSH scientists were "unable to describe a safe exposure level," and therefore "rejected the concept of a threshold limit for vinyl chloride gas in the atmosphere." After OSHA proposed a zero tolerance level The Society of the Plastics Industry urged OSHA to hold hearings and grant additional time in order to keep industry plants operating. Today the OSHA standard allows vinyl chloride in workroom air at 1 ppm during an 8-hour workday in a 40-hour workweek. The maximum amount allowed in any 15-minute period is 5 ppm. NIOSH recommends that workers exposed to any measurable amount wear special respiratory protection equipment.

OSHA promulgated a Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) in 1983 covering employees in the manufacturing sector only. A fundamental principle of the HCS is that employees exposed to hazardous chemicals without knowledge of their identities, the hazards posed and appropriate protective measures are at a significant risk to injury. Because inadequate communication is itself a significant risk, OSHA was required by Court order to apply the HCS to all workplaces where employees are exposed to chemical hazards, to the extent feasible. Due to industry resistance and court challenges only since 1989 has the HCS been in effect for all industries.

Today federal law requires that employers develop a written hazard communication program and provide information and training to employees about the hazardous chemicals in their workplace. Information must be provided for all hazardous chemicals to which employees may be exposed. Employers have a legal obligation to inform employees of OSHA safety and health standards that apply to their workplace. Upon request, the employer must make available to employees copies of those standards and the OSHA law itself.

The OSHA standards also require the employer to measure exposure to harmful substances and the employee has the right to observe the testing and to examine the records of the results. Employers must inform employees of the existence, location, and availability of their exposure records when employees begin employment and at least annually thereafter. Employers also must provide these records to employees upon request, generally within 15 working days. They must provide a date for release of the information and an explanation of the delay should it take longer to process the request. Employers are required to disclose the specific chemical identity (chemical name and Chemical Abstract Service number) of materials for which exposure records are requested. Exposure records must be maintained for 30 years.

The HCS requires chemical manufacturers, importers, and distributors to ensure that material safety data sheets (MSDS's) are provided with shipments of hazardous chemicals. MSDS's provide product identification, Chemical Abstract Service number, lethal dose information, hazard ratings, hazardous ingredient listings, physiological effects, toxicology and health hazard data, emergency and first aid procedures, spill or leak procedures, safe handling and use information, physical and reactivity data, and special precautions. The law also requires that, "...the employer shall maintain copies of the required material safety data sheets for each hazardous chemical in the workplace, and shall ensure that they are readily accessible during each work shift to employees when they are in their work areas." MSDS's provide employers and employees an opportunity to make an effective assessment of potential hazards based on complete information on each workplace chemical. They can also assess any possible additive or synergistic effects posed by the hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

The HCS statute states, "Employers shall provide employees with information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area at the time of their initial assignment, and whenever a new hazard is introduced into their work area." The employer is always ultimately responsible for ensuring that employees are adequately trained. Small businesses must comply with regulations and ensure that their employees are protected to the same extent as larger businesses.

In 1990 OSHA issued over 5600 citations for violations of the HCS training requirements. There is evidence that complete training on chemical hazards is not widespread in the construction industry despite the requirements. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study based on a survey of construction workers injured on the job indicated that only 23% had been trained regarding hazards. Meanwhile, employers who comply believe that the rule has been beneficial for workers. About 30% of these reported replacing hazardous chemicals with less hazardous ones after viewing MSDS's.

The ten most toxic and hazardous substances currently listed are lead, arsenic, mercury, vinyl chloride, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cadmium, benzo(a)pyrene, chloroform and benzo(b)fluoranthene.

NIOSH can provide free information on the potential dangers of substances in the workplace. NIOSH may visit a jobsite to evaluate possible health hazards. NIOSH will keep confidential the name of the person who asked for help if requested to do so. Information about toxic substances can be obtained by writing to:

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
ATSDR Information Center - Division of Toxicology
Mail Stop E-57 - 1600 Clifton Rd. NE
Atlanta, Ga. 30333

Here follows a listing of useful Internet links to search for further information, including government publications, listings of hazardous chemicals and their MSDS's.

Though fewer workers' lives are sacrificed today than in the past, each year the death and injury toll continues. Occupational injury reporting requirements, free access to information and media reporting played an important role in advancing past reforms. In today's information age workers can more readily access the data needed to determine the safety or health risk of their occupation and workplace.

Not all employers comply with the provisions of law.

Do not trust your employer.  Do not trust contractors in your workplace.

The best prevention is to know for yourself if your job
is a hazard to your health. Knowing might save your life.

James Q. Jacobs worked in the construction industry for more than 20 years before
becoming a college professor. He litigated his own chemical exposure injury case.

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