How government, business and labor can better protect workers

The country’s safeguards against toxic workplace exposures are dangerously weak, but they don’t have to stay that way.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration takes years, sometimes decades, to develop rules for individual chemicals and other hazardous substances. That’s why most of the agency’s exposure limits haven’t been updated since 1971, and why the vast majority of chemicals have no workplace limits at all. It’s part of the reason that an estimated 50,000 Americans die from job-related illnesses each year.

Sweeping changes would require action from Congress, given how courts have interpreted what OSHA must do to set chemical limits. The agency could wait a long time for such assistance — Congress sometimes intervenes to make the process even harder.

But OSHA, employers and worker advocates can make strides against workplace disease and death right now. Here are some of the ways:

Approach health standards differently

OSHA sets exposure limits one chemical at a time, each with a long-slog rulemaking. As a result, it’s a rare substance that has an up-to-date limit in the U.S., and setting one can trigger “regulatory Whac-a-Mole,” as OSHA chief David Michaels puts it, with some companies turning to substitutes that have no legal threshold.

OSHA already tried updating many standards all at once, in 1989. A federal court ruled three years later that the abbreviated analyses the agency did weren’t sufficient.

But nothing’s stopping OSHA from regulating an entire industrial process, said Adam M. Finkel, who directed the agency’s health standards programs from 1995 to 2000. By setting standards for operations such as welding or dry cleaning, OSHA could reduce exposures for a variety of substitutes an employer might use, he said.

He suggested that idea to OSHA in the 1990s, and the agency included it in a list of possibilities released last year in a request for help to fix its bogged-down standard-setting process. Regulating chemicals by characteristic — for instance, the type of hazard — is also on the list.

Another thought kicked around over the years: Avoiding long fights by getting industry and labor on the same page. Finkel said he asked representatives from both sides in the mid-1990s whether they’d agree to live with the result if they helped set the ground rules. (Answer: Nope. But he thinks it could work if OSHA championed it.) When the American Industrial Hygiene Association got industry and labor groups to the table not long after, participants talked about asking for an OSHA advisory committee — with members drawn from both sides — that would hammer out recommendations for exposure limits in at least some cases.

“You could start with the noncontroversial ones and you’d build confidence in the process,” said Frank White, a senior official at OSHA in the 1980s.

Basing standards on what outside parties can agree on could run afoul of OSHA’s requirement to protect workers from significant risks with the lowest feasible exposure limits. Finkel, now at the University of Pennsylvania, sees a workaround: Make such agreements “enforceable partnerships” instead of standards and hold signers accountable.

Related: A drop in the bucket

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This story is part of Unequal risk. Workers in America face risks from toxic exposures that would be considered unacceptable outside the job. Click here to read more stories in this blog.

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Copyright 2015 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.