A recent article in the New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/opinion/americas-toxic-workplace-rules.html, opined with respect to the effect President Trump’s newly confirmed Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta may have on America’s toxic workplace rules. The issue is framed through a look at the focus of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration versus that of the Environmental Protection Agency. The former permits greater worker exposure limits than the latter.
The article refers to a nearly 20-year-old case involving IBM as an example. There, former employees had brought more than 200 lawsuits against IBM alleging that it had concealed knowledge of having exposed them to carcinogenic chemicals. While IBM settled the matters, the salient point is that it appeared not to have violated any OSHA regulations. OSHA’s standards permitted workers to be exposed to much higher concentrations of chemicals than those under the EPA. Apparently, this remains true today.
Amanda Hawes, who is an attorney in California, offered one explanation for the disparity between OSHA and EPA standards. She opines that the EPA rules “are supposed to protect the most vulnerable in the population-typically children, fetuses, the elderly and folks with pre-existing health problems”. She added that environmental standards more often focus on chronic effects. Dr. Robert Harrison, who is an occupational medicine specialist at the University of California, explained that cancer and other chronic diseases usually are not recognized as occupational illnesses. The medical field does not always know when patients continually have been exposed to carcinogens.
Epidemiologist David Michaels, who headed OSHA under President Obama, believes that agency chemical standards are too weak, often driven more by economic and technological feasibility rather than by risk assessment. He posits that many chemicals either have no permissible exposure limits, or ones which are out of date.
OSHA, however, encourages companies to comply with limits set by other organizations. Last year, Congress had required that the EPA regulate more chemicals and add populations such as workers to health assessment risks. In addition, trade associations such as the American Chemistry Council, maintain that safety is a core concern of the industry. In addition to strictly adhering to OSHA’S worker health and safety standards, the American Chemistry Council’s members accept recommendations from other organizations.
Secretary Acosta had served on the National Labor Relations Board under President George W. Bush. OSHA was in the process toward equalizing some standards which continued through President Obama’s tenure. As Secretary of Labor, the question begged is whether he will order OSHA to continue toward more rigorous environmental standards.