Honor Fallen Workers by Protecting the Living from Dangerous Workplace Chemicals

by Thomas McGarity
Katie Tracy

April 29, 2019

Although Workers' Memorial Day was officially April 28, the time has not passed for remembering the thousands of friends, family members, and neighbors whose lives were tragically cut short due to fatal on-the-job incidents this past year. We carry on their memories as we renew the fight for healthy and safe working conditions.

On average, 5,320 workers die on the job every year. In 2017, the latest year for which data is available, the death toll was 5,147. These figures do not account for the estimated 50,000 workers who succumbed to occupational diseases caused by chronic exposures to toxic chemicals and other harmful substances they encountered in their workplaces.

Every day across the nation, salon workers are exposed to toxic chemicals like toluene and formaldehyde in nail polish and hair dyes, construction workers inhale asbestos during home renovations and silica during sandblasting, and janitorial crews work with hazardous commercial cleaners. The health risks they encounter are ever-present, and the consequences can be financially and emotionally devastating.

American companies have a legal and moral duty to provide their workers with safe and healthy working conditions. And our nation's protector agencies, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), have the responsibility to adopt and enforce strong standards to ensure companies are meeting their obligations. Yet chemical hazards persist in the workplace.

Many employers take this legal and moral obligation seriously and take proper steps to safeguard their workers from hazards by implementing emergency and risk management plans, replacing harmful chemicals with safer alternatives, building safeguards into their plants and production processes, and training workers to identify and protect against toxic exposures. Unfortunately, even when employers follow the letter of the law, some of their workers may still be at risk because a number of toxic chemicals are essentially unregulated. Some employers take precautions to protect their workers from such dangers, but not nearly all of them.

Even more worrisome are the employers who choose to ignore the law, cutting corners to save a few dollars even if it means exposing their employees to potentially fatal hazards.

The reality is that numerous low-road employers actively skirt the law, knowing the chance of a random OSHA inspection is small. In 2018, the agency had a mere 1,815 inspectors across the country, responsible for 9.8 million establishments. And although these employers certainly don't intend for workers to be killed, they know the average penalty for a fatality in 2018 was a paltry $7,761 in Fed-OSHA states and $2,700 in states that run their own programs.

Despite the need for federal and state governments to boost resources dramatically, the Trump administration is working against workers' interests while helping big companies through deregulation and tax giveaways.

For all those reasons, workers sometimes need to keep a watchful eye on possible exposures to toxics, and, when necessary, stand up to defend themselves. A new resource from the Center for Progressive Reform aims to help them hold scofflaw employers accountable for endangering their employees with uncontrolled exposures to toxic chemicals and other harmful substances. The guide explores tactics workers can use to secure a nontoxic work environment, from filing complaints with government agencies to suing employers themselves.

Even as Workers' Memorial Day passes, we must not only remember our fallen workers, but we must fight for the living. There's no better time than the present to take action.

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Also from Thomas McGarity

Thomas O. McGarity holds the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Administrative Law at the University of Texas in Austin. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform, and a past president of the organization.

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