Workers Maimed by Cost-Cutting Chemical: Where is OSHA?

The service sector comprises almost 80% of the U.S. economy; for many workers, the most dangerous machinery in their workday is a jammed printer.

In this context, we risk neglecting worker safety—which is exactly what this country has done. Millions of workers, especially those unable to afford (increasingly expensive) higher education, depend on manufacturing work for their livelihood. The federal government is charged with protecting their health in the workplace through OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As this editorial makes clear, that duty is being egregiously neglected.

This neglect would be greatly ameliorated by the passage of the “Protecting America’s Workers Act” (PAWA), which was reintroduced for Senate consideration last month by Senator Patty Murray. PAWA would boost the criminal penalties on those who harm workers and increase the protection of whistleblowers. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, it is unlikely to pass soon. It is particularly poignant that, while OSHA was signed into law in 1970 by Republican President Richard Nixon, updating now-toothless regulations has become a political nonstarter thanks in large part to anti-government conservatives.

The tragedy of OSHA’s toothlessness, and the urgency of worker safety, were recently highlighted by the New York Times‘ reporting on the plight of employees at North Carolina’s Royale Comfort Seating, a furniture manufacturer. Employees use spray guns to apply foam glue to “cushions for chairs and couches”; the foam contains n-propyl bromide (nPB), a chemical whose danger is well-known:

Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years.

The litany of injuries inflicted on the North Carolina employees is heartbreaking: many are unable to walk.

As mentioned, anti-regulatory sentiment provides a partial explanation; this blogger misguidedly worries about the potential job losses resulting from the company being exposed. However, regulation itself is challenging, especially when underfunded; the story of nPB is a stark illustration of such pitfalls. In the 80s, a glue called TCA was popular with manufacturers before being banned for the damage it caused the ozone layer. Its replacement, methylene chloride, turned out to be poisonous to workers, so its use was restricted. This led to the advent of nPB. As the Times reported, “when the government forces the phasing out of one hazardous chemical, it is often replaced by another equally or more dangerous one.”

Whatever specific regulatory lessons we are to draw from Royale Comfort Seating, one thing is paramount: workers deserve humane conditions. That basic right is being violated:

Day 1 at the job brought ominous advice. Don’t dally […]; managers keep track of your cushions per hour. Bring a hair dryer; it helps in warming brittle hands in winter when the plant gets frigid. Stock up on aspirin and tissues: the first to survive the headaches from the glue’s gasoline-like fumes; the second because the fumes clear the sinuses.

[….]

By the end of a shift, the glue left some workers so dizzy that they walked as if they were drunk. At times, they did not remember driving home.

The Harman Firm deplores this unconscionable treatment of employees. Contact us if you have any questions about worker protections under employment law.