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Common Toxic Exposures in the Workplace

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Toxic exposure can be presented in the home, at school, and even within workplace environments. For those who are in positions that consistently put them at risk for contact with harsh chemicals and carcinogens, there needs to be an emphasis on protecting workers from exposure. Among stress, fairness and equality, as well as the day-to-day responsibilities, harmful toxins should not be a concern. Yes, some jobs pose greater risks. However, employees should not anticipate negative impacts on their health, especially when most toxic exposure can be prevented.

Exposure to these toxic substances may be the result of occupations in construction, the oil industry, manufacturing, waste disposal, custodial work, and similar manual labor positions. To ensure that workers have limited exposure to any dangerous byproducts, they need to understand what these chemicals are and how to promote the safest environment.

Below are three common toxic chemicals to watch out for

  1. Benzen

BenzeneBenzene is a recognized carcinogen that has been proven to lead to leukemia cancer. Leukemia, aptly named due to its effects on leukocytes, otherwise known as white blood cells, develops in the blood or bone marrow. This indicates complications with white blood cell production.

There are both short and long term consequences of benzene exposure. When people are introduced to potent amounts of benzene short term, they may experience unconsciousness, confusion, headaches, and nervous system dysfunction. It may also aggravate other sensory areas like the eyes and skin. The long term effects of benzene exposure are anemia and a low white blood cell and blood platelet count.

It is important to note that benzene is not the major cause of leukemia, but a risk factor. Characteristically, benzene is a liquid–one that has a sweet scent and is both colorless and combustible. It is also highly favorable in many industries because it is an ingredient for producing other chemicals: detergents, drugs, rubbers, plastics, etc. Workers prone to coming in contact with benzene are steel-workers, firefighters, and gas station employees.

  1. Asbestos

Another known carcinogen is asbestos, a mineral popular for its flame, sound, and electricity immunity. There are six types of asbestos, but together they have the same qualities: the ability to break because of their tiny, fibrous crystalline structure.

The chief threat linked to asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, a cancer that can develop in the lungs, heart, and lining of the stomach. Distinctively to other cancers, mesothelioma is essentially the result of asbestos entering the body and embedding into any of these organs. Surprisingly, it is not diagnosed for long periods of time and may also cause other related illnesses, such as asbestosis and lung cancer.

As asbestos is useful in many processes, construction workers, those in the military around ammunition storage rooms, aircraft, boiler rooms, military vehicles, and mess halls, home renovators, engineers, and agricultural workers are all at jeopardy.

  1. Silica

Sourced from the earth’s crust, crystalline silica is fundamental to a variety of home and construction products. Natural materials such as sand, concrete, and stone have silica. A few products that employ these materials are ceramics, glass, and bricks.

Like asbestos, repairable crystalline silica is microscopic. When it deteriorates or is broken, it can be reduced to particles 100 times smaller than sand grains. Occupations that employ silica for stone countertops, pottery, concrete, or drilling for buildings, can expose this mineral.

While crystalline silica does not trigger mesothelioma cancer, it is also a toxin that can be inhaled and enter the body unknowingly. Silica can create serious health conditions, including lung cancer, silicosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What to know for keeping your work environment safe

These are only three of a list of toxins employees may be susceptible to. The good news is that with proper awareness and mandated regulations, workers are not left defenseless against exposure.

Every job should follow strict guidelines, either federal or state, which are implemented to protect workers’ rights. Fortunately, many places cannot operate without knowing and keeping up with these rules. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is ideal for this reason and rightfully enforces control over work-related toxins.

Thankfully, the efforts of organizations like OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and others specific to diseases from toxins and carcinogens encourage healthier job sites, where employees do not have to fear or expect toxins. Prevention is possible, and no one needs to be unnecessarily exposed or at risk.

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Colin Ruggiero dedicates his time to informing others about mesothelioma cancer and preventative measures that can be taken to avoid exposure to asbestos. 


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New Congress on Track to Block Long-Sought Workplace and Public Health Protections

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An estimated 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-caused diseases each year, a figure that’s considered conservative. Asbestos is no longer mined in the United States but it still exists in products here, perpetuating exposure, especially for workers in construction and other heavy industries. In June 2016, after years of debate, the country’s major chemical regulation law was updated for the first time in 40 years, removing a major obstacle to banning asbestos.

Exposure to beryllium, a metal used in aerospace, defense, and communications industry manufacturing, to which about 62,000 U.S. workers are exposed annually, can cause a severe, chronic lung disease. On January 6, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued a rule—more than 15 years in the making—that dramatically lowers allowable workplace exposure to beryllium. OSHA says this will prevent 94 premature deaths and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related disease per year.

On April 17, 2013, an explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured hundreds. In late December—after a four-year process involving public, business, governments and non-profit input—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rule designed to prevent such accidents, improve community response to and preparedness for such disasters.

Those three examples are among the occupational and public health protective policies finalized by the Obama administration now jeopardized by antiregulatory legislation already passed by the 115th Congress. It remains to be seen if this legislation will become law and actually used. But, says University of Texas School of Law professor Thomas McGarity, the likely outcome is “that this will make people sick and unsafe.”

“Landscape is grim as it is”

In addition to having the ability to pass antiregulatory legislation, Congress has at its disposal the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Passed in 1996 by the Newt Gingrich-led House, it allows Congress to overturn a regulation passed during the last 60 legislative working days of an outgoing administration. What’s more, it prevents the creation of a substantially similar regulation. It’s only been used once, in 2001, to overturn the ergonomics regulation passed by OSHA under President Bill Clinton.

Add to this the Midnight Rules Relief Act, passed by the House on January 4. It amends the CRA, allowing Congress to overturn multiple regulations promulgated during the previous administration’s last six months, rather than individually as the CRA requires. “This allows the House to pick and choose rules that industry doesn’t like and do it all at once,” McGarity explains.

Also already passed by the House is the Regulatory Accountability Act. It includes a provision that could threaten the change made to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) eliminating the provision that prevented the EPA from banning asbestos. As Natural Resources Defense Council director of government affairs, David Goldston explains, “This bill has a provision that says notwithstanding any other provision of law, costs and benefits have to be considered when writing a rule.” Goldston calls this phrase “dangerous,” as it means putting economic costs to industry ahead of costs to human health as TSCA previously required—a requirement the revised bill eliminated.

And, as if these laws weren’t enough to threaten existing regulations, there’s the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act), also already passed by the House. This law essentially says that an agency rule can’t go into effect unless Congress approves it. Or, as University of Maryland Carey School of Law professor Rena Steinzor explained in the American Prospect, “In a drastic power grab, the House has approved a measure that would strip executive agencies of the authority to issue significant new regulations.”

“If the REINS Act becomes law, then Congressional inaction will supersede previous Congressional action on fundamental bedrock popular health, safety and environmental protection laws,” says Public Citizen regulatory policy advocate Amit Narang.

He also points out that if the administration of Donald Trump declines to defend regulations now under legal challenge, they could also be undone. Among the rules now being challenged is OSHA’s long sought updated restriction on occupational silica exposure.

“The landscape is grim as it is,” says Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at the non-profit citizens’ rights advocacy group Public Citizen, referring to OSHA’s limited resources. “There are nearly 5,000 workers dying on the job every year and OSHA’s not able to respond to threats as they’re happening.” Now, she says, “I’m looking at a Congress that would nearly paralyze rulemaking.”

“Designed to smash the system not reform it”

These laws effectively knock the foundation out from under how agencies like OSHA, the Department of Labor and EPA go about creating the network of regulations needed to implement the intent of laws that protect workplace and public health.

“This is designed to smash the system not reform it,” says Goldston of this antiregulatory legislation.

Not surprisingly, the historically pro-big business U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports antiregulatory legislation, as does the American Chemistry Council and National Association of Manufacturers. On the other hand, it’s opposed by American Sustainable Business Council, which represents more than 250,000 business owners and says the regulations these laws aim to undo are needed to support healthy, thriving workplaces and the economy.

Apart from the CRA, all of this legislation still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the president to become law. But with a Republicans in the majority and Trump in the White House, vetoes seem highly unlikely.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on January 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.


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Tragic Environmental Disaster in West Virginia Should Spur TSCA Reform, Including Stronger Whistleblower Protections

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jason zuckermanThree hundred thousand residents of Charleston, West Virginia are unable to use tap water because a chemical storage facility spilled 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MSHM), a chemical used to “clean” coal, into the Elk River.  This tragic incident highlights the need to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), including the TSCA’s whistleblower protection provisions.

Incredibly, the EPA and the company that contaminated Charleston’s water supply have very limited data on the health risks posed by MCHM.   And the site of the chemical spill has not been inspected since 1991.   According to theEnvironmental Defense Fund, TSCA has fundamentally failed to protect the public against harmful chemicals.  Due to a nearly impossible burden on the EPA to prove actual harm in order to control a dangerous chemical, the EPA has required testing of approximately 200 of 30,000 chemicals and has succeeded in mandating restrictions on the production or use of only five substances.  In addition, TSCA enables chemical companies to conceal safety and health data from the public  by designating all submissions to the EPA as confidential business information.

Hopefully, the chemical spill in Charleston will spur Congress to act on pending legislation that would strengthen chemical testing and regulation.  But the proposed TSCA reform legislation is missing a critical element – a much-needed update of TSCA’s weak whistleblower protection provision.

TSCA’s whistleblower protection provision ostensibly protects whistleblowers from retaliation for reporting violations relating to violations of TSCA or for assisting or participating in a proceeding to carry out the purposes of TSCA .  But the statute of limitations is just 30 days and the burden of proof for the whistleblower is higher than the burden of proof imposed on whistleblowers in most analogous whistleblower protections laws administered by the Department of Labor.

In reforming TSCA, Congress should update TSCA’s whistleblower protection provision to include the following features that have become standard in most of the whistleblower protection laws that Congress has enacted in the past decade:

  • The causation standard should be contributing factor, i.e., the whistleblower prevails by proving that protected activity was a contributing factor in the unfavorable action. A contributing factor is any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.
  • Once the whistleblower proves that protected conduct was a contributing factor in the adverse action, the employer can avoid liability only if it proves by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the employee’s protected conduct.
  • Extend the statute of limitations to at least 180 days.
  • Authorize preliminary reinstatement, i.e., the employer would be required to reinstate the whistleblower at the conclusion of an OSHA investigation finding that the employer violated the TSCA whistleblower protection provision.
  • Offer whistleblowers the option to remove their claims from the Department of Labor to federal court to try their claims before a jury.
  • Eliminate the “duty speech” loophole to ensure that employees who blow the whistle in the ordinary course of their job duties are protected.

When an independent investigation was performed of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers, the investigators found that a culture of fear and intimidation contributed to the explosion.  Miners were discouraged from reporting safety violations and miners who disclosed safety issues were fired or ostracized.   In order for TSCA reform to be effective, whistleblowers in the chemical industry must be protected against retaliation.

This article was originally printed on Whistleblower Protection Law Blog on January 15, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jason Zuckerman is Principal at Zuckerman Law (www.zuckermanlaw.com)  and represents whistleblowers nationwide.  He is the author of the Whistleblower Protection Law Blog (www.whistleblower-protection-law.com).


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