"It's not a good record": When it comes to worker safety, Obama is a lot like Bush

U.S. workers have been all but abandoned by the state, authors of new Center for Public Integrity series tell Salon

Published July 9, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Dharapak/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Charles Dharapak/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)

There was a time in American history when a worker injured on the job had few places to turn. If their employer wasn't inclined to help pay for mending what had been broken — assuming that was possible — these men, women and often children could hope to rely on charity. But if that charity wasn't forthcoming, or wasn't sufficient, they were out of luck. But after decades of struggle, activism, luck and raw politics, American society decided that, in such a wealthy country, this state of affairs was unacceptable.

Fast-forward about 100 years or less and, according to "Unequal Risk," a new series of reports on workplace safety from the Center for Public Integrity, things are clearly going in the other direction. Not only are many of the laws already on the books to protect workers desperately in need of updating, but the government resources devoted to protecting workers are woefully insufficient. The result? Some tens of thousands of human beings, every year, suffer due to health hazards that could be addressed with relative ease. And all too frequently, these costs are not just borne by the workers themselves, but by their families, their communities and, eventually, the country at large.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with the Center for Public Integrity's Jamie Smith Hopkins and Jim Morris, who both worked extensively on the series. We discussed their original reporting, the recent history of workplace safety law, and what could be done to make a broken system work. Our conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.

Who are we talking about when we talk about workers who are not being protected?

Jim Morris (JM): We are talking about pretty much everyone, which is the point of the series. I think there is a misconception out there that the only people who are really at risk from work-related disease [or injury] are people who work in steel mills or oil refineries or other of those sorts of dangerous places that we all know about. What was surprising to us was the wide range of people who have had problems with work-related diseases.

Jamie Smith Hopkins (JSH): It really ranges. A meat wrapper at grocery store, for instance. We ran into a lawsuit filed by a dental hygienist. Professions you would not expect that would cause work-related disease.

Can you give me some examples of the kind of ailments or injuries that these workers (the kind we don't expect to have workplace safety problems) have to deal with?

JSH: In the case of the meat wrapper who worked at a grocery store, she ended up with a severe case of occupational asthma. The whole idea of asthma being occupational is something that might surprise people. But it's not uncommon for asthma to either be caused by or worsened by work. These types of diseases are unfortunately a common problem among many professions. You see it in construction. That's part of the focus of our first story, lung disease that could be caused by silica dust. But you've seen a variety of other things too. Again, just the thought that working at a grocery store could give you problems is astonishing.

JM: We also profiled a hairdresser who worked with products that contain formaldehyde, which is a very potent carcinogen. Again, as her daughter put it, you just don't think of working at a hair salon as a hazardous profession as you would working at a coal mine or a steel mill.

Is there a common narrative for people in these situations? 

JM: That's another ball of wax that we are going to be tackling in more detail later this year. It's a real struggle. If you break your leg on the job or fall off a ladder and throw out your back, odds are you'll at least get workers compensation, because it was clear that your injury happened on the job. But when you get cancer, when you get leukemia, 20 or 30 years after you were exposed to something, it's a real struggle to prove that your disease was connected to work. A lot of workers simply aren't able to go through that process. So they are either uncompensated or very under-compensated.

JSH: And you have people who don't even realize that what they have is work-related. The meat wrapper is, again, a good example. She just kept getting sick. She would go to doctors and they would say it's the flu or a cold. It took a really long time until somebody said they were gonna send her to an occupational disease expert.

What's the bigger problem, here — is it that there aren't laws on the books to protect workers? Or is it that these laws aren't being enforced?

JM: The fundamental problem that we tried to report on, and will keep reporting on, is that worker-protection laws in this country are just abysmally weak. OSHA — the Occupational Safety & Health Administration — admits as much. It's no secret. We have laws on the books saying you shouldn't expose workers to more than X amount of a particular chemical, but the problem is those standards are ridiculously out of date. OSHA acknowledges this.

Were you surprised to hear David Michaels, the head of OSHA, speak so frankly to his agency's lack of capability? That isn't something you hear from government officials especially often, regardless of whether it's true.

JM: I found that striking. They've actually been saying that for several years. In 2013, OSHA put out a press release saying as much. They said that our limits don't protect workers in the vast majority of cases. I've told Jamie and my co-workers that I can't recall another federal agency publicly saying, Sorry, but we really can't do a whole lot. You are on your own. That's pretty much what OSHA has been saying for a couple of years. It's amazing.

JSH: What they're arguing is not that they don't want to do anything, but that they've been hemmed in by core decisions and other things that prevent them from issuing rules in a timely fashion. Rules do get put out, but very slowly.

People assume Democratic presidents are more pro-regulation than Republican ones. Has that proven to be the case during the Obama years?

JSH: There has been one health rule that has been put out during the Obama administration. Certainly when you compare it to 20 or 30 years ago.

JM: Simply put, the Obama administration really isn't any better or much better than the Bush [administration]. It's not a good record.

Was there ever a point when the government could keep pace with its duties in this regard? Did something happen to change that? Or has it been playing catch-up, poorly, from the beginning?

JM: OSHA has never attained perfection or the pace that law intended when it comes to setting standards for health, but there was a period in the late '70s, under the Carter administration, when [it kept apace]. It was a time when unions were very strong, there were unions like the Steelworkers and the Autoworkers, Oil, Chemical and Atomic workers — which is now part of the Steelworkers — that had a lot of aggressive, bright folks working on health. Unions were a lot more influential back then. That late '70s period was as close as that agency has come to really doing what it's supposed to be doing. They put out six standards in 1978 alone. Six health standards in one year including some major things like Benzine, arsenic, cotton dust, lead, etc. There was a period when OSHA was a lot more reactive. But that was it.

Let me play devil's advocate here for a moment: Why should we see this as a larger, societal problem rather than something that's just between the employer and the employee?

JM: First of all, it is a societal problem. One of the more recent and more credible studies that have been done into the costs of work-related disease in this country put the annual cost — this was in 2007 — at $58 billion. That's just for work-related illnesses. That doesn't include injuries or death from traumatic injuries. So it does affect all of us. It affects healthcare costs. More important, though, it really tears apart families. Apart from the worker who is dying or suffering, it really tears apart families.

JSH: One thing I want to mention is that if workers understood going in what the hazards were, so they could make sure to take the protections they need to take, that would be one thing. But this isn't happening. Workers have no idea the risks they are facing. Hairdressers don't expect they are going to get cancer from doing their jobs. Somebody working at a grocery store doesn't expect she's going to get asthma so severe that she can't work anymore. That's something people don't realize. The risks are not well understood.

The series points out, too, that sometimes these human costs are borne by children of the afflicted, who, obviously, had no say in the matter at all.

JM: Yes. Another of our stories deals with that issue. We are profiling a woman who worked in Silicon Valley. She now knows she was exposed to heavy amounts of lead and solvents while she was pregnant. She gave birth to a son who is profoundly disabled, mentally disabled. She had no idea. She thought it was bad luck, the way it does. She had a very aggressive, talented lawyer out there in California who did a lot of detective work and figured out this woman had been exposed to all sorts of terrible things while she was pregnant. No one told her to get out of there. Don't work while you're pregnant or of childbearing age.

JSH: Nor did they tell her what she was being exposed to at the time.

JM: There are lots of workers out there who have no idea that what they are exposed to, even if it doesn't hurt them, can certainly affect the unborn child. There's been some litigation in the last few years against electronic manufacturers. Not on behalf of sick workers, but on behalf of the workers' children. These are kids, some of them are adults now, but offspring of workers who have everything from severe heart defects to skeletal deformities to the developmental disabilities.

What are some ways to fix this problem that advocates, people in government, and labor folks have suggested? 

JSH: It's interesting, what people either suggested or tried. You see some specific examples where labor and industry have said, This is ridiculous; we should work together and see what we can do. One of those examples involves beryllium, which is the proposal that is waiting to get through a review process so it can be officially proposed. But that came about because a union and the major manufacturer of the substance actually wrote a model health standard and sent it to OSHA and asked if they could please propose a rule. It's heartening to see examples of groups that you would generally think to be on the opposite side of the issue try to do something about it.

Others have suggested that OSHA could be or should be approaching health standards differently. OSHA itself says that doing standards chemical by chemical is not going to solve the problem. There are so many chemicals without standards and it takes so long to even tighten one for an existing standard. People have talked about approaching it by like chemicals, grouping those together or approaching it by process. Whatever might be used in a process like dry cleaning, have a rule for the process itself.

Last question: Does the U.S. stand out from other advanced economies in this regard?

JM: We didn't do any in-depth reporting on what's going on in other countries. But a main takeaway [from the series] is that worker safety in the U.S. shouldn't be this bad. About 30 years ago, the estimate of the number of people in America who were dying of work-related disease was about 100,000 people per year. Many of 100,000s more getting sick. Let's say it was 100,000 in the late '70s, which was the figure that was being tossed around by the labor department at the time. Here we are, all these years later, in 2015, and the best estimate is now still 50,000 people a year still dying of work-related disease. It's more than suicide, homicide, more than traffic accidents. Some very high-profile, common causes of death that we all hear about. This 50,000 people a year easily eclipses those numbers. That's where the outrage is. All these years later we are not doing better than 50,000 deaths a year.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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