Center for Progressive Reform

Chemical Detox for the Workplace

A Guide to Securing a Nontoxic Work Environment

by Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, Rena Steinzor, and Katie Tracy

Executive Summary

An estimated 50,000 lives are cut short every year in the United States — an average of 137 deaths a day — because of occupational diseases. Most of these deaths result from toxic chemical exposures on the job.[1] Based on this estimate, an individual is more likely to die from a fatal illness acquired at work than from an opioid overdose,[2] a firearm incident, or a motor vehicle crash.[3] The true death toll from occupational illness is likely higher than estimated because government statistics are incomplete.

Inadequately regulated chemical hazards are at their deadliest in the workplace. People exposed to toxics at work tend to encounter dangerous substances more frequently, for longer durations, and at higher levels than the public at large. Workers are at substantial risk across dozens of sectors including agriculture, domestic cleaning, hair and nail salons, home repairs, building construction, and chemical manufacturing.

The risk to workers persists despite a web of laws intended to protect against them. Congress authorized the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt protective standards that ensure “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 [the] employee has regular exposure to the hazard . . . for the period of [their] working life.”[4] Some environmental laws, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, provide workers with additional protections under certain circumstances. Many state and local governments have also adopted chemical safety laws and restrictions over the past few decades.

Agencies like OSHA, however, encounter major obstacles when developing workplace protections for toxic substances even when there is overwhelming scientific evidence of significant health risks. The difficulty results not from a lack of data, but from intense lobbying from well-funded industries. Budgetary constraints and lack of political will also stall updates to existing health standards and the creation of new ones. As a result, when OSHA moves to address hazardous chemicals in the workplace, it can take a decade for the agency to clear a new rule through the regulatory system.[5] This delay results in needless worker fatalities and illnesses and leaves families saddled with hefty medical expenses and deep emotional burdens.

Rather than standing by waiting for the regulatory process to operate at this glacial pace, workers, worker representatives, and advocates can take action to learn about chemical hazards, health effects, and measures to eliminate or reduce exposures in the workplace. Confronting an employer about chemical risks is a difficult and courageous endeavor that takes planning and fortitude. Such direct action can pay off, as when high-road employers engage with workers to find safer processes or chemicals. But when employers ignore their employees’ concerns, workers have several options for holding them accountable, from filing complaints with government agencies to suing employers themselves.

This guide is intended to assist workers and worker representatives with finding information on chemical hazards and then utilizing that information to achieve a nontoxic workplace. Although this guide does not cover every issue or situation workers may face, it is our hope that it will assist with identifying the appropriate questions to ask, initiating research on chemicals of concern in the workplace, and collaborating with other workers, unions, and local organizers to take action.

Section One provides a list of tactics worker advocates can employ to reduce toxic risks and assist injured workers.

Section Two gives readers a basic overview of the federal laws applicable to toxic chemicals. While the Occupational Safety and Health Act covers many workplaces, it does not apply everywhere. Further, depending on the industry, environmental laws may provide remedies for exposed workers. Other laws, regulations, contracts, or agreements may — and likely do — govern in specific states and specific workplaces. Before taking any action, additional background research and consultation with worker advocates, university professors, citizen groups, and others in a community or nearby states is recommended.

Section Three specifies the best resources available to help identify chemical hazard information and take action to reduce chemical hazards in the workplace.

* * *

Individuals reading this guide are encouraged to reach out to a union representative, worker center, or worker advocate in their community before engaging in research or taking action. You are likely not alone in your concerns, and others in the community may have useful research already available and may be able to connect you with informational resources. Additionally, if you are considering taking action, joining with others may strengthen your cause as well as offer additional protections from retaliation by an employer. Joining with others to assess the political context in your community will also help determine the best course of action beyond an individual worksite.

For assistance finding local COSH groups, advocacy organizations, and worker centers in your area, please contact CPR policy analyst Katie Tracy at ktracy@progressivereform.org.




[1] AFL-CIO, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect 5 (2018), https://aflcio.org/reports/death-job-toll-neglect-2018.

[2] Overdose Death Rates, Nat’l Inst. on Drug Abuse, https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates (last update Jan. 2019) (indicating in Figure 3 that there were 47,600 deaths involving any opioid in 2017).

[3] Nat’l Ctr. for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 67, No. 5, Deaths: Final Data For 2016, at 60–61 (2018), https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr67/nvsr67_05_tables.pdf (stating that in 2016, the latest year for which data is available as of this writing, motor-vehicle traffic-related injuries resulted in 38,748 deaths and firearm injuries resulted in 38,658 deaths).

[4] 29 U.S.C. §655(b)(5) (2018).

[5] See The OSHA Rulemaking Process, Occupational Safety & Health Admin. (Oct. 15, 2012), https://www.osha.gov/OSHA_FlowChart.pdf; see also U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, GAO-12-330, Workplace Safety and Health: Multiple Challenges Lengthen OSHA’s Standard Setting 7 (2012), https://www.gao.gov/assets/590/589825.pdf (finding that on average OSHA took a total of 7 years and 9 months to develop and issue standards between 1981 and 2010).



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