Shifting OSHA’s Priorities to Protect Public Health

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Agency needs “wake-up call” on chemical hazards, says PPR’s Adam Finkel.

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Last week’s massive explosion of a fertilizer plant shows that workplace safety regulations still do not prevent devastating accidents.  The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) apparently had not inspected the Texas site in decades, but preventing such deadly workplace accidents makes up only half of OSHA’s mission.  The other half calls upon the agency to protect workers from the hazards of long-term exposure to toxic chemicals.

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Adam M. Finkel, Executive Director of the Penn Program on Regulation

Although they are more hidden than explosions and other safety accidents, fatalities from exposure to workplace health hazards are much more numerous.  As PPR executive director Adam Finkel, a former senior executive at OSHA, has remarked, regulators too often forget “that there is an H in OSHA.”

The New York Times recently published a lengthy expose revealing how OSHA’s relative neglect of workplace health risks has affected workers exposed to the chemical n-propyl bromide (nPB), a chemical commonly used in aerosol adhesives.   The Times story featured Sheri Farley who, along with other former employees at Royale Comfort Seating of Taylorsville NC, which reportedly uses nPB-based adhesives to build furniture, now faces difficulty walking due to irreparable nerve damage.  According to the Times report, Farley’s doctor blames nPB, while her employer alleges otherwise.

Finkel hopes that just as the Texas explosion reveals the need for better safety regulation, the New York Times story will serve as a much-needed “wake-up call” to the need to protect workers from health risks.  He says OSHA needs to give much more attention to health risks.   Even though Finkel points to a series of independent epidemiological investigations estimating that occupational diseases kill more than 40,000 workers each year, a figure ten times greater than all workplace accidents combined, he says that “OSHA devotes more than 95% of its resources to safety concerns” from accidents rather than diseases.

To date, OSHA has not set a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) on nPB, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has yet to finalize rules limiting the emissions of nPB outside the workplace.

Finkel’s involvement in the nPB issue began in the late 1990s, when as director of health rulemaking for OSHA he spearheaded the agency’s campaign to phase out methylene chloride (MC), a carcinogenic chemical also used in industrial adhesives, as well as the most common paint-stripping chemical.

When OSHA enacted limits on worker exposure to the substance, no one envisioned that manufacturers would rapidly turn to another hazardous substance, nPB, as a substitute.  Finkel calls this an “adverse substitution,” a difficult type of tradeoff that regulators must consider when issuing new rules.

Regulators cannot easily quantify these tradeoffs because the net outcome depends on the behavior of regulated firms.  Finkel cites the example of perchloroethylene, a chemical commonly used in dry cleaning.  As a result of expected EPA rules that would restrict perchloroethylene, “some cleaners are turning to safer solvents such as supercritical carbon dioxide, but others are turning to the more potent neurotoxin and carcinogen [nPB],” he says.

Finkel long ago warned about the adverse substitution of nPB for MC. In December 1999, while he was still at OSHA, Finkel wrote a letter to the National Toxicology Program (part of the National Institutes of Health) warning about unsafe worker exposure to nPB and urging that NTP conduct animal testing of the substance for cancer, reproductive toxicity, and other effects.  He pointed out that “absent regulation, many workers will be exposed to concentrations of [nPB]” that are 10 to 200 times more concentrated than what experts considered safe at the time.

A decade later, with no nPB restrictions from OSHA, Dr. Finkel wrote directly to OSHA, this time as a public commentator.  He expressed concern that “OSHA has shown no interest in setting a PEL for n-propyl bromide (n-PB)” and pointed out that the completed animal tests showed that n-PB “is roughly 3.5 times more potent a carcinogen than MC.”

In 2010, Dr. Finkel again wrote to the agency: “[P]revailing worker exposures to nPB may be upwards of 20 times higher than a human low-effect level (!), and correspond to cancer risks that may exceed 1 in 100.  This is a current worker-health problem that is only getting worse with time; I urge OSHA to make nPB a very high priority.”

This past month, Dr. Finkel gave testimony at  a meeting of a scientific peer review panel which recommended unanimously that the government classify nPB as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Given what he characterized as the “seriousness of the current occupational risks,” he urged NTP to “conclude this lengthy process expeditiously.”

Despite Dr. Finkel’s repeated urgings, OSHA has yet to propose a PEL for nPB.  The last time OSHA updated the “health factors” section of its nPB chemical information webpage was June 2007, although the language contained there does reveal potential ill effects.

The agency webpage says: “Severe neurotoxicity was reported for six employees exposed to vapors of a glue containing [nPB]…. Two years after exposure, three of them continued to experience chronic neuropathic pain and lower extremity weakness/spasticity.”

In light of these findings, why has OSHA not done more to address the risks from exposure to nPB and other unregulated workplace chemicals?

Finkel suggests that OSHA remains plagued by politics that hinder it from regulating worker health
as effectively as it regulates worker safety.  Fiscal restraints and judicial decisions lead policy makers to demand quantifiable results from federal regulations.

When it comes to diseases from toxic workplace chemicals, researchers often lack quantitative data.  Regulators can more easily calculate and analyze the number of accidents at construction sites.  But they face a much greater challenge when looking at long-term effects of toxic chemicals.  Further complicating any regulatory justification, as Finkel told the Houston Chronicleback in 2005,the symptoms of workplace diseases “may masquerade as ordinary asthma, or lie latent for decades before emerging as cancer.”

Despite these difficulties, Finkel urges a serious re-focusing of OSHA’s priorities.  With so many workers who suffer health effects from chemical exposures in the workplace, Finkel would like to see OSHA use its air sampling database to “pinpoint where health inspections are most needed.” In addition, he recommends steeper “penalties for the longest and most serious overexposures, so that slowly poisoning workers is not a viable cost of doing business.”

As important as these changes would be, Finkel recognizes that re-balancing the agency’s priorities will not be easy.  Injuries and fatalities from workplace accidents are obviously important too, and they are much more visible than the more common – yet more hidden – hazards of workplace health risks.  And yet in order to achieve greater health protections, there is no reason to cut back on efforts to promote safety, he says.  OSHA could do more to protect workers from chemical exposures by, for example, partnering with EPA, the federal agency that has successfully reduced to low levels in outdoor air some of the same substances that workers still breathe in much higher concentrations.

However it is accomplished, shifting OSHA’s efforts so the agency gives more attention to health effects will, as Finkel puts it, “take political will.”