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01 March 2011

The Necessity of Regulations for Worker Safety


Guest Blog by Eric Stevenson

In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is charged with the task of protecting workers from hazardous working conditions, but in order to do that, they need funding.  The GOP has proposed to cut nearly 18% of OSHA’s budget for the remainder of 2011.  Labor Secretary Hilda Solis warns that this extreme measure would cripple the administration’s ability to issue new regulations, and eventually cause a decline in its capacity to make inspections and prevent on-the-job injuries.
Without regulations, unfortunately, American history has shown us that many employers will take advantage of their workers in ways that transgress the law and certainly transgress moral standards.  In the case of asbestos, a fire-proof mineral that poses severe dangers to the human respiratory system, documents from a number of different companies show that employers were aware of the health hazard long before they began informing their workers.  Asbestos exposure can cause lung scarring, asbestosis, and even symptoms of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the lungs, but employers who knew this often covered it up.
The Johns-Manville corporation, a manufacturer of insulation and roofing materials, used asbestos widely in its products, and thus owned several asbestos mines.  One of these in the aptly named Asbestos, Quebec, was a site of a violent labor dispute in 1949 when miners demanded that asbestos dust be eliminated inside and outside the mine.  When asbestos particles crumble into dust, they can become airborne and be absorbed in the lungs, causing mesothelioma symptoms.  Conditions eventually improved for the miners, but workers in Johns-Manville’s other factories continued to be exposed to the dangerous material.  In a 1979 deposition, one supervisor at the company’s Newport News Shipyard said, “It boiled down to the fact that if you tell 300 people that what they are working with can cause cancer, you might not have anybody show up for work the next morning.”
In 1972, OSHA began to set limits on the amount of asbestos permissible in the air.  The exposure limit started out at 12 fibers per cubic centimeter, but now it is at 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter, which has rendered the air in factories nearly asbestos-free.  Unfortunately for those already affected by asbestos in decades past, mesothelioma life expectancy is very poor. However, we need to maintain funding for OSHA if we want to be able to prevent tragedies like this by enacting regulations and following through by enforcing them.

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